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The celibacy of the Catholic priesthood is a sign of great contradiction in our time. Our culture stares at it in blank incomprehension, and on that blankness it projects numerous fantasies to try to explain it.
So we are told both that St. Paul forbade celibacy as a mark of false religion and that he was the cause of the whole thing. Many people point to married apostles of old or married clergy today and say this means the Church cannot legitimately legislate celibacy for clergy.
Most non-Catholics—and even some Catholics—are pretty sure that Jesus would oppose a celibate priesthood. We hear that it comes from “the Dark Ages” and is caused by a Catholic hatred of sex. Some are certain that celibacy is due to repression. Many are mystified why the Church doesn’t just dump the whole celibacy thing and get back to the mission of fitting people for heaven.
Partly this is due to a feeling common in our debased and hedonistic post-Christian culture: that, married or not, it’s simply unnatural for anyone to not engage in sex. As our culture returns to paganism, we make the pagan mistake of the worship of created things—the perennial favorites being money, sex, and power—rather than of the Creator.
A counter-witness to selfishness
Since mainstream American culture has no idea what to do with the discipline of celibacy, it regards it with visceral disapproval. Since this is the majority reaction, let’s start with that gut response that celibacy threatens our mainstream cultural imperative to be a selfish pig and indulge in consequence-free sex.
But that’s praise, not criticism. The Catholic tradition of consecrated celibacy is supposed to threaten that debased cultural imperative and provide a counter-witness to the mere selfish indulgence of appetite that our consumerist society promotes. A civilization founded on the worship of pleasure is a civilization on a fast track toward ceasing to be a civilization. And an “argument” against celibacy that boils down to “Me want sex now” is not an argument but something more like the grunt of an animal.
The Christian traditions of consecrated virginity and marriage provide counter-witnesses to the post-Christian Cult of the Pig precisely because they bear witness to the fact that we are called to sacrifice our bodies in love for another, not feed our piggy appetites at the expense of others. Whether ones makes the self-offering through the sacrament of marriage (with its complete giving of the self to God, spouse, and children) or by offering oneself as a living sacrifice to God in service to his people, the basic message is the same: It’s not all about me. I find my life by losing it; or I lose my life by selfishly trying to keep it.
Beyond the post-Christian culture’s selfish suspicion of consecrated virginity is a more principled objection. Those who are familiar with the basics of the gospel message know that fornication is not compatible with Christian morality. So they recognize that, whatever else may be the case, the neo-pagan attempt to critique celibacy by means of appeal to licentiousness is a bad one.
There remains nonetheless a notion as common in Protestant (and dissenting Catholic) culture as it was in ancient Israel: that it’s just unnatural to forgo marriage. This appears to be backed up by passages in the New Testament like this:
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, through the pretensions of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth (1 Tim. 4:1-4).
Some Protestants therefore imagine that because priests cannot marry, the Church is enacting the “doctrines of demons” and “forbidding marriage.”
A higher vocation
But this is a hasty assessment, given that the Church also celebrates marriage as a sacrament. It is also, by the way, a very narrow reading of Paul, who was himself a celibate and who urged consecrated celibacy as the higher vocation than marriage:
It is well for a man not to touch a woman. But because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does. Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control. I say this by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another (1 Cor. 7:1-7).
Paul’s basic concern is that to be married is to be distracted from the spiritual:
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 (1 Cor. 7:32-34).
Though he is concerned about that division of heart, Paul denies that marriage is a sin. He merely insists that it is a lesser state in life than consecrated celibacy: “So that he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better” (1 Cor. 7:38).
Paul gets this thinking neither from the Dark Ages nor as the result of repression but from a consecrated virgin named Jesus of Nazareth. He, like Paul, was unmarried and commended consecrated celibacy as a gift of God. That’s what he’s getting at in this incident from Matthew 19:9-12:
“And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry.” But he said to them, “Not all men can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.”
Note how similar Paul’s thinking is to Jesus’. Marriage is a good thing but a difficult thing, to the degree that, when Jesus describes what Christian marriage really entails, the apostles blanch and declare it is not expedient to marry. The summary of this passage: Not everyone can choose to be celibate, but those who can should, for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. It’s exactly the same admonition as in 1 Corinthians: Marriage is good, but celibacy is better.
Since Jesus is celibate, and since, as Paul says, celibacy for the sake of Christ is a higher state than marriage, and since a priest is an alter Christus (“other Christ”) when he is standing in the place of Christ to celebrate the Eucharist (i.e., the marriage supper of the Lamb), we should not be surprised that in antiquity the discipline grew up (spontaneously, from the grass roots) of more and more priests likewise choosing to be celibate.
The discipline was lived out in different ways, depending on where you were in the Church. In the East, priests but not bishops may marry. In the West, priests and bishops are celibate. But much the same spirit was at work in both “lungs” of the Church. The idea was that celibacy is a higher calling, as well as a superior practical arrangement, given the responsibilities of the priesthood.
A matter of legislation?
Some will say that because celibacy is now a matter of legislation in the Church rather than grass-roots volunteerism, it is no longer a legitimate practice. But, of course, the Church has a perfect right to order its internal affairs as it pleases. Nor is anybody compelled to be ordained. Rather, what the Church does—and has a perfect right to do—is tell the prospective priest that he is welcome to consider the priesthood but that if he does, consecrated virginity is part of the package.
Why does the Western Church bother with this? After all, even within the Catholic Church there are rites that do not require priestly celibacy. Even in the Latin rite—which normally does require it—there are exceptions made for certain priests who have, for example, converted from other traditions.
Partly, celibacy is retained because of the native tendency not to change disciplines without a really good reason. This mind-set is, yet again, in sharp contrast to post-modernity’s Cult of the Now, which is perpetually saying, “I don’t see the point of this!” as it recklessly destroys it knows not what, only to discover that it has just smashed a priceless work of art or driven into extinction a plant species that might have cured cancer.
It is this reckless mentality G.K. Chesterton addresses with characteristic common sense when he says:
There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it” (The Thing: Why I Am Catholic).
An eschatological witness
In the case of celibacy, there is something often overlooked in addition to the practical pastoral matters that celibacy helps the Church face (divided wills, the trouble of playing favorites with family members, domestic distractions, et cetera): the fact that the priest is an eschatological witness.
What does that three-dollar word mean? It means that, like Jesus, the priest is a witness to the life of the world to come. That is why it is nonsensical to speak of getting rid of celibacy so that the priest can get on with helping people get to heaven. By his celibacy, that is precisely what he is doing. That is, in part, one of the implications of Jesus’ saying “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30).
The point of this strange saying is not that we lose our bodies. The whole point of the resurrection is that we keep our bodies. Rather, it is first of all that our glorified bodies are no longer afflicted with concupiscence and therefore we will no longer require oaths of marital fidelity to keep us faithful.
More than this, however, is the fact that our bodies will be participants in the ecstatic life of God to such a degree that sexual intercourse will be rendered neither desirable nor necessary. Our inability to conceive of this, as C.S. Lewis points out in his book Miracles, is rather like a child’s inability to conceive of any greater bodily pleasure than a chocolate drop. Sex and marriage will be superseded by something far better in the resurrection.
And Jesus is the Resurrection (John 11:25). So his celibacy—and the celibacy of the priest who stands as alter Christus in the celebration of the sacrament—is not merely a practical consideration. It is, in fact, a sign of the life of the world to come when the human race, freed to love fully, will find earthly joys swallowed up in the perfect, self-donating love of God.