Why does the Church embrace the practice of celibacy?


“Ask the Deacon” features three Transitional Deacons who will be ordained June 3 to the priesthood in the Diocese of Providence — Deacons Brian Morris, Joseph Brice and Stephen Battey — who respond to questions about the faith from Rhode Island Catholic readers.

Q: With such a shortage of priests, why does the church not allow priest to marry? Wouldn’t that help? Isn’t it true that this is not a requirement that comes from Jesus or the bible?

Clerical celibacy is something very often misunderstood by people both inside and outside of the Church. Blessed Pope Paul VI went so far as to call clerical celibacy a “brilliant jewel” of the Church so I think we should take a really good look at what celibacy is truly about before dismissing it too easily.

Celibacy is a discipline embraced by the Roman Catholic Church going back to the 4th century and probably even further. It is certainly true that many of the apostles, of whom the bishops are successors, were married men. We have scriptural evidence that this was true for Saint Peter, as all three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) recount the story of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law.

And as far as scriptural requirements go, it is also true that Jesus never said “In order to be a priest, you must be celibate.” As already mentioned, he chose married men for some of his apostles. However, there are passages in scripture that support celibacy. For example, in Matthew 19:12 Jesus mentions those who embrace celibacy (“make themselves eunuchs”) for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:32-38 also speaks of the preference for celibacy. Best of all, the Church’s theology of the priesthood holds that the priest stands in persona Christi. Since Jesus himself was not married, it is fitting that the priest should conform his life and ministry to that of Christ as a celibate.

Why does the Church embrace the practice of celibacy? Some like to provide the worldly argument that it is practical. And these are certainly true. I think my current food bill is high enough for the parish without having to feed a bunch of “little-Brians” running around. However, the focus needs to shift away from the worldly and point towards the heavenly. The truth is that celibacy points to the reality of Heaven. It points to the Resurrection that we celebrate on Easter Sunday. A married couple is married “until death do us part.” Marriage is only of this world, it is fleeting; there is no marriage in Heaven as Jesus points out to us in Luke 20:34-36. Marriage underscores the “already” of the Kingdom of God, while celibacy points towards the “not yet.”

As for vocations, wouldn’t a relaxation of celibacy help? Well, if we look at other faith groups that have married clergy we see that relaxation of celibacy is not a “magic bullet.” Are there perhaps a few young men interested in priesthood, or women interested in religious life, but are held back by the requirement of celibacy? Perhaps. But if that’s truly the only thing holding them back, then perhaps one could ask if they are truly called a life that should involve giving everything for Christ. The real solution to the vocations crisis, I think, is more happy priests and religious, men and women who live the celibate life with great joy. When young men and women see others living out their vocation to celibacy with joy, they are more likely to feel that call to live that life with God themselves.

My favorite example is often the Dominican Sisters of Saint Cecilia. They are present here in the Diocese of Providence either at Providence College or across the street at St. Pius V School. In an article published in 2014, it was reported that their congregation had grown 46 percent since the year 2000. When I was in seminary at Our Lady of Providence, I once witnessed a couple of them running around in their habits playing Frisbee. And recently, I witnessed one sledding down the hills with some Providence College students. They radiate such joy in their love of Christ and the Church. Perhaps we should be looking more at how to replicate their joy, rather than giving in to our culture’s desire often to rid the Church of her jewels as a way to address the crisis in vocations.

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