In response to the sexual scandals among the clergy, Professor David Carlin has proposed opening the priesthood to married men. Though understandable, I believe his proposal is misguided. In fact, I think it would be a calamity. Priestly celibacy is needed today more than ever.
Celibacy is a gift of inestimable value to the Church and to the world at large, the jewel in the crown of the Latin Church. Celibacy has been valued by the Church from her very beginnings as a way of life that is especially conducive to contemplation and a heart undivided in its love for the Lord, as St. Paul writes to the Corinthians.
Through his celibacy, a priest is conformed uniquely to Jesus, our celibate High Priest. The priest’s heart is dilated to receive and care for others in spiritual fatherhood. He is more fitted to embrace his spouse, the Church, in imitation of Jesus the Bridegroom. It is a sign, as well, of the kingdom to come and a visible, living reminder that we will never find complete fulfillment in this life.
It is the parish priest, not the enclosed monk, with whom our people regularly interact; if they do not receive these blessings from him, they will, in general, not receive them at all. These priceless spiritual treasures would be lost or greatly diminished were the requirement for celibacy to be dropped.
Less frequently considered, I believe, are other, cultural treasures of celibacy that we would forfeit. This cultural witness is particularly needed today in the devastating wake of the sexual revolution which, through permissive divorce laws, the prevalence of contraception and extramarital sexual relations, legalization of abortion, and the epidemic of internet pornography, has taken an enormous toll on our social fabric and damaged countless families and individual lives, especially the most vulnerable – the unborn, young children, and adolescents.
Standing athwart the relentless advance of this permissive ideology – which I believe explains its fascination among secular reporters – is priestly celibacy. In its way of living sexual maturity as a positive choice of love apart from sexual relations, it offers an important counterbalance to the false sexual wisdom of our time.
Far from sanctioning a kind of contented bachelorhood, intentional celibacy for the Kingdom is a reminder that true love is found not primarily in sexual activity but in the life of charity, which unites us to God and to one another and which alone satisfies our common yearning for love. Indeed, it is only in the context of charity that genuine sexual fulfillment can be found.
Celibacy shows men and women, regardless of their vocation, that the sexual drive can and must be directed to true human flourishing. It reveals to the world how to release love from the shackles of sexual idolatry and points the way to a life that corrects the exaggerations of the sexual revolution and gradually heals its wounds.
To those who are unmarried, including those who for a variety of reasons will never marry – reasons which seem to be ever more common today – celibate men and women show that an unmarried life can nevertheless be meaningful, joyful, and healthy. Even for those who are married, there will be seasons when it is advisable or even necessary to abstain from sexual activity.
Married couples may prayerfully discern that they are to abstain periodically in Natural Family Planning with a goal to spacing out births. Or it may be that couples are physically separated for a time by professional demands or the exigencies of war. Some couples may decide, as St. Paul taught, to refrain from sexual activity for a period to devote themselves more fully to prayer. It is well-lived celibacy that most powerfully demonstrates the wisdom and the feasibility of living the demands of chastity in these and similar circumstances.
Finally, marriage is reminded of its own nobility in the choice made by the celibate priest; the very dignity of marriage is what renders it a worthy sacrifice. At the same time, marriage is reminded of its limits when it is placed in false competition with higher goods, when it is subjected to unhealthy and unrealistic expectations that can never be met by any human relationship.
Forgetting its relative value, that it is a means and not an end, that it is a vocation and not a right, has led to much of the current confusion regarding marriage. On the one hand, marriage seems to be considered the highest good of life and one impossible to justly withhold from anyone. On the other hand, this fixation on marriage is contradicted by a comparatively low estimation of the permanence of marriage, of its essential ordering to the generation of children, and of its foundational importance for social cohesion and cultural formation.
The priest who embraces celibacy for the Kingdom offers clarity in the midst of confusion through a living testimony to both the dignity and beauty of marriage as well as its relative value compared to higher goods.
Eliminating the celibacy requirement for priests is not the right way to address sexual transgressions among the clergy. Good selection and screening of capable, healthy, and spiritually serious candidates for the seminary and solid, integrated, and demanding formation: this is how to address Professor Carlin’s laudable concerns.
Otherwise, were we to lose the treasure of celibacy, we would find that we had done little to renew the priesthood and the Church, and done much to diminish her impact and witness in our post-sexual-revolutionary culture by eliminating the incomparable witness of parish priests who have embraced celibacy “for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.”
*Image: “Holy Orders” from The Catholic Altar Boy, 1922