Why should Catholic priests take a vow of celibacy? No other religion insists on priestly celibacy. Why should the Church intervene in a personal matter like celibacy? Though it is an age-old tradition, shouldn’t it be abandoned considering the personal freedom and liberty of individuals? Isn’t celibacy the reason behind the increasing number of sexual abuse cases reported against priests? Why should we continue it?
There are many questions. But before answering them we need to add one more question. Is priestly celibacy voluntary or mandatory? Any question about priestly celibacy would have two answers, depending on whether it is voluntary or mandatory.
What do you think? Is priestly celibacy a doctrine in the Catholic Church? No. There is no such doctrine or dogma mandating that priests should be celebate . It is a discipline and a promise given at the time of ordination. In the Eastern Churches (Catholic as well as Orthodox) married persons were given ordination. But they had to marry before ordination. In other words a priest cannot marry. Episcopate was reserved for celebate priests only. In the Western Latin Rite the practice of ordaining married persons into priesthood was discontinued after the second Lateran Council (AD 1139) only.
So priestly celibacy is a discipline introduced by the Church. There is nothing mandatory in it. Individual Churches insisting on priestly celibacy admit only those who voluntarily promise to remain celebate.
Is celibacy biblical? Yes. Because Jesus was celebate. Paul the apostle was celebate.But Peter had a family! Jesus never insisted him to abandon his family. But we read in the gospel that Peter and all other apostles ‘had left everything and followed Jesus’ (Mt 19:27). Before giving this statement, Peter was witness to Pharisees questioning Jesus about divorce and the reply Jesus gave them. By way of explanation Jesus said; ‘Not everyone can accept this teaching (about the indissolubility of marriage), but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let any one accept this who can’ (Mt 19:11-12).
Priests accept this challenge of the Lord to remain celebate, because they hope in the Lord that they can do it. Catechism of the Catholic Church appreciates priestly celibacy saying, ‘accepted with a joyous heart celibacy radiantly proclaim the reign of God’ (CCC 1579).
Paul, in his first epistle to the Corinthians, describes the logical foundation for advocating priestly celibacy. It is for serving the Lord with an undivided heart. ‘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 the affairs of the world, how to please his wife and his interests are divided’ (1 Cor 7:32-34). The Church does not demand celibacy from any person by force. Paull continues; ‘I say this for your benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord’ (1 Cor 7:35).
Priestly celibacy has an eschatological perspective also. Paul describes it when he mentions an ‘impending crisis’ (1 Cor 7:25), ‘the appointed time growing shorter’ (1 Cor 7:29), and ‘the passing over of the present form of this world ‘(1 Cor 7:31). The answer to those who criticize Church’s insistence on celibacy in these ‘advanced days’ is already given by Paul. If those who have their eyes on the fast approaching ‘appointed time’, voluntarily give up the comforts and joys of a married life and instead dedicate their life wholly for the Lord’s service, who are we to question them?
Christ who was celebate throughout his life selected the Church as his eternal bride (Eph. 5:25, Rev 21:9). A priest who, as sacramental minister, acts in ‘Persona Christi’ does the correct thing when he takes a vow of celibacy and dedicates himself to serving Christ’s bride. By doing this he is imitating the Lord who ‘loved the Church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the Church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of that kind- yes so that she may be holy and without blemish’ (Eph.5:26-27).
The price Jesus paid for his bride was his life. As Christ’s representatives, priests serve the Church by sacrificing the comforts of a married life.
Now a question would naturally arise. Does our God who once blessed humankind to ‘be fruitful and to multiply’ (Gen 1:28) favor a person living in celibacy? If God permitted celibacy for Jesus and Paul the question itself is out of place. Yet for those who still doubt, remember that God demanded celibacy from Jeremiah who was given the important mission of warning the Israelites about an impending peril. The word of the Lord came to me: You shall not take a wife, nor shall you have sons or daughters in this place’ (Jer 16:1-2). Jeremiah was being prepared for a time when there would be ‘no one to lament for the dead, nor to bury them’(Jer 16:4). A time when people were going to perish by word and by famine (Jer 16:4). Then ‘no one shall break bread for the mourner, to offer comfort for the dead, nor shall anyone give them the cup of consolation to drink for their fathers or their mothers (Jer 16:7).
To be the voice of the Lord, the prophet needs to sacrifice his comforts. To be the voice of the Lord, priests do sacrifice the comforts that a family life offers them. Most importantly, they accept it with joy. If the world worries about a priest remaining single, it is because of pure jealousy about those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, something that the world failed to appreciate.
Let us pray for our priests. May Jesus the eternal priest bless them in abundance to offer themselves to the service of the Lord with an undivided heart.