The Catholic Thing
Celibacy Print E-mail
By Kristina Johannes   
Sunday, 22 June 2014

A common criticism of the Catholic Church’s teachings on sexual morality has to do with the largely unmarried clergy who are charged with preaching the message.  The accepted wisdom is that celibate males have no business telling married couples how to live their lives: “What do they know about the subject?”  

I remember a particularly egregious example. In 1974, Earl Butz, then U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, ridiculed Pope Paul VI’s opposition to contraception, He no playa the game, he no maka the rules.” He later apologized, but in reality he was only saying publicly what many, including many Catholics, were saying privately.

I’ve never understood this. Jesus, God Incarnate, was a celibate male. Why would any Christian assume that a man striving to emulate Christ in the flesh would have nothing to offer about the nature of love?

Christians agree that God is love.  What they don’t agree on is what should be derived from this fact.

I’ve taught natural family planning for almost twenty years and I consider one of the most important elements of this instruction to be what is conveyed about the nature of love. I always hesitate to use an adjective such as “true” to describe a noun such as “love.” It seems inadvertently to give status to any falsehood parading as truth. 

Love is what it is. Everything else is a pretender and should be described with its own noun. Love is not lust; love is not use; love is not convenience. Love is divine, with all that implies.

St. John Paul II’s pontificate emphasized church teaching about love and its incarnational aspects. From 1981 through 1984, he devoted a whole series of audiences to this subject, which he dubbed “The Theology of the Body.”  These talks were later gathered into a book and became the basis of serious theological reflections

Although continence for the sake of the Kingdom was an important aspect of this teaching, the theology on marriage seemed to get the most focus when it was disseminated and discussed.  Celibacy was initially given short shrift, which is unfortunate, because the fact of the matter is, if you don’t understand or appreciate continence for the sake of the Kingdom, you aren’t going to appreciate or understand the nature of the sacrament of marriage. 

          Pope Paul VI and Cardinal Wojtyla, c.1967

A keystone of St. JPII’s teaching in this matter is found in Gaudium et Spes:

Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when He prayed to the Father, that all may be one. . . as we are one (John 17:21-22) opened up vistas closed to human reason, for He implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of Gods sons in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself. [24] 
This section refers the reader (in a footnote) to Luke 17:33, “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it.”

The essence of love is a willingness to give a sincere gift of self. We only love when we act like God.  God the Son showed us what this means by giving such a complete gift of Self that He emptied Himself, as St. Paul tells us, going all the way to the cross. 

Our life of love is a continuum that starts here on earth and is fulfilled in Heaven.   The crucifixion was completed by the resurrection, when love conquered even death.   Celibacy for the kingdom is the eschatological symbol of love and it has much to teach those of us who are married.

In a 1981 audience, reflecting on Christ’s words about the resurrection of the body found in Mt. 22:30, St. JPII wrote:

The reciprocal gift of oneself to God – a gift in which man will concentrate and express all the energies of his own personal and at the same time psychosomatic subjectivity – will be the response to God’s gift of himself by man, a gift which will become completely and definitively beatifying, as a response worthy of a personal subject to God’s gift of Himself, “virginity,” or rather the virginal state of the body, will be totally manifested as the eschatological fulfillment of the “nuptial” meaning of the body, as the specific sign and the authentic expression of all personal subjectivity.  In this way, therefore, that eschatological situation in which “they neither marry nor are given in marriage” has its solid foundation in the future state of the personal subject, when, as a result of the vision of God “face to face,” there will be born in him a love of such depth and power of concentration on God Himself, as to completely absorb his whole psychosomatic subjectivity.

It is the mutual gift of self that is imaged in conjugal love.  Without denigrating the noble vocation of marriage, it can rightly be said that the couple undertaking marriage can find no better guide to understanding the essential nature of the gift of self than the celibate priest who has emptied himself in imitation of Christ. 

Let’s thank our priests for showing us this most radical example of self-gift.

Kristina Johannes is a registered nurse and a certified teacher of natural family planning. She has served as a spokeswoman for the Alaska Family Coalition, which successfully worked for passage of the marriage amendment to the Alaska Constitution.

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (7)Add Comment
written by Jack,CT, June 22, 2014
Amen- (you say it well)
written by Anne, June 22, 2014
Beautifully said. A much needed explanation. Thank you.
written by WSquared, June 22, 2014
written by Paul, June 22, 2014
If you are comparing to Our Lord of course. Those opposed to "mandatory" celibacy are comparing to the Apostles I believe. There is some disagreement but from what I've read almost all of the Apostles were married. And of course we have 1 Timothy 3:2. I've also heard if a married Anglican Priest converted to your Church he could be a RC Priest. Of course there are positives to having a celibate clergy and I believe too many misunderstand the negatives.
written by Gary Lockhart, June 23, 2014
"but from what I've read almost all of the Apostles were married." Paul

An opinion unsupported by Scripture which tells us definitively that of the original 12 only Peter was, at one time, married.

"And of course we have 1 Timothy 3:2." Paul

Which was written by a celibate himself and does not mandate that Timothy ordain only married men as Bishops. Quite the contrary.

"I've also heard if a married Anglican Priest converted to your Church he could be a RC Priest." Paul

Anglican converts ordained under the 1980 Pastoral Provision must agree, prior to ordination, that if their spouse precedes them in death they will then adopt the discipline of celibacy for the remainder of their life. No agreement, no ordination.
written by Paul, June 25, 2014

"Which was written by a celibate himself and does not mandate that Timothy ordain only married men as Bishops. Quite the contrary."


Of course this does not excluded celibate men from being ordained as Bishops. Would you agree this does not exclude married men with one wife from being ordained Bishops? I find this argument would confuse the first Christians who grew up with married Priest's.
written by Kate Prior, June 26, 2014
There is always going to be debate on this subject and I thank Kristina for a beautiful article on the matter. I am married to a Catholic priest (former Anglican) who was ordained in 1997 and who has served in a parish since 1998 and Gary Lockhart is quite right about the pastoral provision agreement. As a committed Catholic, I believe the key lies in ‘How does the Church speak?’ St JP II, at the time of our conversion, asked the Bishops of England and Wales to be generous and pastoral provision was intact for these married men. However, the celibate priest, the married priest, the priest religious all have unique individual characteristics to their call but the underlying focus is; how does the Church speak in relation to that call. When any of these priests offer themselves in humble self emptying in accordance to the will of God and in obedience to the teachings of the Church we truly catch a glimpse of heaven on earth.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


Other Articles By This Author