Translated by Fr. Joseph Bolin from the German text published in "Die Tagespost" on October 14, 2019.
Considerations on priestly celibacy
“… How would it harm the New Covenant, if religious ministers, as in the Old Testament, would live in a respectable sacramental marriage? Is God now wiser or holier than in the Old Testament? Christ may have been virgin, may have been borne of a virgin, entrusted to a virginal man, may have been anticipated by the virginal prophets Jeremiah and Elijah, may have recommended virginity to some few, who were able to take it. From where, I ask, did the commandment come, so that it was no longer only a counsel? […] Vows are so often disregarded, what is holy stained, the laws of nature horribly perverted – crimes, evil deeds, sins, injustice, offenses, depravities that one is ashamed to name or to think about … the unworthy reality shouts louder than my complain – unless one makes himself deliberately deaf!”
These are only some of the objections to celibacy, with which Johannes Gerson in the 14th century had to deal with, in his answer to the anti-celibacy work of a French nobleman. We meet similar arguments in the so-called “Anti-celibacy storm”, that swept over some dioceses in Southwest Germany, where mostly academically educated lay persons, together with a considerable number of professors of the University of Freiburg, turned to the grand duke of Baden and the Baden Parliament, to obtain the repeal of celibacy for catholic priests. At that time anti-celibacy associations were established, which were unfortunately joined by not a few priests. The most important defender of celibacy at this time was Johann Adam Möhler.
Two basic lines of argument are conflated
In the argument against the long tradition of priestly celibacy, two basic thrusts are at times conflated – then as now – on the one hand, very fundamental anthropological objections are raised; such as: celibacy leads to the degeneration of human existence. These arguments, we must be clear, doubt or deny ultimately the meaning and fruitfulness of the evangelical counsel of perpetua continentia in general. On the other hand, specific arguments against priestly celibacy are presented, as it appears (mainly) associated with the Latin tradition: So was and is the rejection of the so-called “compulsory celibacy” justified on the grounds that it is the main obstacle to getting more well-qualified applicants for the priesthood.
Not uncommonly is it asserted that the charism of celibacy is well appreciated, but since it is not necessarily linked to the priesthood, one cannot require it as a condition for the priesthood.
Karl Rahner, already many years ago (The Celibacy of the Secular Priest Today: An Open Letter, 1968) answered that one cannot deny the church the right to demand this dowry from those who want to be her priests. Similarly, Joseph Ratzinger (Open Letter to the Munich moral theologian R. Egenter, 1977) pointed out that the aforesaid reasoning is based on a unreflected concept of charism: First, a charism is given to the person as a free subject; the recipient himself can and must have an attitude to this gift, i.e, one can develop and guard a gift, as well as ask it of God, similarly one can neglect, injure it, or let it die. The same pertains to those persons who have the responsibility of accompanying and discerning vocations.
A charism is never just a private spiritual gift
Secondly, a charism is never merely a private spiritual gift, but, on the contrary, a special aptitude for the benefit of the ecclesial community. – This seems, I would add, to be particularly applicable to the charisma of celibate chastity (especially if it is not linked to a vocation to an Order): It gives freedom for an extraordinary dedication. – If the church gave up its publicly expressed esteem for the celibate life of priests and left it to personal decision, the celibate life of a diocesan priest would become an expression of his personal, private piety, that would have but little to do with his ecclesial ministry. The consequence of leaving celibacy up to individual choice would, sooner or later – as Joseph Ratzinger is also convinced by historical developments – be the disappearance of the celibate life of priests.
In the following I will not go into the historical development; for to show the legitimacy of celibacy in the Latin Church there are several studies (Chr. Cocchini, R. Cholij, St. Heid), but I would rather like to try to manifest the inner closeness or “manifold correspondence” (“multimoda convenientia”: Presbyterorum ordinis n.16) between the evangelical counsel of the perpetually promised “celibate chastity for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” and the priestly vocation. If one does not do that, the question naturally arises, what one would lose if one gave up this seemingly incomprehensible, unbeloved and supposedly so frequently broken “law”.
