Celibacy: a blessing, not a burden

Interview with author Father Gary Selin

Upon ordination, priests accept to live the practice of priestly celibacy, which author Father Gary Selin calls “a blessing bestowed upon the Church as whole, rather than a burden or imposition.” (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

Why does the Church continue to require priests to practice celibacy? One simple answer is that it was the path Jesus himself chose to follow, says Father Gary Selin, assistant professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver.

The author of the recently published “Priestly Celibacy: Theological Foundations” (CUA Press), explained to Denver Catholic that just as Jesus was “poor, celibate and obedient to the Father’s will…. Likewise, the priest seeks to imitate Jesus in these ways through his priestly ministry and life.”

In “Priestly Celibacy,” Father Selin, who earned a doctorate in Sacred Theology from Catholic University of America in 2011, offers a theological presentation of priestly celibacy, beginning with the biblical foundations for the practice, and including the history of the discipline from the very foundation of the Church.

In this interview, Father Selin speaks of the positive aspects of priestly celibacy as a “gift,” and his hope that more Catholics will learn to appreciate the practice as “a blessing bestowed upon the Church as whole, rather than a burden or imposition.”

Q: Pope Francis recently said that priestly celibacy is a “gift for the Church”. In what ways is that true?

Father Selin: Jesus Christ promised great rewards to the disciples who would leave all things, including marriage and the family, in order to follow Him (Lk 18:28-30). Jesus himself was poor, celibate and obedient to the Father’s will. Likewise, the priest seeks to imitate Jesus in these ways through his priestly ministry and life.

To enable the priest to fulfill his mission, the Holy Spirit gives to him particular gifts, or charisms, among which is priestly celibacy. Seen in this light, celibacy is a gift for the Church that needs to be protected and cherished. It is noteworthy that Pope Francis described celibacy as a gift for the Church. That is, it is a blessing bestowed upon the Church as whole, rather than a burden or imposition, as many believe today.

Q: Is this approach of seeing celibacy as gift new to the Church?

Father Selin: From the time of the Apostles, the Church has understood celibacy as a gift. St. Paul offered celibacy as a way of life for men and women, for he wanted them to be free from worldly anxieties: “The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided” (1 Cor 7:32-33).

Priestly celibacy as such enables the priest to be united, with an undivided heart, to Jesus Christ, the Eternal High Priest. This gift of divine intimacy is the first fruit of celibacy. Consequently, the priest is better able to pour himself out in a life of service to the Church through pastoral charity.

In his new book Priestly Celebacy: Theological Foundations, Father Gary Selin writes about the theology behind the vow of celibacy priests make upon ordination. (Photo provided)

In his new book Priestly Celebacy: Theological Foundations, Father Gary Selin explores the theology behind the vow of celibacy priests take upon ordination. (Photo provided)

Q: We are often told that celibacy is a “discipline” in the Catholic Church. What does this mean? Could the requirement for celibacy ever change?

Father Selin: Every treasure must be protected. For example, we have banks that secure our money. Likewise, priestly celibacy needs to be protected by a law of the Church, which provides a safeguard for the priest’s chaste celibacy, and also defends this treasure from those who would seek to destroy it.

Therefore, the discipline of priestly celibacy is the juridical protection that the Church provides for the gift of celibacy. This discipline is written in our Code of Canon Law (n. 277.1), and it requires priests and bishops in the Latin Church to life a life of perfect and perpetual continence, or celibacy.

As such, the discipline could change. That is, the pope could “loose” the requirement of celibacy for candidates to the priesthood, and thus open the way for married men to be ordained. While this change is theoretically possible, I believe that it is unlikely in view of our perennial tradition.

As stated above, Jesus Christ himself was celibate, and called his disciples to follow him. Imitation of Christ and obedience to his call of discipleship are the principal reasons for safeguarding the gift of priestly celibacy.

Q: There are many books about celibacy and virginity, what is unique about the approach you take in your book?

