The Necessity of Priestly Celibacy

Priestly celibacy is again a topic of debate in the Catholic Church with news of an alleged disagreement over the issue between Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. I’m going to withhold personal judgment of the controversy until more information is revealed. But I would like to address the criticism of the discipline itself.

In his recent article for The Libertarian Republic, Caleb Shumate urged Pope Francis to end the discipline of priestly celibacy, raising some interesting questions Catholics should be prepared to answer. Before responding to his concerns, it’s important to note that priests are allowed to marry in the Catholic Church under certain circumstances. For example, married priests are the norm in the Church’s Eastern Rite. In the Latin Rite, celibacy is required with a few exceptions, including the ordination of converts from some other Christian denominations. So, there isn’t a blanket prohibition on married priests in the Church.

Regarding Caleb’s contentions, there are areas where we agree. For instance, he’s correct to say the Bible does not command people to marry. It’s fine to be called to another vocation that does not involve marriage. Caleb is also right about the holiness of marriage, which is a sacrament God gave to us so we can grow closer to Him. 

Where Caleb and I part ways is on the biblical foundation for celibacy, and its importance in a secular culture. He writes, “I fail to see how this [the invalidity of priests attempting to marry] is right or consistent with Biblical teachings.” But the Catholic Church can require the discipline because of the power Jesus gave it to “bind and loose” (Matt. 16:19). Moreover, there is nothing in Scripture prohibiting the Church from requiring priests to take a vow of celibacy.

In fact, Jesus Himself lived a celibate life and spoke of those who renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom (Matthew 19:12). Celibacy is an important part of Church life because of what the vow requires priests to give up —the bond formed in marriage, sex, and children, all of which are part of Catholic married life. By taking a vow of celibacy, priests are giving witness to God and demonstrating a detachment from worldly affairs that aren’t necessarily bad but pale in comparison to a life lived for God.

This probably isn’t a very compelling argument to people who consider religion to be superstitious nonsense. But I pose this question: if you see someone making monumental sacrifices for a cause or person they believe in, are you more or less likely to be inspired by that person?

The problem with priestly celibacy isn’t that it sacrifices too much. The real problem is that many of us are willing to sacrifice too little. This is the human condition. It’s something that everyone, myself included, struggle with each day. We are inclined to put our needs ahead of others. This isn’t always a bad thing, but it can cause rifts in our relationships with family, friends, and God.

Two final points: first, many people dismiss priests as unqualified to talk about marriage because they never experienced what married life is like. In response, I would point critics to Saint John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility, which is an amazingly insightful book about what true love requires. 

It’s difficult to come away from the book without an appreciation for his understanding of what is essential to beautiful and meaningful relationships. The criticism also fails because it’s an ad hominem—an attack on the priest as a person rather than on his advice.

Finally, there are practical considerations that I didn’t labor to address because I find them to be secondary to the true reason for celibacy in the Church. Those problems—a lack of priests, abusive priests, priests unable to fulfill their duties because of family commitments—are serious concerns but could be solved if more young men turned to God and answered His call.

In truth, the world would be a lot better if we all lived more for God and less for ourselves.  

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