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Celibacy and Priesthood

Cardinal William Levada

Archdiocese of Belo Horizonte
November 21, 2011


It is a privilege for me to open this symposium with some reflections on celibacy and priesthood. I am grateful to Archbishop Walmor Oliveira de Azevedo for his invitation to join you, brother bishops and priests, dear seminarians, here in Belo Horizonte for this time to “drink together” of the wisdom of Holy Mother Church on such a timely and important topic.

My presence here coincides by less than a month with my 50th anniversary of priestly ordination. Next December 20 I will have the great privilege of returning to St. Peter’s Basilica to concelebrate our anniversary Mass with 12 priest classmates, and with family and friends, at the striking “altar of the Chair” in the apse of the Basilica. My preparations for this event have evoked in me sentiments of great gratitude to God for the gifts of life and grace, of love of family and friends, of priesthood and very diverse ministries in service of the People of God, and – yes – for the gift of celibacy.

As I began to assemble thoughts for this reflection, I found that I was posing a question to myself in very personal terms. What have 50 years of priestly celibacy meant for my relationship with Jesus Christ, and what have they meant for my priestly ministry? I can and do want to give witness to this gift in my life. Even so, I do not want to dwell on this personal dimension so much as to use it as a springboard for a theological and pastoral reflection. Perhaps by introducing these reflections on a personal note, I can propose to you here to receive these reflections also as a stimulus to your own personal reflection on this gift we share as brother priests, or as priests to be.

In this presentation I want to do three things. First, I want to reflect briefly on the theological understanding of the fittingness of priestly celibacy as that has often been taught by the Magisterium of the Church, presented most comprehensively in the Encyclical Letter Sacerdotalis Caelibatus of Pope Paul VI in 1967, just two years after the close of the epochal Second Vatican Council. It may seem redundant to recall such teaching. But as I grow old I am often struck by the fact that what seems to me to be taken for granted, is new to succeeding generations. Besides, the saying repetitio est mater studiorum seems particularly apt in addressing the issue of priestly celibacy, since even a commitment once made at our diaconate ordination has to be renewed in the daily living out of that promise of celibacy and chastity.

Second, I want to trace what I consider to be a theological development about the connection of celibacy and priesthood since the Council and the Encyclical. This development is not only a deepening of the Christological, ecclesiological and eschatological dimensions of celibacy found in the classical teaching of the Council and the Encyclical. It is also – I say this as a personal conviction, and not on behalf of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which I currently serve as Prefect – a doctrinal development in its evaluation of celibacy and continence as a tradition going back to apostolic times.

Third, I want to offer some personal ideas about assisting us priests to live out our celibacy today, in a time in which the so-called sexual revolution of the century just past has left us a legacy of increased challenges to living chastely in accord with God’s commandments – challenges that apply not only to celibate priests, but also to the people of God, whether married or unmarried. These challenges make the recommendations that found such an important voice in the Synod of Bishops of October, 1990, and in the subsequent Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis of Pope John Paul II of March, 1992, regarding human formation as the “basis of all priestly formation,” increasingly important for bishops and seminary personnel in the formation of priests capable of joyful celibate lives. We need to think as well not only about a solid initial formation for celibacy, but also about the “permanent” ongoing formation of us priests in living our celibate commitment.

I. Recent Church Magisterium: the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI’s Encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus

It may be useful to recall the historical context in which Pope Paul VI wrote Sacerdotalis Caelibatus. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) clearly confirmed the law of celibacy for priests in the Latin Church. (1) In this regard, the Council Fathers declared that they trusted “in the Spirit that the gift of celibacy, so appropriate to the priesthood of the New Testament, is liberally granted by the Father, provided those who share Christ’s priesthood through the sacrament of order, and indeed the whole Church, ask for that gift humbly and earnestly.” Even so there was a growing call, during and after the council, for the law of celibacy in the Latin Church to be rescinded, or at least to be made optional.

Pope Paul VI told the Council Fathers of his intention to draft an encyclical letter on celibacy, in order “to give new luster and strength to priestly celibacy in the world of today.” Rereading this Encyclical, one cannot but agree with Cardinal Claudio Hummes, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, who called attention to the abiding importance of this Encyclical, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, in a 2007 article commemorating its 40th anniversary.

