Among the topics currently in vogue, that of priestly celibacy stands out. Since no explicit directive in the New Testament can be found in this regard, controversies erupt, opinions diverge, and celibacy has come to divide the waters in the ecclesiastical field. In the Latin Church, priests are forbidden to marry, but could this ever change?
For some, the problem seems easy to resolve: if the Divine Master gave no order on the matter, in principle it would be enough for a Pope to decide to suppress the rule. However, in that case, what value would be given to the archetypal example that Christ Himself – Supreme Priest – offered us of perfect chastity? Furthermore, the practice maintained in the West for centuries cannot be dismissed out of hand. On what is it based? When did it originate?
Clearly, the matrimony-priesthood relationship is not a topic as quickly explained as some would like in order to simplify the realization of their goals. To shed some light on the dispute, an analysis is needed not only of Scripture but also of Tradition.
Nevertheless, since any construction – including an intellectual one – begins with the foundations, it is first necessary to understand the very idea of celibacy.
Perfect continence and celibacy
From the early centuries of the Church until today, the concept of continence has been fundamental in clearly designating the obligation of the sacred minister. In its Latin etymology, it denotes the faculty of containing or restraining oneself, of mastering one’s carnal inclinations and ruling oneself, reaffirming the primacy of the law of the spirit over that of the flesh.
This is the word used by the Second Vatican Council when dealing with celibacy in the Decree Presbyterorum ordinis: “perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, commended by Christ the Lord.”1
However, it should be noted that the obligation of perfect continence – to which priests are bound – is even more profound than celibacy itself, since it implies the abstention from any act, internal or external, against the Sixth and Ninth Commandments of the Decalogue.2 This means that, while the law of celibacy is limited to an external impediment, continence consists in freely assuming a commitment to practise the vows also in the internal sphere, to be continent not only in the eyes of men but above all in the eyes of God.3
A retrospective vision of celibacy
One of the most striking aspects of the Church’s teaching is its historical continuity, a phenomenon which reveals an important truth: despite the vicissitudes inherent to man’s condition on this earth after original sin, it is the Holy Spirit Himself who guides the People of God. Thus, the understanding of priestly celibacy adopted by the Second Vatican Council in no way contradicts what has been taught by the Magisterium down the centuries.
The Mystical Body of Christ, in its “first steps”, undoubtedly encountered obstacles in establishing this new way of life, since the majority of candidates to priestly life in those days were married men. What to do?
As an excellent Mother and most faithful Spouse, the Church was able to gently encourage and firmly guard this gift of Christ, Priest and Virgin, as we read in a document from the early fourth century, issued by the Synod of Elvira, in present-day Spain:
“It has been fully resolved to impose on bishops, priests and deacons, as on all clerics in the exercise of the ministry, the following prohibition: that they should abstain from their wives and not bear children; those who nevertheless do so should be expelled from the clerical state.”4
However, this canon – the earliest legislation that has come down to us on the matter – does not mark the beginning of the history of celibacy: it more properly represented a remedy against decadence. As we read in an encyclical of Pius XI,5 everything indicates that celibacy was already a well-known traditional obligation at that time. The Synod, in fact, did nothing but recall it and add a sanction for those who did not fulfil it.
What, then, is the origin of this praxis?
According to a weighty theological opinion,6 a declaration formulated by the Second African Council of 390, and then repeated by the important Council of Carthage of 419 – attended by two hundred and forty bishops, including St. Augustine – sheds some light on the question. It reads: “It is fitting that the sacred bishops, the priests of God and the Levites, that is, all who serve in the divine sacraments, should be completely continent, so that they may obtain without difficulty what they ask of the Lord; that we also may guard what the Apostles taught and what the whole of the past has preserved.”7
The statement is bold. If we believe the words of the Council – to which the Pontifical Legate and the other prelates who composed it assented – we must admit that the law of celibacy has its origin in the preaching of the Apostles, that is, in that body of teachings which are part of Divine Revelation, and which cannot be altered even by the Sovereign Pontiff.8
The priest and his mission
Once the possible historical origins of ecclesiastical celibacy are known, let us now move on to consider its theological reasons. Why does the minister of the altar need to be continent?
The fact is that the priestly mission itself urges him to be so. As the words of the Second Vatican Council, mentioned earlier, attest, the priest embraces this state – burdensome from a human point of view – “for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Indeed, married men have many concerns. But the priest is asked to have but one, which does not admit division: to love the Kingdom of God, that is, to let himself be consumed by the apostolic zeal that inflames the servants of Jesus, to save souls and to unite Heaven to earth as mediator between the Creator and humanity.
The priest, like Christ, lives to present to the Father the requests for forgiveness and the supplications of the people. And nothing could be more in keeping with divine wisdom than to choose as intercessor, among human beings, someone who suffers from the same needs of nature, weakened by original sin, and who, precisely because of this, perfectly understands the weakness of others, since he himself feels weak.
The sanctity of humanity depends on the sanctity of the priest
However, the verse of the poet Camões is also true: “A weak king makes a strong people weak.”9 In order to sanctify the people and to be pleasing to God in his prayers and sacrifices, the priest must not be the cause of comments which detract from the image of the Person of Christ, in which he acts, by allowing himself to be attached to bad habits which scandalize the little ones (cf. Mk 9:42).
The priest must set himself as a model for the faithful by “integrity, gravity, and sound speech that cannot be censured, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say of us” (Ti 2:7-8). After all, he represents Our Lord before men: “we are ambassadors for Christ, God making His appeal through us” (2 Cor 5:20). In this way, the fervent cleric shuns mediocrity and seeks to be respected by those around him, thus enabling his activity to have greater influence among the faithful.
