Why does the Church mandate that priests be celibate?

In examining the issue of celibacy, we should first address its historical development in the life of the Church and then its spiritual basis and relevance for today’s clergy.

Our Lord presented celibacy as a legitimate lifestyle not only by His very life since He never married but also in His teaching.  When our Lord emphasized that marriage was a covenant between husband and wife and thereby prohibited divorce and re-marriage (cf. Matthew 19:3-12), He concluded, “Some men are incapable of sexual activity from birth; some have been deliberately made so; and some there are who have freely renounced sex for the sake of God’s reign.”  Traditionally, our Church– as evidenced in the Catechism (#1579)– points to this “free renunciation of sex for the sake of God’s reign” as a basis for celibacy.

Nevertheless, in the early Church, clerical celibacy was not mandated.  St. Paul in his first letter to St. Timothy wrote, “A bishop must be irreproachable, married only once, of even temper, self-controlled, modest, and hospitable” (3:2) and “Deacons may be married but once and must be good managers of their children and their households” (3:12).  However, one should not erroneously construe this teaching to mean that a bishop, priest, or deacon had to be married; St. Paul admitted that he himself was not married (I Corinthians 7:8).

Clement of Alexandria (d. 215) echoed St. Paul’s teaching:  “All the same, the Church fully receives the husband of one wife whether he be priest or deacon or layman, supposing always that he uses his marriage blamelessly, and such a one shall be saved in the begetting of children.”

Nevertheless, the move to clerical celibacy began to grow in areas of the Church.  St. Epiphanius of Salamis (d. 403) stated, “Holy Church respects the dignity of the priesthood to such a point that she does not admit to the diaconate, the priesthood, or the episcopate, nor even to the subdiaconate, anyone still living in marriage and begetting children.  She accepts only him who if married gives up his wife or has lost her by death, especially in those places where the ecclesiastical canons are strictly attended to.”  The local, Spanish Council of Elvira (306) imposed celibacy on the clergy:  “We decree that all bishops, priests, deacons, and all clerics engaged in the ministry are forbidden entirely to live with their wives and to beget children:  whoever shall do so will be deposed from the clerical dignity.”  Later the Council of Carthage extended the celibacy requirement to the subdiaconate.

After the legalization of Christianity in 313, greater discussion regarding clerical celibacy emerged.  At the ecumenical Council of Nicea I (325), Bishop Hosius of Cordoba proposed a decree mandating clerical celibacy, including for those clergy already married.  Egyptian Bishop Paphnutius, unmarried himself, rose in protest, asserting that such a requirement would be too rigorous and imprudent.  Rather, he proposed that those members of the clergy already married should continue to be faithful to their wives, and those who were unmarried should personally decide whether or not to be celibate.

Actually, during this time, the new spiritual fervor of “white martyrdom” arose.  During the persecution, many suffered “red martyrdom,” the shedding of their blood for the faith.  With white martyrdom, men and women chose to renounce the things of this world and to die to their old selves so as to rise to live a life totally dedicated to Christ.  This notion of a white martyrdom was the thrust behind monasticism and vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience.

At this point, the tradition of clerical celibacy differed between the Western and Eastern traditions of the Church.  For the Western Church several popes decreed celibacy:  Damasus I (384), Siricius (385), Innocent I (404), and Leo I (458).  Local councils issued edicts imposing celibacy on the clergy:  in Africa, Carthage (390, 401-19); in France, Orange (441) and Tours (461); and in Italy, Turin (398).  By the time of Pope Leo I (d. 461), no bishop, priest, deacon, or subdeacon could be married.

In the Eastern Church, Emperor Justinian’s Code of Civil Law forbade anyone who had children or even nephews to be consecrated a bishop.  The Council of Trullo (692) mandated that a bishop be celibate, and if he was married, he would have to separate from his wife before his consecration.  Priests, deacons, and subdeacons were forbidden to marry after ordination, although they were to continue to fulfill their marital vows if married before ordination.  These regulations still stand for most of the Eastern Churches.

Sadly, in the Middle Ages, we find abuses of clerical celibacy, which incited a strong reaction from the Church.  The Synod of Augsburg (952), and the local Councils of Anse (994) and Poitiers (1000) all affirmed the rule of celibacy.  Pope Gregory VII in 1075 forbade married priests or those who had concubines from saying Mass or performing other ecclesiastical functions, and forbade the laity from hearing these Masses or participating in other liturgical functions offered by such priests.  Finally, the First Lateran Council (1123), an ecumenical council of the Church, mandated celibacy for the Western clergy.  The Second Lateran Council (1139) subsequently decreed Holy Orders as an impediment to marriage, making any attempt at marriage by an ordained cleric invalid.  Finally, the regulations concerning celibacy seemed clear and consistent throughout the Catholic Church.

