In forgoing marriage and family life, a celibate priest becomes an eschatological sign, a reminder to the entire Church of the total love and commitment to be experienced in heaven. 

In this hypersexualized age, a man willingly sacrificing himself in such a manner is also a scandal, said Father Roger Landry, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass. 

“The world says that unless you’re sexually active, you’ll shrivel up and be a joyless, loveless person,” Father Landry, 42, who was ordained in 1999, told OSV. Father Landry added that celibacy is the “great countersign” to the modern culture’s misunderstandings of sexuality. 

“It is the culture, not the Church, that is obsessed with sex, and it is challenged by the teachings of the Church because they go directly against the sexual revolution,” Father Landry said.

For the kingdom

Stretching back before the patristic and apostolic eras, to Jesus Christ himself, the Church has always valued celibacy, especially in its priests, who — including those who were married — were expected from the earliest times to place a high priority on their priesthood to the point of forgoing sexual relations with their wives. 

Saint Paul
St. Paul praised the celibate life in his epistles. Thinkstock

“There is a long-standing tradition of celibacy in the priesthood,” Father Landry said. “It’s always been there. It goes back to the early Church.” 

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus — after teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, which troubled his disciples — said that there would be people who would renounce marriage “for the kingdom of heaven” (19:12). The Lord concluded by saying, “Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.” 

“For the sake of the kingdom of heaven is very important,” Father Landry said. “It’s not just a ‘no’ to these great human goods of marriage and family. It’s for the kingdom. The celibate priest manifests that in his person, that kind of joy, in giving up all great human goods for the kingdom, which is even greater.” 

While affirming the married state, St. Paul did praise the celibate life in his epistles, writing that the unmarried could devote themselves to God in a single-minded way not possible for those married. In First Corinthians, St. Paul, a celibate, wrote he wished all men to “be as I am ... to the unmarried and to widows, I say: it is a good thing for them to remain as they are, as I do” (7:8). 

The Church Fathers also lauded celibacy. Writing in the fourth to fifth centuries, St. Augustine of Hippo said that virginity was “not honored because it is bodily integrity, but because it is something dedicated to God.” 

In more recent times, Pope Benedict XVI said in 2005 that the “celibacy that priests have received as a precious gift and the sign of undivided love toward God and neighbor is founded on the Eucharistic mystery, celebrated and adored.” 

In his 1954 encyclical Sacra Virginitas (“Holy Virginity”), Pope Pius XII asked: “For who, more than the virgin, can apply to himself that marvelous phrase of the apostle Paul: ‘I live, now not I; but Christ liveth in me.’ 

“For this reason the Church has most wisely held that the celibacy of her priests must be retained; she knows it is and will be a source of spiritual graces by which they will be ever more closely united with God,” (No. 40).

Total commitment

Even in the early Church, Father Landry said, the history shows that married priests were expected to forgo sexual relations with their wives. 

Father Landry
Father Roger Landry, priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass.

“There was the idea that the consecration at Mass required total preparation,” Father Landry said. “It was not because sex was dirty, but because it was so powerful, that the Church wanted its priests focused completely on celebrating the Mass.” 

Father Landry said the Church in many ways has not done an adequate job in explaining that priests are already married, in the sense that they enter into Christ’s marriage with the Church. 

“We share in Jesus’s spousality of the Church. The celibate priesthood is a clear representation of Christ’s celibate spousality,” he said. 

“It’s a clear sign to the whole Church of the total commitment of the priesthood, a love for God so much that we’re willing to give up the great good of marriage and having a family of our own in order to live out Christ’s spousality and shepherd his family. 

“There is something beautiful and poignant in this kind of commitment, especially in this time of pansexualism,” Father Landry said. 

Though celibacy can be a challenge, he explained that it has been his experience that obedience and cultivating a spirit of poverty and simplicity can be even more difficult for priests. 

“Priests are as human as anybody else, and, at the same time, they’re willing to give up a human good to benefit the kingdom,” he said. 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.

Related article: Understanding married priesthood