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Quodlibet 24 - Celibacy

Friday, June 11, 2010
What do you think of the norm of the Roman Catholic Church which asks each man called to priesthood to take also a promise of celibacy? Are there reasons to change this nowadays? What happens if a priest after his ordination falls deeply in love and wishes to marry?

The history of celibacy in the Church is a long and complicated one, and there is a great deal of controversy about the nature and antiquity of restrictions on the marriage of the clergy. What seems clear is that, from a very early period, celibacy was considered desirable for ministers in the Church. There is even evidence from some points in the Church’s history that when married men did become priests or bishops, they were expected to leave their wives (who would live the single life as nuns or “widows”)! On the other hand, we should also note that in the Catholic Church today, there is a significant number of priests that are married, both in the Eastern Catholic Churches in communion with Rome, and also certain priests who were formerly Protestant ministers and have been granted exceptions from the general discipline of the Latin Church. This makes it clear that clerical celibacy is not required for some dogmatic reason (indeed, bearing in mind the recommendations for appointing a Bishop, ‘the husband of one wife’ in 1 Timothy 3:2, that is clearly ruled out), but rather a practice which the Church asks of her ministers because of the benefits it is seen to bring.

What might these be? Firstly, we might note the value of celibacy as witness. By denying themselves the natural good of marriage, priests bear witness to Jesus’ call to conform our whole lives to him, and, if it is asked of us, to be prepared for his sake to abandon anything else to which we might be attached (cf. Luke 14: 25-33). The celibacy of the clergy highlights the fact that these people consider their faith to have such a place in their lives that they are willing, for its sake, to make the whole significance of what they do with their life depend on that faith.

Traditionally, a symbolic significance has also been seen in the practice of clerics being celibate: a popular image of the Church in the Book of Revelation, and subsequent tradition, is of the bride of Christ. Consequently, Catholics have perceived a significance in the priest, who acts in persona Christi (in the person of Christ) in the celebration of the Eucharist, being “married” to the Church. This reminds us both of the complete self-giving asked of the celibate priest, as of the spouses in a marriage, and also of the love which the priest is called to (and is free to) bestow on the Church, in Jesus Christ her head and in her members.

As well as the symbolism and the witness of celibacy, we must also remember it has a certain practical value. I have been struck several times by stories of Dominican brethren working as chaplains in prisons and hospitals, who have been able to go and make pastoral visits on the great feasts of Easter and Christmas, when inmates and patients feel particularly lonely and isolated: the married chaplains of other Christian denominations quite understandably want to be with their families at these times. Of course, there’s no problem with that: I just find this a good example of how celibacy enables a priest to devote himself wholeheartedly to the people he has been called to serve: as St Paul teaches us in 1 Corinthians, ‘the unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord’ (1 Cor 7: 32).

As for the case of a priest wishing to marry after ordination, this is where general principles and particular cases collide. Clearly, it would be silly to ask every Latin priest to promise celibacy, only then, with equal regularity, to dispense that promise for anyone if they later wanted to marry: it would take away the value of the promise in the first place. Besides, tradition in the Churches of East and West from the earliest centuries (and perhaps from Apostolic times) has not allowed the priests or bishops, once already ordained, to marry and continue in their ministry. However, the Church is able to release a priest from the obligations of the promises he made at ordination, both of celibacy and of ministerial service in the Church. If a priest does seek to marry, then, this ‘dispensation’ is often given.

Overall, then, it is certainly legitimate to ask whether priests have to be unmarried, and indeed there are arguments that can be made in favour of allowing certain married men to be ordained (as happens in Eastern Catholic Churches). However, we should not forget the important place of celibacy within the Church not just in particular cases, but as the general practice of the Latin Church, and allow ourselves to consider why it has enjoyed the support of a very long tradition as desirable both for priests themselves and for the Church.

Gregory Pearson OP


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