Protestant leaders later ridiculed and attacked the discipline of clerical celibacy.  In response, the Council of Trent in its Doctrine on the Sacrament of Orders (1563) admitted that celibacy was not a divine law, but stipulated that the Church had the authority to impose celibacy as a discipline.  While holding celibacy in high regard, the Church did not diminish the sanctity of marriage or marital love.  Moreover, the Council asserted that celibacy was not impossible to live but at the same time recognized that celibates needed the grace of God to do so.

The Catholic Church has continued to affirm the discipline of clerical celibacy, most recently in the Second Vatican Council’s decree Presbyterorum ordinis (1965), Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (1967), and in the Code of Canon Law (1983).

Given the history of how celibacy came to be required for clergy in the Roman Catholic Church (except in several of the Eastern Rites), we can now examine the spirituality which undergirds the regulation.  The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests (Presbyteroum ordinis) (1965) asserted, “Perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven was recommended by Christ the Lord.  It has been freely accepted and laudably observed by many Christians down through the centuries as well as in our own time, and has always been highly esteemed in a special way by the Church as a feature of priestly life.  For it is at once a sign of pastoral charity and an incentive to it as well as being in a special way a source of spiritual fruitfulness in the world” (#16).  While recognizing that celibacy is not demanded by the very nature of the priesthood, the Council affirmed ways celibacy is in harmony with the priesthood:  Through celibacy, a priest, identifying himself with Christ, dedicates his whole life to the service of his Lord and the church.  Celibacy enables the priest to focus entirely on building up the kingdom of God here and now.  Priests can “cling to Christ with undivided hearts and dedicate themselves more freely in Him and through Him to the service of God and of men” (#16).  They are a sign in this world of the union of the Church to her spouse, Christ, and of the life in the world to come “in which the children of the resurrection shall neither be married nor take wives” (Luke 20:35-367).

Pope Paul VI highlighted these same themes in his encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (1967), which actually was written at a time when some people questioned the need for mandatory celibacy.  The Holy Father pinpointed three “significances” or senses to celibacy:  the Christological, the ecclesiological, and the eschatological.  In the Christological sense, a priest must look to Christ as the ideal, eternal priest.  This identification permeates his whole being. Just as Christ remained celibate and dedicated His life to the service of His Father and all people, a priest accepts celibacy and consecrates himself totally to serve the mission of the Lord.  This total giving and commitment to Christ is a sign of the Kingdom present here and now.

In the ecclesiological sense, just as Christ was totally united to the Church, the priest through his celibacy bonds his life to the Church.  He is better able to be a Minister of the Word of God– listening to that Word, pondering its depth, living it, and preaching it with whole hearted conviction.  He is the Minister of Sacraments, and, especially through the Mass, acts in the person of Christ, offering himself totally to the Lord.  Celibacy allows the priest greater freedom and flexibility in fulfilling his pastoral work:  “[Celibacy] gives to the priest, even in the practical field, the maximum efficiency and the best disposition of mind, psychologically and affectively, for the continuous exercise of a perfect charity.  This charity will permit him to spend himself wholly for the welfare of all, in a fuller and more concrete way” (Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, #32).

Finally, in the eschatological sense, the celibate life foreshadows the freedom we will have in heaven when perfectly united with God as His child.

The Code of Canon Law reflects these three “significances” in Canon 277, which mandates clerical celibacy:  “Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven and therefore are obliged to observe celibacy, which is a special gift of God, by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and can more freely dedicate themselves to the service of God and mankind.”

Throughout the Church’s teaching on celibacy, three important dimensions must be kept in mind:  First, celibacy involves freedom.  A man when called to Holy Orders freely accepts the obligation of celibacy, after prayerful reflection and consideration.  Having made that decision, celibacy does grant the bishop, priest, or deacon the freedom to identify with Christ and to serve Him and the Church without reservation, condition, or hesitation.

Secondly, celibacy involves sacrifice, and a sacrifice is an act of love.  For instance, when a man and a woman, marry, they make a sacrifice to live “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health until death.”  They sacrifice to live a faithful love, no longer dating others or giving into selfish pleasures.  When they become parents, they sacrifice to support the raising of children.  Decisions of love always entail sacrifice.

And so it is with the clergy.  To be a priest means to make a sacrifice of oneself to Christ for the good of His Church.  The priest sacrifices being married to a woman and having his own family to being “wedded” to Christ and His Church and serving their needs as “father.”

Finally, celibacy requires the grace of God to be lived.  Repeatedly, celibacy is seen as a gift of the Holy Spirit.  However, this gift is not just to keep one’s physical desires under control or to live as a bachelor; this gift is being able to say “yes” to our Lord each day and live His life.

Sadly, in our world, many people cannot appreciate the discipline of celibacy, whether for the clergy or anyone else.  We live in a society where the media bombards us with uncontrolled sexual imagery.  If some people cannot appreciate the values of virginity before marriage, fidelity in marriage, or sacrifice for children, they cannot begin to appreciate anyone– man or woman– who lives a celibate lifestyle in dedication to a vocation.  As a Church, we should be thankful to the clergy, and the men and women religious, who have made the total sacrifice of themselves out of love to serve our Lord and the Church.