Celibacy and Catholic Priests Essay

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Celibacy and Catholic Priests

In today’s world, many wonder why Catholic priests can’t get married and have a family of their own. This issue and question can be boiled down into one word: celibacy. Being celibate is defined as being “One who abstains from sexual intercourse, especially by reason of religious vows,” according to thefreedictionary.com. This definition is not understood by many because the thought of having a life without sex is unbearable, especially in today’s society. By exploring this topic in depth, one can understand why celibacy is an important factor of the Catholic priesthood. According to Father Kenneth Doyle of the Catholic News Service, priests hold this sacred vow for three particular reasons: it closely resembles Christ Who was unmarried, it shows and proves that love can be present without being physical, and it allows a man to give all of his energy to the Lord rather than to a family.

In understanding how celibacy became so important, we have to look at its history, particularly at the third, fourth, eleventh, and sixteenth centuries, according to John O’Malley in his article Some Basics About Celibacy (8). In the third century, within the early Church, many priests and even most of the apostles of Jesus were men with wives and families. It was a common feature among the early Church, and even some of the Holy Fathers, or Popes, were known to be married and have children. It is clear that during this time period, the patristic era and early Middle Ages, celibacy was not enforced and not important within the Church. Early in this century, Constantine’s recognition of Christianity brought about status change for all Christians: because they were not being oppressed and martyred they looked for new ways to follow Christ and challenge themselves to give their lives for Him. John W. O’Malley writes, “With St. Jerome (345-420), as well as many others, virginity for those espoused to Christ began to be extolled with new fervor and consistency.” This became the building block for legislation and more teachings on the subject of celibacy (9).

O’Malley points out that the fourth century brought about more change for Christians as they came out of hiding in the catacombs (9). The Council of Elvira was held in 305, which consisted of nineteen bishops as well as a number of priests, deacons, and laypeople. O’Malley writes that Canon 33 was a product of this council and that it was the first piece of legislation that dealt with the issue of the clergy and marriage. It reads: It has seemed good absolutely to forbid the bishops, the priests, and the deacons, i.e., all the clerics in the service of the ministry, to have relations with their wives and procreate children; should anyone do so, let him be excluded from the honor of the clergy. (9)

This decree changed things, because it made a tradition into a law, and any who violated it would be punished. This decree was really meant to put continence or self-restraint on married clergy, because the idea of mirroring Christ and having complete dedication to the sacraments was becoming more important, as well as trying to lead by example as clergy to the laypeople. This was very important in setting up what would change in the eleventh century as more authoritative figures wanted to establish order and set things right within the Church (9).

According to O’Malley, the eleventh century sought to recover from the Dark Ages and was able to retrieve patristic era canon law collections (10). These recovered canon law collections contained laws related to the idea of celibacy and acted as maps or blueprints for a series of holy and zealous popes for thirty-five years, who were determined to set order in the Church and society (10). During this time the papacy established a rule of authority and power, which far surpassed anything that preceded it, and began reforming the Church. The reformers had the main goal of trying to get the clergy’s behaviors and actions to mirror the ancient canon laws interpreted by the reformers, and were striving to make the clergy and the Church more holy in nature. One of the greatest popes in history was Pope Gregory VII who came into office towards the end of the movement. Thanks to his efforts, the law of celibacy began to appear in the form that would most resemble today’s form, which is the prohibition of the ordained from being married before or after ordination (10).

The sixteenth century saw the beginnings of the reformation, where the idea of celibacy was challenged and questioned by Luther and others, who broke away from the Church and who were also married. The Council of Trent was the Church’s response to the Protestants; it solidified what celibacy means today for the Church and condemned three thoughts on celibacy.

According to O’Malley, these were as follows: “First, that clerics in major orders and religious priests who have made a solemn vow of chastity can validly contract marriage; second, that the regulation of celibacy is a disparagement of marriage; and third, that those who, after making a solemn vow of celibacy, cannot observe it are free to contract marriage” (11). O’Malley points out that the law has been modified. Canon 277, which is observed and practiced today, reads: Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and therefore are obliged to observe celibacy, which is a special gift of God, by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and can more freely dedicate themselves to the service of God and humankind. (11)

Continuing to dive deeper into the topic of celibacy, it is important to make a distinction between the Catholic teachings of dogma and discipline. According to Catholic Answers, dogmas are teachings within the Catholic Church that will never change, and a discipline can change. As Catholic Answers points out, because of the many different variations of celibacy in the Eastern Rite Catholics, Orthodox and Oriental Christians where married priests are quite common, celibacy is a disciplinary rule, not a dogma like the Trinity is. Of course there are rules and regulations on marriage and being ordained in those areas that have married clergy, but it is the tradition in the Western or Roman Catholic Church that their clergy take a vow of celibacy; exceptions can be made for Roman Catholic Priests who are married because they converted after being Lutheran or some other denomination.

