Why is Priest celibacy mandatory ?

A positive meaning to celibacy is needed.


By Desmond de Sousa

 The spate of scandalous revelations in the United States about priests and even bishops and cardinals sexually abusing children and adolescents has rocked the foundations of trust the lay faithful had in their leaders.

Even though the actual percentage of those Churchmen involved is very small, their high profile in the press is a damning indictment of the Church leadership. It has seriously raised the celibacy question again: Should priestly celibacy still be mandatory today?

St. Peter, often seen as the first pope, as well as many subsequent popes, bishops, and priests during the church’s first 270 years were in fact married men, and often fathers of children.

Although celibacy did not become a universally mandated state for clerics of the western Church until the12th century (2nd Lateran Council, 1139) various Church leaders began to advocate it by the 4th century. Therefore, even today, it is seen only as a discipline within that particular Church alone, not a doctrine binding all: in other words, it is a church regulation, but not an integral part of Church teaching.

In the Latin Rite exceptions are sometimes made. From the time of Pope Pius XII (1939-58) individual exceptions are sometimes made for former non-Catholic clergymen. Since the rule of clerical celibacy is a law and not a doctrine, exceptions can be made, and it can, in principle, be changed at any time by the Pope. Nonetheless, both the present Pope, Benedict XVI, and his predecessor, spoke clearly of their understanding that the traditional practice is unlikely to change.

A positive meaning to celibacy is needed.

The meaning given to celibacy in dictionaries and in the popular perceptions of people’s minds is rather negative. Dictionaries commonly define celibacy as the state of not having a spouse, an abstention from sexual intercourse or as the obligation not to marry. It is a denial of something. Hence the reasons often given for the celibate way of life are grossly inadequate for today. For example, the practical convenience of being able to work better, free from other responsibilities. This is the reason that priestly celibacy is often considered outmoded today.

The celibate way of life of priests and religious needs to be liberated from this negativity, with a more positive perspective of a joyful, mature way of life, an adventure that is challenging and stimulating. In itself, celibacy as a single way of life, has no special value. Its value comes from the purpose of this way of life.

Ultimately, the only adequate reason for the celibate way of life is the Kingdom of God, as the pearl of such great price that Belgian Dominican theologian Edward Cornelis Alfonsus Schillebeeckx (1914-2009) called priestly celibacy, ‘the existential inability to do otherwise’ than make this choice.

The Kingdom of God is a religious experience that cannot be rationally argued. It is mysterious call, a gift from God, as well as a choice, an ongoing commitment. It is only through an intuition of faith – the unspoken religious experience that is God’s inner word to one’s heart – that priestly celibacy becomes entirely livable.

Theologically, the Church desires to imitate the life of Jesus with regard to chastity and the sacrifice of married life for the “sake of the Kingdom” (Luke18:28–30, Matthew 19:27–30; Mark10:20–21), and to follow the example of Jesus Christ in being “married” to the Church, viewed by Catholicism and many Christian traditions as the “Bride of Christ.”

Jesus deliberately chose a celibate way of life for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

Why did Jesus, the Son of Mary, not get married? Marriage, not celibacy was the ideal of every Jewish boy; it was considered a true blessing from Yahweh (Ps 127/3–4). Further, would not the purpose of the Incarnation have been better fulfilled if Jesus had been a husband and sanctified marriage, “since he had to become like his brothers in every way…..so that he can help those who are tempted, because he himself was tempted and suffered?” (Heb. 2/ 17)

Jesus himself made known the reason for his celibate way of life. It was not a burden, but a special gift from God to fulfill his mission ‘for the sake of the Kingdom,’ i.e. ‘in order to be in harmony with the Kingdom.’ The Kingdom of God is an expression indicating the end point of salvation history. It lies essentially in the future (“Thy Kingdom come”), yet it is already here in germ (“The Kingdom of God is within you”). Since life in the perfect stage of the Kingdom to come is celibate, therefore, life in the initial stage of the Kingdom already come, must reflect and anticipate the end. “For when the dead rise to life, they will be like the angels in heaven and will not marry..” (Mt 22/ 30).

The historical context for Jesus identifying his followers with the eunuchs in Mt 19/11- 12, has great significance in understanding his choice of a celibate way of life for himself and for his followers.

The Pharisees and scribes criticized Jesus and his companions for not following Jewish laws concerning the Sabbath, not fasting, eating with sinners, and accused Jesus of being a drunkard and a glutton. (Mt11/19). So Jesus and his companions were also denounced as “eunuchs”- those unsuitable for marriage.

