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Celibate priests: Why are priests in the Latin Church celibate?

Is priestly celibacy a dogma of the Church?

  • The obligation of celibacy for priests is not a dogma but rather a disciplinary law of the Church. This law is, however, very ancient and is based upon a consolidated tradition and other well-founded grounds.
  • It is certain that virginity is not a requirement of the very nature of priesthood. The verification of this fact is that celibacy is in force for the Latin Church but not for the Oriental Rite where, even for those Churches that are in communion with the Catholic Church, the norm remains that priests are married. In this situation, men enter marriage before they are ordained to the priesthood and not following their ordination.
  • However, the Oriental Church requires its Bishops to be celibate. The same regulation applies to monks.
  • The Church is firmly convinced that the current law on celibacy must continue for priests in the Latin Rite as part of their ecclesiastical ministry. The Church continues to believe that the total giving of oneself in the celibate state is an exemplary choice of priests of the Latin Rite.
  • On the other hand, it is not to be underestimated that those young persons who ask freely and accept to be ordained to the priesthood in the Latin Church will have to dedicate themselves to a celibate life and undertake this solemnly of their own free will before God and the Church.

When was celibacy introduced in the Church?

  • Some of the Apostles chosen by Christ himself were married while others were not. For example the Apostle John was not married.
  • The obligation of priestly celibacy was already in force since the 4th century. That being the case, the legislators in the 4th century also sustained that this ecclesiastical law was based on an Apostolic tradition. The Council of Carthage (390) declared: "It is appropriate for those who are in the service of the divine mysteries to be perfectly continent (continentes esse in omnibus), so that we would also observe that which was taught by the Apostles and maintained since the beginning".
  • Later, the Church's Magisterium, by way of the Councils and documents, repeated consistently these rules on priestly celibacy without interruption. In its document Presbyterorum ordinis (n. 16) the Second Vatican Council reaffirmed the intimate connection between celibacy and the Kingdom of God, seeing the former as a radiant annunciation of the latter.

Where do the Gospels speak about celibacy?

Mark 10, 29, Matthew 19, 12 ("eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven") and Luke 18, 28-30 all speak about celibacy. "Then Peter said, 'Look, we have left our homes and followed you.' And he said to them, 'Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life" (Luke 18, 28-30).

In what way can celibacy be understood as a gift?

  • First of all it is an inestimable gift from God, "a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can more easily remain close to Christ with an undivided heart, and can dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and their neighbour" (CIC, Can. 277 §1). In this sense it presupposes a particular vocation, a special call from God. It is, moreover, a charism.
  • It is also a precious gift made by the person to God and to his neighbour. The radical love of the celibate priest for God is manifested and actuated in the generous love of one's brothers and sisters and in willing service of them.
  • When this gift is accepted and lived out with love, joy, and gratitude it becomes a source of happiness and holiness not only for the priest himself but also for the Church.

What are the reasons in favour of celibacy?

  • First of all it must be said that merely pragmatic justifications, functional reasons such as a greater availability, are not sufficient. The same applies for any connections between celibacy and an element of prestige, power, promotion within society or financial benefit or a refusal, fear or disregard for marriage.
  • It is worthwhile remembering at the same time that celibacy ? with all its authentic motivations ? was spoken of by Christ in these terms: "it cannot be understood by everyone, but only by those to whom it has been given to understand" (Mt 19, 11).
  • There are principally three reasons for celibacy: Theocentric-Christocentric, ecclesiological, and eschatological. These are the motivations behind this aspect of advantage linking priesthood and celibacy.

1) The Theocentric-Christocentric reason:

  • Celibacy rests upon faith in God, love of God and love for God: it is a way of welcoming God as the ground on which a person bases his very existence. Pope Benedict XVI speaks some very illuminating words on this topic: The true foundation of celibacy can be contained in the phrase: Dominus pars (mea) - You are my land. It can only be theocentric. It cannot mean being deprived of love, but must mean letting oneself be consumed by passion for God and subsequently, thanks to a more intimate way of being with him, to serve men and women, too. Celibacy must be a witness to faith: faith in God materializes in that form of life which only has meaning if it is based on God. Basing one's life on him, renouncing marriage and the family, means that I accept and experience God as a reality and that I can therefore bring him to men and women" (Benedict xvi, Address to the members of the Roman Curia at the traditional exchange of Christmas greetings, 22 December 2006).
  • The priest is not to be understood as a person who is deprived of love. On the contrary, his very life is characterized by a deep passion for God. His life is not like that of a bachelor, but akin to a married person whose life is joined in an indissoluble way to God and his Church. Celibacy is a path towards love and a path of love; it enables the priest to cultivate a special lifestyle which is spousal in nature. The priest is a man of God because he depends on God for his life. The priest speaks with God, he discerns and decides with God and he continues to be more and more in love with God.
  • However, God has been made visible and has come among us in the person of Jesus, the only Son of the Father who was sent into the world: He became man, in order that humanity which was subject to sin and death might be reborn, and through this new birth might enter the kingdom of heaven. Being entirely consecrated to the will of the Father, Jesus brought forth this new creation by means of His Paschal mystery" (CS, 19). Jesus Christ is, for this reason, the good news about God. He brings about a new creation. His priesthood is new. He renews all things. One important aspect of this newness is the life of virginity that Jesus himself lived. He remained in the state of virginity for his whole life, dedicating himself totally to the service of God and of men. For this reason the person who is celibate gives himself in total dedication to the Lord. This is a fuller dedication to the Lord and a closer configuration to the Lord Jesus Christ, the Head and Spouse of the Church. This is a way of imitating his way of life, and identification with the heart of Christ the Spouse who gives his very life for his Spouse, a greater readiness to listen to his word and to dialogue with him in prayer.
    The Encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus says furthermore: "Christ remained throughout His whole life in the state of celibacy, which signified His total dedication to the service of God and men. This deep concern between celibacy and the priesthood of Christ is reflected in those whose fortune it is to share in the dignity and mission of the Mediator and eternal Priest; this sharing will be more perfect the freer the sacred minister is from the bonds of flesh and blood" (CS, 21).
    Virginity for the Kingdom of Heaven exists in the Church because Christ makes it possible with the gift of his Spirit. "In this bond between the Lord Jesus and the priest, an ontological and psychological bond, a sacramental and moral bond, is the foundation and likewise the power for that "life according to the Spirit" and that "radicalism of the Gospel" to which every priest is called today and which is fostered by ongoing formation in its spiritual aspect. This formation proves necessary also for the priestly ministry to be genuine and spiritually fruitful" (John Paul II, Pastores dabo vobis, n. 72).

2) Ecclesiological reason

  • With a likeness to Christ and in Christ, the priest unites himself in a love that is exclusive to the Church, entering a mystical marriage with the Church. "The consecrated celibacy of the sacred ministers actually manifests the virginal love of Christ for the Church and the virginal and supernatural fecundity of this marriage" (CS 26). The nuptial aspect of ecclesiastical celibacy expresses and makes this particular relationship between Christ and the Church incarnate.
  • In virtue of this exclusive spousal link, the celibate priest dedicates himself totally to the generous service of Christ and his Church with a great spiritual freedom, and also to all men and women without making any distinction of discrimination between them.
    In the Encyclical Presbyterorum Ordinis we see how priests "dedicate themselves more freely in him and through him to the service of God and men, and they more expeditiously minister to his Kingdom and the work of heavenly regeneration, and thus they are apt to accept, in a broad sense, paternity in Christ" (n. 16).
  • L’esperienCommon experience teaches us and confirms how it is possible for a person who is not bound to another in an affective relationship to be able to open his heart to his brothers and sisters more fully and without reserve.

3) Eschatological reason

Priestly celibacy is a sign and prophecy of the new creation, in other words of God's ultimate Kingdom in the parousia when, at the end of time, all men and women will rise from the dead. When virginity is lived out of love for the Kingdom of God it becomes a special sign, since the Lord has said: "At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven" (Mt 22,30).
The Kingdom that is to come is already present in the Church: the Church not only announces it but also makes it present sacramentally, in this way building up the "new creation". The Church constitutes the seed and the beginning of this Kingdom as the Second Vatican Council teaches (cfr. LG 5). Priestly celibacy is one of the ways by which the Church announces and contributes to the realisation of the newness of God's Kingdom.

Would the abolition of celibacy cause an increase in the number of priests?

As the Synod of Bishops in 2005 affirmed, a widening of the rule on celibacy would not be solution for the issue of the scarcity of vocations. This has been borne out by the experience of other denominations whose priests or pastors are permitted to marry. The scarcity in the number of priests is linked to other causes, among which is the secular nature of modern culture.

What is the relationship between priestly celibacy and the sacrament of marriage?

