This has been a tough decade when it comes to the defense of the celibate priesthood in the Catholic Church, if you consider the horrific stories of pedophilia and the all-too-often public call of certain priests (and yes, some bishops) who propose to change the rule of celibacy for Latin-rite priests.

Most recently, the much-publicized photos of Father Alberto Cutie, a popular Miami priest, cavorting with a woman on a South Florida beach last month reignited the debate about priestly celibacy in the United States.

While it would be disingenuous to say that these problems are the fault of anyone but the men who have perpetrated them, it is fair to say that the popular argument against celibacy simply ignores the deeper historical, theological, liturgical and spiritual realities that not only bind men to the celibate priesthood in the West, but also bind male and female Religious, married men and women, the single person and the widowed.

"Christ demands of all of us a lifelong commitment of agape, that self-sacrificial love which calls us to take up our cross every day. This is a high ideal, not just for priests but for everyone," said Father Dwight Longenecker, a married (formerly Anglican) Catholic priest who is chaplain at St. Joseph's School in Greenville, S.C. "The celibate lives this out in his particular vocation and the married man or woman lives this out in theirs. Is it difficult? Yes. Do both sometimes fail in their commitments? Yes."

Popular complaints

For Father Longenecker, as for many others in the Church, any debate about celibacy is more solidly grounded when it starts by looking at those celibate priests and/or married people who live faithfully and succeed by God's grace.

"The focus on failing is empty, and it doesn't get us anywhere," he added. "The arguments based on the failures of certain clergy don't really wash because everyone is supposed to be living this sacrifice."

Unfortunately, the arguments used against celibacy often have less to do with the nature of what it means to be called. The most frequent objection to the practice of celibacy centers on the physical or psychological -- that is, being a celibate priest goes against the relational and sexual desires of man.

Furthermore, detractors sometimes explain that example of saints or early Church monastics should be dismissed because they either operated from the assumption that Christ was coming again soon (and therefore marriage didn't make sense) or they were obsessed with ritual purity. Finally, it is often argued that the shortage of priests demands from the Church new and different possibilities.

Blessings of celibacy

The reality is that "celibacy is a special gift from the Holy Spirit, it is called a charism," said Father James Farfaglia, pastor of St. Helena of the True Cross of Jesus Catholic Church in Corpus Christi, Texas. "The celibate priest, in and through his body -- through his physical reality -- is a sign or a witness not only of the total gift of himself to his bride, the Church, but he is also physically, through his body, pointing the way to the eschatological reality of eternal life.

But this lofty reality, Father Farfaglia explains, is often lost on seminarians in their formation.

"The charism of celibacy and the call to the priesthood or religious life are two different realities. Most seminary formation programs do not give seminarians the necessary tools to discern the charism or the necessary ascetical formation to help them live out the charism as a future priest," said Father Farfaglia, who has founded and developed apostolates for the Catholic Church in Spain, Italy, Mexico, Canada and throughout the United States. "Bishops need to shepherd their priests. They need to know who they are. They need to pray with them. They need to eat with them. They need to listen and talk to them. They need to form a true brotherhood with them."

When this happens, he points out, grace multiplies upon grace. Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical on priestly celibacy, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, wrote, "Ever intent on the realities of today, we cannot close our eyes to this magnificent, wonderful reality: that there are still today in God's holy Church, in every part of the world where she exercises her beneficent influence, great numbers of her ministers...who are living their life of voluntary and consecrated celibacy in the most exemplary way" (No. 13).

What constantly gets lost in the debate is that each person is called to an intimate relationship with God and our journey toward him in holiness is binding no matter what state you hold in life: celibate, married or single.

Upholding responsibility

So, whenever someone breaks a vow before God -- clergy, religious, single or married -- it is incumbent on us to remind our culture that the scandal of infidelity, no matter where it is expressed, should make us neither rethink the validity of the institution of marriage nor denigrate the luminous example of the monastic life.

"For anyone who lives a vowed life (religious or married) and those vows are broken, we are called to return to faithfulness and grace will allow us to do so," said Father Tom Euteneuer, president of Human Life International.

"We must keep in mind, too, that any survey conducted on the matter has shown that people who have stable commitments with a transcendent dimension, contribute the most to society. These are the people who are fruitful and productive, and so it is society which benefits from this," he added. "The problem is that when society attacks the Church, which upholds the institutions of marriage and the priesthood, then, ultimately, it is society that pays the price."

The Church has long held that the example of a holy and celibate priest will not only act as a symbol of charity because he has greater freedom and flexibility in his ministry, but also that his example will stimulate charity through the wisdom that comes from his commitment to the vow and the sense of eschatological urgency derived from knowing that in the end all of our lives must be lived like the Good Shepherd who gives his life for the sheep.

Brief history of celibacy

The early Church Fathers wrote often about the spread of the commitment to celibacy throughout the East and West through the first four centuries of the Church. During that time, Rome increasingly confirmed the acts of local councils in the West, which called for an unmarried priesthood. It is interesting to note that the final definitive proclamation that sanctioned celibacy permanently occurred at the Council of Trent (1545-63) and has been included in canon law ever since.

Recently, the Roman Church has reaffirmed the practice in a number of documents including Pope Paul VI's June 24, 1967, encyclical on priestly celibacy, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, and Pope John Paul II's March 25, 1992, post-synodal apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis ("I Will Give You Shepherds"). During this time the Church has allowed married men who were ministers within other Christian ecclesial communions (Anglicans for example) to convert and seek ordination.

The Catholic Church has also stood by Eastern Catholics, who, adhering to their ancient Orthodox tradition, have been allowed to marry prior to ordination since the Council of Trullo in 692. It should be noted, however, that even in the East there has always been a prohibition against marriage or remarriage after ordination, and also that bishops are always chosen from among those living a life of celibacy.

Thomas A. Colyandro writes from Texas.