By RAYMOND DE SOUZA, KM
The Catholic priesthood is God’s holy calling (2 Tim. 1:5-9) to some men to follow Jesus’ footsteps more closely (St. Augustine). The priest is called to be an angel of the Lord, always keeping His Law in his mouth (Mal. 2:7). A truly celibate priest is one who is a real man, who understands human nature and offers a sacrifice to Heaven for the sake of a higher good: the promotion of the glory of God and the salvation of souls. He acts in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, in the imitation of Jesus Christ as perfectly as possible, including in Jesus’ celibacy.
The Old Testament provides hints about God’s desire to have a future celibate clergy. For instance, the sacrifice offered by Abel was pleasing to God, and, according to Jewish tradition, Abel was most probably a celibate. Melchisedech, the King of Salem and a Priest of the Most High God, offered a sacrifice of bread and wine to God, and Scripture suggests that he had no family (Heb. 7:1-3). The men whom Moses took to Mount Sinai to receive the priesthood had as one of the conditions to be continent from their wives for three days prior to the priestly consecration (Exodus 19:5).
When David, accompanied by some friends, was fleeing from King Soul’s anger, he asked for bread from the priest Abimalech, who had only the “holy bread” of the proposition, which only priests could eat. Abimalech’s condition for David and his friends to eat it was to confirm that they had been continent from their wives (1 Kings 21 or Samuel 21:4-6).
In the New Testament, the Jewish sect of the Essenes lived a monastic life in the desert, adopting strict dietary laws and a commitment to celibacy. St. John the Baptist’s lifestyle indicates that he had lived with them. Thus, the forerunner of the celibate Redeemer was also a celibate man.
St. John came in the spirit of Elias (Matt. 3:1-3) the great prophet who appeared alongside Moses on the day of the Transfiguration. Now Elias was the celibate prophet par excellence.
The Holy Family — Jesus, Mary, and Joseph — was composed of three celibates!
Jesus praised celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom in the parable of the eunuchs (Matt. 19:12).
The young rich man was invited to give his goods away and follow Jesus had to have been celibate, otherwise he could not leave his wife and children uncared for (Matt. 19:21).
Jesus told the Sadducees that in the Resurrection people shall neither marry nor be married, but shall be as the angels of God in Heaven (Matt. 22:29-30) — thus praising celibacy as a state approaching the angelic.
Among the apostles, only St. Peter is mentioned as having had a mother-in-law but no mention is made of the wife or children. Therefore, he was probably a widower.
St. John wrote in his Gospel that there are also many other things which Jesus did; which, if they were written down, “the world itself would not contain the books that should be written” (John 21:25). Jesus spent the forty days after the Resurrection giving a crash-course on theology, apologetics, discipline, etc., to the apostles, the first College of Bishops. No wonder that celibacy grew naturally among them.
St. Paul taught celibacy to the laity in a radical manner: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” (1 Cor. 7:1) and “I would that all men were even as myself: but everyone has his proper gift from God.…Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Christ was celibate, and St. Paul imitated Him and was celibate himself.
“I say to the unmarried, and to the widows: It is good for them if they so continue, even as I” (1 Cor. 7:1-9).” “Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife” (1 Cor. 7:24-27).
“He that is without a wife, is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God. But he that is with a wife, is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife: and he is divided” (1 Cor. 7: 32-40).
Among the Early Christians, the bond of absolute celibacy was regarded by the Fathers of the Church as a kind of spiritual marriage which weds the soul of Christ. St John Chrysostom — among others — placed any violation of chastity by a consecrated soul on a par with adultery.
St. Jerome taught: “The virgin Christ and the virgin Mary have dedicated in themselves the principle of virginity for both sexes. The apostles were either virgins or remained continent after their marriages. Those persons chosen to be bishops, presbyters, or deacons, are either virgins or widowers; or certainly, having once received the priesthood, they remain forever chaste” (AD 392-393). Likewise St. Epiphanius (c. AD 375) and Tertullian (c. AD 200).
Still during persecution times, the discipline of clerical celibacy was proclaimed by the Council of Elvira (AD 300), and there are no historical records about any revolt, complaint, protest, coming from clergy or laity. Celibacy was already so common among the clergy that the Council of Elvira dealt with the remaining exceptions of married men being ordained to the priesthood.
The discipline of priestly celibacy is part and parcel of the Christian understanding of the grandeur of the priestly state, as demonstrated by Sacred Scripture, the faith of the early Christians and early councils. Among the Eastern Catholic Rites there are both celibate and married clergy, but bishops are never married, not even among the separated Orthodox Churches. But they constitute a very small minority compared to the Latin Rite.
The glorification of celibacy in the heavenly Kingdom is noted in the book of the Apocalypse:
“And I beheld, and lo! A lamb stood upon Mount Zion, and with him 144,000, having his name, and the name of his father, written on their foreheads….And they sung as it were a new canticle, before the throne, and before the four living creatures, and the ancients. And no man could say the canticle, but those who were purchased from the earth. These are they who are virgins. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These were purchased from among men, the first fruits to God and to the Lamb” (Apoc. 14:1-5).
In the Lord’s Prayer we say, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” If in Heaven virginity for men is glorified, why not also on earth?
Pius XII summed it all up in Sacra Virginitas: “If priests and religious, and all who are in any way consecrated to the service of God, observe perfect chastity, they do so because their Divine Master remained a virgin for the duration of His life on earth.”
And as recently as June 2 this year, Pope Benedict XVI told hundreds of clergy members in Milan Cathedral during the Seventh World Meeting of Families: “The shining light of pastoral charity and a unified heart is sacerdotal celibacy and enshrined virginity . . . .Without a doubt, Jesus’ love is for all Christians but takes on particular significance for the celibate priest and for those who take up the vocation of a life of devotion,” he said on the second day of his visit to Milan.
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(Raymond de Souza is director of the Evangelization and Apologetics Office of the Winona Diocese, Minn.; EWTN program host; regional coordinator for Portuguese-speaking countries for Human Life International [HLI], president of the Sacred Heart Institute and a member of the Sovereign, Military, and Hospitaller Order of the Knights of Malta. His web site is: www.RaymondeSouza.com.)