Why Does the Catholic Church Insist on Celibacy?
An earlier Spanish-language version of this essay was recently published on CNN en Español.
Recently, the Catholic Church has begun an internal conversation about ordaining married men as priests. This move would mark a significant change from what has been the settled policy of the Latin Church for a thousand years, under which priests are required to remain celibate. This conversation has been prompted in part by the recent crisis of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, which some argue is at least partly a consequence of the Church’s strictures against priests marrying. The declining numbers of Catholic priests in recent years has also created pressure for the Church to open the priesthood to more candidates, and to not exclude religiously educated and virtuous Catholic men simply because they are married. Moreover, the Church is experiencing a dearth of clerical talent in many parts of the world, and allowing the ordination of married priests may help staff Catholic diocese in which there are not presently any available priests.
Married priests already exist in the Eastern Catholic churches as well as in the Anglican ordinariates first established by Benedict XVI. Because of this, many Catholics have seen a golden occasion in the recent Synod of Amazonia for Pope Francis to provide access to the priesthood to married men, opening the door after thousand years of prohibition in the Latin rite.
This potentially drastic change in Church policy has not come to pass, however. Pope Francis has decided to maintain a long and wonderful tradition that respects celibacy for ordained priests as a special gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church and to humanity, even if it means a reduction in the number of priests.
What does celibacy offer to the Catholic Church and to humanity that has compelled all the recent popes to protect it so forcefully? Why has Benedict XVI, who remained silent on church matters after his renunciation, decided to speak now in defense of celibacy together with Cardinal Robert Sarah?
In my opinion, the most profound and sharp response to this issue was given by a holy religious woman, when she said to me— undoubtedly speaking from her own experience—that a celibate person does not marry, because that person considers all other persons his or her brothers and sisters, and therefore any sexual activity could be considered somewhat incestuous by definition.
The celibate person does not disrespect marriage but values it, although it is transcended. To be single is premarital, but celibacy is transmarital. Celibacy uplifts marriage and highlights its divine component. That is why the highest matrimony was that virginal matrimony between the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph. There is no celibacy without the marriage institution to stand in contrast, and without celibacy, marriage can be trivialized.
Celibacy is a type of falling in love with the divine. It is a divine gift that has to be freely accepted without impositions. The celibate person channels all eros, all desire for possessive love, to God, and from God to all other people. The celibate person aspires to love as only God loves: with infinite love that is equal for everybody. The married person loves God through his or her partner, while the celibate person loves everybody in God. Celibacy should be seen as a consequence of a divine encounter and not necessarily the best way to serve God.
Understood this way, celibacy contributes to the spiritualization of the world in a different way than marriage does. Marriage forms families, but celibacy protects humanity as family, elevating and spiritualizing the human family. Marriage is centered on a particular love, while celibacy is centered in universal love. Celibacy is a gift that humanizes divine love. Christian marriage is a sacramental covenant that turns human love into divine love.
Celibacy is a source of love, fraternal communion, and selfless service to humanity. The celibate person looks at the world from the top down, as from the top of a mountain, operating from the spiritual to the material. The married person sees the world from the bottom up, from the sides of the hill, operating from the material to the spiritual. The celibate person admires the virtue, effort, and the capacity for sacrifice in the married person, while the married person admires, in turn, the contemplative capacity of the celibate person even while living in the middle of the world and the desire to be of service to any human being, to every child of God without distinction of race, gender, or religion.
Both the world and the Church are enriched by celibacy. It is a prophetic treasure in our pragmatic and materialistic society. We have been taught by the classics that the perfect redemption of eros is achieved by concentrating on agape.
Rafael Domingo is Spruill Family Professor of Law and Religion at Emory University and Alvaro d’Ors Professor of Law at the University of Navarra.