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Retreat on the Priesthood

Celibacy in the Catholic Priesthood

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Some people may be surprised at the pressure and propaganda that have arisen in our day against the celibacy of priests in the Catholic Church. But it should not be surprising, as the history of the Church from the beginning amply testifies. It was, in fact, the unwillingness of so many priests to remain celibate that tilted the pressure in favor of Protestantism in the sixteenth century. There were many other factors; doctrinal, theological, political, that cost so many millions to Catholic unity, but the center of the issue was priestly celibacy. The first thing the so-called reformers did on breaking with the Roman Catholic Church was to remove celibacy.

It is also the same unwillingness in our day that is mainly responsible for the massive exodus of so many priests from their priestly ministry. Before and during the Second Vatican Council there was extreme agitation, some in high quarters, to have celibacy for priests in the Western Church made optional; but, as happened more than once in previous centuries, the Council held firm.

If we ask, “What positive good has come from the Second Vatican Council?” there are more than a dozen answers. But somewhere near the top is its unmistakable support for priestly celibacy, as the following statement of the Council makes clear. “Based on the mystery of Christ and His mission, celibacy which at first was recommended to priests was afterwards in the Latin Church imposed by law on all who were to be promoted to holy orders. This Sacred Council approves and confirms this legislation.”

When this decree was issued on December 7, 1965, there was much adverse criticism, and the storm of protest has not yet died down. In the meantime, the Holy See has dispensed many priests who were laicized also from their celibacy, but with the absolute prohibition ever again to exercise their priesthood. Once a man is ordained he is never un-ordained. In other words, the Church once again has stood strong on what is surely one of the glories of the Catholic priesthood and one of its principal means of drawing down God’s blessings on those ordained to the altar.

Why should priests remain celibate? This question has arisen many times and has been asked in a thousand ways. Why should priests not marry like, say, Protestant ministers do? Why make such a hard demand on weak human nature that is not infrequently unequal to the obligation? To begin to find a reason, we must start with the person of Christ.

When the Son of God came into the world He surrounded His Incarnation with the aura of chastity. His mother, He made sure, would miraculously conceive Him without carnal intercourse. She would be a virgin before birth, in birth and after birth, as the Church solemnly teaches. Christ was, in the words of the Liturgy, “Floss matrix virgins” – the Flower of a virgin mother. He made sure He was brought up in the virginal family of Mary and Joseph. Christ, further, all through His stay on earth remained a virgin; He never married. During His public life He showed special love for pure souls, such as the two Johns – the Baptist and the Evangelist. Christ could not have spoken more laudably about anyone than He did about John the Baptist who, Christian revelation and her tradition tells us, was a virgin. The Evangelist as he modestly admits, without identifying himself by name, was the one whom Jesus specially loved.

The great apostle Saint Paul, faithful interpreter of the New Law and of the mind of Christ, preached the inestimable value of virginity in view of the more fervent service of God. He gave the reason when he said, “An unmarried man can devote himself to the Lord’s affairs; all he need worry about is pleasing the Lord.”

All of this clear revelation of the New Testament had almost inevitable consequences. The priests of the New Covenant felt the heavenly attraction of this virtue. They sought to be of the number of those to whom, in Christ’s prediction, it is given to take this word. They felt if anyone has the grace to remain celibate, surely it ought to be the priests. From the very beginning, the first century, they spontaneously bound themselves to celibate observance.

This bears more emphasis than we normally give it. There is so much talk these days about imposition, about constraint, about placing upon a man, heavy inhuman obligations. The facts of the case are just the opposite. Priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church began as a voluntary, spontaneous desire on the part of the Church’s priests to follow in the footsteps of Christ.

So it came about that the practice in the Latin Church received the sanction of ecclesiastical law. Law followed spontaneous choice, not the other way around. There first were celibate priests, and then, wisely and understandably, the Church made laws, building on what then had already become part of the Church’s tradition.

Already as early as 305 A.D., in fact before the Church’s liberation under Constantine, the Council of Alvira in Spain passed the following decree: “That bishops, priests and deacons, and in general all the clergy who are specially employed in the service of the altar abstain from conjugal intercourse. Let those who persist be degraded from the ranks of the clergy.”