Many Fundamentalists attack celibacy as being a discipline or practice that goes against the Holy Bible and against nature itself because Genesis 1:28 says to, “Be fruitful and multiply.” As Catholic Answers points out, many also argue that celibacy itself leads to perversion or that it can cause illicit sexual behavior, which is simply not true. It is true that many people are called to be married in their lives, but Catholics Answers states, “…The vocation of celibacy is explicitly advocated—as well as practiced—by both Jesus and Paul”.

Thus, it is easy to see why celibacy is a very intricate and important part of the priesthood, because it allows the priests to be more like Jesus and have a more connected relationship with the Father and the people they minister to, just like Jesus Himself. Paul understands the importance of celibacy and complete dedication to the Lord by saying in First Corinthians 7:32-34 that, “I should like you to be free of anxieties. An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided”. Being celibate is neither unnatural nor against the Bible. Jesus and Paul practiced and advocated it in their times; clearly, it is not wrong.

Catholic Priests are extremely important in today’s world because they provide us with the seven sacraments: Baptism, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the sick. Being celibate helps priests to perform these sacraments in the most holy manner and with complete connection to God. Unfortunately, in today’s world the idea or discipline of celibacy is becoming something that is very hard for some to understand and practice, even for priests. In her article entitled On the Verge of Ideological Mutiny: Celibacy and the Roman Catholic Priesthood, Cathleen M. Falsani said that, “The debate about mandatory celibacy for priests raises ire and eyebrows, as the Roman Catholic Church experiences a daunting shortage of priests and a declining interest in religious vocations, while stories of sexual indiscretion and abuse abound” (16). It is true that today, many people blame celibacy as the main cause of shortages to the priesthood and many argue that celibacy shouldn’t be forced onto someone and instead be a personal choice.

This issue takes a toll on the entire Church and can threaten the availability of the Mass and sacraments if shortages of priests continue (16). Many also take the Church’s view on sex as a negative thing in that sex is a bad thing and that its only use is to create children, which is why many believe that celibacy is in place for Catholic priests, according to Falsani and Bob McClory a former Catholic priest (16). As Falsani points out, the Church has responded to this view with Blessed Pope John Paul II’s papal letter which stated that, “The heart of a priest, in order that it may be available for this service, must be free. Celibacy is a sign of a freedom that exists for the sake of service…” (17).

This really is what celibacy for those in the priesthood is all about: it allows them to be focused and be married to the church and God in a way that many simply many can not comprehend nor understand. It is about complete sacrifice and giving of one’s self for the greater glory of God and heaven, which allows them to administer and perform the seven holy sacraments in a way that reflects Jesus Christ Himself and His apostles who followed Him and gave up their lives for Christ’s glory. Yes, many of the apostles may have been married; nonetheless, they began to develop a greater love and meaning to what it means to be a servant of the Lord to others and to truly give up their lives in service to Him.

Celibacy is not against Church teachings. Contrary to many people’s beliefs, it actually helps strengthen and reaffirm practices within the Catholic Church and proves that life is possible without giving in to worldly desires. In his article Why Celibacy Makes Sense, Robert Barron says that, “Celibacy…is a form of life adopted by people in love with Jesus Christ” (19). This is exactly what drives priests in their ministry and enables them to continue their work with great fervor and zeal. The Catholic priest is a person who is able to prove that being in control of one’s own desires is possible, especially in a world that is filled with sex around every corner. They are able to be that bright light within the darkness that emulates Christ and His purity and love. Imagine if Roman Catholic priests were all allowed to be married in today’s world. This would not raise any eyebrows like it does now; instead, it would just be another thing that is among the norm in society.

However, it is precisely because of this abnormal thing called celibacy that people do raise their eyebrows at these holy men living in a world that desperately needs people to stand out and be different than what society expects them to be. This is exactly what Jesus did. He was someone Who stood out like a sore thumb during His time, but this allowed Him to lead by example and show everyone who turned their heads that a life with Him and the Father was worth living, no matter how different it was from everyone else’s in society. In The Theological Basis for Priestly Celibacy, the theologian Max Thurian writes, “Observing celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven does not mean being any the less a man; by renouncing a natural form of existence, the priest discovers life in all its fullness. Christ was certainly no less of a man because he did not have affections other than those for his brethren, and a bride other than the Church.” This sums it up very well: priests try to be leaders of men and are fully committed and faithful to their bride, the Church, and to the flock of people that they minister to.