Celibate life is rooted in the order of redemption
Certainly, these are arguments of fitingness. For the celibate life is based on the order of redemption; as a result, its justification can not be presented by means of necessary and generally evident reasons, although there may be some plausible arguments from the outside, it rather derives its true “logic” from belief in the incarnation, and even more so the bodily resurrection of Christ (“After the resurrection they will no longer marry”: Mt 22:30, Lk 20:35). I quote Rahner again: “There are many reasons for today's celibacy crisis. […] But if we do not fool ourselves, we must see that the ultimate cause of this crisis lies in the plight of faith in general and as a whole. We live in a time when the reality of God and eternal life is difficult for man to realize. We live in a time characterized by keywords such as demythologization, desacralization [!] and the tendency to reduce all Christianity to mere interpersonal relationships.”
In the following considerations, I suppose that continentia permanens = celibacy is not just an outward lifestyle – or even a more comfortable single life! – but a specific, bodily expression of chastity (castitas). This, in turn, signifies an attitude of piety, which shapes the affective relationship of the person to his fellow man, to himself, and indeed to God, and is a necessary quality of caritas, the virtue of love. It is rooted in grasping the “sanctity”, preciousness and unavailability of the other person.
Following of the Good Shepherd – not functional, but personal
There is only one priest in the New Testament: the Lord, Bridegroom and Head of His Church, which is His priestly body (1 Pet 2:5,9). He who receives the sacrament of priestly ordination is enabled to “represent” the Lord of the Church, to make Christ visible in her as the permanent counterpart to the Church – in word, sacrament, in the selfless service of salvation. The establishment of the sacramental priesthood states that Christ wants to be present not only as the gift of salvation in his Church (Eucharist as sacrament), but also as giver (in the celebration of the Eucharist, especially through the action of the priest “in persona Christi capitis”). The priesthood of the New Covenant exists only as a function of the one high priest Christ.
At the same time: He who is ordained a priest, according to the Catholic understanding, does not simply take on a service or a task, in the sense of a function necessary for the community, but is called to a special following of Christ. He is not simply a “means” or “tool” (even if the sacraments are operative ex opere operato, and do not depend on the faith or holiness of the priest) nor a “servant who does not know what his Lord is doing” but a “friend” (John 15:15), who is called into a “knit community” (as a cooperator) with Christ (1 Cor 3: 9). His task is to promote the supernatural life, to build the faithful into a sacred offering (PO 2). He has nothing to give but what Christ gives. But this passing on claims him as a person.
To become a priest not for oneself, but for Christ
How could conformity of one’s way of life to Jesus’ way of life, the evangelical counsels, not be fitting here? He whose first concern must be for the kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33), will avoid getting caught up in “earthly occupations” (2 Tim 2:4) or making himself too much at home.
The readiness of a candidate for a celibate life can certainly be a criterion for whether he has understood that he does not become a priest for himself, but for Christ, who wants to exercise his pastoral care through him. And whether he accepts the unconditionality of this vocation. Karl Rahner (1968) bluntly stated: “We must ask today's priests and candidates for the priesthood where in their lives those decisions […] are made that so determine their lives by faith, that this life itself would be different if they did not believe in God and eternal life.”
It is not a matter of external imitation, but about the sharing of life, which effects a special proximity. “continentia” is not a garment worn externally, but an expression of inner belonging to Christ, the Good Shepherd, so total that the place of a spouse remains empty.
He who renounces it renounces a good – a good of the order of creation. This can only succeed if the renunciation is affirmed for the sake of a higher good, and not simply “accepted”. Precisely because marriage is not a peripheral matter of human life, but as a unique, exclusive community of a man with a woman profoundly shapes and claims the two persons in all dimensions, it can be understood as “fitting” that a person, who completely and personally is taken into the service of Christ’s commission, cannot belong to another human person as a husband does to his wife.
One may add that the lack of understanding of the meaning of celibacy is precisely the consequence of the trivialization of human sexuality and confusion in the sphere of marriage: “For as soon as marriage becomes a purely civil affair, and to a large extent a chaos, the thought of a free renunciation of sexual community for the sake of the highest tasks, and of a form of life that derives from it, loses its sociological setting. Thus it is not accidental that the denial of the sacramental character and thus the thesis of its dissolubility in the Reformation took place at the same time and derived from the same conceptions from which celibacy as a voluntary and sacred Christian form was rejected. They then continue in the outlook of the French Revolution, which made marriage a purely civil affair and fought religious orders with a hatred deriving not merely from abuses” (Romano Guardini, Ethics I).
Tria munera Christi
The priesthood of Holy Orders, PO explains at the outset, is established to build up the “holy priesthood” of the Body of Christ so that believers become an offering to God. This sanctifying ministry takes place in the proclamation (martyria – munus propheticum), the celebration of the sacraments (leiturgia – munus sacerdotale, sanctificandi) and the comprehensive care for the salvation of those entrusted to one (diakonia – munus regendi).