It was an abomination to Jews to have no family. Jesus responds that his disciples have discovered the Kingdom and can ‘existentially do nothing otherwise than leave everything, including the capacity for marriage,’ and follow him. Therefore it is impossible for them to go back to their married life (Lk 14/ 26, 18/ 29); they can no longer devote themselves to goods and possessions (Mk 10/21,Mt 19/21, Lk 18/22) and they can no longer concern themselves with their own livelihood ( Mk 8/34, Mt 16/24, Lk 9/23)

The inner logic of this enthusiastic discovery of the Kingdom becomes a demand to leave the old patriarchal family group that was common in Judaism. “I tell you that anyone who leaves home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and for the gospel, will receive much more in this present age……and in the age to come he will receive eternal life.”(Mk 10/ 29 – 30). The same appears in Mt 19/ 29. However, the significance of Luke’s addition in his gospel, of ‘giving up wife’ (Lk 14/ 26, 18/29) in order to become a disciple of Jesus, is equally important. Luke was writing for gentiles, who with a different background from the Jews, did not live in this sort of a patriarchal family set up.

St. Paul’s seemingly pragmatic reasons for a celibate way of life in first Corinthians chapter 7, must be interpreted in the context of his consciousness of the imminent passing away of this world. “Actually I would prefer that all of you were as I am….but if you cannot restrain your desires, go ahead and marry – it is better to marry than to burn”(1Cor.7/ 7-9). “Considering the present distress, I think it is better for a man to stay as he is….But I would rather spare you the everyday troubles that married people will have.” (1Cor. 7/ 25-28). “An unmarried man concerns himself with the Lord’s work, because he is trying to please the Lord. But a married man concerns himself with worldly matters because he wants to please his wife…..Iwant you to do what is right and proper, and to give yourselves completely to the Lord.” (1Cor. 7/32-35). The reason isfound earlier in 1Cor. 7/ 29-31 “There isnot much time left and from now on, married men should live as though they werenot married….for this world as itis now, will not last much longer.” And in Heb 13/14 he says, “For there is no permanent city for us here on earth; we are looking forthe city that is to come.”

The challenge of the celibate way of life for the world today.

Modern literature is fascinated with the apocalyptic struggle between good and evil, between the weight of sin and power of grace inhuman lives. The priest is considered the symbol of this struggle in Maurice West’s “ The Devil’s Advocate,” Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory”, Henry Morton Robinson’s “The Cardinal,” Carson McCollough’s “Thornbirds” and many other novels.

In a world where promiscuity is accepted as normal, the celibate way of life challenges that acceptance of normality. The celibate becomes a ‘minister of restlessness,’ according to French Cardinal Suhard’s pertinent phrase, to those around.

The celibate way of life of the priest is a visible index of the hidden depths of the Kingdom.

The Kingdom is lived out in renunciation and annunciation of the Paschal mystery. The Kingdom is a mystery of immediate union with God. Christ was born of Mary through the immediate action of the Spirit. It is similar with the birth of the member of the Kingdom.

As Christ has the Church as Bride, so each of her members has an immediate union with Christ. The call to renounce marriage for the sake of the Kingdom, professes the new existence of children born of the Spirit, and immediate union with the Lord through special grace.

The Kingdom is no longer the type of life we live normally here below, where we live according to the norms and needs of the flesh. The Kingdom is already a new transfusion of grace that has entered into the arteries of human history; the “new heaven and the new earth”; the “new creation”; a whole new situation brought about by the Resurrection; a new society where we live according to the Spirit.

‘The existential inability to do otherwise’ for celibates, can only bear transparent witness in a mature person capable of intimacy at all levels, except genital intimacy. Since relationship is central to both human and Christian experience, understanding, and meaning, the central task of human and Christian living is to become loving persons, capable of deep, intimate relationships.

So celibacy as a relational reality is characterized by emotional and intellectual intimacy while foregoing genital intimacy. Celibate relationships today can be deep, intimate, vulnerable, life-giving and life transforming.

Redemptorist Father Desmond de Souza formerly served as the executive secretary of the Office of Evangelization in the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference. He was closely associated with the Churches in Asia from 1980 to 2000. He is now based in Goa.

Priestly Celibacy , Desmond De Sousa
Blog :  http://www.silentmaj.wordpress.com


  1. July 24, 2012 at 8:13 am

    very well written…anyways we need to pray more for them…


    • Silent Voice said,

      July 26, 2012 at 12:33 am

      Comments on Face Book.

      Denis Khan:
      Under the ordinariate rules, Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, married Anglican priests can convert to Catholicism & retain their married status. Hypothetically, a Catholic priest can join the Anglicans, get married & return to the Catholic fold. Baptism & Holy Orders are indelible sacraments.


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