This may surprise some people, even Catholics. When deacons looking ahead to the priesthood are ordained as deacons, they voluntarily choose to be celibate for life. In fact, they pledge themselves to live as virgins until death. Nothing is imposed against their will. Therefore, “Why do they not let priests marry?” makes no sense. Better it would be: “Why do priests choose not to be married?”
Even people who have no connection at all with the Catholic Church associate celibacy with priests. At times, even Catholics look upon celibacy as strange or worse. It hardly fits into modern culture. Still, the Church extols celibacy, although it is true that celibacy, or the decision not to be married, has not always been an integral part of the Catholic priesthood. Indeed, today it is not part of the Catholic priesthood in some Eastern Rites. It certainly is not a doctrine of the Church that priests cannot be married.
So, why is celibacy so important in the Church’s mind?
The Church wants ordained ministers to be disciples, as Jesus defined the highest of discipleship. Jesus was clear. In Matthew 19:10-12, the Lord explicitly said that life without marriage, and in virginity, was preferred for disciples. If a disciple could not be faithful to this ideal, then he could be married.St. Paul supported this admonition. Many quotations from his epistles stress the point.
As Jesus implied, lifelong virginity is the ideal because, by remaining celibate, a man or a woman reserves his or her heart totally for God. Therefore, the Church always has regarded perpetual virginity as a higher calling than marriage.
The Church has never claimed that marriage is an obstacle to sanctity. At least at some time in his life, St. Peter was married. The Blessed Mother was married, although sexual intimacy never occurred in her marriage. Many canonized saints were married.
An excellent and highly resourced analysis of what the Lord said about lifelong virginity is to be found in Pope Pius XII’s 1954 encyclical, Sacra Virginitas. In his opening sentence, the pope stated that perpetual virginity in the Church indeed directly proceeds from Jesus, and the Church has regarded it as a “treasure” in the Church since the time of the Lord.
As examples, Pius XII cited the words of the earliest theologians of the Church about virginity for life, explicitly quoting Sts. Cyprian, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Athanasius and Ignatius of Antioch. This was before he listed the untold number of Church pronouncements in the same vein over the centuries. Nothing in the New Testament, or any Church declaration, ever took an opposing position.
Following this notion, both in the Western and Eastern Church, from the most ancient of times in Christianity, men and women vowed perpetual virginity, and declined to be married, to meet the ideal expressed by the Lord, and without exception or qualification the Church blessed them. They originated the Church’s ancient tradition of monastic life.
Once, celibacy was a given, so seminarians rarely were helped to think about what celibacy would demand of them when they were alone at 40, or at 70, or what complete sexual abstinence every day for life would entail. Priests were ordained, realized what celibacy required, wanted to be married, and left the priesthood.
Now, seminaries engage professionals to assist students in preparation for the priesthood to decide if they can be loyal to the promises that they will make. The purpose of celibacy is emphasized.
It seems to be working. The number of priests who leave the priesthood for marriage has dramatically declined.
Msgr. Owen Campion is OSV’s chaplain.