Apparently convincing arguments can be made against the practice of priestly celibacy. Let us quickly examine some of the most important of these. First of all, the New Testament does not seem to require celibacy for priests, but simply proposes it as a special grace, to which each individual may freely respond (cf. Mt 19, 11-12). Moreover, Jesus Christ did not make of it a prerequisite in the choice of His Twelve Apostles, nor did the Apostles themselves in their choice of the leaders of the first Christian communities (cf. 1Tm 3, 2-5; Tt 1, 5-6).
The fruit of an unhealthy obsession with purity?
Admittedly, throughout the centuries the Church Fathers and ecclesiastical writers established a link between a priestly vocation and consecrated celibacy. However, the Fathers rather recommend chastity in marriage than celibacy itself. Moreover, these texts appear to be inspired by an exaggerated pessimism or by a more or less unhealthy obsesssion with purity. Finally, they refer to a socio-cultural context which is no longer our's. Furthermore, this custom of ecclesiastical celibacy improperly aligns the priestly vocation with the vocation to celibacy. Moreover, we are forced to admit the tragic shrinking of the clergy: would not one of the causes of this shrinking be the obligation to remain celibate, which is too heavy a load for many young people today? Would not a suppression of this obligation give a new impetus to the recruitment of priests?
A requirement which is impossible to fulfill?
Anyway, we are forced to admit the numerous breaches of this consecrated ceibacy, either on the part of priests who leave their ministry to marry, or on the part of priests who have more or less clandestine sexual relationships. Wouldn't a frank authorisation be better than a shameful hypocrisy which ends in scandal? In reality, perfect celibacy is impossible to keep, because it is against nature and inhuman. It puts the priest in a physically and psychologically damaging condition, from which are born discouragement, or even dispair. Thus, according to its opponents, priestly celibacy is proven to be unfounded in Scripture and Tradition, excessive, inappropriate, hypocritical and against nature. It is therefore urgent to completely suppress it, or, at least, to make it entirely optional, both for today's clergy and for future priests.
Bad reasons for defending it?
In order to defend priestly celibacy, people have sometimes put forward an argument which goes something like this: “If the priest were married, he would have to devote himself to his wife and family, which would make him less available for his faithful (for example for bringing the Sacraments during the night or during an epidemic). Furthemore, the secrets which are entrusted to him under the seal of confession would risk being uncovered during discussions with his spouse, and the mere thought of this risk would repel penitents from approaching him”. Such reasonings are not entirely devoid of truth. However, they are not absolutely convincing either. In effect, the doctor must also leave home at night or during epidemics in order to cure sick people. He likewise receives the most intimate confidences of his patients. Yet, no-one has ever stopped a doctor from getting married! This is therefore proof that this reason alone (as well-founded as it appears) is not sufficient to justify priestly celibacy. Attacked by strong reasons and defended by insufficient arguments, priestly celibacy seems to be a cause which is definitively lost, destined to be swept aside by the victorious march of history and human progress.
The constant practise of the Church
Impressed by these objections (and by yet others which could be formulated), we could be tempted to accept this apparent inevitability. However, an enormous fact towers before us, which obliges us to think seriously about the gravity of the question at hand. This fact is the constant practise of the Catholic Church in the matter of ecclesiastical celibacy. In effect, since Christian antiquity, the Fathers of the Church and the ecclesiastical writers witness unanimously to the propagation (amongst the clergy of both East and West) of the freely assumed practice of consecrated celibacy. From the fourth century on, the Western Church (thanks to the interventions of several provincial councils and bishops), reinforced, developed and sanctioned this practice of priestly celibacy.
The action of the Roman pontiffs
The Roman pontiffs, in particular, were intent on protecting and restoring ecclesiastical celibacy at all times, even when the general slackening of morals was opposed to it and when a part of the clergy was publicly living in misconduct. This obligation of priestly celibacy was, in particular, solemnly recalled by the Council of Trent and inserted into the Code of Canon Law. Since the beginning of the 20th Century, all the popes without exception (following to a custom created by Saint Pius X), have addressed an encyclical letter to the priests of the entire world, notably reminding them of the solemn engagement of celibacy which they have contracted.
The pratcice of the Church of the East
If the legislation of the Eastern Church concerning ecclesiastical celibacy is partially different, it must not be forgotten that this is due to historical circumstances proper to this part of the Church. However, the Eastern Fathers have sung highly the praises of virginity and of its profound links with the priestly ministry. Furthermore, in the East, the episcopacy (that is to say, the fulness of the priesthood) is strictly reserved to celibate clergy. Finally, candidates for the priesthood who desire marriage absolutely must get married before ordination and, if they become widowers, they cannot remarry. In such manner that, even in the East, the prinicple of celibate priesthood and that of the correspondance between celibacy and priestly ministry remain established up to a certain point, at least in the episcopal priesthood.
