Recently someone made much of the apostle Peter being married as a witness against compulsory celibacy for priests. I challenged, show me where in the bible it says that Peter “traveled and preached with his wife”? Maybe I am having a senior moment? I have no recollection of any such passage that suggests he and his wife had a team ministry!
Priests and religious vow celibacy freely, not because marriage is bad, but because it is so good. Celibacy becomes a wonderful gift, freely embraced, as a sacrifice for God and his holy people. Jesus was celibate. St. Paul not only practiced it but encouraged it. The celibate priest becomes a sign of contradiction of the kingdom of Christ to a hedonistic world. It is not a rejection of love, but a selfless abandonment to divine love as manifested in service to God’s people, the Church. It is not a calling for everyone.
I know of no references of Peter traveling and preaching with his wife; the bible does mention Peter’s mother-in-law. While this indicates that he was married, do we ever encounter her? What was her name? Did they have any children? Her absence from these texts might lend one to think that she experienced some mishap and passed away. Be this as it may, the Catholic Church has never hidden the fact that Peter and other religious leaders of the Church were married. Indeed, the Catholic Church had a married clergy all the way up to the 12th century. The Fourth Lateran Council was quite decisive in mandating compulsory celibacy for any who would be priests of the Roman or Western Rite. The Eastern rites of the Catholic Church, to this very day (in Europe and the Far East) have an optional married clergy. These priests are in full union with Rome. Also, in our own nation many Protestant clergy, Lutheran and Episcopal, have entered into the Roman Catholic priesthood, even though they are married and have families. Those who are raised in the Western rite realize that celibacy is a special gift and a particular charism of our priestly experience. It is a sign of a wondrous single-hearted love. One of the fruits of this sacrifice is the availability that a priest can give to his prayers, study, and service.
No one forces a young man to become a priest or brother. There is no coercion for a woman to become a nun. They know that vows of poverty, obedience, and celibacy are part of the package. If God gives a person a vocation in the Catholic Church, we believe that he will give them the graces and gifts to follow this life. The majority of men who leave the priesthood to get married ultimately have failed marriages. Promises are made to be kept. The problem is not the Church or God; the dilemmas are people unwilling to surrender their lives fully to Christ.
The Catholic Church also recognizes the right of people to get married. However, the Church has a right of her own to regulate her ministries. Permanent deacons, Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, Catechists, Readers and/or Lectors, Acolytes, and Lay Evangelists and Ministers all serve the Church and may be married. Would the critic demand compulsory matrimony? I hope not. Those who opt for priesthood in the Roman Rite also freely embrace celibacy. This is no less than what St. Paul did. After listing all the various rights that a follower in Jesus possesses, he acknowledges that he has chosen not to use these rights for himself.
[After listing the right to marry among many other freedoms, St. Paul says] “Yet we have not used this right. On the contrary, we endure everything, so as not to place an obstacle to the Gospel of Christ. … I have not used any of these rights, …” (1 Corinthians 9:12,15).
[After speaking about marriage] “This I say by way of concession, however, not as a command. Indeed, I wish everyone to be as I am, but each has a particular gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. 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 Corinthians 7:6-8).
[Advice to Virgins and Widows] “Now in regard to virgins, I have no commandment from the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. So this is what I think best because of the present distress: that it is a good thing for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek a separation. Are you free of a wife? Then do not look for a wife. If you marry, however, you do not sin, nor does an unmarried woman sin if she marries; but such people will experience affliction in their earthly life, and I would like to spare you that. I tell you, brothers, the time is running out. From now on, let those having wives act as not having them, those weeping as not weeping, those rejoicing as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning, those using the world as not using it fully. For the world in its present form is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:25-31).
There is evidence from the early Church that many bishops and priests, although married, practiced perpetual celibacy.
[More on virginity] “So then, the one who marries his virgin does well; the one who does not marry her will do better” (1 Corinthians 7:38).
[About a widow] “She is more blessed, though, in my opinion, if she remains as she is, and I think that I too have the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 7:40).
[Celibacy is a sign of the kingdom!] “His disciples said to him, ‘If the case of a man with his wife is so, it is not expedient to marry.’ And he said, ‘Not all can accept this teaching; but those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born so from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made so by men; and there are eunuchs who have made themselves so for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let him accept it who can’” (Matthew 19:10-12).
I believe the celibate priesthood is superior to a married clergy precisely for the reasons that the Church does. If any would challenge this, I would ask, do you think that the Magisterium is capricious in this demand? No, there are good reasons to maintain the tradition.
I will be 50 years old in a few days. I have been a priest for over 22 years. I am a normal heterosexual male. I have always safeguarded my purity. The older I get, the more convinced I become in the teachings and disciplines of the Church. I am convinced that the celibate priesthood is a treasure we must maintain no matter what the critics might say. Most priests I know love their celibacy and would change nothing about it.
Yes, I really believe this and so does the Church. Indeed, the word “vocation” was once reserved to priesthood and religious life precisely because of the celibacy or virginity element. Most people will get married and have sexual relations; those who pursue the evangelical counsels and embrace a single-hearted love of God have been called to something higher, more spiritually perfect.
Despite the rampant criticism of celibate priests, married priests are not morally impeccable either, and I could cite from history all sorts of self-righteousness and hubris on their part, too. Ministers with wives and families in other denominations also have problems. Half of all Lutheran ministers are divorced. We all need humility, lay and clergy alike. We especially need humility in regards to the teachings and disciplines of the Church. Humility would have us submit to her wisdom on such matters. Men who are generally called to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church are given the grace of celibacy as a gift of the Holy Spirit. There is no conflict between the mind of Christ and the use of the keys by his shepherds.