The call to celibacy and the priesthood is a supernatural one, and one which the world sees as unnatural. Contrary to popular belief, celibacy and the call to be a priest is not for those men who have no attraction to women, because like everyone else, priests are human beings and men who still have wants. In his study entitled Seminarians Today, Paul Stanosz writes that sociologists Dean Hoge and Jacqueline have reported that seminarians and young priests view themselves as, “Men set apart” (19). Many priests are men who really wanted to have a family and children but decided to heed the call to sacrifice this desire and instead be fathers within the Church.

The most important tool for priests and seminarians to stay strong in their training and ministry is personal prayer, and Paul Stanosz writes that, “When asked what they looked forward to as priests, the students mentioned having time for personal prayer and for leading others in prayer” (22). The main reason that seminarians and priests enjoy their personal prayer so much is that they are able to enter into a deeper prayer state because of their total commitment to the Church and not to a wife or children. Celibacy is a practice that allows priests and seminarians to be more connected with the Lord, and thus they can enjoy prayer more and get more out of it. In fact, they can draw others to it as well, because of their mirroring of Jesus Christ’s life and their connection to their unique calling. This truly makes Catholic priests “Men set apart” and is exactly what is needed in today’s world and what needs to continue within the Roman Catholic Church (19).

As we have examined, celibacy is a topic that many do not understand because it is one that goes against the social norms of today’s society. Ultimately, it is a very big sacrifice and one that is necessary for Roman Catholic priests to effectively minister and be different from every other man in society. It is something that creates a unique bond between the celibate priest and his ministry and continues a tradition that has been handed down through history and advocated by the Church’s most prominent leaders. As mentioned at the start of this paper from Father Kenneth Doyle, celibacy allows for priests to closely resemble Jesus Christ as the leader and model of the church, it allows for love to exist and be present without being physical, and it allows priests to focus all their energy on the Church rather than on a family or children.

This commitment is very grave in nature. According to the Catholic encyclopedia at newadvent.org, during the beginning of the priestly candidates’ ceremony, the bishop tells them just how significant this commitment is by saying the following: You ought anxiously to consider again and again what sort of a burden this is which you are taking upon you of your own accord. Up to this you are free. You may still, if you choose, turn to the aims and desires of the world. But if you receive this order it will no longer be lawful to turn back from your purpose. You will be required to continue in the service of God, and with His assistance to observe chastity and to be bound for ever in the ministrations of the Altar, to serve who is to reign. This is what it means to be celibate: to go against the grain and serve the Lord and the Church with all that one can offer as a priest and as a true man and disciple of Jesus Christ.


Barron, Robert. “Why Celibacy Makes Sense.” Commonweal 132.14 (2005): 17-9. ProQuest Religion. Web. 17 Oct. 2012.
“Celibacy and the Priesthood.” Celibacy and the Priesthood. N.p., 10 Aug. 2004. Web. 15 Oct. 2012. <http://www.catholic.com/tracts/celibacy-and-the-priesthood>. “Celibate.” The Free Dictionary. Farlex, n.d. Web. 15 Oct. 2012. <http://www.thefreedictionary.com/celibate>.

Doyle, Father Kenneth. “CatholicPhilly.com: News from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Powered by The Catholic Standard & Times and Phaith Magazine.” Explaining Celibacy for Latin-rite Priests. N.p., 24 July 2012. Web. 15 Oct. 2012.
<http://catholicphilly.com/2012/07/catholic-spirituality/explaining-celibacy-for-latin-rite-priests/>. Falsani, Cathi M. “On The Verge Of Ideological Mutiny : Celibacy And The Roman Catholic Priesthood.” Daughters Of Sarah 22.1 (1996): 16-19. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 17 Oct. 2012. Griffin, Patrick. “Rites.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 11 Sept. 2012 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13064b.htm>. O’Malley, John W. “Some Basics About Celibacy.” America 187.13 (2002): 7. Academic Search Premier. Web. 17 Oct. 2012.

Stanosz, Paul. “Seminarians Today.” Commonweal 132.14 (2005): 19-23. ProQuest Religion. Web. 21 Oct. 2012.

Thurian, Max. “The Theological Basis for Priestly Celibacy.” The Theological Basis for Priestly Celibacy. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2012. <http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cclergy/documents/rc_con_cclergy_doc_01011993_theol_en.html>. “The Catholic Holy Bible: New American Bible.” The Catholic Holy Bible: New American Bible.

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