Celibacy a gift to God

In seminaries — in my observation, this has not changed since my day — there is a stress on academics. The Church sets clear and strict requirements for curricula, faculties, performance in courses and so on.

At ordination, for instance, a candidate had to have a bachelor’s degree in specific areas and then have completed, in my seminary at least, 124 semester hours in theology, ethics, Scripture, catechetics, preaching, Church history, Church law, pastoral practice, psychology and a few other subjects judged essential.

Interestingly, however, in my day, celibacy — never marrying and therefore, under Catholic morality, lifelong virginity — was rarely mentioned.

Furthermore, things always have happened, but intimacy outside marriage was rather rare and disapproved. No decent person tolerated, or much less engaged in, cohabitation.

It is different today. Seminaries bluntly confront students with the issue of celibacy. Contrary to what many people think, the mind of the Church is that priests choose celibacy. Church law forbids priests to marry, but no one should be forced to be celibate. It should be freely accepted, and candidates for ordination must state that they freely accept it.

Why priestly celibacy? It always fascinates me. People say, “I think priests should marry.” I ask, “What about nuns?” They blink. Never thought of that.

Priests are celibate for the same reason nuns and monks take religious vows. Nuns and monks do not marry, because they willingly choose not to marry — wanting to give everything about themselves totally to God. Priestly celibacy is not about assuring priests can devote all their time to priestly work, contrary to what many think. It is about following Christ — radically, completely, forever.

Whatever is behind this idea? We never hear it preached anymore — mea culpa, I never preach it — but the Church always has taken seriously what Christ said in St. Matthew’s Gospel.

Being virginal for life, for God, is preferable to marriage, provided that virginity is assumed as a personal gift to God (Mt 19:10 ff., Mt 19:29; Mk 10:29 ff., Lk 18:29 f.). Religious virginity is an ancient, highly spiritual value in both the East and West of the Church.

(The Church, incidentally, provides for laypersons to take, and live, vows of virginity.)

Looking at priestly celibacy as a given in seminaries in the past cost the Church dearly. Especially in the turmoil 40 years ago, when thousands of priests petitioned Rome to be allowed to be married, most often saying their seminaries never helped them to understand celibacy or what celibacy meant precisely and personally for them.

It did not take an ecclesiastical Einstein to realize something was missing in seminary formation.

Hence, the programs of today came to be. Involved are academic studies of course, but essential is that each seminarian look deeply and frankly into his heart and soul. He must ask himself, and answer, the question of whether or not he can live life unmarried — and as a virgin. Seminaries engage professional psychologists to assist students in answering these questions.

Because I am editor of Our Sunday Visitor’s magazine for priests, The Priest, I get to seminaries rather often. I know many seminarians and seminary staff members.

This I find greatly edifying. Not one seminarian has ever told me he hates to imagine being celibate, but that he wants to be a priest. They tell me they have chosen to give everything to God, even forsaking marriage; secondly, they are in the seminary because they think God is asking them to give their lives in priestly service.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.