A universal and constant practice
In a Church which claims to be essentially faithful to Tradition, this universal and constant practice of consecrated celibacy cannot be treated as a simple human custom, revocable at will. On the contrary, it brings us to think that ecclesiastical celibacy has deep links with Revelation Itself.
The real sense of priestly celibacy
However, the practice of the Church alone is not necessarily prescriptive in itself. It must furthermore rest on foundations which come from Divine Revelation or the nature of things. This is the case for priestly celibacy, which rests on supernatural motives of the highest value and is rooted directly in the Gospel itself. Sacerdos alter Christus, “the priest is another Christ”. This is the fundamental principle which illuminates the Catholic priesthood. The Priesthood of Christ is unique and definitive, and the priesthood of men, the ministerial priesthood (that is, etymologically, the priesthood of servants) is a real participation in this Sovereign Priesthood. It is therefore Christ Himself who is the Model, the “Type”, He to Whom each priest must be intimately conformed in order for his priesthood to take on all of its truth.
Jesus Christ, the True Priest, remained a virgin
But it is remarkable that Jesus Christ (in a world where celibacy was almost unknown, if not cursed), remained in the state of virginity throughout all of His life. With Him, this virginity signifies His total and unreserved consecration to God. All of His energies, all of His thoughts, all of His actions belong to God. It is by this total consecration (which in Jesus went as far as the Hypostatic Union, where the human nature no longer belongs to itself but belongs directly to the Person of the Word), that Christ was constituted Mediator between Heaven and earth, between God and men, that is to say, Priest.
Celibacy as a consecration to God
Thus, virginity signifies and brings about consecration, the essence of this Priesthood of Christ. In other words, the virginity of Jesus flows from His Priesthood and is intimately connected with it. The human priest (participator in the Priesthood of Christ) also participates in His total consecration to God and, as a consequence, in His virginity. The consecrated celibacy of the priest is therefore an intimate and love-filled union with the virginity of Jesus, sign of His consecration to the Father. This is the first and most fundamental reason for the celibacy of priests.
The love of Christ for the Church
If Jesus remained a virgin as an expression of His consecration to the Father, He was also a virgin in His offering of Himself on the Cross for His Church, so as to make of Her a glorious, holy and immaculate Spouse (cf. Ep 5, 25-27). The consecrated virginity of the human priest also manifests and prolongs, therefore, the virginal love of Christ for the Church and the supernatural fecundity of this love. This availibilty to love the Church and souls manifests itself by the prayer-life of the priest, by the celebration of the sacraments and particularly of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, by his charity towards all, by his continual preaching of the Gospel, mirroring the very Life of Jesus. Each day, the priest, united to Christ the Redeemer, begets souls in Faith and Grace, and makes the love of Christ for His Church (which virginity signifies) present among men.
The sign of the Kingdom to come
If we examine, no longer the mission of Christ on earth, but the full realisation of this mission in Heaven, we discover a third cause of His virginity and (consequently) of that of the priest. In effect, the earthly Church is the seed of the heavenly Church and at the same time the sign of this blessed life to come. What heavenly beatitude will be is already visible (but veiled and as if in an enigma) in the earthly life of the Church. But, as Our Lord said with force: “in the resurrection they shall neither marry nor be married; but shall be as the angels of God in heaven.” (cf. Mt 22, 30). Virginity will therefore be the definitive state of blessed humanity. It is fitting that (already in this life) the sign of this virginity should shine in the midst of the tribulations and desires of the flesh. The consecrated celibacy of the priest is thus (mirroring that of Christ) an anticipation of heavenly glory, a prefiguration of the life of the elect and a pressing invitation to the faithful to march towards Eternal Life unincumbered by the weight of the day. The celibacy of human priests is therefore a participation in the virginity of the Supreme Priest, which expresses His total consecration to the Father, makes possible His union with the Church and announces the blessed life of Heaven to come.
Response to objections
When the absence of any commandment on the part of Jesus is opposed to consecrated celibacy, we must reply with an elementary distinction. In itself, the priesthood is not linked absolutely to celibacy because it is a spiritual quality of the soul, a sacramental character. This explains why a married man can be validly ordained priest and that Jesus did not make of celibacy a direct commandment. But it is evident in the Gospel that there is a profound link between priestly consecration and virginal consecration. Jesus, having chosen His first priests, wanted to initiate them into the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt 13, 11 ; Mk 4, 11 ; Lk 8, 10) and called them His friends and His brothers (Jn 15, 15 ; 20, 17). He sacrificed Himself for them so that they would be consecrated in Truth (Jn 17, 19) and promised a superabundant recompense to anyone who would abandon house, family, spouse and children for the Kingdom of God. Finally, He recommended (in words laden with meaning and addressing Himself to His disciples alone) a more perfect consecration to God by virginity, propter regnum (cf. Mt 19, 11-12). The constant tradition of the Church concerning priestly celibacy is therefore founded on the Gospel itself and on the express doctrine of Jesus Christ.
