Skepticism over New Calls to Abandon Priestly Celibacy

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In the wake of ongoing new reporting regarding sex scandals among many clerics, we have witnessed increased calls for the Catholic Church to loosen celibacy restrictions for the priesthood. Even many devout Catholics have begun to believe celibacy represents an unhealthy repression of sexual urges. To stem the tide of clerical abuse, the Church must dispense with celibacy. Fr. Carter Griffin is an outspoken opponent of this reasoning. His new book, Why Celibacy?: Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest, encapsulates his thinking on the topic, going far beyond the commonly-heard defenses of clerical celibacy. As the title suggests, Fr. Griffin’s defense of celibacy relies on a robust understanding of the priest as father.

As Scott Hahn observes in the foreword, the priesthood is not simply a job or a career. It is a vocation that demands total commitment, and “celibacy has safeguarded that commitment.” The connection between the priestly vocation and celibacy has a strong biblical pedigree. Sexual continence was required for priests serving in the temple. Jesus, the preeminent priest who offered the greatest sacrifice for the salvation of the world, was celibate. St. Paul embraced celibacy as part of his apostolic calling, and urged others to do the same (1 Cor. 7:7). As Fr. Griffin then explains, the practice of clerical celibacy is visible very early in the Church, confirmed or encouraged by the Councils of Elvira (305 A.D.) and Trullo (691 A.D.), and later by the Second Lateran Council (1139 A.D.).

Yet the Church never understood celibacy in and of itself as the key to unlocking the spiritual power of the priesthood. Rather, it was celibacy united to an understanding of the priest as a supernatural father. Biblical imagery for this relationship is seen in Christ’s role as the new Adam generating the Church through his sacrifice and becoming a father of a new humanity (1 Cor. 15:45). Like a good father, Christ protects, suffers, and dies for his spiritual family. Moreover, Christ often referred to his disciples as children (Mark 10:24; John 13:33, 21:5; Mark 2:5). St. John speaks of Christians as “born of him” (1 John 2:28-29). The testimony of the early Church—including that of Sts. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyon, Clement, Athanasius, Benedict, Ambrose, Augustine, and Leo the Great—use the imagery of Christ as a spiritual father. The supernatural paternity of priests and bishops is also explicit in St. Ignatius of Antioch, the Passion narrative of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, and the Didascalia Apostolorum. Many of these same sources also explicitly associate priestly celibacy with supernatural generation.

Fr. Griffin also explores the priest-as-father vision as analogical to that the natural father. Just as the natural father provides, guides, and protects his family, so the priestly father performs these functions for his flock. Certainly we see Christ acting this way in reference to his spiritual children, perhaps most evocatively in his warning that “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt. 18:6). Here Fr. Griffin is especially insightful, because he perceives that contemporary attacks on natural fatherhood—viewing man’s fatherly role as dispensable, ridiculing the father figure—most likely have an impact on the Church’s devaluing of the spiritual fatherhood of the priest.

 

This vision extends still further as Fr. Griffin unites spiritual fatherhood to the “threefold office” of the priesthood: sanctification, teaching, and shepherding. In the priest’s administration of the sacraments, he acts as a father, generating, as it were, Christ for the faithful. Likewise in his teaching, the priest offers “clear and unadulterated preaching” that proclaims truth and confronts sin. Third, the priest shepherds or rules by both guiding his flock and protecting them from harm while seeking to restore the lost faithful to grace. The priest then, participates in the fatherhood of God in this threefold munera, which is appropriate to his role of acting in persona Christi in his sacramental functions. As one Church document explains, “priestly celibacy is a communion in the celibacy of Christ.”

Yet, one might ask, does the priest-as-father vision require priestly celibacy? Fr. Griffin offers numerous reasons why it should. There is, of course, the intimate connection between Christ’s celibacy and that of the priesthood, as described above. Moreover, celibacy is uniquely suited to fostering that threefold clerical office, as celibacy promotes an unparalleled sanctification as well as a contemplative life, and eliminates distractions or obstructions to governing the flock faithfully and effectively. If virginity is a “death to self,” then those who practice it are capable of dying, both spiritually and, if necessary, physically, for those they serve. It also inculcates in an unparalleled manner holiness, pastoral charity, fidelity, fraternity, and priestly identity.

Can married men still perform these functions? Yes, and those rites within the Catholic Church which permit married clerics offer demonstrable examples. But these are not typical, especially in light of the Church tradition and teaching described above. As Fr. Griffin explains, though not necessary, celibacy is eminently suitable and even normative, because it so powerfully communicates the mystery of Christ and his Church. For those who find the “priest as father” paradigm to be ironic, given the father’s role in sexual generation, they should consider the example of St. Joseph. Joseph, whom so many Catholic fathers turn to for guidance and assistance, was celibate in his relationship with Mary. This celibacy, Church tradition teaches, was not only for the sake of Mary’s perpetual virginity, but also to emphasize Joseph’s singular vocation to be a spiritual father and husband. Moreover, our history has numerous examples of celibate priests who were exemplary spiritual fathers: St. John Vianney, St. Padre Pio, and St. John Paul II are all recent examples.

Nor is there strong evidence that allowing more priests to marry would solve the sexual abuse crisis in the Church. As Fr. Griffin astutely notes, the failure of priests and bishops to live their celibate vocation is not a failure of celibacy, but of chastity. “Good fathers simply do not abuse their children, and they tolerate no one who might,” he writes. It’s a bit of an obvious point, but one we can easily forget—a man who sexually abuses a boy would probably not have restrained himself from this egregious act if he was permitted to sleep with a woman. Moreover, weakening or eliminating celibacy strictures for the priesthood would represent the Church’s capitulation to the Sexual Revolution, with its ideological presumption that man’s sexuality is not something to be refined by virtue, but celebrated by removing restraints.

Thus, says Fr. Griffin, the burden of proof must rest not with the Church and her continued commitment to clerical celibacy, but with those who aim to upend two thousand years of ecclesial tradition. Of course, none of this is to say that celibacy is a silver bullet for the Church’s problems. Fr. Griffin acknowledges that narcissism, clericalism, and activism all serve as especially dangerous temptations for celibate priests. And the priesthood has become bogged down as well in the functionalism of “programs, institutional ministries, and measurable success.” Spiritual fatherhood, properly and robustly understood, can blunt these problems by helping remind clerics of their primary vocational responsibility. It also, quite importantly, reinvigorates a conception of the priesthood that is singularly masculine. As Fr. Griffin explains, masculinity finds its fulfillment precisely in fatherhood.

As recently as 2013, the Church called celibacy “a joyful gift which the Church has received and wishes to retain, convinced that it is a good for itself and for the world.” Likewise, Fr. Griffin explains that celibacy, when lived well, creates “a privileged way of embracing a fatherhood that transcends nature alone; it is a ‘supernatural’ fatherhood in the order of grace.” What his book gives us, then, is a far more expansive vision of clerical celibacy than the oft-invoked phrase that priests are “married to the Church.” Rather, to quote Pope Pius XII: “the parish priest is a pastor and a father, a pastor of souls and a spiritual father.” Such a vigorous vision of the priesthood might, in part, be an answer to the Church’s broader clerical crisis.

Casey Chalk

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Casey Chalk is a graduate student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College.

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