Priestly Celibacy: What About Current Priests?

DJ AMDG continues his trend of thought-provoking questions with this one about priestly celibacy: specifically, what should happen to the priest in this situation:

… a man becomes a priest, goes through all the education and training, makes the sacrifice for HO, but then (maybe in their 30s?) no longer wants to sacrifice.

His full comment seems to suggest that such a priest should be able to marry and remain a priest, since leaving the priesthood would leave him jobless, and bearing the stigma of being an ex-priest. I disagree, although I don’t doubt that the priest faces severe struggles (in fact, all priests face real struggles, a fact I mentioned in my last post).

In my opinion, though, he has made a promise before and to God (not just the Church) to be celibate. We view it as analogous to the wedding vow. If a man marries young, and finds by his 30s that he is unhappy, his wife refuses him sex, and he no longer wishes to be married to her, it’s not okay for him to break his wedding vows. Certainly, his life may be one of a deep and unsettling listlessness at times, but he’s promised before God to take his wife “for better or for worse,” &c. Indeed, I have more sympathy for that married man, because he didn’t realize he was signing up for a celibate life.

One thing which I think should be viewed as a grave sin by any Christian, regardless of denomination, was Luther’s decision to marry Katharina von Bora, a nun, and his proclaimation that this was not only okay, but indeed, good. I realize that without the largess of the Church, the celibate faced unique financial vulnerability, particularly women religious. But the vow was to God, a god they still believe in. A celibate marriage, of the sort which St. Joseph had to the Virgin Mary, might have been one way to preserve and protect these virgins betrothed to God. But clearly, this was not the sort of marriage which the couple had. Living in “The Black Cloister,” a monastery “given them” by the Elector John the Steadfast, the couple had six children, and the common consensus is that these weren’t virgin births.

I realize that keeping a vow of celibacy, or even a vow of monogamy, can be hard (especially when the vow of monogamy turns into a vow of celibacy!). But there are more people than just yourself to worry about. Either of the men we talked about: the priest who wants female companionship, or the husband who wants new female companionship, can justify their actions by focusing on themselves. That’s why the breakdown in priestly celibacy has been as much about the “Me” culture, and about pride, as it has been about lust. Those men who keep their vows of celibacy aren’t immune from the temptations of the flesh, they just overcome them with an awareness of their duties before God and others (whether those others are the wife and kids, or the congregation who looks up to you).

Besides that: a priest has been vested by God with the power to turn a piece of bread and glass of wine into the God of the Universe. And he’s complaining because that’s all he gets?

Obviously, there’s the laicization process, which is at least a nod towards those duties; and it’s an immense charity that the Church has been vested with the power to loosen the priests from these bonds. In some cases, laicization is the only way to save the priest’s soul. But it belongs as an exception, a mutual dissolution of a contract to avoid breach. And even laicization remains powerless to remove the indelible mark of the ministerial priesthood (these priests are priests forever in the Order of Melchizedek, as followers of Christ).

Additionally, it’s wrong to look down on laicized or fallen priests. They need our prayers, just as adulterers do. It’s not for nothing that John 8:2-11 is in the Bible.

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