When the priest is spoken of as the “minister of the mystery” (minister mysterii), one will surely think of his office of celebrating the sacraments (“mysteria”). The sacraments, however, are rooted in the mystery par excellence, as above all the Pauline Epistles make clear: in the plan of God’s salvation revealed in Christ. Integral to this plan of salvation is the church. “Mystery” means “the whole Christ,” “Head and Body,” inasmuch as the union of men with the Redeemer is precisely the goal of God's plan of salvation.
The living Christ is the Head and Bridegroom of the Church: “He loved her and gave herself for her,” “that she might be pure and holy” (Eph 5: 25-27). This devotion is celebrated and made present above all in the Eucharist: through it the faithful are cleansed and sanctified more deeply in order to be with Christ a “holy gift for God the Father”. For this reason the Fathers of the Church see the Eucharistic celebration as the wedding supper of the Lamb, in which the promised communion of heaven is already celebrated in a “veiled” fashion.
Does it not stand to reason that the one who “represents” the bridegroom in this liturgy, who acts “in persona Christi capitis” and speaks the words: “This is my body for you”, should also himself have only the Church as his counterpart? As far as the priesthood of the “first degree”, i.e. the episcopate, is concerned, this fittingness is not disputed even in the Eastern churches. The bishop is, as it were, in spiritual marriage bound to that part of the church entrusted to his pastoral care.
Priest and sacrifice at the same time
A second aspect: the mark of Christ’s priesthood is that he is at once both priest and offering – “priest, altar (as the place of encounter between God and man) and sacrificial lamb.” To the priesthood in the following of Christ therefore also belongs the “expropriation” (Joseph Ratzinger) or “transference” of himself to God. That is the real meaning of „sacrifice” (Latin: “sacri-ficium”): One gives something to God – ultimately, oneself – so that it belongs to HIM (Augustine).
Celibacy is a very concrete form of transference to God, which can also be felt in the dimension of renunciation: He is given the desire to live fruitfully and not meaninglessly, and the longing to be personally loved. It is given “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” in the certainty of faith that one never gives to God without HIM giving back more, in the confident hope that this will increase that love (caritas) that contributes to the salvation of others, love of the Good Shepherd, who gives his life for his own.
In every human life there are “sacrifices” that are demanded of one, imposed on one. But the celibate life is an act of generous faith. This means that not only the de facto abstemious, chaste life, but the promise has a special dignity. For here the dimension of “voluntary gift” is expressed. The promise contains a commitment of oneself that we can, with Thomas Aquinas, describe as an act of worship: the commitment made publicly is a testimony of trust in God and his grace. A priest I know put it this way: “Yes, celibacy is a charism, a gift from God. But it is also my gift to God.”
Martyria – testimony
Priests sometimes used to call their breviary: “my bride”. This was meant to say that they took the book of hours everywhere – like the cell phone today. Of course: It is not about the book as an object, but about the familiarity with the Word of God, which is not only to be read, but to be prayed through, indeed, as by the prophets, to be “eaten”. The service of proclamation presupposes a personal relationship to the Word of God, as Pope Francis urgently recommends in Evangelii gaudium.
Of course, celibacy is not necessary for that. Still, we recall that realists like Thomas Aquinas (or even the “therapists” whom Philo describes, and also Moses Maimonides, even if for a different purpose) considered a certain freedom of mind to be an excellent disposition to contemplation, namely, that “undividedness of the heart”, which Paul sees as connected with chaste celibacy (1 Cor 7:32-34). It is inwardly oriented towards the unhindered contemplation of the truth of God, of the revealed word of God. Above all, this applies to the contemplation that is not just a theoretical meditation, but a “looking with the look of love”. Conversely, the spiritual tradition also holds unanimously that this loving “willing listening” to the Word of God strengthens the virtue of chastity.
He who proclaims the Good News, speaks of the goods of the world to come, is a witness of hope. The goods of eternal life are real goods, but not so easily visible: “We do not stare at the visible, but fix our gaze (contemplantes) on what is not before our eyes. For the visible is transient, the invisible eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18). A life of voluntary celibacy is a strong testimony to the reality of the goods we speak of, a testimony that we are immensely loved – even now, in this world of twilight and shadow.
