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The Spirituality of Celibacy
FR. WILLIAM SAUNDERS
Last week, we traced the historical development of how celibacy came to be required for clergy in the Roman Catholic Church (except in several of the Eastern Rite Churches). This week we will now examine the spirituality which undergirds the regulation.
The Second Vatican Council's Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests (Presbyterorum ordinis) (1965) asserted, "Perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven was recommended by Christ the Lord. It has been freely accepted and laudably observed by many Christians down through the centuries as well as in our own time, and has always been highly esteemed in a special way by the Church as a feature of priestly life. For it is at once a sign of pastoral charity and an incentive to it as well as being in a special way a source of spiritual fruitfulness in the world" (No. 16). While recognizing that celibacy is not demanded by the very nature of the priesthood, the Council affirmed ways celibacy is in harmony with the priesthood: Through celibacy, a priest, identifying himself with Christ, dedicates his whole life to the service of his Lord and the church. Celibacy enables the priest to focus entirely on building up the kingdom of God here and now. Priests can "cling to Christ with undivided hearts and dedicate themselves more freely in Him and through Him to the service of God and of men" (No. 16). They are a sign in this world of the union of the Church to her spouse, Christ, and of the life in the world to come "in which the children of the resurrection shall neither be married nor take wives" (Lk 20:35-367).
Pope Paul VI highlighted these same themes in his encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (1967), which actually was written at a time when some people questioned the need for mandatory celibacy. The Holy Father pinpointed three "significances" or senses to celibacy: the Christological, the ecclesiological, and the eschatological. In the Christological sense, a priest must look to Christ as the ideal, eternal priest. This identification permeates his whole being. Just as Christ remained celibate and dedicated His life to the service of His Father and all people, a priest accepts celibacy and consecrates himself totally to serve the mission of the Lord. This total giving and commitment to Christ is a sign of the Kingdom present here and now.
In the ecclesiological sense, just as Christ was totally united to the Church, the priest through his celibacy bonds his life to the Church. He is better able to be a Minister of the Word of God — listening to that Word, pondering its depth, living it, and preaching it with whole hearted conviction. He is the Minister of Sacraments, and, especially through the Mass, acts in the person of Christ, offering himself totally to the Lord. Celibacy allows the priest greater freedom and flexibility in fulfilling his pastoral work: "[Celibacy] gives to the priest, even in the practical field, the maximum efficiency and the best disposition of mind, psychologically and affectively, for the continuous exercise of a perfect charity. This charity will permit him to spend himself wholly for the welfare of all, in a fuller and more concrete way" (Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, No. 32).
Finally, in the eschatological sense, the celibate life foreshadows a freedom a person will have in Heaven when perfectly united with God as His child.
The Code of Canon Law reflects these three "significances" in Canon 277, which mandates clerical celibacy: "Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven and therefore are obliged to observe celibacy, which is a special gift of God, by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and can more freely dedicate themselves to the service of God and mankind."
Throughout the Church's teaching on celibacy, three important dimensions must be kept in mind: First, celibacy involves freedom. A man when called to Holy Orders freely accepts the obligation of celibacy, after prayerful reflection and consideration. Having made that decision, celibacy does grant the bishop, priest, or deacon the freedom to identify with Christ and to serve Him and the Church without reservation, condition, or hesitation. In reality, the priest is not torn between duties to his parish and duties to his family.
Secondly, celibacy involves sacrifice, and a sacrifice is an act of love. For instance, when a man and a woman, marry, they make a sacrifice to live "in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health until death." They sacrifice to live a faithful love, no longer dating others or giving into selfish pleasures. When they become parents, they sacrifice to support the raising of children. Decisions of love always entail sacrifice.
Our Holy Father has repeatedly defended the discipline of celibacy, calling it a "gift of the Spirit." In his Holy Thursday letter to priests in 1979 (No. 8), written at the beginning of his pontificate when some speculated he may change the discipline, he asserted, "...Celibacy ‘for the sake of the kingdom’ is not only an eschatological sign; it also has a great social meaning, in the present life, for the service of the People of God. Through his celibacy, the priest becomes the man ‘for others,’ in a different way from the man, who by binding himself in conjugal union with a woman, also becomes, as husband and father, a man ‘for others,’ especially in the radius of his own family: for his wife and, together, with her, for the children, to whom he gives life. The priest, by renouncing this fatherhood proper to married men, seeks another fatherhood and, as it were, even another motherhood, recalling the words of the Apostle about the children whom he begets in suffering." Emphasizing the call of the priest to serve the People of God, the Holy Father added, ‘The heart of the priest, in order that it may be available for this service, must be free. Celibacy is a sign of a freedom that exists for the sake of service" (No. 8).
And so it is with the clergy. To be a priest means to make a sacrifice of oneself to Christ for the good of His Church. The priest sacrifices being married to a woman and having his own family to being "wedded" to Christ and His Church and serving their needs as "father."
Finally, celibacy requires the grace of God to be lived. Repeatedly, celibacy is seen as a gift of the Holy Spirit. However, this gift is not just to keep one's physical desires under control or to live as a bachelor; this gift is being able to say "yes" to our Lord each day and live His life.
In sum, our Holy Father in his Message to the Parish Priests of Rome (February 26, 2004) said, "... It is precisely in celibacy, joyfully welcomed and protected that we in turn are called to live the truth about love in a way that is different though just as full, giving ourselves totally with Christ to God, to the Church, and to our brothers and sisters in humanity."
Sadly, in our world, many people cannot appreciate the discipline of celibacy, whether for the clergy or anyone else. We live in a society where the media bombards us with uncontrolled sexual imagery. If some people cannot appreciate the values of virginity before marriage, fidelity in marriage, or sacrifice for children, they cannot begin to appreciate anyone — man or woman — who lives a celibate lifestyle in dedication to a vocation.
In the midst of the present scandal in the Church where some priests have violated their vows of celibacy and have harmed children, some individuals have proposed that a married clergy would reduce if not eliminate the occurrence of such acts. Actually, the majority of cases involving child abuse (incest, pedophilia, etc.) occur within a home among relatives. A person suffering from such a sickness is not going to change because he no longer has to be celibate. Moreover, if the Church did change the celibacy requirement, then the next scandal for the press to focus on might be adultery or divorce among the clergy. Changing the requirement is no panacea to the problem.
Nevertheless, as a Church, we should be thankful to the clergy, and the men and women religious, who have made the total sacrifice of themselves out of love to serve our Lord and the Church. Sadly, the media seldom highlights the good work performed by so many dedicated clergy, and men and women religious.
See the first article in this series, "Celibacy in the Priesthood".
Saunders, Rev. William. "The Spirituality of Celibacy." Arlington Catholic Herald.
This article is reprinted with permission from Arlington Catholic Herald.
Father William Saunders is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College and pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Sterling, Virginia. The above article is a "Straight Answers" column he wrote for the Arlington Catholic Herald. Father Saunders is also the author of Straight Answers, a book based on 100 of his columns and published by Cathedral Press in Baltimore.
Copyright © 2004 Arlington Catholic Herald