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The Church Is Committed to Priestly Celibacy

General Audience — July 14, 1993

In the Gospels, when Jesus called his first apostles to make them "fishers of men" (cf. Mt 4:19; Mk 1:17; Lk 5:10), they "left everything and followed him" (Lk 5:11; cf. Mt 4:20, 22; Mk 1:18, 20). One day Peter remembered this aspect of the apostolic vocation and said to Jesus: "We have given up everything and followed you" (Mt 19:27; Mk 10:28; cf. Lk 18:28). Jesus then listed all the necessary detachments "for my sake," and "for the sake of the Gospel" (Mk 10:29). This did not only mean renouncing material possessions, such as "house" or "lands," but also being separated from loved ones: "brothers or sisters or mother or father or children," according to Matthew and Mark, and "wife or brothers or parents or children," according to Luke (18:29).

Here we note the difference in vocations. Jesus did not demand this radical renunciation of family life from all his disciples, although he did require the first place in their hearts when he said: "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me" (Mt 10:37). The demand for practical renunciation is proper to the apostolic life or the life of special consecration. Called by Jesus, "James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John" left not only the boat on which they were "mending their nets," but also their father who was with them (Mt 4:22; cf. Mk 1:20).

These observations help us understand the reason for the Church's legislation on priestly celibacy. In fact, the Church has considered and still considers that it belongs to the logic of priestly consecration and to the total belonging to Christ resulting from it, in order to fulfill consciously his mandate of evangelization and the spiritual life.

Indeed, in the Gospel according to Matthew, shortly before the passage cited above about leaving loved ones, Jesus expressed in strong Semitic language another renunciation required "for the sake of the Gospel," that is, the renunciation of marriage. "Some have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 19:12). They are committed to celibacy, that is, in order to put themselves entirely at the service of the "Gospel of the kingdom" (cf. Mt 4:23; 9:35; 24:34).

In First Corinthians, the Apostle Paul states that he had resolved to take this path and shows the coherence of his own decision, declaring: "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). It is certainly inappropriate for someone to be "divided," who, like the priest, has been called to be concerned about the things of the Lord. As the Council says, the commitment of celibacy, stemming from a tradition linked to Christ, "is held by the Church to be of great value in a special manner for the priestly life. It is at the same time a sign and a stimulus for pastoral charity and a special source of spiritual fecundity in the world" (PO 16).

It is quite true that in the Eastern Churches many presbyters are legitimately married in accordance with their own canon law. Even in those churches, however, bishops are celibate, as are a number of priests. The difference in discipline, related to conditions of time and place evaluated by the Church, is explained by the fact that perfect continence, as the Council says, "is not demanded by the very nature of the priesthood" (PO 16). It does not belong to the essence of the priesthood as Holy Orders, and thus is not imposed in an absolute way in all the churches. Nevertheless, there is no doubt about its suitability and indeed its appropriateness to the demands of Sacred Orders. As was said, it belongs to the logic of consecration.

Jesus is the concrete ideal of this form of consecrated life, an example for everyone, but especially for priests. He lived as a celibate, and for this reason he could devote all his energy to preaching the kingdom of God and to serving people, with a heart open to all humanity, as the founder of a new spiritual family. His choice was truly "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" (cf. Mt 19:12).

By his example Jesus gave an orientation that was followed. According to the Gospels, it appears that the Twelve, destined to be the first to share in his priesthood, renounced family life in order to follow him. The Gospels never speak of wives or children in regard to the Twelve, although they tell us that Peter was a married man before he was called by Jesus (cf. Mt 8:14; Mk 1:30; Lk 4:38).

Jesus did not promulgate a law, but proposed the ideal of celibacy for the new priesthood he was instituting. This ideal was increasingly asserted in the Church. One can understand that in the first phase of Christianity's spread and development a large number of priests were married men, chosen and ordained in the wake of Jewish tradition. We know that in the Letters to Timothy (1 Tim 3:2-3) and to Titus (1:6), one of the qualities required of the men chosen as presbyters is that they be good fathers of families, married only once (that is, faithful to their wives). This was a phase in the Church's process of being organized, and, one could say, of testing which discipline of the states of life best corresponds to the ideal and the "counsels" taught by the Lord.

