On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of his election to the See of Peter, Pope Francis sat down with Infobae — a news agency from Argentina — to reminisce about his pontificate and to discuss issues affecting the Church and the world. During the interview, he said: “There is no contradiction for a priest to marry.” He called priestly celibacy “a temporary prescription” and said that it’s a prescription that could be reviewed.
The Holy Father made clear what he meant by his words. He said that celibacy is a “temporary prescription” inasmuch as “it is not eternal like priestly ordination, which is forever.” Secular media outlets and even some Catholic news organizations immediately jumped to the conclusion that the pope is open to revising the discipline of celibacy and that he even might lift it.
Of course, he said no such thing. When the requirement for celibacy was openly discussed at the 2020 Amazon Synod, Pope Francis chose not to even mention celibacy in his postsynodal exhortation.
The interview provides an opportunity to ponder the priesthood and celibacy. The Church’s teaching on celibacy is different from her teaching on the indelible character of ordination and holy orders being reserved to men alone. These are dogmas taught by the Church that need to be believed lest we fall into heresy or dissent.
That ordination to the priesthood forever marks a man was universally believed until the rise of Protestantism in the 16th century. The Church has always lived Hebrews 7:17 (“You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek”). Only after Protestants criticized the ordained ministry did the Council of Trent solemnly define that it is divinely revealed that every priest is a priest forever. Today, when priests are released from the obligations of the priesthood they do not become laymen again. They are simply given permission not to exercise the duties and obligations of the priesthood. They remain priests. No priest is ever “laicized,” despite the popularity of that unfortunate word.
In 1976, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith noted in its decree Inter Insignores that the Church had no authority to ordain women because Christ himself did not choose women to be among the Twelve and because the apostles, who were given authority to teach after Christ ascended, never chose women either. Rather than being explicit in Scripture, it’s a necessary logical conclusion from the revelation of Scripture and tradition.
Christ was not subject to cultural norms. The apostles, who taught more than Christ could in his earthly life, adopted many Greco-Roman customs instead of Mosaic norms. The Greeks had priestesses, but the apostles still did not ordain women. With the approval of Pope Paul VI, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared that these facts were definitive: the Church cannot ordain women.
In 1994, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed this conclusion in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. A year later, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith noted that the saintly pope’s letter was declaring that it’s always been taught that women can’t be ordained. There may come a day, as happened in the 16th century, when a pope or an ecumenical council must solemnly declare that this is a divinely revealed truth, but for now, it’s part of the ordinary and universal magisterium that we must believe women can’t be ordained lest we become dissenters to the Catholic faith.
Celibacy is in a different category. Although the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke tells us that St. Peter had a mother-in-law, the Lord’s counsel in favor of virginity for the sake of the kingdom (Mt 19:12) became normative. St. Paul noted that unmarried men are entirely devoted to the affairs of the Lord (1 Cor 7:32). Celibacy was the discipline very early on.
Although there were local councils as early as the fourth century, such as the Council of Elvira, which mandated the celibacy of priests, it was understood that even married priests were practicing sexual abstinence because they were to be single-minded in the worship of God. It was a carryover from Judaism, which understood that priests serving in the Temple ought to abstain from sexual relations with their wives to keep themselves focused on God.
When Christ replaced the Temple and the Eucharist became the primary mode of divine worship, even those priests who married in the first centuries of the Church tended to practice a “Josephite” marriage — a marriage without sexual relations — so they could be pure and undivided in worshipping God. Modern critics of celibacy haven’t done their research. Even married priests during the first centuries of the Church ceased to be husbands in the intimate sense because they and their wives understood the primacy of the worship of God and the single-mindedness worship required from those consecrated to offer the Mass.
Although the Roman Catholic Church even today has exceptions to priestly celibacy — the Anglican Ordinariate, for instance — and although the Eastern Church has married priests, even married priests today recognize the importance, value, and superiority of celibacy. Celibate priests live as Christ lived in this world. His celibacy and his sacrifice gave life to the world.
It’s certainly possible that one day in the future the discipline of celibacy may go away, but it’s not likely. Protestant denominations with married clergy have fewer vocations than many Catholic dioceses and religious orders. A celibate clergy has been normative in the Catholic Church for several hundred years. Parishes and dioceses aren’t prepared to support clergy families. Most priests earn less than minimum wage every year, regardless of the additional benefits they may receive — benefits most parishes and dioceses cannot afford to extend to a family.
More importantly, while priests may struggle at times with celibacy, and they may sometimes see it as a trial in their service for the Lord and his Church, there are very few, perhaps only a handful, of good priests who would give up celibacy in their priesthood. It’s only critics and outsiders who tell priests that we should be married. As great a good as marriage is, we priests know that God requires even more from us.
It requires a certain grace to live celibacy joyfully and wholly. The necessity of such a grace guarantees that priests are entirely devoted to God and because we are given the grace to be so devoted throughout our lives.
Father Thomas Petri, O.P., S.T.D. is the President of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. He holds a doctorate in moral theology from the Catholic University of America.
Leave a Reply