“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.