Of course, there is another tone in the word “martyria” which should only be hinted at here: martyria is also a “confession” (confessio) against resistance and contradiction – from the outside or from within oneself. To confess then means to stand up for what is not immediately obvious, not to deny the “folly of the cross”. It is no coincidence that the “white martyrdom” of virginity follows immediately after the “red”, the witness of blood (see LG n. 42). Both are crosses (John Chrysostom). But both are not primarily about the “torture”, but the unity of the witness with Christ.
Diakonia – Seel-Sorge, the service of the Good Shepherd
Diakonia should be understood here in a comprehensive sense: serving the supernatural purpose of fellow human beings, with a mission (and therefore a responsibility!) that goes beyond the duty of each brother or sister. It is about serving as Christ has served (see Phil 2, John 13, etc.), serving with the same purpose. The paradigm for this is foot washing – with its ethical and sacramental implications. For Christ still wants to wash the feet of his faithful through the ministry of the apostles.
What does celibacy here contribute? More in any case than external temporal-spatial availability or easier mobility. It is more about a certain quality of relationship. The look of a “caretaker of souls” (Seel-Sorger) should recognize what is “of God” in the other person, the image of God, in reverence for the work of God.
Since the earliest times, people have considered especially capable of this view of others those who “live alone for God”. Those who face their own loneliness with God every day will also understand more deeply what is necessary for every human being. For this reason is spiritual fatherhood attributed to those who do not know any natural paternity – monks (and nuns) and priests. Just as the calling to a special discipleship does not simply stem from education in a Christian family, but requires a special calling (cf. the words of Jesus’s calling, which demand a distancing from the natural family), so do human relationships of a person so called take on a special coloring.
“A priest is the father of all believers, men and women alike. So, if someone who takes this position among the faithful marries, he is like someone who marries his own daughter,” wrote a Syrian author of the 8th century. That sounds shocking. But let us ask the other way around: could the wife of a priest confess to her husband? How can one endure that people express their deepest metaphysical distress and guilt before God to the spouse whom one knows better than anyone else? It was Friedrich Nietzsche who claimed that aurical confession disappeared in the communities of the Reformation when there were no more celibate clergy.
And so we may also ask if the ease with which one can imagine married priests is perhaps linked to the de facto marginalized meaning of the sacrament of penance.
Considering the aspects briefly outlined here, I venture to say that the separation of celibacy from priestly ministry would change the conception of the priesthood not only peripherally but profoundly. In any case, the consequence would be an increasingly functional understanding, probably even the complete gentrification. On the other hand, it should be remembered that the great reforming movements of church history, which in the long run developed fertility, promoted the vita evangelica for the clergy.
Between cross and Easter
“He who loves his life will lose it. He who hates his life in this world will keep it.” One can only understand the celibate life when one begins to understand this saying.
The life of the Christian is marked by the cross and resurrection of Christ (CCC 2015) – beginning with baptism, which takes place in a symbol of death (immersion) to receive New Life. The sacraments show this mystery, the Beatitudes express it, and especially the evangelical counsels. Voluntary Poverty – which also frees internally; celibate chastity – which does not correspond to a lack of relationships, but to friendship with Christ; concrete renunciation of one's own plans – to do more good than what one could have thought of. All evangelical counsels have this double form: New Life comes through dying.
The “counsels” invite to a renunciation, a renunciation of real goods that one is not obliged to renounce. “Pain” is therefore not a sign that one is not called – but if the joy does not surpass the pain, there is hardly a vocation. Conversely, having received the vocation to celibate life does not mean being relieved of all challenges or temptations. The dimension of asceticism remains important, and the spiritual tradition is very realistic on this point. One is advised to strive for supporting virtues, including the other two “counsels”. For not only a “raging stomach”, but also vanity and the interest in rumors hollow out the chaste life. He who does not fight his anger, impatience, spiritual indifference or indulgence, or even neglects reckless dangers, risks collapse.
The life of the evangelical counsels is at the same time a “foretaste” of the new life, not illusion, but the fresh breeze from the new aeon that has been blowing in since Easter into a world marked by its own transience – and the deadly fear of it. The celibate life is a “scion” of hope (as a theological virtue), which is not without “earnest money” (see Spe salvi 7,9). The vocation to celibate life bears the vocation to a deeper friendship with Christ, which in turn wants to expand out to the brothers and sisters of Christ – in a generous and ready-to-serve love.