One indispensable condition for all that is meant by this “for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven” is to live in perfect and unassailable continence, like Christ who “remained throughout His whole life in the state of celibacy.”10 The integrity of priests must therefore be a weapon against evil tongues, since the holiness of all humanity depends on their holiness.
“For your own benefit”
In fact, few men are called by God to configure themselves with His Son in the priesthood. This chosen group cannot lead a melancholy or self-centred existence, but must look at the magnitude of their mission and the dignity that derives from it. Only in this way will they be sufficiently aware that their soul must be purer than the rays of the sun, so that the Holy Spirit may never abandon them, as St. John Chrysostom affirms.11
And it is with immense friendship that the Paraclete says to them through the mouth of the Apostle: “I want you to be free from anxieties. 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 […] 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” (1 Cor 7:32-33, 35).
But is not this commitment an unbearable burden? The priest is configured with Christ, but does not cease to be man, with his legitimate tendencies… This will certainly be the opinion of some who do not understand how God can give a counsel and the Church impose a rule at variance with the natural inclinations of the human being. They no doubt fail to consider that He who imposes the burden upholds with His hand, sending graces to the chosen one. Or, perhaps, they have grown accustomed to rely exclusively on the mere powers of nature.
Far from seeking a chimerical compromise by which he can satisfy the demands of the flesh and the yearnings of the spirit, the sacred minister should seek support in the very ideal to which he dedicates his life, as Paul VI expressed it: “He who has chosen to belong completely to Christ will find, above all, in intimacy with Him and in His grace, the power of spirit necessary to banish sadness and regret and to triumph over discouragement. He will not be lacking the protection of the Virgin Mother of Jesus nor the motherly solicitude of the Church, to whom he has given himself in service.”12
A sublime matrimony
The priest is superlatively happy when at the end of his earthly existence he can say: “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). The Magisterium of the Church has led and continues to lead to this glorious end when it dictates norms and rules prescribing the practice of continence to priests.
Eloquent in this regard is the Apostolic Exhortation Pastores dabo vobis of John Paul II, which emphasizes the specific ontological bond that links the priest to Christ: “The priest finds the full truth of his identity in being a derivation, a specific participation in and continuation of Christ himself, the one high priest of the new and eternal covenant. The priest is a living and transparent image of Christ the priest. […] Reference to Christ is thus the absolutely necessary key for understanding the reality of priesthood.”13
The ecclesiastical law of celibacy finds its ultimate foundation in sacred ordination, which configures the priest to Our Lord, Head of the Church. The Church, “as the spouse of Jesus Christ, wishes to be loved by the priest in the total and exclusive manner in which Jesus Christ her head and Spouse loves her.” 14
For this reason, the Lord Jesus entrusts His most holy Spouse to chaste men, just as He entrusted His Immaculate Mother to the Virgin Apostle. Of priests He desires unblemished conjugal fidelity, in which there are no divisions in the practice of charity: “I have found the one whom my heart loves. I have held him and will not let him go” (Sg 3:4). This is what the Church says to those who embrace the way of the priesthood and contract with her a sublime marriage. ◊
1 SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL. Presbyterorum ordinis, n.16: AAS 58 (1966), 1015.
2 Cf. HORTAL, SJ, Jesús. Comentário ao cânon 277. In: CÓDIGO DE DIREITO CANÔNICO. 12ª edição revista e ampliada com a Legislação Complementar da CNBB. 20.ed. São Paulo: Loyola, 2011, p.151.
3 Having clarified the concepts, from now on we will use celibacy as a synonym for continence, since the two are inseparable in the life of a priest.
4 SYNOD OF ELVIRA, can. 33: DH 118-119.
5 “The law of ecclesiastical celibacy, whose first written traces pre-suppose a still earlier unwritten practice, dates back to a canon of the Council of Elvira, at the beginning of the fourth century, when persecution still raged. This law only makes obligatory what might in any case almost be termed a moral exigency that springs from the Gospel and the Apostolic preaching” (PIUS XI. Ad catholici sacerdotii: AAS 28 , 25).
6 For more in-depth study, we recommend the well-reasoned work: STICKLER, Alfons Maria. Il celibato ecclesiastico. La sua storia e i suoi fondamenti teologici. Napoli: Chirico, 2010, p.36-42.
7 COUNCIL OF CARTHAGE. De continentia, 3: CCSL 259, 117-118.
8 As for the discipline in the Eastern Churches, in which deacons and priests may continue to partake in marriage after ordination, provided they meet certain requirements, Stickler explains that it was established at the Second Trullan Council, which was not ecumenical. According to the author, at this Council modifications were made to the authentic text of the aforementioned Canons of Carthage, by which it was possible to introduce the divergent praxis. Again, in his words, although Rome never gave approval to such determinations, she nobly respected the change in the ancient rule of continence (cf. STICKLER, op. cit., p.97; 110).
9 CAMÕES, Luís Vaz de. Os Lusíadas. Canto III, 138. In: Obras Completas. Porto: Imprensa Portuguesa, 1874, t.III, p.129.
10 ST. PAUL VI. Sacerdotalis cælibatus, n.21: AAS 59 (1967), 665.
11 Cf. ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM. Sur le sacerdoce, VI, 2: SC 272, 307.
12 ST. PAUL VI, op. cit., n.59, 680-681.
13 ST. JOHN PAUL II. Pastores dabo vobis, n.12: AAS 84 (1992), 676-677.
14 Idem, n.29, 704.