"Doctrinal and theological" Reasons for the Discipline of Priestly Celibacy

The Petition” calls for the bishops of Australia to “Acknowledge that there is no doctrinal or theological barrier to the ordination of married men”. I stated in the blog below that while it is possible to acknowledge this, we should also acknowledge that there are serious and worthy “doctrinal and theological reasons” why celibacy should be maintained. Fr Tony challenged me on that, so here is my reply.

The New Testament does not indicate that celibacy should be compulsory upon those in Holy Orders (in fact, it indicates only that the candidate should be married no more than once, cf. 1 Tim 3).

But both Christ and St Paul speak positively of celibacy “for the sake of the kingdom of God” (Matt 19:12; cf. 1 Cor 7:7-8, 32-35).

In 1 Cor 7:35, St Paul cites two reasons for celibacy: 1) it is proper or comely (Vulg: “honestum”), and 2) that attendance may be given to the Lord without distraction.

To call this praise of celibacy a merely “practical” or “utilitarian” discipline would be to underestimate the theological use of nuptial imagery that underlies it. In both Christ’s words and in the words of St Paul, commitment to serving the Kingdom/the Church is seen in the category of marriage (not unlike the way in which St Paul sees marriage as a “mysterion” of Christ and the Church in Eph 5).

Early Christian reflection upon the priesthood soon came to see ordination as reflecting a “marriage” between the priest and the people of God in his care. In line with St Paul, it was seen that the relationship between the priest and the Church demanded much the same attention as the relationship between a husband and his wife or as a father and his family. All St Paul’s concerns come into play, and it seemed clear to the Early Church that priestly celibacy is was a part of what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of those who had become eunuchs “for the sake of the Kingdom”. (It was also noted that unlike the Levitical priesthood, which was inherited and thus required marriage, priesthood in the Church was given by the Holy Spirit and therefore marriage was not necessary for the perpetuation of the priesthood.)

Thus, while there are practical dimensions—the priest who is married only to his flock is able to serve the Lord undistracted by concerns for a wife and family—but there are also mystical dimensions here. Granted, these reasons may not appeal to many in today’s utilitarian age, but the understanding of the nuptial relationship between the priest and the Church, mirroring that of Christ and the Church and of a husband and his wife, was prominent in the Church Fathers.

At times the theological and the practical cannot be separated. The married priest must, on occasions, ask himself: if push came to shove, where would my loyalties lie? With my wife and family or with the Church and my flock? If a member of my flock and a member of my family each needed my service equally, and I could not serve both fully at the same time, to which would I give the greatest attention? The answer, if the married priest were to do justice to the deepest theological truth of marriage, is: to the member of my family. But on the other hand, is this doing justice to what is theologically required of the priest in relation to his flock?

The Catholic Church believes that in order to justice to both the deepest reality of Marriage and the deepest reality of Holy Orders (both Sacraments requiring vows of total commitment in the Catholic Church), it is necessary that married men not be ordained to the priesthood and priests not be married. The exception of permanent deacons is allowed because the theological relationship to the Church is different. The ministry of the deacon is ordered to the service of the bishop, not to the service of the Church in general or to a particular pastoral charge. This relationship is not one that has ever been envisaged in nuptial terms (thank God!).

Also within this nuptial imagery, the priest is seen as one is who “in persona Christi capitis”–ie. in the person of Christ the head of the Church. One way in which he images Christ is in his celibacy. Just as we cannot envisage (contra Dan Brown) Christ being married and having a family–in the light of the fact that his whole life is focused on the goal of his sacrificial offering of himself upon the Cross–so celibacy must also be seen in light of the priest’s duty to live a life of self-sacrifice for his flock.

So to summarise, the “strong doctrinal and theological reasons” for the discipline of priestly celibacy in the Latin Church are related to:
1) the nuptial and paternal relationship of the priest toward the Church
2) the Christ-like self-sacrificing devotion required of a priest in the fulfilment of his ministry

In closing, it is valuable to look at the Holy Father’s most recent statements on priestly celibacy, from Sacramentum Caritatis last year. Significantly, in relation to “The Petition“, the Pope deals with the matter of “§24. The Eucharist and Priestly Celibacy” after dealing with the priesthood as “§23. In persona Christi capitis” and just before addressing “§25. The clergy shortage and the pastoral care of vocations”. He says:

The Synod Fathers wished to emphasize that the ministerial priesthood, through ordination, calls for complete configuration to Christ. While respecting the different practice and tradition of the Eastern Churches, there is a need to reaffirm the profound meaning of priestly celibacy, which is rightly considered a priceless treasure, and is also confirmed by the Eastern practice of choosing Bishops only from the ranks of the celibate. These Churches also greatly esteem the decision of many priests to embrace celibacy. This choice on the part of the priest expresses in a special way the dedication which conforms him to Christ and his exclusive offering of himself for the Kingdom of God. The fact that Christ himself, the eternal priest, lived his mission even to the sacrifice of the Cross in the state of virginity constitutes the sure point of reference for understanding the meaning of the tradition of the Latin Church. It is not sufficient to understand priestly celibacy in purely functional terms. Celibacy is really a special way of conforming oneself to Christ’s own way of life. This choice has first and foremost a nuptial meaning; it is a profound identification with the heart of Christ the Bridegroom who gives his life for his Bride. In continuity with the great ecclesial tradition, with the Second Vatican Council and with my predecessors in the papacy, I reaffirm the beauty and the importance of a priestly life lived in celibacy as a sign expressing total and exclusive devotion to Christ, to the Church and to the Kingdom of God, and I therefore confirm that it remains obligatory in the Latin tradition. Priestly celibacy lived with maturity, joy and dedication is an immense blessing for the Church and for society itself.

I hope this suffices to show that there are indeed serious “doctrinal and theological reasons” for the discipline of celibacy for the priesthood.

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6 Responses to "Doctrinal and theological" Reasons for the Discipline of Priestly Celibacy

  1. Tony Bartel says:


    Thanks for your response. I can see what you are driving at. Certainly if you consider the matter from a purely western perspective, this argument holds water. However, when you look at the eastern perspective, then not only is the rule on priestly celibacy different, but there are also different theological emphases concerning the priesthood.

    The passage you quote from the Holy Father seems to sit uneasily with the eastern practice, almost as if it is a condescension for the eastern churches, but it would be preferable if they acted in the same way as the Latin church. I think that it is this type of thinking that tends to rile many eastern rite Catholics and give great concern to those in the Orthodox churches. Eastern Christians are not simply Latin Christians (with or without the Pope) with an exotic liturgy. They come with their own theological and doctrinal emphases, and I am not sure that much of the discussion about clerical celibacy (as well as other issues) always honours their rich heritage.

    I guess my question is, if there are such serious doctrinal and theological arguments in favour of celibacy, why allow priests to marry at all, either as converts or as members of an eastern rite. Or if priests are allowed to marry, can we really say that doctrinal and theological concerns are really that serious.

  2. Schütz says:

    Look, I know all this, Tony. I have been in “the business for a while”. Eastern Catholic priests and married Anglican-Convert clergy say that they “conform their lives to Christ” by modeling their relationship to the Church in the marriage, and good on them. Fair enough. It can be done. The judgement of the Latin Church however, without wanting to impose anything on the ancient and venerable Churches of the East, is that it is good for her and for her priests to practice celibacy as the general rule. Okay? We have our way, they have theirs. Yet even they acknowledge that there is a point to celibacy–and do not hesitate to insist that all bishops must be celibate, and that no priest may marry after his ordination (even if his wife dies he may not marry again).

    But let’s be serious, old boy. You and I have “been there and done (or are doing) that”. Granted that protestant ministry is not envisaged in quite the same way as Catholic priesthood, the reality of public ministry as a married man is a constant business of juggling priorities. And be honest, your parish comes second after your wife and family. Is this as it should be? Yes and no.

    Anecdote time. I have told this one before, but it bears repeating. When my oldest daughter was about 3 years old, she eye-balled me and said:
    “Daddy, you used to be a pastor, didn’t you?”
    “Yeesss…”, I replied, wondering what was coming.
    “But now you are my Daddy, aren’t you?”

  3. Tony Bartel says:

    It is not quite as simple as saying that the East insists that their bishops are celibate. They do, but they do so because far more importantly they insist that their bishops are in monastic orders. That is, it is not simply a vow of chastity that is important, but also poverty and obedience. If a non-married priest is elected as a bishop in the East, he must take monastic vows if he has not already done so, before he is ordained to the episcopate. This is a different position from the West, where bishops are not required to take a vow of poverty, for example, and may own private property. An Eastern bishop is to be totally free of worldly concerns, so that he may devote himself entirely to his flock.

    Further, in the eastern tradition at the ordination of deacons and priests, married or unmarried, hymns from the marriage rite are sung, as they are also at the ordination of bishops. In other words, the marriage or non-marriage of a priest is not seen to contradict the nuptial imagery of the priesthood. (And in the eastern tradition the diaconate is also seen to have a priestly character).

