Responding to Objections to Priestly Celibacy
April 28, 2006
Michael F. Hull
Responding to objections to priestly celibacy is not easy. As Pope Paul VI pointed out in Sacerdotalis caelibatus (June 24, 1967), the din of objections would seem to drown out the voice of the Church’s long-standing wisdom in this matter, “but no, this voice, still strong and untroubled, is the voice not just of the past but of the present too” (no. 13). The world needs the example of celibacy now more than ever because it is a sign of dedication to the Lord above all.
The Church is the first to admit that celibacy is not for everyone, following the dictate of the Lord that it is rare and embraced only “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19:12). In the West, the Church asks celibacy only of its priests and bishops; in the East, the Church asks celibacy only of its bishops. Celibacy marks their lives for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, wherein they “neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matt 22:30; cf. Mark 12:25 and Luke 20:34–36).
Responding to objections to priestly celibacy in a neo-pagan world that is supersaturated with immorality and pornography is not easy. The secular media and entertainment industry exploit God’s gift of sexuality for their own profit. Reductionist views of human nature in the so-called “social sciences,” preclude any understanding of man that does not relegate him to little more than a slave of his passions (see Pius XII, Sacra virginitas [March 25, 1954]). The advance of a radical libertarianism in politics stultifies governmental responsibility to prescribe certain virtues and proscribe certain vices for the common good (see St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I-II, q. 96). All in all, a secular cacophony shrieks again and again that celibacy is unwarranted, distorted, or inconsequential.
The Church can only respond by citing the example of the Lord and the great graces that flow from celibacy not only to individuals but also to the common good. The Lord voluntarily chose celibacy in order to facilitate his mission, just as he asks celibacy of a special few: “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 10:29–30). The great graces received by countless saints from Paul of Tarsus to Josemaría Escrivá are unbounded. In fact, St. Paul recommends that the Corinthians be celibate as he is and notes the distractions marriage may bring (1 Cor 7:7 and 7:32–34).
While it may be objected that celibacy is too great a burden on the clergy, especially with the widespread publicity of failings on their part, the Church has never denied the difficulty of the celibate life. In fact, the sacrifice entailed in celibacy is challenging; but, then again, Christian discipleship is also demanding: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24; cf. Mark 8:34 and Luke 9:23).
In responding to objections about celibacy, we must point out that celibacy today is “a voice crying out in the wilderness” (Isa 40:3; Matt 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4; and John 1:23), a witness that is vital to our world, a witness to the Lord Jesus. Celibacy is a profound reminder that there are still some who seek to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Rev 14:4).