Father Selin: A review of contemporary literature shows that works abound on the history, sociology, psychology, and spirituality of priestly celibacy. Sadly, very little has been offered in the way of a clear theology of priestly celibacy. This book, however, will help to fill in the gap.

The collective ignorance among Catholics of the scriptural, patristic, and theological foundations for priestly celibacy is widespread. It is my hope that this book will enable the faithful to form their minds about celibacy according to the teaching of the Church, rather than according to the relentless secularism of the media.

We must pray that this gift is treasured and lived by priests, and prayerfully supported by the lay faithful. It is not a relic of bygone years that should be cast aside. Rather, it is a pearl of great price (Mt 13:46).

More information

“Priestly Celibacy: Theological Foundations,” by Father Gary B. Selin, STD
The Catholic University of America Press (April 4, 2016)

COMING UP: Diversity of newly ordained priests a great witness to the universality of the Church, Archbishop says

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Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila said he was grateful that two Vietnamese preists were able to study and be ordained in Denver. Photo by Dan Petty.

Seven men were ordained to the priesthood on May 14 at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.

The diverse nationalities of the men represented the universality of the Church, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila said.

“It is a great witness to the universality of the church that we have men being ordained today from Vietnam, from Mexico, from Colombia and from here in the United States,” Archbishop Aquila said.

Fernando Londoño, Matthew Magee, Mason Fraley, Salvador Sánchez-Gasca, Brother James Claver, Thomas Nguyen and Vincent Bui were the men who were ordained. Photo by Dan Petty.

(Not in order) Fernando Londoño, Matthew Magee, Mason Fraley, Salvador Sánchez-Gasca, Brother James Claver, Thomas Nguyen and Vincent Bui were the men who were ordained. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

Londoño, Magee, Fraley, Sánchez-Gasca and Brother Claver were all given assignments within the Archdiocese of Denver, while Nyugen and Bui are going to serve in their home diocese of Bui Chu in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

The bishop of the diocese of Bui Chu, Thomas Vũ Đình Hiệu, was in attendance at the ordination. Archbishop Aquila thanked him for his presence and for so graciously allowing Bui and Nyugen to study for the priesthood at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Colorado.

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila said he was grateful that two Vietnamese preists were able to study and be ordained in Denver. Photo by Dan Petty.

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila said he was grateful that two Vietnamese priests, Fathers Thomas Nguyen and Vincent Bui, were able to study and be ordained in Denver. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

During the homily, Archbishop Aquila implored to men to maintain a demeanor of humility and servanthood, imitating that of Christ in their own priesthood.

“It is important for you to understand your own weaknesses. You are called to be deeply rooted in your own humility,” Archbishop Aquila said. “Make yourself a total self gift, no matter what the cost. Always keep your eyes fixed on Jesus.”

The Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception had standing room only for the May 14 ordinations. Photo by Dan Petty.

The Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception had standing room only for the May 14 ordinations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

He said that only with the heart of Jesus can the men fulfill their priestly duties.

“In your ministry you will meet those who are sick and suffering. It is only with the heart of Christ that when you are called in the middle of the night to go and anoint the sick or baptize the dying that you will do so with joy,” he said. “Jesus, who has gone before us, has experienced all and he calls us into his love.”

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The new priests receive the kiss of peace from all the priests of the archdiocese. The Archbishop reminded the men that a fruitful ministry would come from having servants’ hearts and a faithful relationship with Christ. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

Archbishop Aquila told the men to reflect upon and cultivate their own relationship with Christ and to share the love they have experienced with those they will be serving.

“It is only in that personal experience in the gaze of the love of Jesus from the cross that we truly see the depth of his love for us,” he said.

With some of the new priests being sent to a different part of the world, he reminded them that no matter where they are called to serve, their mission will always remain the same: to lead others to Christ.

“It is precisely in your ministry that you will be nourished as priests, no matter where you are called to serve,” Archbishop Aquila said. “You are sent with the same mission, and that is to lead others to Christ.”

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The newly ordained pose with their bishops and priests from St. John Vianney Theological Seminary. Click here to see a list of the new Denver priests’ parish assignments. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)