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The theological basis for priestly celibacy


Max Thurian



Christ never married. His life is valid justification for the vocation to celibacy. Jesus Christ calls the laws of creation and of nature into question; he calls into question the law of the Old Covenant which sought to re-establish order in creation and in nature which had been disturbed by sin.


He does not, of course, abolish the order of creation, the laws of nature and the law of Moses but completes them all, conferring on these laws their deep, original meaning, a demanding, absolute sign, i.e., the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount. That description of life in the kingdom, unrealizable on earth, is, you might say, a summons to perfection. We must stretch out to what we can only realize at the end, in life eternal. From time to time we hear ourselves called and condemned by Christ’s absolute proposition, and this inspires us with real humility, with a sense of our own deep wretchedness and an ardent yearning for Jesus Christ’s return. This absolute leads to a morality of rupture and sacrifice. It is not possible to order life by means of the law and to canalize the passions by moral precept. As followers of Christ, we must aim for that pure love which renounces life. «You have heard that it was said: ‘You shall not commit adultery’. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart» (Mt 5:27-28). Who can escape adultery down in the depths of his heart? The law has become an absolute, at the same time attracting us and judging us. No one who wants to obey Christ can go on wanting this world and the order of creation and the natural order to last for ever; we look forward to the end: «Come, Lord Jesus». In waiting for this return, we must not lapse into discouragement and despair. With the help of the Holy Spirit and in vigilant perseverance sustained by prayer and self-discipline, we can indeed win victories. We shall seek our strength in Christ and accept that we have to make breaks with the world. Immediately after extending adultery to the most secret desires of the heart, Jesus goes on as follows: «If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell...» (Mt 5:29-30). Waiting for Christ to return and make us holy, we have to live in the world and, to give significance to this waiting and make it something real, we ought to accept sacrifice in our lives.



The offering of priestly celibacy


Celibacy is one of those signs that reminds us of Christ’s absolute demands, of his liberating return, of the economy of the kingdom of heaven, of the need to be vigilant, to break with the world, with the flesh, with lust, and, with joy in our hearts, to accept renunciation of the passions for pure love of Jesus. Celibacy reminds us that marriage in Christ also entails sacrificial demands: complete and lifelong faithfulness (monogamy and indissolubility), and purity of heart (adultery is not merely physical). Celibacy is one way of obeying Christ’s invitation: «If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it» (Mt 16:24-25).


Observing celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven does not mean being any the less a man; by renouncing a natural form of existence, the priest discovers life in all its fullness. Christ was certainly no less of a man because he did not have affections other than those for his brethren, and a bride other than the Church.


In talking about the vocation to voluntary celibacy, Jesus must have been thinking initially about himself, possibly too about John the Baptist who had preceded him along that road, with his own life thus inaugurating the new order preached by the Messiah. This new order expressed by the celibate lives of John the Baptist and Jesus tells us we need to be in the world without being of the world, «for time is short... let those who deal with the world live as though they had no dealings with it... For the form of this world is passing away» (1 Cor 7:29-31). In what Jesus says about celibacy (cf Mt 19:12), he points out that, in the Christian community, besides the use of natural good things, there is renunciation of them. The order of creation is affirmed by the gospel, but can even so be negated for the sake of the kingdom of God, the new order which is superimposed on the old order of creation.1


Hence the use of celibacy, the renunciation of the old order of creation for the new order of the kingdom of heaven, stands in the perspective of the deep demands made by the gospel, «for in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven» (Mt 22:30). By celibacy, Jesus — and John the Baptist before him — manifested the ushering in of this new order. «Should we be surprised», Karl Barth writes, «that among the followers of Jesus, then later in the primitive Church, and later still, there were, as it seems, certain men who thought fit to practise this other possibility (this second vocation known as celibacy), men for whom entering to form a part of the Church and living therein, definitely took the place of conjugal union and married life: not out of hostility to marriage understood in the sense of the Letter to the Ephesians 5:31 — marriage restored to all its dignity — but rather because of that reassessment of marriage, and directly inspired by Jesus’s own example?»2


So, «directly inspired by Jesus’s own example», certain Christians, men and women, in obedience to a divine vocation and also to take advantage of a promise, renounce marriage despite the order of creation faithfully observed by Israel. In the new order of the Last Days, in which we live, God sets certain signs of the kingdom of heaven in his Church, of which celibacy is one. At the beginning of the first Christian century, St Ignatius of Antioch bears witness to the existence of men and women who choose this path «for the honour of God». He writes to Polycarp: «Tell my sisters to love the Lord and to be content with their husbands in the flesh and the spirit. And recommend my brothers to love their wives as the Lord loved the Church (cf Eph 5:25-29). If any of them can- persevere in chastity in honour of the Lord’s flesh, let them do so without boasting about it.»3


So St Ignatius relates the celibate state to Christ’s human nature, in the perspective of the incarnation which was to usher in a new era. It is consecrated «in honour of the Lord’s flesh», in the spirit of imitation and glorification of the life led by Jesus while among us.