It is a complementary relationship: both are integrated and one completes the other.
Three authoritative witnesses will suffice to illuminate this point:
  1. "The Risen Lord's spousal love for his Church, offered in the sacrament of marriage, also raises up in the church the gift of virginity for the kingdom. In its turn, virginity indicates the final destiny of conjugal love. In this way, the nuptial mystery helps us to discover that the Church is the family of God." (John Paul ii, Address to the members of the John Paul II Institute for studies on marriage and family, 31 May 2001);
  2. "Indeed, the choice of virginity for the love of God and the brethren, which is required for priesthood and for consecrated life, goes hand in hand with the estimation of Christian marriage: both, in two different and complementary ways, make visible in a certain way the mystery of God's Covenant with his people." (Benedict xvi, Address to the participants in the ecclesial diocesan convention of Rome, 6 June 2005);
  3. "Both the sacrament of Matrimony and virginity for the Kingdom of God come from the Lord himself. It is he who gives them meaning and grants them the grace which is indispensable for living them out in conformity with his will. Esteem of virginity for the sake of the kingdom and the Christian understanding of marriage are inseparable, and they reinforce each other" (CCC, 1620).

Is the priest a man alone?

"By reason of his celibacy the priest is a man alone: that is true, but his solitude is not meaningless emptiness because it is filled with God and the brimming riches of His kingdom. Moreover, he has prepared himself for this solitude - which should be an internal and external plenitude of charity - if he has chosen it with full understanding, and not through any proud desire to be different from the rest of men, or to withdraw himself from common responsibilities, or to alienate himself from his brothers, or to show contempt for the world. Though set apart from the world, the priest is not separated from the People of God, because he has been "appointed to act on behalf of men," since he is "consecrated" completely to charity and to the work for which the Lord has chosen him. At times loneliness will weigh heavily on the priest, but he will not for that reason regret having generously chosen it. Christ, too, in the most tragic hours of His life was alone" (CS, 58-59).

What does the priest require in order to remain celibate?

  • He needs to have:
    • a careful period of preparation as he makes his way towards the objective of priesthood and for this reason he needs to receive a suitable formation:
      • both a remote preparation, which is lived out in the family milieu;
      • as well as a proximate formation, during his years in the seminary;
    • a solid human and Christian formation, supported by good spiritual direction both for seminarians and for priests;
    • a continuing deep experience of Christ: it is on the basis of the quality and depth of this relationship with the Lord that the entire priestly existence depends;
    • a more fuller and radical sharing of Christ's attitudes and behaviour;
    • constant prayer invoking God ceaselessly as the living God and clinging to him in moments of uncertainty as well as in moment of joy. The daily celebration of the Eucharist, the recitation of the Divine office, frequent confession, adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament, devotion to the Blessed Virgin, periods of retreat and spiritual exercises, the daily recitation of the Rosary ... these are some of the forms of prayer that should not be lacking in the life of a priest;
    • willingness to follow Christ even on the path to Calvary: the priestly life is also an acceptance of the Cross. Suffering, fatigue, dejection, disappointments, boredom, even defeat…all have their place in the life of a priest who knows that this to be the case but must face these head on with God's help;
    • greater progress in responding in a sensible way to "the evangelical counsels that Jesus offers in his Sermon on the Mount. Among these evangelical counsels and intimately linked to them are obedience, chastity and poverty: thus the priest is called to live out these counsels according to their original meaning and goal which both originate from the specific identity of the priesthood and give expression to it" (John Paul ii, Pastores dabo vobis, n. 27);
    • constant support from the Bishop, priest friends and members of the laity that will assist the priest by way of esteem, friendship, advice and prayer in his witness;
    • continual vigilance and prudence in one's dealings and relationship with other people;
    • a constant ability to work untiringly so that Christ may be made known, loved and followed.
  • The priest must make use of these means in full or in part so that he may live his celibacy with serenity and joy.
  • In the light of what has been said, it will perhaps not be difficult to share the thoughts of Pope Benedict xvi who wrote in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis about the Eucharist being the source and summit of the life and mission of the Church (22 February 2007), n. 24: "I reaffirm the beauty and the importance of a priestly life lived in celibacy as a sign expressing total and exclusive devotion to Christ, to the Church and to the Kingdom of God, and I therefore confirm that it remains obligatory in the Latin tradition. Priestly celibacy lived with maturity, joy and dedication is an immense blessing for the Church and for society itself."

The Primicerio
of the Basilica of Saint Ambrose and Saint Charles
Monsignor Raffaello Martinelli

NB: For further information about the topics discussed, please see the following Pontifical documents:
  • Second Vatican Council, Dec. Presby-terorum ordinis; Lumen Gentium (LG);
  • Code of Canon Law (CIC);
  • Paul viEnciclica Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (CS), 1967;
  • John Paul ii, Pastores dabo vobis, n. 27, 1992;
  • Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), nn. 922, 1579,1599, 1618-1620.