Prof. Michael F. Hull
Celibacy, the unmarried state elected in light of the Catholic faith, is the Church’s norm for her sacred priesthood. The priest, "chosen from among men to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins" (Heb 5:1), promises celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of God. The Church’s understanding of the magnitude of priestly celibacy has developed gradually and matured from the Lord’s own witness as a celibate and His commendation of celibacy in the Gospels—through Saint Paul’s 1 Corinthians 7, Pope Saint Leo I, Pope Saint Gregory I, Lateran I, and numerous other "moments" in Church history—to our own day under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Observed with rare exception in the West by priests and by all bishops, celibacy is also observed by some priests and all bishops in the East. In recent times, the Church has proclaimed vigilantly the importance of celibacy, for example, in Pius XII’s Sacra Virginitas, Vatican II’s Presbyterorum Ordinis, Paul VI’s Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, John Paul II’s, Letter to Priests on Holy Thursday (1979), and the Congregation for the Clergy’s Directory for Ministry and Life of Priests.
Priestly celibacy is an invaluable witness to the kingdom of God: "Truly, I say to you, there is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life" (Luke 18:29–30; cf. Mark 10:27–30). In imitation of the Lord, the priest promises to live solely for his sacred apostolate, in the hope of being one of those "who follows the Lamb wherever he goes" (Rev 14:4). Priestly celibacy allows not only for imitation of the Lord but also for personal sacrifice and sanctification. "For this reason," Pius XII writes, "the Church has most wisely held that the celibacy of her priests must be retained; she knows it is and will be a source of spiritual graces by which they will be ever most closely united with God" (SV, n. 40).
The unique status of the priest as the alter Christus among men demands of him a distinctive pursuit of Christian perfection in the mystici corporis Christi. Intimately and extraordinarily configured to Jesus Christ the High Priest by his sacred ordination, it is the priest who sanctifies (munus sanctificandi), teaches (munus docendi), and governs (munus regendi) in His name. Just as the world finds difficulty in comprehending the Messiah, who "was led like a lamb that is led to the slaughter" (Isa 53:7), so the world finds difficulty in comprehending men who are only "anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit" (1 Cor 7:34). Celibacy gives testimony, both for those who live it and those who see it lived, to the life hereafter. "For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven" (Matt 22:30; cf. Mark 12:25).
To be sure, "not all men can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given" by God (Matt 19:11). Priestly celibacy is a gift concomitant with the vocation of the priest, the call from God, the invitation to love not only exceptionally but exclusively. In the response of total dedication and love to Christ and His Church, the priest is guaranteed the graces necessary for his life and work. Unfortunately in a world darkened by original sin and the consequences thereof, celibacy is too often thought of as unnatural when, in fact, it is supernatural. In many parts of the world, a period of decline in priestly vocations, which is simultaneous with consumerism, materialism, and sexual licentiousness, seemingly indicates celibacy’s ineffectualness. But the polar opposite is true: "where there is sin, grace abounds all the more" (Rom 5:20). Now, perhaps more than ever, the world is in need of the Lord and the witness of priestly celibacy. "He who is able to receive this, let him receive it" (Matt 19:12).