I suppose most people would answer this question by saying that celibacy means that priests are not allowed to get married. That’s true, of course, but celibacy is much more than a negative rule that priests have to observe.
At it’s center, celibacy is a commitment that candidates for the priesthood are expected to make to complete dedication of their lives to the priestly service of the Lord and His people. The celibacy of the priest announces that there is no higher priority in his life than the service of God for God’s people. If I had to give a definition of celibacy, I would call it radical or total availability for God and God’s people. It is not something that the priest takes on for himself but for the Church. It is a gift in service to relationships.
The reason the celibate does not commit himself to marriage is not because there is something wrong with marriage but because marriage and the sexual relationship that marriage involves are an expression of the total gift of the self to another person, and the celibate has already committed himself elsewhere, that is, to the service of the Lord and the Church. This is another way of saying that celibacy is not primarily about sexuality but about a special, passionate love for God’s people. Its sexual dimension is a conclusion that follows from God’s call to service and the celibate’s response.
Celibacy, then, is not so much an obligation as it is a gift. It is a gift from God to the celibate involving the spiritual and psychological gifts that are necessary for one to lead a life of priestly service that puts every other relationship in second place. It is likewise a gift from the celibate to Christ and the Church, a gift to them of all that he is and has.
It is clear, therefore, that priestly celibacy, like the priesthood itself, makes no sense apart from the service of God and His people. It’s not something that the priest does for himself but for Christ and the Church. It is not so much the exclusion of the relationship of marriage as it is openness to relationships of a different kind. The priestly celibate is a kind of virtuoso of service, but that service has meaning only in the context of the Christian community.
There are practical dimensions to the priest’s celibacy, to be sure, such as pastoral availability and freedom from family worries, but the real purpose of celibacy is deeper than that. Its real purpose is to give witness to the unique fullness and meaning of God’s kingdom. Through the celibacy of its priests the Church says, “The kingdom of God is so important, so fulfilling, so fascinating, that we have a whole category of persons in the Church who give their very lives to proclaiming the kingdom and calling people to respond to Christ’s invitation to enter it.” Celibacy only makes sense if God is really God and means what He has said to us. One might say that the celibate is a kind of professional gambler who publicly and deliberately wagers his whole life on the reality and trustworthiness of God’s promises. And the purpose of the wager is not just so that the celibate can come out a winner but so that others will be attracted to get into the game. Consequently the purpose of celibacy is not just to enable the priest to do things for his people but also to be something for his people, to be an ongoing witness to the worth and reality of what he preaches.
Yes, celibacy is a statement about God and the kingdom of God. But it is a statement about a lot of other things as well. It says that the most intimate of human relationships, marriage, is temporary and a prelude to another, even deeper relationship with the Lord. It says that personal success here and now is less important than what God has promised us beyond the here and now. It says that the very best things the world has to offer are second best to what the Lord has in store for us. Celibacy says, “The end is not here. It is somewhere else and it is there that we get final fulfillment, final security, final worth.”
From this perspective we might say that celibacy is a lived indictment of the basic values of the world that prizes relational fulfillment, power, and wealth as ends in themselves. It puts a constant question to everything the world holds up as important. That is why the secular world around us is, at the same time, fascinated and repelled by it. That’s also why the world is so eager to peer and to cheer when priestly celibates have been found unfaithful.
One of the clerical wits of our diocese used to tell the story of the priest who had a tiny parish where nothing much was going on. He didn’t have enough to do, so every morning after Mass he would go back to the rectory and spend the rest of the day practicing on his celibacy.
There is an important truth hidden in that story. Celibacy is not the kind of decision that, once made, requires no further attention. To be sure, the commitment to the celibate service is a definitive one, made when the candidate for the priesthood is called to the order of deacon. But living up to that commitment in all of its complexity is a challenge that priests have to deal with for the rest of their lives. The celibate commitment requires faithfulness to a personal rule of life. It calls for staying in shape spiritually. It is a dimension of the priest’s life that must grow and develop.
The growth and development of the celibate commitment is not just a matter of avoiding sexual sins. Every Christian believer is called to that. But celibacy requires attention to the quality and significance of all the priest’s human relationships. It requires a constantly renewed openness to service. It calls for a certain simplicity of life. This is not to say that priests spend their lives in a state of constant anxiety about faithfulness to this basic priestly dedication; instead, it is to emphasize that self-discipline and “practice” are as much a part of the life of priests as they are of the life of professional athletes or musicians.
The reverse side of this is that there are more ways to be unfaithful to celibacy than by having sex. Selfishness is an offense against celibacy, too. So are ministerial carelessness and superficiality and a “forty-hour-week” mentality and an ongoing pursuit of conspicuous personal comfort. I mention these matters not to suggest that priests have to be perfect in every way nor, still less, to call attention to the deficiencies of priests; rather I bring them up to point out that celibacy is a demanding call that most of us have to practice on for most of our lives. Our response always leaves room for improvement.
I remember reading a long time ago in a novel about a priest
who said that, since priests were not allowed to get married,
they should make the most of all the other things they were
allowed. So he enjoyed all the good things of life every chance
he got. He spent as little time as possible in the parish.
He even made a coat of arms for himself, which consisted of
crossed gold golf clubs on a field of green with the motto
“Nothing’s too good for Father.” Although he may have been
chaste, he wasn’t very good at the other facets of his celibacy.
Now that we have seen what celibacy is, it should be clear what it is not. Celibacy is not the mere absence of marriage, nor, still less, the absence of significant human relationships. It is not consecrated bachelorhood. It is not a practical stratagem by which the Church exercises control over its clergy. It is not a mechanism for getting the most work out of priests. It is not an outdated law that cries to be changed.
Rather, celibacy is a lifelong action statement about how God loves His people and about what God has in store for them. It’s a statement that we all need now as perhaps never before.