The Beauty of Priestly Celibacy

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by John Hale, University of Notre Dame

Since its institution at the First Lateran Council of 1123, priestly celibacy has been a requirement for men seeking to be ordained to the priesthood. As Bishop Robert Barron points out, a common characterization of this clerical practice suggests that sexuality is suspect and priests must “rise above” its perceived baseness. To uncover the reasons behind the Western Church’s embracing of priestly celibacy, it is helpful to examine the point of life. Man’s teleological purpose is to share in God’s divinity for eternity. 

Basic Christian philosophy holds that God creates man, and constantly calls man to Himself through man’s Spatio-temporal journey on earth. As the Catechism teaches, God does not need a man to be loved. He, “Himself is an eternal exchange of love” among the three Persons of the Trinity (CCC 221). However, He chooses freely to create man nonetheless. He desires to have man share in His divinity, which is the reason He took on flesh so that He could die the cruelest and most humiliating way imaginable on behalf of each person individually. Every human on earth lives “‘in a state of journeying’ (in statu viae) toward an “ultimate perfection” that can be fulfilled only in Heaven. This reality is very insightful and profoundly beautiful because it means that we will never find fulfillment nor lasting joy if we latch on to the material things of this world. The positive side of this point says that fixing one’s eyes on Christ is the only thing necessary to have lasting joy that culminates in the eternal bliss of salvation in Him. Living this reality proves to be incredibly freeing, because even (and especially) crosses become the most immeasurable blessings. It is often said that God allows crosses in order so that good may come from.

Father John A. Hardon, S.J. writes that detachment consists of “emotional dependence either of one person on another or of a person on some real or illusory object.” People must depend on God alone. Relying on God alone manifests itself in innumerable, ordinary ways, and leads to a well-ordered lifestyle in which one’s priorities are conducive to attaining holiness and sainthood. Even within marriage, both spouses must always remember that they are not each other’s ultimate ends. Their sacramental marriage makes present Christ’s love in many special ways, including the fact that they push one another closer to Christ through their joint vocation. Married couples striving to become saints by conforming their free will to God’s purpose also stand as powerful witnesses to the joy that accompanies living for Him alone. Lasting joy is not possible without holy detachment rooted in radical trust in the Lord. 

Writing on conjugal chastity as a derivative lesson from Pope Saint John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body,” Father Gregory Gresko, O.S.B. teaches that members of Christ’s Body are called to regard “the other through the eyes of virginal innocence,” recognizing that every person is created, loved, and desired by God. Within the context of marriage, this call to chastity is especially important and conducive to knowing God’s will and receiving the grace to carry it out. At the time of their particular judgment, every person will be alone in front of the Lord. There is nothing more crucial than being able to show the Lord how, despite concupiscence, a person was able to respond to God’s call to love during their temporal life. What does all of this have to do with priestly celibacy? It’s a branch of the same teaching. Sexuality is a constitutive element of the human person, and it must be integrated fully into one’s vocation at every stage of life. Sexual intercourse that is procreative and unitive within the context of marriage, however, calls two people to give of themselves entirely to the Lord by uniting their flesh as a part of His greater mission to win souls for Himself. The vocation of marriage is a massive responsibility. On a practical level, priests, like all humans, have finite amounts of time and it would be exceedingly difficult for them to fully commit to raising a family while seeing to the theological and pastoral needs of their assigned portion of the Body. 

Futhermore, on a deeper level, as Bishop Barron points out, having witnesses to the reality that any human love is not ultimate is incredibly powerful. God’s love is inexhaustible and informs all other subordinate love and beauty in the world. The vast majority of Christians are not called to live celibately. Similarily, just as married couples living for Christ serve as powerful witness and role models for other couples as well as those discerning marriage, so to do clerics who have integrated their sexuality as witness to the truth that man’s fulfillment lies in Christ alone. Celibate priests “say ‘no’ to a proximate form of love,” as witnesses to the type of holy detachment necessary to enter into the Kingdom of God. This detachment allows for space for a special intimacy with the Lord that only celibacy and consecration to Him can obtain.

In His wisdom, God calls the appropriate number of men to priestly celibacy. He has an intimate plan for everyone’s life, and gently draws each individual nearer to Himself. Priestly celibacy is a beautiful gift to the Church. As members of Christ’s Body, the faithful can look to the clergy for examples of detachment. When they entrust their entire lives to Christ, priests receive His grace that allows them to fulfill their vocation. He allows them to embrace the massive Cross that is living without a family and uses their suffering to build up the Church. Through this process, the ordained experience the organic joy that comes with faithfully seeking the Lord’s will. At the same time however, it is important for a celibate to see such similar beauty towars the goal of holiness as can be seen in marriage. There’s so much a celibate can learn from a married couple’s example in the way they love one another and care for their family, similar to how as a priest he might care for his parish as the spiritual Father he has been ordained to be. Especially in giving marriage guidance to those about to married, having examples of married couples as seen in his parish could help give the priest more perspective to help guide and speak better from. Both vocations and efforts of lives lived towards holiness are necessary as one can see. 

Finally, the priesthood is a radical vocation through which the Holy Spirit moves the entire world. It is a radical ‘yes,’ a fiat, to the Lord. Priestly celibacy is a hallowed practice within the Church because of its potency. Priestly celibacy is a beautiful gift that points to the higher beauty that is Christ’s intimate love for each member of His body both communally and individually.

Edited by Rachel Le Melle

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