On the basis of experience and reflection the discipline of celibacy gradually spread to the point of becoming the general practice in the Western Church as a result of canonical legislation. It was not merely the consequence of a juridical and disciplinary fact. It was the growth of the Church's realization of the appropriateness of priestly celibacy not only for historical and practical reasons, but also for those arising from an ever better awareness of the congruence of celibacy and the demands of the priesthood.

The Second Vatican Council gave the reasons for this "inner consonance" of celibacy and the priesthood: "Through virginity, then, or celibacy observed for the kingdom of heaven, priests are consecrated to Christ by a new and exceptional reason. They adhere to him more easily with an undivided heart; they dedicate themselves more freely in him and through him to the service of God and men, and they more expeditiously minister to his kingdom and the work of heavenly regeneration, and thus they are apt to accept, in a broad sense, paternity in Christ." They "evoke the mysterious marriage established by Christ, and fully to be manifested in the future, in which the Church has Christ as her only spouse. They give, moreover, a living sign of the world to come, by a faith and charity already made present, in which the children of the resurrection neither marry nor take wives" (PO 16; cf. PDV 29, 50; CCC 1579).

These lofty, noble spiritual reasons can be summarized in the following essential point: a more complete adherence to Christ, loved and served with an undivided heart (cf. 1 Cor 7:32-33); greater availability to serve Christ's kingdom and to carry out their own tasks in the Church; the most exclusive choice of a spiritual fruitfulness (cf. 1 Cor 4:15); leading a life more like that definitive one in the world to come, and therefore, more exemplary for life here below. This is a valid reason for all times, including our own, and is the supreme criterion of every judgment and every choice in harmony with Jesus' invitation to the disciples and especially to the apostles to "leave everything." For this reason the 1971 Synod of Bishops confirmed: "The law of priestly celibacy existing in the Latin Church is to be kept in its entirety" (Ench. Vat., IV, 1219).

Today the practice of celibacy faces obstacles, sometimes grave ones, in the subjective and objective conditions in which priests happen to live. The Synod of Bishops considered them, but held that even today's difficulties can be overcome if "suitable conditions are fostered, namely: growth of the interior life through prayer, renunciation and fervent love for God and one's neighbor and by other aids to the spiritual life; human balance through well-ordered integration into the fabric of social relationships; fraternal association and companionship with other priests and with the bishop, through pastoral structures better suited to this purpose and with the assistance also of the community of the faithful" (Ench. Vat., IV, 1216).

This is a challenge that the Church makes to the mentality, tendencies and charms of the world, with an ever new desire for consistency with and fidelity to the gospel ideal. Therefore, although the Supreme Pontiff can consider and decide what is to be done in certain cases, the Synod reaffirmed that in the Latin Church, "The priestly ordination of married men is not permitted, even in particular cases" (Ench. Vat., IV, 1220). The Church holds that the awareness of total consecration, developed over centuries, continues to hold good and to be increasingly improved.

The Church also knows and reminds presbyters and all the faithful with the Council that "this gift of the Spirit so fitting for the priesthood of the New Testament, [is] freely given by the Father, provided that those who participate in the priesthood of Christ through the sacrament of Orders--and also the whole Church--humbly and fervently pray for it" (PO 16).

Perhaps, however, and even first, it is necessary to ask for the grace of understanding priestly celibacy, which doubtless includes a certain mystery--that of asking for boldness and trust in the absolute attachment to the person and redeeming work of Christ, with a radical renunciation that can seem confusing to human eyes. In suggesting it, Jesus himself observed that not everyone can understand it (cf. Mt 19:10-12). Blessed are they who receive the grace to understand it and remain faithful on this journey!