In this Encyclical, Pope Paul presented the objections people often voice regarding the law of celibacy for priests. These objections can be summed up in six points: 1) In the New Testament we do not find an explicit demand for celibacy on the part of sacred ministers, but rather a “free act of obedience to a special spiritual gift.” 2) In the Patristic period the cultural context was different from today; then the emphasis was placed on living in continence, abstaining from sexual relations even if one were married. 3) Some find it problematic to exclude from ministry those who feel called to priesthood but not to celibacy. 4) Others think that maintaining celibacy contributes to a shortage of priests, to the detriment of the proclamation of the Gospel and the sacramental ministry of the Church. 5) Still others think that if priests were married, the occasions for priestly infidelity would be removed, and defections from priestly ministry that damage the life of the Church would be reduced. 6) There are those as well who hold that celibacy is unnatural, even physically and psychologically detrimental to mature human development, thus preventing priests from sharing fully in the life and destiny of the majority of humankind.

Paul VI recalls the Council’s description of the law of priestly celibacy as “particularly suited” to God’s ministers. He says that the fundamental motives of this suitability “can be brought into clearer light only under the influence of the Holy Spirit, promised by Christ to his followers for the knowledge of things to come (citing John 16:13), thus enabling the People of God to increase in the understanding of the mystery of Christ and of the Church” (n. 18). Pope Paul seeks to further this understanding by presenting the gift of celibacy in its Christological, ecclesiological and eschatological aspects. Throughout his presentation, Pope Paul makes reference in the notes accompanying the text to the Biblical foundations of his thought.

Christological Significance of Celibacy

In addressing the Christological aspect of celibacy, the Pope states in the first place that the “new order” of the Christian priesthood “can be understood only in the light of the newness of Christ, the Supreme Pontiff and eternal Priest, who instituted the priesthood of the ministry as a real participation in His own unique priesthood. The minister of Christ … therefore looks to Him directly as his model and supreme ideal” (n. 19). In bringing forth the new creation by means of his Paschal mystery, Jesus introduced into history a new form of life that transforms the human condition.

Secondly, the Pope’s reflection on the relation of matrimony and celibacy offers another fundamental insight. Jesus restored marriage, which – according to God’s will – continues the work of the first creation, to its original dignity and raised it to the dignity of a sacrament; moreover, He made it a mysterious symbol of his own union with the Church. But Jesus, as Mediator of a “new and better covenant” (cf. Heb. 8:6), also opened “a new way, in which the human creature adheres directly to the Lord … [thus manifesting] in a clearer and more complete way the profoundly transforming reality” of the gift of salvation (n. 20).

Thirdly, since Christ as Mediator between God and the human race, remained celibate throughout his earthly life, thus signifying his total dedication to the service of God and humanity, the embrace of continence and celibacy by the priest following his Master’s example is particularly fitting for the priest as alter Christus (n. 21).

Finally the Pope notes that in calling the apostles as his co-workers and ambassadors in the ministry of salvation, Jesus invited them to “an even more perfect consecration to the kingdom of heaven by means of celibacy, as a special gift.” Moreover, because our response to the divine call is an answer of love to the love which Christ has shown us so sublimely, so “the free choice of sacred celibacy has always been considered by the Church ‘as a symbol of, and stimulus to, charity’: it signifies a love without reservations; it stimulates to a charity which is open to all” (nn. 22, 24).

Perhaps a personal note about Christ’s call to celibate priesthood would not be out of place here. I believe that celibacy has provided me with unique opportunities to grow in love and union with Christ, who has invited me to make this complete offering of myself in order to use me to bring his saving love to others. And yet I am the first to confess that the very busy-ness of the apostolic ministry has been a struggle and a challenge to me over the years to take the time necessary to enter more deeply into his love, so that I might be able to witness to such an undeserved gift more convincingly in my priestly life and ministry.

In concluding his presentation of the Christological aspect of celibacy, Pope Paul proposes an “invitation to study” that I want to quote in the context of this symposium: “This biblical and theological view associates our ministerial priesthood with the priesthood of Christ; the total and exclusive dedication of Christ to his mission of salvation provides reason and example for our assimilation to the form of charity and sacrifice proper to Christ our Savior. This vision seems to us so profound and rich in truth, both speculative and practical, that we invite you, venerable brothers, and you, eager students of Christian doctrine and masters of the spiritual life, and all you priests who have gained a supernatural insight into your vocation, to persevere in the study of this vision, and to go deeply into the inner recesses and wealth of its reality. In this way, the bond between the priesthood and celibacy will more and more be seen as closely knit – as the mark of a heroic soul and the imperative call to unique and total love for Christ and his Church” (n. 25). I believe this invitation by Pope Paul to deepen our understanding of celibate priesthood in relation to the mystery of Christ and the Church – under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (cf. n. 18 above) – can rightly be seen as encouragement toward a genuine development of doctrine.

