The current crisis in vocations to the priesthood is mistakenly seen as something to which the Church must respond in terms of the secular agenda. The crisis exists, we are told, by experts both in the Church and on the op-ed page of the New York Times, because the Church is lagging behind the world. This lag is caused, at least in part, the allegation holds, by the anachronistic baggage of priestly celibacy which is part of the pre-Vatican II Church. Celibacy purportedly has no relevance to today’s Church and must be gotten rid of if the Church is to survive in any meaningful way in the future. The demand for an end to mandatory celibacy for Catholic priests is issued on the grounds that priestly celibacy is “merely discipline,” in other words, it has nothing to do with doctrine, nothing to do with what a priest is. Historical arguments are brought forth to show that there was no mandatory priestly celibacy before a certain time in the Church. The reference in the gospels to Peter’s mother-in-law shows that he was married. The same may be true of other apostles. The Second Epistle to Timothy exhorts a bishop to be a man of one wife. However, to jump from this state of affairs in the apostolic Church to the conclusion that clerical celibacy does not have to do with the Church’s understanding of the priesthood ignores strong evidence in the writing of the Patristic era about the link between celibacy and the function of the priesthood. To use the evidence of the apostolic Church and the rather haphazard and non-doctrinal way in which clerical celibacy was imposed in the first centuries of the Church to advocate a married priesthood is to give no place to the role of doctrinal development in the Church. Only by refusing to allow such development in the understanding of the priesthood, can one conclude that celibacy is a matter of discipline alone, something decided by a particular age and a particular situation, which has no relevance to our time.
That this is not true can be seen by the most cursory reading of the history of clerical celibacy. After the fourth century, the Church consistently advocated a celibate priesthood. Moreover, every reform of the clergy, from the Council of Elvira in the early fourth century, to the reforms of Gregory I in the sixth century, Gregory VII in the eleventh century, and Charles Borromeo in the sixteenth century, included a return to priestly celibacy after periods of laxity. Celibacy was not merely a discipline which the Church decided to impose on her priests. Rather, the evidence testifies to a conviction that celibacy is consonant with what it means to be a priest. It seems clear that, like other doctrines, that of the priesthood developed. One such development is the conviction that celibacy is of the bene esse, the well-being, of the priesthood. That is to say: the priesthood is best lived out in celibacy, not merely because of discipline, or even some particular understanding of virginity or sex, but rather, because celibacy touches deeply upon what it means to be a priest.
The Primacy of Jesus’s Priesthood
It is commonplace today to speak of marriage and celibacy as two states of life that are both blessed by God and therefore have equal status vis-a-vis salvation. This is true: whether one works out one’s salvation in marriage or in celibate life in no way decides the outcome. The two states are “salvation-neutral,” so to speak. But this does not mean that the celibate state lacks a special relationship to the priesthood. Celibate life is not necessarily a “higher” state, but it does conform more truly to what the priesthood is. The priesthood of Christ is not merely a part of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ ministry is who He is. In an analogous way, what the priest does as priest is an essential part of who he is. Therefore, the function of the ministry of priesthood can never be separated from the essence of the priesthood. Just as Jesus’ choice to live a celibate life cannot be seen as irrelevant to his ministry—what he did, and therefore who he was—so, too, for the priest. If the ministerial priesthood bears an intrinsic relationship to the priesthood of Christ, as affirmed by Vatican II, then the question of celibacy or marriage is certainly relevant to the ministerial priesthood.
Jesus’ free choice of celibacy was constitutive of his ministry. His freedom to die the death he died demanded the life he chose, and that life included celibacy. For Jesus to have committed himself to marriage and family would have involved taking on obligations which would preclude the freedom necessary to die to take away the sins of the world.
While the act of sexual intercourse between husband and wife is sanctified in marriage, that is, taken up into the love which Christ has for his Church, nevertheless it is part of the world, part of the historical reality which is not yet completely transformed by Christ. What this means is that human sexual activity, even within the sanctity of the sacramental marriage bond, is concerned with this world and is therefore grounding. This grounding is entirely consonant with the state of marriage. The marriage relationship, while sacramental, pertains to this world; in eternal life, we are told, there will be no marrying. While transcending the world in the sense of being the locus, infused with the grace of God, in which the man and woman work out their salvation, nevertheless, it is grounded in the world.
It is not, we must insist, that the love of husband and wife has nothing to do with the love between Christ and his Church. It is, rather, that the marriage relationship, which includes sexual intercourse as part of its essence, does not itself point to that eschatological love which is not grounded in the world (though it is bound to the world in love) but transcends the world in an absolute sense. (Cf. Matthew 22:29-30). Who Jesus was, and is, demanded the laying aside of marriage and the genital expression of sexuality. The love that Jesus proclaimed cannot be grounded in this world; it is truly supernatural. This does not mean that eros is denied; rather, eros is transformed into that love which knows no limits, no grounding, which is the love of God. The priest stands as the sacramental pointer to the love that is beyond death, the love that is not grounded, that is not confined to any one person, which knows no limits: the love of God.
The world in which we live mistakenly believes that there are only two possibilities for the expression of the erotic drive: genital sexual activity or the suppression of that activity. But the Catholic has always known (and Catholicism is not unique in this knowledge), that there is another possibility which involves neither genital activity nor its suppression: the possibility of the transformation of eros, a transformation that does not destroy eros but purifies it by freeing it from the confining groundedness of genital activity. It is when eros is thus purified and transformed—not, we must repeat, suppressed—that it becomes a vehicle for the love of God. St. Teresa of Avila and the other Carmelite mystics provide vivid examples of the reality of the transformation of eros into the mystery of the love of God.
The possibility of the transformation of eros is real and need not take the forms we associate with the great mystic saints. Not all Catholic priests have the calling of St. Teresa of Avila. But the man who takes on celibacy for the sake of the kingdom, who opens himself up to the transformation of his eros by grace, becomes the sacramental symbol of Christ not merely in a doctrinal way but in a way which points to love as it will be in heaven.
Celibacy is one of the signs of that “something more” which transcends the confining love of this world, pointing to the reality of the limitless love of God. Celibacy belongs not merely to an imposed discipline that can be changed, but rather to the bene esse of the priesthood itself. Celibacy is part of the well-being of the Church, and suppressing it would do deep harm to the Church herself.