It is often said that the Catholic Church must eliminate ecclesiastical celibacy. There are many who claim that this celibacy dates back to the Middle Ages and that therefore it was completely non-existent in the early Church. It’s really like this. What can we be sure of?
Dearest …, the obligation of priestly celibacy is by no means a rule subsequent to the Church of the Apostles. There are at least three reasons underlying priestly celibacy: Christological, ecclesiological, and eschatological.
The Christological reason concerns the fact that the priest is an alter Christus (another Christ) and celebrates in persona Christi (in the person of Christ). Since Jesus chose celibacy for himself, the priest must, therefore, live celibately.
The ecclesiological reason is related to the priest’s commitment. He is not an employee who can and must make himself available according to the schedule, but a real “father” who must always be available to the souls he is caring for. If this is so, how is it possible to combine family life (which requires total availability) with priestly life (which also requires total availability) in the best possible way?
The eschatological reason concerns what priestly life must represent. Secular priests (albeit to a lesser extent than religious) are also called to prefigure what will be the life in Paradise.
Dear …, it has been said and unfortunately it is continued to be said today that the abolition of the obligation of priestly celibacy could be a solution to the so-called “crisis of vocations.” What to say? That to naivete (if we want to call it that) there is no limit. It would suffice to make this consideration: Protestant and Orthodox communities suffer from “crisis of vocations” equal if not superior to the Catholic one. The problem is something else.
But let’s get down to it. History shows that the obligation for priests as regards sexual continence is not the result of an ecclesiastical decision. The obligation to priestly celibacy is an ancient practice both in the East and in the West. Yes: also from the East. It is known that the Orthodox only oblige monks and bishops to continence, while priests and deacons can marry. This, yes, was an innovation dating back to 691 with the Trullan Council.
Priestly celibacy dates back to the period of the Apostles, that is, to the beginning of the Church. There is an excellent text by Cardinal Alfons Stickler (Ecclesiastical celibacy – Its history and its theological foundations, published by the Vatican Library in 1994) where it is shown that in none of the ancient documents is ecclesiastical celibacy considered an innovation. At that time mature and often married men entered the priesthood, but they left family life, with legitimate and mutual consent, to devote themselves to the priesthood. The case of the Apostle Peter is emblematic: he was certainly married (just think of the episode of the healing of his mother-in-law) then gradually he left family life to devote himself to the very high task assigned to him by Jesus. Cardinal Stickler says that when these men received the priesthood (we are talking about the early Church) they were precisely required to live in the perfect continence and could no longer reside in their homes but in separate buildings.
It is often said that it would have been the Council of Elvira (actually it was a synod of the fourth century) to impose priestly celibacy. Cardinal Stickler, on the other hand, demonstrates that in that council the norm of celibacy was not introduced but the abuses were condemned by expelling the clergy who kept his wife.
Fathers of the Church such as St Ambrose (334-397), St Jerome (347-420) and St Augustine (354-430) affirm that priests must respect continence; and not only them but also the deacons.
Some say that priestly celibacy would even date back to 1139, with the Second Lateran Council. Why the misunderstanding? Because in that council it was decided that any marriages contracted by married priests were not only illegitimate but also invalid.
So, dear …, priestly celibacy is a completely different matter from what we read in the introduction of the norm of ecclesiastical celibacy.
(From La buona battaglia. Apologetica cattolica in domande e risposte, 2019©Chorabooks. Translated by Aurelio Porfiri. Used with the permission of the publisher. All rights reserved)