By Father Patrick J. Brady
Third in a series that explains the priesthood during the Church’s Year of the Priest.
Mention priestly celibacy and you can quickly find yourself involved in a passionate debate – a debate often surrounded by a lot of misinformation.
Today, celibacy is generally understood as a prohibition against marriage. However, historically, clerical celibacy included a broader practice of permanent continence – married men who were ordained were required to permanently abstain from marital intercourse.
The oldest known regulations for priestly continence arose in the fourth century. The regional bishops and popes expressed the need for implementing these regulations, not because they were offering a new discipline but because of the failure of the ordained to follow the tradition of continence rooted in the Apostles and the Scriptures. The discipline of a celibate priesthood (in the sense of unmarried) became the norm after the Council of Trent, with the establishment of seminaries, because of the difficult issues surrounding marital continence.
The Eastern Churches at the Synod of Trullo (691) allowed marriage prior to ordination (despite the practice in the West). The Synod held that a candidate could be married only once and could not marry after ordination; bishops could not cohabitate with their wives after ordination. Priests, deacons and sub-deacons could live with their spouses. However, when they served at the altar, they were required to live a period of continence (usually 24 hours) before serving.
Though Rome recognizes the Eastern practice and the validity of married clergy, nevertheless, she continues to teach that celibacy, while not essential to priesthood, is inherently linked to it. This inherent link arises not simply from the biblical support of celibacy “for the sake of the kingdom” (Matt. 19:12; 1 Cor. 7:32) but because of its understanding of the ministerial priesthood rooted in the one priesthood of Christ.
Christ, the High Priest, is the irreplaceable source and model for authentic priesthood. Inspaniduals derive their priestly identity through a specific participation in and communion with Christ. The High Priest completely offers himself for his Church. Priestly celibacy – properly lived – participates in this complete offering for the Church.
Pope John Paul II asserts: “The Church’s law on celibacy […] finds its ultimate motivation in the link between celibacy and sacred ordination, which configures the priest to Jesus Christ the head and spouse of the Church. The Church as spouse of Jesus Christ wishes to be loved by the priest in the total and exclusive manner in which Christ her head and spouse loved her.” St. Paul expresses something similar when he states that those called possess the virtue of an unspanided heart (literally, a “one woman man”; 1 Tim. 3:2, 12; Tit. 1:6).
Historically, whenever the weaknesses of priests caused suffering for the people of God, the Church did not attempt to resolve the suffering by lifting the discipline of celibacy, but rather urged her priests to recommit themselves to celibacy. The Church’s vision calls for priests to be more like Christ and not less. This year offers the opportunity for priests to deepen their awareness that faithful celibacy participates in the faithful love of the High Priest for His Church. Likewise, this year calls the Church to support and return that sacrificial love.
Father Brady is the Chair of the Department of Sacred Scripture at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood.