What celibacy is, and isn’t

George Weigel

Today’s scandal-time has inevitably raised questions about the celibate priesthood. Most polls indicate that a significant majority of U.S. Catholics would not object to changing the practice of clerical celibacy. That may well be true. I also believe that judgment often reflects a misunderstanding of celibacy’s history and purpose, and its relationship to the priesthood.

In a culture that treats sex as another contact sport, a vocational commitment not to use the gift of sexual love seems peculiar, even bizarre. Celibacy thus appears as something negative — a restriction to which a man must agree, a price he must pay, before the Latin-rite Church will ordain him. This “external” view of the relationship of celibacy to priesthood, which at least one American cardinal seems to share, is further reinforced by the notion that the Church concocted the celibate priesthood in the Middle Ages to blunt the threat of clerical sexual scandal and to sort out messy questions of property inheritance. In a time like ours, when knowledge of Church history is pitiful among bishops, priests, and laity alike, claims like that (heard more than once in the press recently) often go unchallenged.

Recent historical scholarship, however, demonstrates that there has been a deep linkage between celibacy and the priesthood from the first centuries of the Church.

Yes, the western Church only made celibacy a general canonical requirement in the 12th century, largely through the Second Lateran Council (1129). The mistake, though, is to think that that legislation came out of a vacuum, or was simply a pragmatic accommodation to medieval needs for clerical discipline and simplified property laws. On the contrary, Lateran II’s legislation was the culmination of an interplay between ecclesial experience and theological reflection that dates back to the earliest days of the priesthood. As is often the case with law, the law of celibacy gave concrete form to a longstanding practice that had been defended as an integral part of priestly life for centuries.

Yes, the western Church ordained married men to the priesthood in the first millennium. At the same time, however, it typically required those men, with the consent of their wives, to abstain from “using the rights of marriage” after their priestly ordination. Moreover, it seems that the celibate priesthood was highly valued in the Church from its beginnings. Those who read the relevant canonical history this way argue that it is not the western Church that went off on a tangent by making celibacy a general requirement in the 12th century; it was the eastern Churches, which continued to ordain married men without a promise of sexual abstinence, who diverted from the main trajectory of development.

No amateur can settle that historical argument, but it strikes me as an interesting variant on the current common wisdom. What any serious Catholic can grasp, I think, is that celibacy is essentially something positive, not negative: the embodiment in practice of a complete gift of self to Christ and the Church. Celibacy tells us what a man is for, not what he’s against. Celibacy is about giving, and all true giving includes a measure of self-denial.

In the Catholic understanding of the priesthood, which too many Catholics seem to have forgotten and which our secular-gnostic culture finds hard to grasp, the priest is not an ecclesiastical functionary, a man licensed to do certain kinds of Church business. A Catholic priest is first and foremost an icon: a living icon who makes present today the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. That is why today’s generation of ordinands has returned to the venerable practice of putting “ordained to the priesthood of Jesus Christ” on their ordination cards, rather than the more functional “ordained a priest.” What happens to a man at his ordination effects all of him. That is why the old catechism said that ordination confers an “indelible mark” on the soul.

As Christ gave himself unreservedly to his bride, the Church, so Christ’s priests are to make an unreserved and complete gift of themselves to Christ’s bride. That is what living the promise of celibacy is meant to express. Those calling for change must reckon with that very carefully.

COMING UP: Archbishop: In this time of need, join me for a Rosary Crusade

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When God chose to enter the world to save us, he chose Mary, whose deep faith provided the way for Jesus to come among us. She believed in the words of the angel, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Lk 1: 37). As she expressed her deep confidence in the promises of God, the Word became flesh. In our current time of crisis, our Church, world and our country need faith in God and the protection and intercession of Mary. And so, beginning on August 15, I am launching a Rosary Crusade to ask Mary to urgently bring our needs to Jesus.

