Recently, I was asked about priestly celibacy by a person interested in becoming Catholic. The practice of priestly celibacy is viewed with suspicion, he explained, because Protestants are unfamiliar with it and it seems unnatural. Besides that, his is a timely question given that some people have pointed to celibacy as having a direct causal link to the abuse crisis in the Church.
Celibacy, or chastity, seems like a stumbling block for people. What is celibacy, exactly? According to the glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, celibacy is “the state or condition of those who have chosen to remain unmarried.”
But why would a man choose that life, or why is this the standard discipline for priests in the Roman (Latin-rite) Catholic Church?
First, the nature of the priesthood has to be understood. Simply put, each man who becomes a priest becomes a minister of Jesus Christ’s own priesthood. Jesus’ priesthood is made visible and present through these ordained ministers. They participate in Jesus’ life and priesthood in a specific way. Therefore, a look at Scripture and how Jesus himself lived is helpful to see the foundations on which priest’s life is modeled.
Jesus did not marry. He also spoke positively about those who remain celibate “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:12). Indeed, Jesus chose, from among his followers, certain men to be with him and become “fishers of men” (Mt 4:19; Mk 1:17). His invitation to them was to leave everything behind for the sake of the kingdom of God. Therefore, this practice of total dedication to God in and through Christ goes back to the very beginning of discipleship. Today as well, men are chosen by God to “to consecrate themselves with undivided heart to the Lord” (CCC, No. 1579).
Jesus is not the only person in the Bible, however, to have lived a single life with the intention of being consecrated for God’s purposes. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, appears to have remained celibate. He was called from his youth (see Jer 1:6-7) and never mentions a wife or family like some of the other prophets. Another example, closer to the time of Jesus, is John the Baptist. The last in the long line of biblical prophets, John’s entire life was lived as a sign that pointed to Jesus, even from his time in the womb (Lk 1:41-44). Everything about him pointed to the transcendent realm, including his choice to forego a wife and children. While it is true that celibacy was not a common practice at the time of Christ, it was not unheard of. In fact, there are examples from Qumran, a desert community in existence around the time of Jesus, of a type of celibacy lived in community.
Additionally, priests are not the only celibates in the Catholic Church. The consecrated life in its various forms entails some type of commitment to chastity, either a promise, private vow, public vow or some other sacred bond.
Getting back to the definition of celibacy mentioned above, it related only to the state of being unmarried. Any discussion on celibacy must relate back to chastity, which is the virtue by which a person integrates his or her sexuality in a healthy way appropriate to his or her state in life. The goal of chastity is the wholeness and integrity of the person in his bodily and spiritual being. This is true for married persons as well as celibate persons. However, chastity in the context of consecrated life entails refraining from any behaviors in the realm of sexuality that belong properly to marriage, as well as avoiding any offenses against chastity such as masturbation, pornography or fornication. Religious chastity is also a gift to those called by God to lead a life totally dedicated to him.
Is it “unnatural” to lead a celibate life and, therefore, practice continence within chastity? In one sense, yes, and in another, no. The proper path of sexual expression for most people is that of marriage, in which two persons give each other their bodies as “a sign and pledge of spiritual communion” (CCC, No. 2360). This is a great good, and marriage, while not easy, is the natural path that most people take to live the vocation to love God and neighbor to which we are all called.
There are some, however, as Jesus points out in the Gospels, who renounce marriage and the goods of marriage (holiness together as husband and wife, welcoming and educating children) for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Not only that, the fact that some people do this is a very good thing.
Living out chastity for the sake of the kingdom of heaven means to live one’s life as a sign that points to God all the time. The married state is good and beautiful, and at the same time God is more beautiful and better. He is so good, in fact, that it is legitimate to offer everything to him and live for him alone. A consecrated person, whether priest or religious, witnesses to that by the very way he or she lives. The highest form of love is not the love between husband and love, it is the love of God, charity. This charity can and should inform all other relationships of love. This means that they are rooted in a person’s relationship with God and lead to a further and deeper love of God.
In addition, Jesus tells us that there will be no marriage in heaven. Rather, he says, in “the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven” (Mt 22:30). For this reason, the consecrated life or the celibate life is an eschatological signpost that points to heaven. Essentially, the message is: Remember where you ultimately want to be headed. Remember your end. Do what it takes to get there.
Returning to an earlier question, living chastity for the kingdom of heaven is not “unnatural” — it is supernatural. It is to live as God’s messenger, all day, every day. Like all vocations, that takes faith, hope and charity. It also takes prayer, asceticism, more prayer and fidelity to the age-old practices that help form the interior spiritual life. Good, holy friendships are also a wonderful aid to chastity, no matter what a person’s vocation is.
The goal in each vocation is to love God with all one’s heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love one’s neighbor like one’s self. To each person, God will give the graces necessary to grow in holiness if and when we cooperate with him.
Sister Anna Marie McGuan, R.S.M., is Director of Christian Formation in the Diocese of Knoxville.