The statistics reveal a high divorce rate for clergy who drop out to marry. One can also look to the rolls of organizations which illicitly employ married priests for ministerial purposes. The rate of failed marriages has varied from 50 plus % (in the 1960’s and 70’s) to 30% (more recent defections). We generally do not share such reports or figures.
A man can have a wife and serve God. No one disputes this. That is why we have thousands of married clergy, deacons in the Catholic Church. All of us are called to serve God. But, no one has a right to priesthood. No one deserves or merits ordination. Priestly vocations are pure gratuities from God but granted and affirmed by the Church. She has every right to specify mandatory celibacy. Why is it that critics cannot appreciate this right of the Church to manage her own ministries? Why is it that people who are not priests want to tell priests that they should be married or have the right to be married? I gave up that option when I answered God’s call. I am happy. Most priests accept it.
Sorry if I sound harsh, but along with most priests I know, we find this subject upsetting. We embraced our celibacy as a gift to the Lord FOR GOD’S PEOPLE, and yet many of them bemoan the fact. If those in the pews (and/or who have stopped going to Mass) cannot be appreciative, why will they not stop being busy-bodies in trying to tell celibate priests how to live and to define their priesthood? The true selfishness is with the apologists for married priests. The cry for married clergy is insulting to every celibate priest. We experience the heights of both divine and “human love” without having to commit ourselves to a single person or to engage in acts of sexual intercourse. The problem here is not the Church’s prohibition against married priests (which) is not absolute; but rather, those who malign as worthless the value of celibate love lived out by priests in imitation of our Lord Jesus and of many of his apostles like St. Paul and St. John!
God keeps his promises and so should we. If a priest is faithful to his prayer life and ministry he can know both happiness and peace. The time of decision is before ordination, not afterwards. We all know times of loneliness, but the “aloneness” of a priest is something entirely different. He is comfortable in his own skin. He needs no other human being to compliment or to perfect himself. He is a priest and priests render sacrifice. He offers the Mass and in his celibacy he offers his own flesh with that of Christ. Daily he says to God, I belong entirely to you. He expresses this devotion and love of God in his service of the flock. People should want such priests and settle for nothing less!
I know the gentleness that should be shown to individuals. But when I speak about the priesthood as a whole, there can be no compromise. Priestly celibacy has a powerful eschatological meaning. It points to the kingdom that is breaking into our world. It best manifests our solidarity with the poor and the marginalized. It is no curse, but can become the engine that fuels the priest’s spiritual life and efforts at service. His focus is narrow and he looks upon his bride, the Church, without distraction. He goes where he is sent. He does what God and his bishop tells him to do.
In one sense it is true that we cannot walk in another man’s shoes; knowing what he feels and the demons that confront him. I would hesitate to publicly judge the souls of priests who leave ministry. Nevertheless, in another sense, every priest wears the shoes of the apostles who were instituted as priests by Christ. Could it be that the priest, who abandons his ministry for marriage and/or cohabitation, opts to walk barefoot and unprotected? The Roman rite insists that a priest is shod (wears shoes or sandals) at Mass. The tradition of Rome is that a working man puts on his working shoes or boots. The work of a priest is the Mass and so he puts on his shoes. When he takes his shoes off, his work is over. Priests who leave ministry for marriage have taken off their shoes. They have walked off the job. Hopefully there will be other priests to take up the work and to care for the people who were abandoned.
Charismata are gifts freely given from God. The charism of celibacy is given to any and all who are called to the priesthood in the Roman rite. Those who would deny this would be at odds with Catholic ecclesiology. God works in tandem with the Church he established. The Holy Spirit gives efficacy to the sacraments. Jesus extends his ministry through the shepherds he has appointed. God gives his servants what they need. This interaction is guaranteed by the keys given to St. Peter. Celibacy may be a greater sacrifice for some men than for others; however, God would not give a man such a vocation without also filling his heart and mind with the graces to fulfill it. God is not oblivious to the demand for compulsory celibacy in the West. Indeed, such long-standing traditions are regarded as guided by divine providence. While the requirement for celibacy is technically a discipline of the Church; it has accrued significant doctrinal elements over time— particularly in terms of the identification with Christ and the bridal analogy of the priest at the “marriage” banquet we call the Mass.
If it seems that not all priests are equipped with the charism of celibacy my response would be two-fold. First, while I once thought that a man could be confident in his vocation when he heard the bishop call his name, I am no longer so presumptuous. There was a story from a few years ago about a priest laicized by Rome because he was designated by the Mafia to become a priest so that he could better smuggle drugs in and out of the country. There is a similar dilemma with the priests who are pedophiles and pederasts. They should never have been ordained. Formation and psychological investigations should weed such men out. Child molesters, homosexuals and men lusting uncontrollably for women should not be ordained. Second, God gives his gift of celibacy, but the man must be properly disposed. That means that he is open to the charism, is in a state of grace and he values celibacy. What God gives the man; he must in turn, give back to God as a gift. Celibacy is a real sacrifice that honors God and benefits his people. It is an eschatological sign of the kingdom.
If priests fail in their single-hearted love, the fault is theirs— not God’s and not the Church’s demand for celibacy.