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.