We have explored the sacrament of holy orders as a gift of Jesus Christ to His Church. Through the ministry of the ordained, the saving works of Jesus are made available to the world in the Church’s sacraments. Those who receive holy orders are called to serve through a sharing in the ministerial priesthood of Jesus Christ, being conformed onto Him through ordination to become “other Christs” who are “to serve and not be served.” Why must those who receive this sacrament be celibate men? What difference does being male and not being married really make? We explore these two elements of those who receive holy orders in the next two installments, beginning first with the question of celibacy.
The presence of celibate clergy has become an unfortunate hot-bottom in our times if for no other reason than how its implications and benefits are often misunderstood. While the ancient history of celibacy among clerics in the Catholic Church is somewhat difficult to trace, what is clear is that Jesus Himself lived such a celibate life in the human nature – as He came as the bridegroom of the Church. In Matthew 19:22, Jesus makes a statement that is clear (and also astonishing to his immediate listeners) that there are true celibates, saying: “some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” are incapable of marriage. This idea of renouncing of marriage “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” is at the heart of the celibate vocation. In addition, we can note Jesus’ words later in Matthew that in His eternal kingdom human beings “neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels” (Matthew 22:30) – pointing to our nature in heaven as being one of eternal union and communion in the Trinity – which the married life in this world symbolizes and which celibate life in this world anticipates. These truths of Jesus’ own life and of celibacy as an anticipation of eternal life that inform the practice of celibacy.
Still, there are other significances to the discipline of celibacy that are worthy of reflection. One is that when it comes to the nature of ordained life itself, those who receive ordination are accepting a call to fully give themselves in imitation of Christ to the bride, which is the Church, being conformed onto way of life that is in Christ himself. In a particular way, a bishop as the fullness of the manifestation of Christ in the local church (what we call a “diocese” or “archdiocese”) is meant to be fully devoted to the flock through his life, preaching, sanctifying, and pastoral governance – and this is signified by his wearing of a ring that is placed on this hand during his ordination as a bishop. Practically this total gift of self (which parallels the gift that husband and wife make to each other) makes the ordained fully available and ready to serve their “spouse,” the Church. That pragmatic concerns over fewer priests have clouded these truths is unfortunate – as such pragmatism risks reducing priesthood to a “function” rather than seeing it as it really is: a way of life lived in Christ and His Church for the good of the Church.
More could be said on celibacy, its meaning, and its value. Due to space, what is worth emphasis is what is contained above: that professed celibacy forms in those who are ordained a way of life that imitates Christ to readily and fully give of themself to the Church.
For further reading: A short and excellent new book on the topic of celibacy that gives a defense of the discipline of celibacy of clergy in our times, is the book From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy and the Crisis of the Catholic Church, co-authored by Robert Cardinal Sarah and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (Translated by Michael J. Miller. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2020).