As a seminarian, I’m preparing for life as a celibate priest. People know this about Catholic priests, but many of them — both Catholic and non-Catholic — don’t really get it.
A lot of people just fundamentally misunderstand what celibacy is all about. In this category are those who think it’s about a hatred of, or lack of interest in, marriage and sex and family. You’ve got those who suspect the worst, that celibacy exists as a cover for malicious sexual habits, homosexual and/or pedophilic, going on behind the scenes. Then you’ve got those who believe half-cocked historical myths about why celibacy exists: for example, that it was somehow about property rights and primogeniture, as if the parish priest personally owned the parish, and the Church had to invent an elaborate scheme to disinherit his kids. Behind all of this is sometimes anti-Catholic animus, but I suspect that more often it’s genuine confusion. We know that priests, monks, and nuns are celibate, but why?
This is probably why the conversation so often turns to the fact that clerical celibacy is a discipline, and that some Catholic priests aren’t required to be celibate. People want to know, “well, can the Church change this practice?” precisely because it looks like an arbitrary rule, as if the Church just randomly decided to flex her muscles by banning married men from becoming priests.
In answering this, we Catholics tend to do two things. First, we point out that celibacy is Biblical. St. Paul says that the man who marries does well, while the man who practices celibacy does better (1 Corinthians 7:38). Jesus Christ presents the same teaching in Matthew 19. After praising marriage, and emphasizing its indissolubility (Mt. 19:3-9), He immediately praises celibacy in yet higher terms, saying that “he who is able to receive this, let him receive it” (Mt. 19:10-12). All of this is true, but in isolation, not particularly helpful. Now, instead of looking like an arbitrary Church rule, it looks like an arbitrary Christian teaching.
So we need to give some logical reasons for the Biblical teaching. And that leads to the second part of the usual defense of celibacy: worldly arguments. Marriage creates a set of obligations that will naturally conflict with your ability to give yourself wholly to the priesthood or to monastic life… and a good marriage should create these sort of conflicts. In the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, God intends for you to take on these new duties of caring for your spouse and children.
For monks and nuns, this is simple enough: monasteries and convents would pretty quickly lose their character once the monastic cell was replaced with family living quarters, and the silent cloister was filled with the sounds of children. These are places for people to go and give themselves entirely to the Lord, and it’s not hard to see how familial obligations would complicate that gift of self.
For diocesan priests, you’re also dealing with a religious calling that calls for you to give your whole life. “Office hours” don’t apply when you’re the priest responsible for making sure that the teen in a 4 a.m. car accident has access to the Sacraments before she dies, or meeting with engaged couples after they get off work, or responding to the various family crises that arise amongst your parishioners. It’s impractical to expect priests to split their time between their priesthood and their family, and can even be unfair to those who depend upon the priest (including, in this case, his wife and children).
Don’t get me wrong. These worldly arguments are true, and soundly Biblical. St. Paul takes a very similar approach in 1 Cor. 7:32-35:
The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.
Marriage, by its nature, precludes the sort of undivided devotion to the Lord that Paul encourages us towards, and so we can see why celibacy is an ideal for those who can handle it.
But if we focus just upon the worldly arguments, it makes celibacy sound like a purely practical arrangement, and that doesn’t do it justice. Underlying the call for celibacy is a radical argument, quite unlike the worldly arguments that we normally hear: that celibacy points to the Resurrection in a prophetic way.
The first clear hints of this come in Luke 20. The Sadducees, “those who say that there is no resurrection” (Lk. 20:27), pose a mocking question. A woman marries a man, he dies, and she marries one of his brothers, and then another, and then another. All told, she marries seven brothers, each of whom died. This leads to the provocative question “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife” (Lk. 20:33).
Jesus begins His response with a sweeping statement about marriage and celibacy (Lk. 20:34-36):
The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are accounted worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die any more, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.
In other words, it’s not just an issue of being a celibate “for the Kingdom” (Mt. 19:17). It’s also that the Kingdom is for celibates. Of course, Jesus isn’t saying that marriage is awful or less-than-holy or anything else. Instead, He’s saying that marriage is fleeting.
When you vow to stay married until “death do us part,” that sounds like a lifetime… which, of course, it is. But this life is just the briefest of preludes to eternity. There, all of the saved — whatever their vocations whilst on earth — will enjoy a celibate’s existence, giving themselves totally to God (in a way that we can’t even imagine) and being in full communion with the angels and all of the saints.
And it’s light of the fleeting nature of our earthly life that St. Paul encourages both celibacy and a detachment from worldly and material goods (1 Cor. 7:27-31):
Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a girl marries she does not sin. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that.
I mean, brethren, the appointed time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away.
Celibacy, then, is supposed to remind us of that this world passes away. The priest wears the color associated with death, and lives like a son of the Resurrection. Hopefully, whether or not he’s taken a vow of poverty, he lives out a detachment from the goods of this world, including the good of sacramental marriage.
This is an important piece in the Catholic puzzle, so to speak. We already know (from Ephesians 5:21-30) that the marriage of a man to his wife is an image of Christ’s love for the Church. This shows the other side of the coin: that celibacy also reveals the divine plan, and particularly the life of the world to come. In the words of Andrew Preslar, “Marriage underscores the “already” of the Kingdom of God, while celibacy points towards the “not yet.” ”