When Christ promises a hundredfold to those who have forsaken everything, and especially the possibility of conjugal or family life (... either wives.., or children... (Lk 18:29-30)), he is speaking of a renunciation for his sake (or «for the sake of his name» or for the gospel (or «for the sake of the kingdom of God»). And thus he expresses the two main meanings of celibacy, giving it its peculiar character and value. Renunciation of marriage and family, if we are talking of a truly divine gift, has for basic motives love for (for my sake) and the service of God and the Church (for the gospel).


To these first two points we may add a third significance which may be described as ‘eschatological’. For it consists in proclaiming the new age of the coming kingdom. When Christ speaks of total renunciation «for the sake of the kingdom of God» (Lk 18:29) or «for the gospel» (Mk 10:29: «for the sake of the good news»), he is not alluding merely to the ministry, to serving the kingdom of God and the gospel, but also to the new order which he is instituting.

It is impossible to tell what the main meaning of the expression ‘for the gospel or the kingdom of God’ may be. We have to take the two meanings together, accepting them as complementary to each other. As a result of the good news which gives rise to the new order of the kingdom, some people can no longer live according to the habitual laws of nature and instead devote themselves to a state of celibacy. This state allows them to proclaim the gospel with greater freedom and also to be sign of the kingdom of God which is being ushered in.



Practical significance of celibacy


Celibacy allows such freedom and availability in Christian life and ministry as to make it highly suited to the service of the Church. The priest who is celibate for the sake of the kingdom can carry out particularly difficult missions more easily and freely than a married man, tied down by family responsibilities. The priest can leave for anywhere, at any moment, in response to the Church’s urgent request: which the married man cannot do, since he has his wife and children to worry about, their health, their well-being, their education, and all this he has to do if he is faithfully to obey his vocation as a married man.


These human demands, willed by God for the married state, constitute a hindrance to free and available service of the Church. St Paul emphasizes the practical advantage of celibacy inasmuch as marriage entails a necessary loss of independence. «Those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that», St Paul writes (1 Cor 7:28). Foreseeing the persecutions to which Christians would fall victim, the Apostle holds that for them it will be an advantage to live in celibacy. The Apostle does not only have the prospect of martyrdom in mind — something hard for a family-man to accept — but the idea too that the married state involves all sorts of worries which distract from the cares of the ministry. Not that celibacy is a tranquil state in which to live far from the cares of the world. The question is merely one of choosing between a life exclusively devoted to the priesthood (and hence, too, to the many anxieties about obedience to Christ, about the mission that has to be discharged and about the community to which one belongs); and a life divided between the two orders of anxiety, that of marriage and that of the Church, both willed by God.


«I want you to be free from anxieties», St Paul goes on. «The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs» of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband» (1 Cor 7:32-34). The Apostle does not make heavy weather about this division in the hearts of husbands and married women. He does not disapprove of conjugal or family thoughtfulness, but this is an indirect service, whereas celibacy makes it possible to devote all one’s time and thought to the direct service of God and the Church.


This was what Christ intended when founding the state of voluntary celibacy «for the sake of the kingdom of Heaven». Establishing a resemblance to Christ which is not only spiritual but physical and practical too, voluntary celibacy is a state particularly suited to the service of the kingdom. Like Jesus, the priest can commit himself entirely — spiritually and humanly — to the ministry. He is not celibate so as to be more tranquil but to resemble Christ in his commitment to the kingdom. If he means to live his state as it should be lived, all his efforts and all his thoughts will have to be directed to a living proclamation of the gospel, so as to hasten Christ’s return. He must be ready freely to obey the Church’s calls.


The celibate life, which deprives the priest of conjugal intimacy and fatherhood in the physical order, allows him instead to give himself more completely to looking after other people, to their salvation and to their sanctification. Having no exclusive love, the celibate priest ought always to be at the disposal of all, and he has the time and inner freedom to serve his neighbour (or whoever it be) in charity. It is possible for him to give much time to those who wish to confide in him and he can look after those people who need his sustained support. Furthermore, his being on his own often inspires more trust in those who may wish to confide in him. It is wrong to think he cannot understand people because he does not live as many of them do, with their marital problems and family difficulties. To be guided by the Holy Spirit in directing souls, one need not have experienced every human situation oneself. The priest, being particularly suited to a ministry of spiritual direction, because he is celibate will obtain the hundredfold promised by Christ (Mt 10:29-30). Alhough alone, he will achieve a spiritual fatherhood vis-à-vis those who confide in him willingly.


The inner significance of celibacy


According to St Paul, the unmarried man is not only anxious about the things of the Lord, that is to say, about the ministry to which he can devote all his time, but he is also anxious about how to please the Lord. Similarly, the unmarried woman seeks «to be holy in body and spirit» (I Cor 8:32-34). «Pleasing the Lord» or seeking «to be holy in body and spirit» should be understood in the mystical sense of a special relationship with Christ, in which prayer and contemplation assume a very important role. Celibacy, as St Ignatius said, is «in honour of the Lord’s flesh», it establishes, that is to say, an intimate relationship with the human person of Jesus Christ. The celibate priest has the opportunity of being consecrated directly to Christ in his complete humanity, soul and body. When St Paul reproaches the young widows who had committed themselves to serving the Church, for having gone back on their original pledge of faithfulness to Christ by wanting to get married again, he writes that «the lure of pleasure has distracted them from Christ» (1 Tim 5:11). These words are not to be understood as a moral judgement against marriage as such, but as a reproach addressed to those celibates who, having taken the decision to consecrate their souls and bodies exclusively to the Lord, then go back on the promise they have made. Once we have given ourselves completely to Christ, in honour of his flesh, to be united with him in every aspect of his human nature, to breach this union is an act of infidelity.


Consecrating body and soul to the Lord implies that one wants to please him with all one’s life and with all one’s being. Every aspect of the celibate priest’s life ought therefore to be in accord with making this effort plain. Not only will he seek to live in purity of heart and body, but his behaviour, his words, his relationships, should all reveal the beauty of his vocation.


If the celibate Christian possesses the priestly vocation, the possibility and the privilege of devoting his entire self to the service of other people by giving them all his time and attention, for him the celibate life also means that he must seek to please the Lord in prayer and contemplation. Having chosen the better part, he must do so in such a way that this is not taken from him by the cares of the world. His own celibacy not only signifies what he is, but demands that he be in a state of continual dependence on God. In his loneliness, Christ’s love can fill his need for love, and in prayer he will find every joy. Mary’s virginity perfectly expresses this sense of total dependency on the Lord. In becoming Christ’s mother, Mary did not remain a virgin because marriage was unbecoming to her, but to show that, in giving the world its Saviour, she had consecrated her body and spirit to God alone, in an act of perfect dependence.4


The life of prayer and contemplation expressing this dependence on the Lord assumes a major role in the priest’s life. St Paul wanted this for the widows in the early Church, when he wrote to Timothy: «She who is a real widow and is left all alone, has set her hopes on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day» (I Tim 5:5). So those who know the loneliness of celibacy are naturally inclined to put their trust in God, to live in unique dependence on and friendship with him and, because of this, will devote part of their time to prayer. Praising the Lord disinterestedly in the Church, the priest will seek means of pleasing him, by honouring him and giving thanks to him in fellowship with the saints. In the Church, the beauty of the liturgy is directly related to this desire to praise the Lord. Liturgical worship expresses love and gratitude for Christ and for his sacrifice. Liturgical prayer and contemplative supplication, freely offered, are not independent of serving the Church and other people, but, by them, in intercession, the priests entrust to the Lord all those for whom they feel they ought to pray. Regular liturgical and contemplative life in the Church, and the Divine Office which the priest is bound to recite even when he is alone, bring him constantly close to Christ in contemplation. St John, the beloved disciple, who more than any of the others was admitted to intimacy with the Lord, gives a perfect description of this attitude of prayerful dependence in the other John, John the Baptist, the first Christian celibate: ‘He who has the bride is the bridegroom,’ says the Baptist, ‘but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now full»’ (Jn 3:29). Christ had no other bride than the Church, and Christ’s disciple has no better friend than the Church’s bridegroom. It is enough for him to be close to him and listen to him: the Bridegroom’s voice fills him with joy in prayer and contemplation. This dependence as celibate disciple comprises his perfect happiness.


If renunciation of marriage and family is the cause of his loneliness as far as human intimacy goes, the priest should remember there is a promise that corresponds to his commitment. He discovers brothers, sisters and children a hundredfold in time present. Friend of the bridegroom, in the Church he finds the numerous community of all the saints of today and forever. He draws strength and courage from those who, like him, have willed to follow Christ in this special vocation of the celibate life. The priest can no longer think of himself as being alone in the Church and in the fellowship of the saints, since he is the bridegroom’s friend and has the opportunity to make himself new brothers by compassion and charity. He is a member of the body of Christ, and all the members of this body are bound together in absolutely indissoluble unity.


In St Paul’s invitation to the celibate life, he wishes to bring Christians to a state of nobility and to that which is needed to unite them «without impediments to the Lord» (cf 1 Cor 7:35). These words completely sum up the inner meaning of celibacy. It is an honour, a beautiful and noble condition (euschemon). To describe it further, the Apostle uses a word which only occurs once in the New Testament and means a good position near someone (euparedron). Through its etymology, this adjective directs our mind straight to the mission of Mary, who sat near Christ so as to hear his word. Celibacy constitutes the better condition for the priestly life. Finally, the adverb which we have translated as «without impediments» (aperispatos) once more reminds us of that unique tie to Jesus Christ allowed by the celibate state, and of the loving simplicity that nourishes it.



The eschatological significance of celibacy


Besides the practical and the interior senses which we have described, the state of celibacy also has an eschatological meaning. Voluntary celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven is the sign of a new order in which marriage is no longer, as it was in the Old Testament, necessary to assure a holy progeny to Abraham, the father of all believers. For in the Church, our being children of God and the fellowship of believers are of the spiritual order.


«The time is short», says St Paul, «...the form of this world is passing away.» Because of this certainty that the age is coming to an end and that the kingdom is at hand, Christians should have a spirit of detachment with regard to the things of this world. «Therefore let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it» (1 Cor 7:29-31). The eschatological sense, the certainty of being at the last act of history and the expectation of Christ’s second coming, prompts the Christian not to be too attached to the realities of human life, to marriage, to suffering, to joy or to property. Of course, it is proper to the vocation of the married man to please his wife and concern himself with the things of the world, but he ought to keep reminding himself that the form of this world is passing away. He should not attribute excessive importance to his sorrows and his joys, knowing that in the kingdom of heaven those who now weep will be comforted and that the joy there will be incomparably greater than any experienced here below. Lastly he must be completely convinced that, in the order of the kingdom, the rich will be driven away empty-handed and that the earth belongs to the meek. He should, therefore, live his life undominated by the allurements of the world.


This eschatological attitude should be that of every Christian, but the priest lives it in a more concrete fashion. Among his fellow Christians who all ought to deal with this world without being attached to it, he represents a sign of that detachment which waiting for the kingdom requires. So priestly celibacy does not involve this eschatological sense in an exclusive way, but is a striking sign of the new order which is detached from this world which is passing away.


To the flippant question put by the Sadducees (who did not believe in the resurrection) as to which of her seven successive husbands a woman would find herself married in the after-life, Jesus replied: «The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are accounted worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die any more, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection» (Lk 20:34-36; Mk 12:25; Mt 22:30). Consecrated celibacy is a sign of the resurrection and of the kingdom of God which is drawing near, for in the resurrection and the kingdom there will be neither marrying nor giving in marriage. Celibacy, in the Church, thus draws attention to the new order of the gospel, whereas marriage has its roots in the old order. In the kingdom of God, the fullness of love will be such that no one will feel the need for a limited intimacy any more. On the contrary, it would seem like a diminution of love. So priests are the sign of the fullness of love which will come about in the kingdom.


Furthermore, celibacy relates to the resurrection of the dead; it is a sign of eternity, of incorruptibility, of life. For marriage has as its natural end the procreation of children, it assures the continuance of the human race and the creation of new beings, since human beings are fated to die and need to leave successors. But at the resurrection of the dead, those who have been accounted worthy will no more see death: ‘They cannot die any more because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection» (Lk 20:36). In the other world, since they are immortal, there is no further need for them to make sure that they have descendants. Besides, in the kingdom of God, there is one sole Father, since all, like the angels, are called sons of God. The celibate state, on account of this relationship with the resurrection of the dead, with eternity and with the angels, is a sign of the world to come, which the priest lives with his whole existence as a follower of Jesus Christ: in the ministry of the gospel, in contemplative prayer at the feet of the Lord, in proclaiming the coming kingdom of God, and in offering the sacrifice of the Eucharist, which sums up his entire priesthood.




I. G. Kittel, Theologisches Wörterbuch zum NT, t. II. p. 766.

2. K. Barth, Die kirchliche Dogmatik, t. 111, 6, p. 160.

3. Letter of Ignatius to Polycarp, V, W. R. Shoedel, ed. Koester, Ignatius of Antioch, A commentary on the Letters of St Ignatius of Antioch, Philadelphia 1985, p. 272.

4. Maria Madre del Signore, Immagine della Chiesa, Morcelliana, Brescia 1986, pp. 41-56; L. Legrand, La virginit~ dans Ia Bible, ‘Lectio divina’, 39, Le Cerf, Paris 1964, pp. 107-127.