A particularly expressive congruity
In the same spirit, the Fathers of the Church never intended transforming this evangelical correspondance between celibacy and the priesthood (which became a canonical law in the West and in part in the East) into a strict obligation of Divine Law. That is why the link which they establish between the priestly vocation and consecrated virginity is more a pressing exhortation than a strict obligation. Their writings nevertheless express the spirit of the Gospel in this matter in a very clear manner. Besides, it is possible that the ecclesiastical writers have sometimes been inspired by an exaggerated pessimism or refer to a socio-cultural context which is no longer our's. But this is only true on points of detail or for this or that Father in particular. On the other hand, the universality of the Fathers and ecclesiastical writers, dealing with the profound link between the priesthood and virginity, far from expressing a temporary and doubtful opinion, on the contrary translate with sureness the very doctrine of Divine Revelation.
A vocation is not a right, but a calling
To those who claim to separate the priestly vocation from consecrated chastity, we must reply that they are committing a profound error on the very nature of a vocation. The latter is, in effect, a Divine call manifested by the Church through the voice of the bishop. This Divine call is in no way a sort of haphazard choice which could fall on anyone. It is, on the contrary, a precise call which supposes or creates the necessary dispositions in the one who is called. Thus, in the Eastern Church, because of the central place occupied by ecclesiastical chant, no minister can be ordained unless he is apt for singing. In the Western Church, no priest can be ordained without consecrated celibacy. In other words, there is no real priestly vocation in the West without the call to consecrated celibacy. It is therefore absolutely false to want to separate priesthood and chastity in the West, since they are one reality, that of the authentic Divine vocation.
Married clergy does not recruit any better than celibate clergy
When people point to the vocations crisis in order to attack priestly celibacy, they forget to say that those eccelsial communities which already admit the marriage of their priests or pastors (e.g. the Orthodox, the Anglicans etc.) are experiencing the same recruitment difficulties as the Latin Rite Catholic Church. Allowing married priests is therefore not an especially efficacious way of cancelling out the drop in vocations. Rather, it is the weakening of the spirit of Faith, the destruction of the Catholic family, the development of materialism, the enormous scandals caused by certain priests, the ruin of the Holy Mass by the liturgical reform, etc., which are the real causes of the drop in vocations. The total gift of self to God which is signified by priestly celibacy is, on the contrary, a light which guides generous souls towards the priestly ministry and is one of the principal sources of a vocation.
Change the law because it is only imperfectly followed?
Breaches of the law of celibacy (going as far as scandals and apostasies) exist – it would be ridiculous to deny this. Nevertheless, this is in no way a reason for rejecting consecrated celibacy. Otherwise, we would also have to suppress marriage. In effect, there are breaches of fidelity, adulteries and scandalous divorces. However, difficulty in keeping conjugal fidelity is not a reason for suppressing it. Similarly, difficulty in conserving priestly chastity is not a reason for suppressing celibacy, but rather a reason for more and more anchoring it every day within a human balance and an authentic supernatural life. To want to suppress celibacy because it is not always observed is to throw the baby out with the bathwater, to get rid of cars because of road-traffic accidents, to abolish food because of indigestion and to do away with life because there are people who commit suicide.
What is impossible to man is possible to God
To claim that observing celibacy is an impossibility is false both on the natural and supernatural level. We know (from scientific and philosophical psychology) that continence (even absolute continence) is not in any way against nature. Man, a free and reasonable being, is capable of mastering his physical and affective tenedencies. However, it has to be admitted that virtuously and continually observing celibacy is not ordinarily given to human nature wounded by Original Sin. In this sense, the celibacy of the priest is founded, not on nature alone, but on that Grace by which God makes possible what is impossible to man. It is therefore true that consecrated celibacy requires a particular Grace, but which God unreservedly grants to the one who has piously engaged himself in His service. This Grace makes him capable of remaining faithful to his engagements, as witness the immense legion of priests who (for so many centuries) have caused the magnificent splendour of their spotless virginity to shine in the Church.
A beautiful text of Pius XII
We will conclude with a beautiful text of Pius XII who recalls the supernatural fecundity of priestly celibacy: “The priest has as the proper field of his activity everything that pertains to the supernatural life, since it is he who promotes the increase of this supernatural life and communicates it to the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ. Consequently, it is necessary that he renounce 'the things of the world', in order to have care only for 'the things of the Lord'. And it is precisely because he should be free from preoccupation with worldly things to dedicate himself entirely to the divine service, that the Church has established the law of celibacy, thus making it ever more manifest to all peoples that the priest is a minister of God and the father of souls. By his law of celibacy, the priest, so far from losing the gift and duties of fatherhood, rather increases them immeasurably, for, although he does not beget progeny for this passing life of earth, he begets children for that life which is heavenly and eternal. The more resplendent priestly chastity is, so much the more does the sacred minister become, together with Christ, 'a pure victim, a holy victim, an immaculate victim'” (Pius XII, Menti nostrae, 23rd September, 1950).