Ecclesiological Significance

Here the Pope appeals to the love with which Christ has loved the Church, his Body, “and offered himself entirely for her sake, in order to make her a glorious, holy and immaculate Spouse” (See Ephesians 5:25-27). So priestly celibacy manifests the virginal love of Christ for the Church and the supernatural fecundity of this marriage (n. 26).

The liberty of this complete dedication to the service of the Lord and his Mystical Body increases the priest’s ability “for listening to the word of God and for prayer” as he daily meditates on God’s word, lives it and preaches it to the faithful, especially in the Divine Office, “by which he dedicates his voice to the Church who prays together with her Spouse” (nn. 27, 28).

The priest’s life is enriched in personal grace and in sanctifying power, in a unique way in his ministry of the Eucharist, in which – as the Council taught – “the whole spiritual good of the Church is contained” (2). As the Pope says, the priest “acting in the person of Christ, unites himself most intimately with the offering, and places on the altar his entire life,” which bears the marks of Christ’s own total sacrificial love on the Cross, for the salvation of the whole world (n.29).

Here again I want to offer a brief personal comment, prompted by the Pope’s comment that the priest “is a sign and pledge of that sublime and new reality which is the kingdom of God … Thus, he nourishes the faith and hope of all Christians, who, as such, are bound to observe chastity according to their proper state of life” (n. 31). From my personal experience, I have felt that my commitment to celibacy has enabled me, as a preacher and confessor, to speak convincingly about the commandment of chastity, not only to the unmarried, who live in a culture so often marked by the “banalization of sexuality,” but also to the married, whose pledge of fidelity “until death do us part” is challenged by a culture of easy divorce and infidelity. Indeed every marriage will bring with it at times the cross of Christ’s sacrificial love, which is the model for their sacramental call as husband and wife to become ever more deeply “one flesh.”

Eschatological Significance

In this third part of his theological reflection, Pope Paul recalls that the kingdom of God, which “is not of this world” (See John 18:36), is present here on earth in mystery, and will reach its perfection only with the glorious coming of the Lord. So the gift of perfect continence for the kingdom of heaven proclaims our hope in the final goal of our earthly pilgrimage, anticipating the fulfillment of the kingdom by its witness to the sacrificial, all-embracing love of Christ, setting “our hearts on the things that are above until we too shall be “with him in glory” (Col 3:1,4).

As Pope Benedict has more than once commented, in this age of increasing secularization, where people live their lives etsi Deus non daretur – as if God did not exist – the need for lived witness to an eschatological vision about our common human destiny, and how to live in this life as a preparation for the next, is all the more necessary.

As a conclusion to this summary presentation of the theological reflections of Pope Paul VI in the Encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, I want to draw attention to the priority given to the theological reasons Pope Paul gives for priestly celibacy. The pastoral or even functional reasons for celibacy flow as a consequence from these prior theological considerations. With even more reason we may say that the law of celibacy, viewed from a merely disciplinary perspective, can lead to seeing it as a “burden” imposed on priests, rather than as what it should be seen as, an invitation to a closer friendship with Jesus, a gift of mutual love, and a service of pastoral charity offered to the Church, beloved Spouse of Christ, who gave the ultimate sacrifice of his life for her sanctification.

Celibacy in the Life of the Church

In the Encyclical, Pope Paul goes on to examine celibacy in the life of the Church. He answers the objections to celibacy previously cited. He urges a deeper reflection on the meaning of celibacy in the seminary formation of new priests. Moreover, he comments on the practice in the eastern Churches of a different tradition in which celibacy is required only for the Order of Bishops and the monastic clergy, while married men may be called to priesthood.

He also comments on those instances in the western Church in which the law requiring a freely chosen and perpetual celibacy of those who are admitted to Holy Orders can admit of exception in particular circumstances. There are two such exceptions to the general “law of celibacy”in the Latin Church: first, the decision by the Council to permit the conferral of the Holy Order of diaconate on mature married men, and second, the admission to priestly ordination of married ministers of other Christian communities who desire to adhere to the fullness of Catholic faith and communion and to continue to exercise ministry. This teaching of Paul VI has taken on a new form in the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus with which Pope Benedict has provided a new structure for Anglicans to enter into full communion in Catholic faith, accompanied by their pastors, many of whom are married.

In a time of recurring challenges to the age-old tradition of priestly celibacy, and in the face of the new challenges to the Christian life arising from an increasingly secularized culture, it should be clear that the study of Pope Paul VI’s Encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus in seminaries and programs of ongoing priestly formation would surely be fruitful.

