Among the numerous reasons for priestly celibacy, there is a profound reason given by the Church Fathers. To understand it requires faith (fides quaerens intellectum), to follow it requires charity. The Synodal Way, in attacking priestly celibacy, reveals its lack of both.
Jesus Christ, Eternal High Priest, was celibate, awaiting His Bride the Church. This is decisive. All calls to abandon priestly celibacy neglect this mystery and threaten the nuptial destiny of the Church. Jesus identifies Himself as the “Bridegroom” (Mk 2:19-20; cf. Jn 3:29) and remains celibate in the natural order because He marries the Church in the orders of grace and glory (cf. Eph 5:31-32). Evidently natural marriage is an awesome good, but it is to be forgone by Christ’s ministers for the sake of the supernatural marriage through which Christ and the Church beget billions of spiritual children for eternal life in Heaven.
This mystery of celibacy is so profound that it required a long preparation in the Old Testament, but had to wait until the Son of God came incarnate before being realised. The bishop and martyr Methodius wrote at the end of the third century:
“Let us inquire for what reason it was that no one of the many patriarchs and prophets and righteous men, who taught and did many noble things, either praised or chose the state of virginity. Because it was reserved for the Lord alone to be the first to teach this doctrine, since He alone, coming down to us, taught man to draw near to God; for it was fitting that He who was first and chief of priests, of prophets, and of angels, should also be saluted as first and chief of virgins. For in old times man was not yet perfect, and for this reason was unable to receive perfection, which is virginity.” (Banquet of Ten Virgins, D.I, c.4)
Jesus introduced something new, a perfection for begetting children in the spiritual order. St Joseph was not less of a father because of his perfect continence, but among men is unmatched as father, the ‘Shadow of God the Father’. Fatherhood is not impaired by continence, but attains its apogee therein.
The early Church was crystal clear with the Synod of Elvira (303) decreeing: “A cleric may not have any woman living with him but his sister or virgin daughter” (Canon 27) and “It is decided to impose the following absolute interdiction on bishops, priests and deacons, as well as all other clerics exercising ministry: they are to abstain from their wives and not beget children; to be sure, whoever does [beget children] shall be removed from the clerical state” (Canon 28). The first Lateran Council (1123) states: “We absolutely forbid priests, deacons, or subdeacons to live with concubines and wives or to cohabit with other women, except for those whom the Council of Nicæa (325) permitted to dwell with them solely on account of necessity, namely, a mother, sister, paternal or maternal aunt, or other such persons, about whom no suspicion could justly arise” (Canon 3) This stance of the Church is supremely pro-life. How so?
There are many ways to increase life on earth, natural and supernatural. Giving food, teaching truth, educating in virtue all serve the increase of life, with parallels between doing this on the natural and supernatural levels. But there are only two ways to bring new, substantial, rational life into this world. One is by a man and woman coming together in nature. Their child is a new substance. The parents cooperate with God in this work by providing the body while God Himself creates the new soul. The other way is when a priest confects the Holy Eucharist in Mass. There is new life there on the altar. It is not a new Person, for it is Jesus. But it is substantial life, for the accidents of bread and wine remain unchanged, while the substance is entirely different: no longer bread and wine, but the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. Not even baptism begets a new substance, for saving grace is not a substance, but a divine quality inhering in the soul (“divina qualitas in anima inhaerens” Roman Catechism, II, ii, 50; cf. S.Th. II-I, Q.110 a.2 ad.2). Both these points are amazing, ought to silence us in wonder: the conception of a child by a man and his wife, and the confection of the Holy Eucharist by a priest in Holy Mass. Has the world lost its sense of mystery, that it is willing to experiment with conception and even kill unborn children? Has the hierarchy of the Church lost its sense of supernatural mystery, that synods are launched which evidently aim to undermine priestly celibacy? Have we forgotten that a man may bring children into the world only through his wife, through one woman? Do we think it is any different for priests, that they may cooperate with God in the begetting of new substantial life only with one Spouse, the Church? Therefore priests must be celibate, or if for some reason they are married, to agree with their wife to a life of continence.
Is this so hard to grasp? Trent defends both marriage and the celibate priesthood (see, for example, Session 24, Canon 9). Marriage is good, but the priesthood translates it into a supernatural marriage with the Bride of Christ, the Church. Therefore he may have no other wife, just as Christ had no natural wife. By no means does this denigrate marriage, which is the crown of creation, raised to a Sacrament by Our Lord, holy. But God wants to teach us through visible marriage about higher, invisible realities. The Jews of old understood life and human nature like no others. How vital were children for the Hebrews! Without children, how could one be remembered on earth? One’s name would be forgotten, ones land given to others, together signifying total death (cf. Sir 44:9). But Jesus makes everything new. Christians look to a heavenly, not earthly, city. We live not for the things of this earth, for they will all pass away, but for eternal life of all God’s children, never forgotten, inhabiting the real land of the living. Catholic priesthood and virginity exhibit this hope like little else but martyrdom.
Celibacy echoes Christ’s patient waiting before He takes the Kingdom, before He glorifies His Bride, before the consummation. Jesus is waiting until His Bride reaches maturity. This self-restraint is tremendous, for His desire is great. So priests and religious must overcome the natural desire for children, union and companionship, and the temptation for carnal satisfaction, preferring the eternal realities. Celibacy and virginity indicate God has not yet consummated His union with mankind. The General Resurrection will be the total union in the flesh as subject to the Spirit.
Finally, why is the Church struggling over the matter of celibacy when in fact the teaching and benefits are so clear? The main difficulty is not theological, or in assessing history, or of weighing the (obvious) practical advantages of celibacy (1 Cor 7:32-35). It is because it is such a struggle in the imagination and the body for many clerics that it spills out into debates over discipline and spirituality. There are priests who have kept perfect purity and serenely accept the teaching. There are priests who struggle, some who have fallen, who beg God’s forgiveness and seek to regain the peace of celibacy. And there are priests who struggle, or have fallen, who can no longer believe celibacy is even possible. And they are frightened. And they argue against it, desperately. Not that every opponent of celibacy struggles or has fallen. But this element at least explains why the debate is so irrational, why evident proofs make so little impact.
But whoever we are, we are all guided by St Augustine’s closing words of his major work On Continence. Those who have not fallen must give God thanks for it, lest in boasting they fall. And those who have fallen, like King David, must seek His Mercy, which invariably God will give. Only let none of us seek to change what God has revealed, nor to change the fruitfulness of the Church for the crazed thinking of this world.
“But whether keenly contending, that we be not overcome, or overcoming various times, or even with unhoped and unlooked for ease, let us give the glory unto Him Who gives continence unto us. Remember a certain just man said, ‘I shall never be moved’ (Ps 29:7): and that it was showed him how rashly he had said this, attributing as though to his own strength, what was given to him from above. But this we have learned from his own confession: for soon after he added, ‘Lord, in Your will You have given strength to my beauty; but You turned away Your Face, and I was troubled’ (Ps 29:8). Through a remedial Providence he was for a short time deserted by his Ruler, in order that he might not himself through deadly pride desert his Ruler. Therefore, whether here, where we engage with our faults in order to subdue and make them less, or there, as it shall be in the end, where we shall be void of every enemy, because of all infection, it is for our health that we are thus dealt with, in order that, ‘whoever glories, he may glory in the Lord’ (1 Cor 1:31).” (De Continentia, 32)
Fr. James Mawdsley