Why does the Church have celibate priests?
By Jacob Watson
The celibate priest in the Catholic world is a topic of contention between members of the Church and Protestants. Although Catholics are accustomed to the idea, Protestants have historically had issue with the Church’s discipline of a celibate priesthood. Are they right? Is celibacy an unbiblical burden that the Church places on her priests? Some Protestants may be convinced, but it misses the deep Scriptural logic behind it. One has only to look at Jesus for the perfect example. The Son of Man lived a celibate lifestyle, and He and St. Paul encouraged this way of life.
Jesus Christ lived a celibate lifestyle as fully human. In the words of St. Paul, He was “made like his brothers in every respect” (Hebrews 2:17). However, unlike most of his earthly peers, Jesus fulfilled His perfect earthly life by remaining celibate and unmarried. Human beings are called to emulate their Savior as much as possible. Priests can indeed follow in Christ’s footsteps through celibacy. They are called to imitate the life of Jesus more closely than the rest of humanity, because they act as a representative for Christians to follow. St. Paul said to his flock, “I urge you, then, be imitators of me” (1 Cor. 4:16). Thus Jesus provided the example of celibacy as something to emulate.
Jesus encouraged living a celibate lifestyle through his actions. In Matthew 19, after teaching the indissolubility of marriage and the evil of divorce, Jesus explains the primacy of celibacy: “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it” (Matt. 19:10-12). A eunuch is unable to have sexual relations, and Jesus proclaimed that someone can become a eunuch “for the sake of the kingdom…” Not only that, but those who can accept this teaching and live it should do so. Such a person sacrifices marriage because God calls the Christian to sacrifice it.
St. Paul built on Jesus’ teaching of celibacy for the kingdom. He said that: “The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided . . . he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better” (1 Corinthians 7:32-33, 38). The state of life which enables the man to be wholly devoted to the work of Christ is encouraged by this early Christian evangelist. For he can dedicate all of his time to God. St. Paul continued, “I wish that all were as I myself am...it is good for them to remain single, as I am” (1 Cor. 7:8-9). He could recognize and understand Jesus’s teaching on being a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom, so he accepted the lifestyle himself. With the Founder of the Church and St. Paul encouraging celibacy, it is no wonder that the Church instituted this idea for the priesthood.
Celibacy is the great calling to which the Roman Catholic Church has called her priests. The priest is called to give his whole self to Christ in his ministry. At his ordination, the priest promises to “be united more closely every day to Christ the High Priest...and with him to consecrate [them]selves to God for the salvation of all” (Rites of Ordination of a Bishop, of Priests, and of Deacons).Such a lifestyle enables one to be fully concerned with the needs of the people, and not of himself. It is the most sacrificial vocation in Scripture. Since the Church recognizes this specific vocation, it requires that men willingly take this sacrifice up for the good of the people if they want to be priests. No person is forced to avoid marriage, only those who willingly want to serve a celibate life for God as a priest.