II. Developments since the Council

Celibacy: an Apostolic Tradition?

The Second Vatican Council declared that “perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom … is not required by the nature of the priesthood.” This is clear from the practice of the early Church and the tradition of the Eastern Churches.” (3) While Pope Paul VI echoes this conciliar teaching in his Encyclical, he also recalls that “the Council did not hesitate to confirm solemnly the ancient, sacred and providential present law of priestly celibacy” (n. 17). Even if celibacy is “not required by the nature of the priesthood itself,” this statement should not be misunderstood to mean that celibacy is exclusively or even primarily a question of discipline and law. Such an interpretation would not do justice to an understanding of the theological – some would say even doctrinal – aspects of the “congruence” of priesthood and celibacy, the “fittingness” of a celibate priesthood.

There is, to be sure, a “law of celibacy” both in the Latin Church and in the Eastern Churches. Today the practice of West and East has clear contours. In the West, canon law requires that only celibate men be called to Holy Orders, as the Encyclical of Pope Paul VI recalls (except in rare cases when there may be a dispensation from the impediment of marriage, such as the conversion of married Protestant ministers, and in the case of the permanent diaconate as restored by Vatican II). In the East, both celibate and married men are called to the Orders of priest and deacon. Bishops, on the other hand, must be celibate, and are called either from celibate diocesan or monastic clergy.

In the early centuries of the Church in the East and in the West, it was not uncommon for married men to be called to Holy Orders in all three major orders. The historical question under increasing study today is whether these men were permitted to continue their conjugal life after ordination, or whether they were obliged to “continence,” an obligation that often involved a separation from their wives. In contemporary historical research about the origins of clerical celibacy, some speak about “celibacy in the strict sense,” when referring to the common practice in the Western Church today, where marriage is an impediment to ordination. On the other hand, the phrase “celibacy in the broad sense,” or “celibacy – continence,” is used to describe the situation in the Church during the first millennium, when both unmarried and married men were ordained.

In the West, the decrees of the many regional synods and councils, beginning about the year 300 with the Council of Elvira, dealt with the question of “celibacy in the broad sense” or the “law of celibacy-continence,” requiring married men to live in perfect continence with their wives. In these discussions the continence of unmarried bishops and priests is presumed. By way of example, I cite part of the acts of the Council of Carthage of 390: “Bishop Epigonius: ‘The rule of continence and chastity had been discussed in a previous council. Let it be taught with more emphasis what are the three ranks that, by virtue of the consecration, are under the same obligation of chastity, i.e., the bishop, the priest, and the deacon, and let them be instructed to keep their purity.’ Bishop Genethlius: ‘As was previously said, it is fitting that the holy bishops and priests of God as well as the Levites, i.e., those who are in the service of the divine sacraments, observe perfect continence, so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God; what the apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us also endeavor to keep.’ The bishops declared unanimously: ‘It pleases us all that bishop, priest, and deacon, guardians of purity, abstain from [conjugal intercourse] with their wives, so that those who serve at the altar may keep a perfect chastity’.” (4)

By the time of the First and Second Lateran Councils in the early twelfth century, which codified the reforms of Pope Gregory VII, a law of celibacy (in the strict sense) was decreed for the entire Latin Church. In the face of the Reformation’s rejection of celibacy, the Council of Trent reiterated the law of clerical celibacy in the 16th century, as has the Second Vatican Council within the lifetime of some of us here.

In the East, the Synod of Trullo (691) shaped the practice of the Church. The discipline of “celibacy – continence” was insisted upon for bishops who were married, while married priests and deacons were not prohibited from conjugal relations with their wives. In practice, however, the tradition of “temporary” continence for married clergy was required for the day(s) immediately preceding their celebration of the Eucharist. Furthermore, Trullo excluded a second marriage by those already ordained, even should they be widowed.

Put another way, it is a common modern understanding of the history of celibacy to suggest that the practice of the early Church, at least until the decrees imposing celibacy “in the strict sense” in the West, was that the early Church’s practice was substantially that which later prevailed in the Eastern Churches, and that the practice of the West in requiring celibacy was a “later” innovation. But recent historical studies have called this once prevalent view into question.

Since I am expert neither in Church history nor in Patristic studies, I must leave any judgment about the results of such research to the evaluation of the experts. But I think it is useful to take into account some of the new data that has been presented, such as the studies of the synods and councils of the 4th century and following, whose decrees renew the call to continence on the part of the married clergy in major orders. Indeed, as the Church emerged from the age of persecutions in the early 4th century, councils and Popes explicitly appealed to the rule of continence for married bishops, priests and deacons as an “apostolic tradition.”

Today we can benefit from the thorough and objective research of scholars like Cardinal Alfons Stickler and Christian Cochini, S.J., to name only two among the best known. Their conclusions seem quite consonant with those of broader studies about sexual renunciation among early Christians (I am not referring here to the outright rejection of marriage among Gnostic groups), such as that of the Anglo-Irish scholar Peter Brown. (6)

Perhaps the most suitable conclusion to this section would be that of Father Cochini, whose meticulous studies allowed him to “conclude that the obligation demanded from married deacons, priests, and bishops to observe perfect continence with their wives is not, in the Church, the fruit of a belated development, but on the contrary, in the full meaning of the term, an unwritten tradition of apostolic origin that, so far as we know, found its first canonical expression in the 4th century.” (7)

Moreover, it is interesting to note that Pope Benedict XVI implicitly referred to such a tradition in his address to the Roman Curia in December, 2006, when he remarked that celibacy has been “in force for Bishops throughout the Eastern and Western Church and, according to a tradition that dates back to an epoch close to that of the Apostles, for priests in general in the Latin Church.”

Celibacy in the time of the New Testament

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church no.1579, the brief catechesis on celibacy refers to two principal texts of the New Testament: Jesus’ reference to celibacy – those have “renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:12), and Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 7.

In the case of Jesus’ words in Matthew 19, his reference to those who have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven is first of all a reference to himself. We may be sure that his example was not lost on those whom he invited again and again, “follow me.” We do not know whether any of the Twelve Apostles were married other than St. Peter, whose mother-in-law Jesus healed of a fever (Mk 1:29-31 et passim); there is no explicit reference to his wife in Scripture, a silence that caused St. Jerome to speculate that she may already have died when Peter was called by the Lord. In general, many of the Church Fathers in the Patristic period engaged in speculative theories about the possible marriage of one or other Apostle. But the Fathers are unanimous in saying that those Apostles who might have been married gave up their marital lives and practiced perfect continence. Cochini calls this “common opinion” of the Fathers an authoritative hermeneutics of the scriptural texts in which reference is made to the detachment practiced by Christ’s disciples, especially Matthew 19:27 and Luke 18:28-30. (8)

These are the Gospel passages in which Peter says to Jesus, who has just spoken about renouncing marriage, about becoming like children, and about giving up one’s possessions, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (Mt 19:27) Similarly in Luke, again it is Peter who says to Jesus, “Look, we have left our homes and followed you.” And here is Jesus’ reply: “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.” Cochini comments that the common opinion of the Fathers that the “giving up everything” meant that the Apostles left their wives (if they indeed had been married). This common opinion was the official preaching of the early centuries in major Christian centers, beginning with Clement in Alexandria and Tertullian in Africa. Cochini calls it “the expression of the collective memory of the apostolic Churches with regard to the example left by the apostles for future generations – an argument from Tradition that cannot be overlooked.” (9)

While the teaching of Jesus regarding celibacy is very brief, his example as the one who “renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” no doubt grew in the minds of his disciples and in the first communities of Christians who received the Gospel from the preaching of the Apostles. They surely reflected on what has been apparent to Christians throughout the centuries, namely that Jesus’ virginity/celibacy was related to his absolute freedom to empty himself entirely in love, a self-emptying that culminated in his death on the cross for the salvation of the world. And from apostolic times Jesus’ self-sacrifice has been understood, among other ways, in nuptial terms. He is the Bridegroom who lays down his life for his bride, the Church. (See Eph. 5:25-32; Rev 21:2, 22:17).

With regard to St. Paul, First Corinthians offers much wise advice about married and celibate living. Perhaps the core of Paul’s insights, especially in relation to celibacy, can be found in chapter 7, verse 32, where he says, “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.” Paul gives personal witness to this insight, when he says, “To the unmarried and widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am” (v. 8). His frequent identification with Christ in so much of his writing makes it almost necessary for us to see in his celibacy a reflection of the teaching and example of his Lord.

This Pauline teaching has also grounded the Church’s understanding of the pastoral motivation for celibacy. This is beautifully embodied in the Church’s lex orandi at the point in the ordination for deacons when those destined also for priestly ordination make the promise of celibacy. The bishop says to them, “…celibacy is both a sign and a motive of pastoral charity, and a special source of spiritual fruitfulness in the world. … you will be more freely at the service of God and mankind, and you will be more untrammeled in the ministry of Christian conversion and rebirth.” This ordination prayer echoes the teaching of the Council’s Constitution on the Church Lumen gentium 42 that celibacy is a “sign and motive” of charity.

The Priest: Configured to Christ

From the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI to today the key paradigm for priestly celibacy could be said to be in the priest’s configuration to Christ (cf. Pope Benedict XVI, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis [SC n. 24]). Pope Benedict goes on to say, “The fact that Christ himself, the eternal priest, lived his mission even to the sacrifice of the Cross in the state of virginity constitutes the sure point of reference for understanding the meaning of the tradition of the Latin Church. It is not sufficient to understand priestly celibacy in purely functional terms. Celibacy is really a special way of conforming oneself to Christ’s own way of life. This choice has first and foremost a nuptial meaning; it is a profound identification with the heart of Christ the Bridegroom who gives his life for his Bride.”

Pope John Paul II devoted many reflections during his long pontificate to the deepened understanding of the nuptial dimension of priestly celibacy. One of the most significant was contained in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis, in which he wrote: “It is especially important that the priest understand the theological motivation of the Church’s law on celibacy. Inasmuch as it is a law, it expresses the Church’s will, … a will [that] finds its ultimate motivation in the link between celibacy and sacred Ordination, which configures the priest to Jesus Christ the Head and Spouse of the Church. The Church, as the Spouse of Jesus Christ, wishes to be loved by the priest in the total and exclusive manner in which Jesus Christ her Head and Spouse loved her. Priestly celibacy, then, is the gift of self in and with Christ to his Church and expresses the priest’s service to the Church in and with the Lord.” (9)

The Nuptial Meaning of Celibacy

Let us extend our reflection on this nuptial meaning, on the spousal relationship of Christ as Head and Bridegroom of his Spouse, the Church. If we reflect on the truth of the Incarnation, that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, it follows that – as for all of us – human sexuality is not an arbitrary add-on to human nature, but is essential to it, a part of who we are. So with Christ, who lived his sexuality as a virgin. When we continue to reflect on the una caro, the original plan of God for human sexuality, that a man and woman shall become “one flesh,” we can see the logic of why Christ’s love for his Body, the Church, to which St. Paul refers in Ephesians 5, in parallel with the love of a husband for his “body” – the “one flesh” which he has become with his spouse, is a virginal love. It is not generative just within one couple, one family, but is for a Body that is destined to embrace all of humanity.

Christ brought his virginal sexuality to the mission of salvation for which the Father sent him into the world. It is as a virgin that he was nailed to the Cross, that he lived the moments of Paschal sacrifice as High Priest and Head of the Church, that he established the New Covenant in his blood, that from his open side on the cross poured out blood and water, signs of his virginal generativity in the sacramental life of his mystical Body. In a happy phrase I found in a talk by Archbishop Alan Vigneron of Detroit, “the Church’s Bridegroom comes as a virgin to his nuptial covenant with her, never having made a gift of himself to any other, one flesh with her alone – never Head of any body other than his Mystical Body, priest of no self-offering other than the one he makes in his Pasch.”

Dear Brothers, it is this celibate, virginal body that Christ our Priest offered in his Paschal sacrifice on the Cross, that He anticipated in the first Eucharist at the Last Supper, that He renews in every Mass. We do not physically hang on the Cross as He did; but we offer ourselves, our bodies and our sexuality, as an oblation every time we offer the holy Sacrifice of the Mass as his priest, acting in persona Christi Capitis – “in the person of Christ the Head” of his Body, his Spouse, with whom he becomes “one flesh.” The sacrifice we offer is the renunciation of our sexuality according to nature, so that we may join it to Christ’s Pasch. All of this is only a reflection of how the celibacy of the priest, as Pope Benedict has observed, “expresses in a special way the dedication which conforms him to Christ and his exclusive offering of himself for the Kingdom of God.”

Celibacy and Doctrinal Development

If we may say that Christ’s virginal celibacy was an essential part of his salvific mission, may we not also say that priestly celibacy is “essential” to our priesthood? Perhaps the distinction used by the American Jesuit Donald Keefe could be helpful here. He would say that being a priest and being celibate belong together “essentially,” that is, their bond is not extrinsic, incidental, accidental, or artificial. They are not held together simply by an act of the arbitrary will of authority. Rather, they complement each other. They form an integral whole in which the one reinforces and perfects the other. On the other hand, this would not imply that celibacy is “necessary” to the nature of priesthood. We have seen already that the Council and Pope Paul concur that celibacy is not of divine law. If that were the case, the Church could not have permitted a married clergy over so many centuries.

In my view, it seems right to speak of the reasons that support the congruence or fittingness of priestly celibacy as “doctrinal.” Not every doctrinal development will result in a dogmatic definition, of the type that led to definitions of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX in 1854, or of papal primacy and infallibility at the First Vatican Council in 1870. Perhaps a comparison with Catholic teaching about the ordination of women would be helpful here. In both cases there is an appeal to tradition. But in the case of the ordination of women, the tradition can be found from the time of the apostles to the present, and in both East and West; thus Pope John Paul II was able to declare that the exclusion of women from ordination represents a truth of the universal ordinary Magisterium of the Church definitive tenenda, that must be held as infallibly certain. Without raising an expectation of a dogmatic declaration in regard to celibacy, it seems to me that the links of celibacy to the doctrine of priesthood justify the notion of doctrinal development, thus excluding arguments about celibacy as solely a disciplinary matter.

III. Some Practical Pastoral Recommendations

I have spent a lengthy amount of time outlining historical and theological reasons on behalf of the tradition of priestly celibacy. I hope these remarks can help to clarify and renew our motivation, either to embrace a celibate life as future priests or to deepen our celibate commitment as priests already ordained.

A friend of mine who is a Benedictine monk has urged me to look at celibacy in the monastic tradition, in which celibacy does not focus on being more single-heartedly available to pastoral ministry. For monks, he says, celibacy is about being open and available to a radical, intimate, intense relationship with Jesus Christ. Of course, for monks this intense union with Christ is fostered not only by celibacy, but also by a structured life of prayer, study and work.

From my own experience over the years in occasionally making my annual retreat at one or other Benedictine monastery, I have no doubt of the value of the structure of life which supports a regular schedule of prayer, study and work in helping celibate monks develop this more intense relationship with Christ. But we diocesan clergy are not monks, and our vocation is different. It should be no less radically centered on a relationship with Jesus Christ, but it has an apostolic focus; it responds to the invitation of Christ to “go forth and make disciples.”

What I will take from my friend’s reminder about the monastic tradition is this: we diocesan clergy are not lacking in work, in apostolic work, sometimes to the point of overwork, especially in areas where priests are few. But we do not usually have an ordered structure for prayer (sacramental ministry apart), or for study, especially in parish pastoral ministry. It is to these aspects I want to offer some brief thoughts in this concluding section of my remarks. Unlike the monk, the diocesan priest is not summoned to times of prayer and study by a bell; he must schedule them himself. And this takes organization and planning, tasks which our sometimes frenetic schedules impede and delay.

Sometimes it is possible to arrange for diocesan priest to live in common. Such arrangements can be very useful to promote a priestly spirituality for diocesan priests, including aspects that reinforce both their celibate commitment and their apostolic ministry. But in my experience, merely living side by side in a rectory does not guarantee these goals. Only an intentional program designed to incorporate such goals will make common living arrangements effective.

Since for many priests, especially in rural areas (both in the United States and in Brazil) distance makes common living arrangements difficult, I propose giving attention to a structure proposed by the Church in recent decades that I believe has not been utilized to its best effect. I refer to the “permanent formation of priests.” In my view, the same fundamental structure that we find in Pastores Dabo Vobis for seminaries, should also apply to the diocesan program for permanent formation of priests. These are, you will recall, 1) human (affective) formation, 2) spiritual formation, 3) intellectual formation, and 4) pastoral formation.

I don’t know about Brazil, but at least where I come from, there are a couple of obstacles to be overcome. The first is a mentality that the seminary is responsible for formation, and once formed, we are a “finished” product, like a new car; we may need to have our oil changed and get new tires once in a while, but “formation”? We’ve been there; we’ve done that. On the other hand, we know that at least some of the people to whom we minister, and they are increasing in number, have some ongoing professional updating built into their work. So should we. The idea that the seminary teaches us everything we will ever need to know about priesthood and ministry cannot be sustained any more, even if it may have had a certain validity in times past.

The second obstacle is an overdeveloped spirit of independence. If I need updating or assistance or help, I’ll take care of it myself. To be sure, self-reliance is a virtue. But our responsibility does not stop with ourselves. Not for nothing did our Lord choose an Apostolic College of Twelve to be “with him.” As diocesan priests, we have a responsibility to each other, and to the presbyterium of our dioceses, analogous to that of a religious priest who serves wherever he is assigned, but always has a stake in the well-being of his religious community.

In the ongoing project of priestly life, our human and affective formation does not end with ordination. Certainly our spiritual formation has only received its preparatory phase, ready to live out now with the grace that comes from Holy Orders. Our intellectual formation cannot stop either. But neither is our pastoral formation simply on-the-job training. What I am suggesting is that we need to see our ongoing “permanent” formation not only as an individual effort and responsibility, but also as a community effort involving a commitment on our part to one another, to help each other grow in our vocation. We have a shared responsibility for building up not just the parish or ministry where we are assigned, but also the diocesan church and the presbyterium to which we belong by incardination.

My particular focus today is celibacy and priesthood. In my view, a structured program by which priests come together for two or three days, perhaps monthly, in their deanery or vicariate or larger groups, would surely help to make us more effective priestly ministers. Such a program might also have unforeseen collateral benefits; it might also animate friendships, overcome isolation, encourage prayer and spiritual growth, and promote our mutual support and collaboration in apostolic works and pastoral activities, especially in the service of the new evangelization.

To this end, I address a word to my brother bishops. This seems to me to be a challenge worth accepting. To build successful models of permanent formation of priests that embrace all the areas of needed attention and growth is well worth the effort, and some modest expense. But if I am correct in believing that such programs are needed by the very nature of diocesan priesthood, then I suggest that the key to filling such a need has to involve the bishop, called by the Lord to be the Shepherd of priests and people in his name.

Finally, I would make a further concrete suggestion, based on my experience. Today the conditions in which we priests and bishops are called to live celibate lives have become much more challenging. These challenges come from a highly sexualized culture, and are exacerbated by an industry that markets increasing amounts of so-called “adult” – even pornographic – material, with ever-increasing means of communications tools to make them available. For this reason, our celibate living requires us to take steps we might not have thought necessary. Of course I refer to firm decisions in avoiding what may be an occasion of sin, as our classic spirituality advised.

I am also convinced that issues involving healthy ongoing growth in living our human sexuality require us to open and frank conversation with a spiritual director. And the times have made such spiritual direction less available. Therefore I make another recommendation to you, my brother bishops. I propose that you consider providing a qualified, trained spiritual director – one or more, depending on the needs of your diocese. This is not easy in a time of strained resources. I can imagine that in smaller dioceses, a trained spiritual director might be able to serve more than one presbyterate.

As I conclude these remarks, in the spirit of my coming golden jubilee of priestly ordination, I think back to the ceremony of First Tonsure, which in my time was our initiation into clerical life. This ceremony presided over by the bishop drew its focus from the 16th Psalm, whose refrain was “Dominus pars hereditatis meae et calicis mei: The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup.” This Psalm is the prayer of a Levite, a member of the priestly tribe who did not participate in receiving a “portion” of the land of Israel through the casting of lots after the return from Egypt. Instead, the tribe of Levi, dedicated to the service of the Temple, had the Lord himself as their “portion.” For the priests of the New Covenant, it is all the more true to say that, giving up family and heredity for the service of the Eucharist, the perfect sacrifice of Jesus that has brought the Temple worship to its fulfillment, “the Lord is my chosen portion and my chalice.” May Jesus Christ our high Priest renew in us the spirit of “Dominus pars,” to see our celibacy as a gift of our loving God who called us from the beginning to know Him as the chosen portion of our lives as his priests. Thank you for your welcome, your attention and your patience.


(1) Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests – Presbyterorum Ordinis (PO) n. 16.

(2) PO, n. 5.

(3) PO, n. 16.

(4) Christian Cochini, S.J., Origines apostoliques du celibat sacerdotal, Paris: Editions Lethielleux/Dessain 1981; English translation: Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, San Francisco: Ignatius Press 1990, p. 5.

(5) The data of the councils and popes of the first millennium were known to medieval theologians and to the Council of Trent, not to mention subsequent scholars. But the “prevailing opinion” interpreted the data according to different criteria and arrived at different conclusions. For example, Johann Adam Moehler, in The Spirit of Celibacy (original 1828; English translation, Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2007, p. 61) says, “The problem with our patron of a married priesthood is that … he deceives himself and others when he claims that the Greeks remained faithful to apostolic mores on the basis of the decisions of the Trullian Synod in the year 690, which allowed already married priests full enjoyment of their marriage, while the Latin Church moved away from this tolerant approach.”

(6) Peter Brown, The Body and Society – Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, New York: Columbia University Press 1988.

(7) Cochini, op. cit., p. 439.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Pope John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis – on the formation of priests in the circumstances of the present day, Vatican City 1992, n. 29.