By the end of the fourth century the Second Council of Carthage in Africa declared: “What the apostles taught and the early Church preserved, let us too observe.” Celibacy is not a post factum, an afterthought of the Church. It is an anti factum reality practiced by the Church and wanted by those who wanted to be Christ’s priests.

So the tradition went on. In the Middle Ages when the Church in Europe was rocked to her foundations over this law of celibacy, one Pontiff after another stood his ground, until gradually this law was restored to its original integrity.

Behind the Church’s legislation is first of all the revealed fact that the Son of God was a virgin. If a priest is another Christ, if he is to be like Christ, if he is to portray and preach Christ to the people, is it not proper that like his Master he, too, should not marry? There is no point arguing this point with a person who lacks the faith. They don’t know what you’re talking about. And there is also no need to press the argument with one who believes. If Christ is God and Christ chose virginity, and I want to be like Him – well, I want to be like Him in all respects. The imitation of Christ is the first and fundamental reason for priestly celibacy, a reason however, that is not based on natural reason or still less on reasons. You don’t argue yourself into celibacy. It is based on the deeper wisdom of faith.

Experience and history, besides the fact of revelation, show that celibacy gives the priest extraordinary freedom, as Saint Paul says, freedom from the cares and worries that necessarily go along with marriage and rearing a family. There is first of all, freedom of time to give to the people under his sacerdotal care. There is freedom of mobility to go where there is hope of God’s greater glory and the good of souls. It is impossible to move around as much as a priest who is really zealous for souls should move about and at the same time do justice to his wife and children.

A priest has freedom of interest to devote himself exclusively to his priestly ministry and not be bound, as he would be in marriage, to preoccupation with so many things that would divide his interest between the priesthood and his duties as husband and father of a natural family. How many Protestant ministers have told me, “John, I envy you your celibate life. I love my wife and my children, but I often find it literally impossible to be what my people want me to be and to give my family the time and attention they deserve.”

It would be strange, if it were possible, that God would not correspondingly bless the celibacy of His priests by showering them with an abundance of His graces for the sacrifices that, as every priest knows celibacy costs.

What Pope Pius XII wrote to priests on this aspect of their celibate life deserves to be remembered and recalled whenever anyone tries to talk down the sublimity of this Christ-like institution. “By his law of celibacy,” says the Pope, “the priest, so far from losing the gift and duties of fatherhood, rather increases them immeasurably; for although he does not beget progeny for this passing life on earth, he begets children for that life which is heavenly and eternal.”

Every man wants to be a father. The option he has is what kind of fatherhood he will experience. This is the capstone, as only priests who are faithful to their celibacy know. Their celibacy is a true fatherhood, as that of a woman dedicated to life in a religious community is a genuine motherhood. Let no one steal that mystery of our faith. The priest is emphatically not a pious bachelor. He is wedded to the Savior’s work in this world, and celibacy is the obvious and congenial, happy, enjoyable expression of the priest’s relationship to God and man.

All of this, however, requires deep faith in the priests; it requires discipline of his senses, especially his eyes and his sense of touch. He must be a disciplined man – no one else can remain celibate. It requires much prayer and an easy communion with God. Above all, it requires a great love of Jesus Christ and, of course, a great deal of grace from the Savior who called him and ordained him to the priesthood.

The Catholic faithful want to see their priests faithful to their celibacy; how it saddens them beyond description to see a priest unfaithful to his commitment. But as frightening as the statement may sound, it is true; people get the kind of priests they deserve. Priests are not alone; they are part of the Mystical Body. They need the other members of this body to help them be what Christ wants them to be. And the help they especially need from the people they are meant to serve is these peoples’ sacrificial prayer, prayer joined to sacrifice.

Without grace, celibacy is unthinkable; without grace, celibacy is unlivable. The prayers of the priest for himself are not enough. Either he gets the support of the faithful or he will not be able to remain faithful. But given their assistance, he will obtain as God wants him to obtain, the graces that he needs to be what the priest professes to be: a mediator of the Savior to a sinful, sex-ridden world; an ambassador of Christ, the virginal Son of the Virgin Mary.

Conference transcription from a retreat that
Father Hardon gave in December, 1977 to the
Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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