The last several months of the coronavirus epidemic, the civil unrest that has broken out in different parts of the archdiocese and our nation, and the challenges the Church is facing have made the need for Mary’s intercession abundantly clear. Mary is our Mother and desires only our good like the Father.

In her appearance to Juan Diego, Our Lady reminded him and reminds us today, “Listen and let it penetrate your heart…do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain.  Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?”

Saint Padre Pio, who was known for his devotion to the Rosary offers us this advice: “In times of darkness, holding the Rosary is like holding our Blessed Mother’s hand.”

We turn to Mary in our difficulty because she is our spiritual mother, who with her “yes” to the Lord embraced the mysterious ways of God’s almighty power. She is “the supreme model of this faith, for she believed that ‘nothing will be impossible with God,’ and was able to magnify the Lord: ‘For he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #273).

We know, too, from history that Mary has answered prayers brought to her through the Rosary and that she has personally asked people to pray it for the most serious needs, especially for the conversion of souls.

Pope Pius V famously asked all Christians to pray the Rosary in 1571 to prevent Christianity from being overrun by the invading Ottoman Turks, and the Christian naval forces were subsequently victorious in the Battle of Lepanto. In the apparitions at Fatima, Mary identified herself as “The Lady of the Rosary” and asked the shepherd children to whom she appeared to pray a daily Rosary for world peace and the end of World War I.

During his pontificate, Saint John Paul II spoke of the Rosary as his favorite prayer. In his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, he added, “The Rosary has accompanied me in moments of joy and in moments of difficulty. To it I have entrusted any number of concerns; in it I have always found comfort” (RVM, 2).

This past May, Pope Francis encouraged praying the Rosary, saying, “Dear brothers and sisters, contemplating the face of Christ with the heart of Mary our Mother will make us even more united as a spiritual family and will help us overcome this time of trial.”

During this time of trial, we need to hear the words of Jesus spoken often in the Gospel, words spoken to Mary by the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, “Be not afraid.” We need to pray especially for a deeper trust and hear the words of Elizabeth spoken to Mary in our own hearts. “…blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk 1:45). The Lord is with us in this time as he has promised! Praying the rosary helps us, with the aid of our Mother, to relive in our own lives the mysteries of Christ’s life.

I personally invite all Catholics in the Archdiocese of Denver to pray the Rosary every day between the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, August 15, through the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, September 15. I would be remiss if I did not thank Bishop Carl Kemme of Wichita for inspiring this Rosary Crusade by launching one in his diocese at the beginning of August.

As we unite in asking Mary for her intercession and protection, please pray for the following intentions:

* For a growth in faith, hope and charity in the heart and soul of every human being, and most especially in our own that we may seek only the will of the Father

* For a recognition of the dignity of life from the moment of conception until natural death and that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God

* A quick end to the coronavirus pandemic

* For all who are suffering from COVID-19, for their caregivers, and for those who have died from the virus

* In reparation for the sins of abortion, euthanasia, and racism

* In reparation for the sins and failings of our spiritual leaders and for our personal sins

* For healing and justice for all those who have been discriminated against because of their race

* For the conversion of the world and the salvation of souls

* For all those who are persecuted throughout the world for the Faith

* For the conversion of those who carry out acts of desecration against our churches, statues and religious symbols

* In reparation for these acts of desecration, especially against Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament

* For our civic leaders and those who keep us safe to experience a deeper conversion, to govern justly, and to seek the common good

* That we may learn how to love and forgive from the example of Jesus

* For all marriages and families, neighborhoods, churches and cities to be strengthened

* For an increase in vocations to the priesthood, diaconate and religious life

Thank you for joining me in this prayer on behalf of our world, country and our Church. I am confident that many of the faithful will respond in turning to the Blessed Mother who “shine[s] on our journey as a sign of salvation and hope” (Pope Francis’ Letter to the Faithful for the Month of May 2020). May you always know the protection of Mary as she leads you to her Son!