Although the early Church allowed married clergy, the Church later came to see celibacy as a better example of the norm and model of Jesus’ priesthood.
In referring to celibacy, St. Paul says: “Indeed, I wish everyone to be as I am, but each has a particular gift from God . . .Now to the unmarried and to widows I say: it is a good thing for them to remain as they are, as I do” (1 Cor. 7:7-8). He goes on to say: “An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided” (1 Cor. 7:32-34).
Jesus said: “And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life” (Mt. 19:29).
Celibacy is a discipline, not a dogma. This means that the Church could change the rule. In fact, there are a few instances when the Church has allowed married clergy, such as with some Eastern rite clergy and in the case of some Protestant ministers who converted to the Faith. These, however, are the exception.
It is unlikely that the Church will change this teaching at all, or any time soon, because of the many positive and practical benefits of celibacy. Here are 10 reasons why a celibate clergy makes good sense:
- It leaves the priest free to more fully commit his life to the service of the Lord and the laity.
- The Church has found it is better to keep priests moving from parish to parish every few years, perhaps for a few reasons, including the desire to prevent a cult of personality from building around a particular priest. This situation can put too much focus on the man rather than on the Gospel message. So, the Church prudently moves priests around. Can you imagine how much stress it would cause a priest to have to move his wife and family each time he is assigned to a new parish? Having a celibate priesthood also enables the bishop the full flexibility he needs to move priests around.
- To be able to lay his life down for his flock. Because a celibate priest does not have the obligation of a wife and children, he can give of himself more easily, including his own life, if necessary. For example, Blessed Damien de Veuster of Belgium was able to work with lepers on the island of Molokai, Hawaii, because of the freedom he had in being a celibate minister. This work eventually led to his contracting and dying from leprosy.
- It is a sign of contradiction and a great Christian witness to our society, which is flooded with sexually permissive messages. Celibacy surely gains the Catholic clergy a hidden respect from many people.
- It gives the priest greater credibility when he asks the laity to make sacrifices, because the laity knows that celibacy involves sacrifice.
- It helps the priest master his passions and also gives him more time for prayer, which is the lifeblood of any ministry.
- It enables a priest to be more objective when counseling married couples. Because he is not married, he is not going to project any personal marriage problems or biases onto the the couple he is counseling.
- In many cases it enables the priest to be a “spiritual father” to more people than he would as a married man (1 Cor. 4:15).
- It allows the Church to put the hundreds of millions of dollars it saves in priestly salaries to the evangelization and charitable assistance of a needy world. Although priests do receive salaries, they are much lower than they would have to be if they had families to support.
- It’s a foreshadowing that there will be no marriage in heaven (Mt. 22:30).
No one is required to live a permanently celibate life (Mt. 19:12). The Church says that people are free to marry. In fact, the Church glorifies the married state. Only if one wants to become a priest, brother, or religious sister does he or she have to live a celibate life. The religious life, and the requirements that come with it, do not have to be chosen by anyone. However, when it is chosen, it needs to be followed in the manner our Lord and His Church requires. Sure, celibacy can be difficult, especially in this sexually permissive age. But if a priest has good seminary formation that strongly supports celibacy and if he stays close to our Lord in prayer, he will be able to turn this sacrifice into a wonderful aid to his work.