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This essay is on the Christian origins and reasons for a celibate priesthood.

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The state or condition of those who have chosen to remain unmarried for the sake of the kingdom of heaven in order to give themselves entirely to God and to the service of his people. In the Latin Church, celibacy is obligatory for bishops and priests. (see 1579 & 1580)

(From the Glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church)

Christ and the Rich Young Ruler, by Hofmann

On Priestly Celibacy

A young, old philosophy friend of mine emailed me today. He asked a number of questions and suggested that I could respond in the blog. Today I wrote a reply to the following:

"I'm sure you are aware that most Christian sects do not require their "priests" or whatever to remain single and celibate. My grandpa, for instance, was a Lutheran minister. If he was Catholic, I wouldn't be! Anyways, I was curious as to the origins of this rule. I have heard that it was put into effect during the middle ages. It's primary purpose was to make sure that priests had no heirs (legitimate or otherwise), thus any material wealth would be given over to the church. In essence, it was all about the $. Do you know of any more legitimate purpose of this law or where it came from- and why other sects don't follow it? Do you think this law may have been in part a cause for the sexual abuses committed by many priests? Lastly, do you feel it should still be in effect?"

Priestly Celibacy is a Matter of Discipline, Not Doctrine

You are right to call priestly celibacy a rule rather than a doctrine. It is a discipline required of priests by the Church for the greater good of its people. (Though in the early church, priests and bishops were married, and today, some priests are married Protestant converts.) At the Holy Spirit's prompting, this rule could be changed, though I don't think it will be (or ought to be) changed in our time.

(A Side Note Concerning Your Existence)

[You wrote: "I'm sure you are aware that most Christian sects do not require their "priests" or whatever to remain single and celibate. My grandpa, for instance, was a Lutheran minister. If he was Catholic, I wouldn't be!"]

Feel detached from the pull to agree that the practices which have causally brought about to your existence are best. Your existence here is a great good (which I have personally enjoyed), but the natural causes which seemingly arranged for your birth need not receive your advocacy. As an example, (and it is a bad one since your grandfather's status as a married pastor certainly should not be condemned) we would not be here if the institution of slavery had not existed in America. However, that does not require that we refrain from declaring slavery to be a bad practice and that those responsible should have acted differently. (Again, my point is not that a married clergy is a wicked institution, but to allow you to accept the possibility that a celibate clergy is a better way.)

When I was a kid I once asked our priest why it was ok for people not to have as many children as possible. The way it occurred to me then, you were preventing people from existing by never conceiving them. Causing someone's non-existence seemed worse to me than murder. He assured me, "You will have as many kids as you are supposed to."

If God loves us, He would not allow our existence to have been decided, yea or nay, by (if you'll forgive me) a fart in the wind or some other arbitrary, chaotic variable. The same applies for any and all of our children, yet to be born, who we are destined to pro-create in the future. There is a peace to be found in this.

The Origins of Celibate Clergy

The tradition in the Western or Latin-Rite Church has been for priests as well as bishops to take vows of celibacy, a rule that has been firmly in place since the early Middle Ages. You suggested that the reason this rule was put into place then was due to financial concerns. "It's primary purpose was to make sure that priests had no heirs (legitimate or otherwise), thus any material wealth would be given over to the church. In essence, it was all about the $."

This is not the first time I have come across the explanation suggested here. It may be that this practical reason prompted the change. I do not know. But it is wrong to then conclude from this that the entire concept of dedicated celibacy in service to God is a unnatural introduction into Christianity, fit to be discarded. The Christian recognition of the spiritual and practical benefits of celibate life, and praise of its observance, goes back to the time of Jesus.

Celibacy's Christian Foundation

It should not be disregarded that Jesus Christ, the model for all Christians but in a special way for priests, lived a celibate life Himself. He also encouraged it in His teaching. He commended "those who have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven", declaring the ability to do so a gift. (Matthew 19:11-12)

St. Paul taught similarly, wishing that all could be celibate like himself, but he noted that each person has a particular gift from God. (1 Corinthians 7:7) Paul wrote about the freedom for full devotion that celibacy provides. "An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided." (1 Corinthians 7:32-34)

The history of the Church also attests to an honored tradition of consecrated celibacy as practiced by nuns, monks, and great saints. While the gift of self to God in celibacy has always been celebrated in Christianity, it must be remembered that neither Jesus, Paul, nor the Church ever taught that marriage is anything less than a very good and holy institution.

The Benefits of Celibacy for Clergy

St. Paul wrote that those who marry do not sin, but added that "such people will experience affliction in their earthly life, and I would like to spare you that." (1 Corinthians 7:28) There are advantages to living a celibate life. I think this is especially true for a priest.

A Total Gift of Self to All

Francis Cardinal George says of the man who is a priest, "He not an ecclesiastical [church] bachelor. He's not an eternal boy. He is someone who is called to be a father of a family." As a celebrate priest I will be able to devote myself fully to my entire congregation, holding nothing in reserve for my family, for they shall be my family. This thought of a wider gift of self pleases me.

Practical Considerations

I expect it to be great and fulfilling life, but not an easy one. It demands long hours and great personal effort. I imagine the great strain on the Protestant minister, with a wife and kids of his own, combined with all of the concerns and demands of a modern congregation pulling on his time and attention. How could this be easier than the celibate ministry?

Without a family, a priest can be sent to wherever he is needed, whenever he is needed. He lives humbly, though comfortably in the rectory. With no family to support, his salary is tens of thousands of dollars less for the congregation to supply. His reputation is his own. His attention is undivided. The list goes on. The celibate priesthood makes a great deal of practical sense.

Married Clergy is Not the Answer

Married clergy is not the answer to the problems of the priest shortage or scandal in the Church today because celibacy is not the real cause of these problems. Holiness is the answer. Our lack in holiness and devotion to God is the source of all our problems. If together we acknowledge God and put him first in our lives there will be no shortage of vocations in our time. The answer to every human problem is found in holiness. I hope that God enables me to be part of the solution.

Catholic Thoughts