    The reason why a priest may not marry again if his wife dies has much more to do with the eastern understanding of marriage, than it does about priestly celibacy. It is not simply based on the biblical rule that a priest may only be the husband of one wife, although that is a part of it. At a deeper level, it comes from the understanding that marriage has an eternal dimension, and so the priest is to remain faithful to his wife, who even though she is dead to the world, is alive in Christ. Lay people too are discouraged from marrying a second or third time, for the same reason, and if they do remarry, it is by economia, and traditionally with penitential prayers on account of human weakness.

    On a personal note, there are of course tensions involved between living with two vocational sacraments – holy order and marriage. But then again, there is a tension between living out our fundamental baptismal vocation and marriage. That is, of course, what Paul was getting at in 1st Corinthians, where he values celibacy not only for those in apostolic ministry, but for all Christians who are able to do so. On the other hand, within marriage I have had to make sacrifices of myself for my wife and children and at the same time have become more aware of my own self-centredness and constant need for forgiveness. And this experience has certainly formed me to be a better priest, just as those who are called to make the sacrifices and self-denial of celibacy are well formed by their experience.

  4. Past Elder says:

    What happened to “till death do us part”? What happened to the answer to the answer to whose wife will she be in heaven?

    No, I’m not being rhetorical or sarcastic. I’m a widower. If it isn’t true that marriage ends at death, or that in heaven they neither give nor are given in marriage, let me know, I didn’t hear that.

    As to priestly celibacy, well, like an alumuni skit said at a freshman orientation show at my Benedictine university — if these priests want to marry, let them, then they’ll learn what poverty, chastity and obedience are REALLY all about!

  5. Schütz says:

    Chuckle, Past Elder. I think your freshman skit was right! I also agree with you about the “death do us part” and “whose wife will she be in heaven” stuff.

    What that (and the monastic business Fr Tony talks about in reference to bishops) shows is that there is clearly different theologies at work in the Eastern and Western traditions with regard to marriage, priesthood and celibacy. That’s fair enough and it is not a case (in this case) of this theology or that theology to the exclusion of the other. Both theologies (in this case) can exist side by side, because it is an argument about what is theologically “fitting” (to use St Paul’s word to the Corinthians), not over what is allowed or banned. Coming from different theological starting points, the Churches of the East have come to a different conclusion on the matter from the Churches of the West. As a Westerner, I believe that the Roman discipline of priestly celibacy is “most fitting” as a means by which the priest shows his “conformation to Christ”. I don’t want to argue that either tradition is simply right or wrong per se.

    I do have an argument with Fr Tony’s suggestion that St Paul’s advice in 1 Cor 7 could be read as displaying a tension between baptism and marriage rather than a tension between ordination and marriage. I don’t have room here to go into the whole matter, but I would say that it is about neither. (There cannot theologically be a tension between baptism and marriage because the sacrament of marriage is based upon the sacrament of baptism). I read it as concerning the call to total self-sacrificial service in the Kingdom. St Paul believes the parousia is imminent and the urgency of the work of the Kingdom makes celibacy most fitting. His theology is in early stages here, and he is able later (cf Eph 5) to understand that the relationship between husband and wife can also be seen as a mutually sacrificial conforming to Christ and living out of the baptismal calling. By giving oneself heart and soul for wife and family, the baptised man is being conformed to Christ.

    Of course, this relationship is very similar to the relationship of the priest to the Church, and hence a certain parallel can be made in the life of the married priest between his marital relationship and his pastoral relationship. This confluence may strengthen both relationships.

    But can the married priest in fact live out this sacrificial relationship toward his wife and family completely if he is also bound in a similar sacrificial relationship with the Church, the people of God? That’s the question that needs to be asked, and the judgement of the Western Churches has always been in favour of “either or”, rather than “both and”.

  6. Tony Bartel says:

    You have far more confidence than I do that Saint Paul wrote the Epistle to the Ephesians! :-)

    Of course the sacrament of marriage find its basis in baptism. But that does not mean that there is not a tension in the living out of the two sacraments. For example, it would be much easier to confess Christ in the face of persecution if one were single and did not have a family to think of, than if one were married. That does not mean that marriage would gives us an excuse to deny Christ in this situation. But it does mean that it is harder for a married person to live out their baptismal calling to follow Christ.

    Thanks for the discussion David. It is probably time to call it stumps, as I do not think we can advance much further, but it has certainly been stimulating.

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