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National Catholic REGISTER, May 19-25, 2002

Priestly Celibacy and Its Roots in Christ … Interview with Fr McGovern

Father Thomas  McGovern, a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei in Dublin, is the author of “Priestly Celibacy Today”. He was interviewed recently by Register staff writer John Burger on issues about celibacy raised by the current sex abuse crisis. 

Why is it that among the general population celibacy is in some way seen to be at the root of the sex abuse problem?

For some time there have been insistent calls for the abolition of “compulsory” celibacy in editorials and feature articles in the print media, and in TV and chat show commentary. Underlying much of this crusade is the assumption of a direct causal link between celibacy and sexual deviance. Yet at no time has any solid scientific or statistical evidence been offered to substantiate this claim. [1]

            Nevertheless, as a result of saturation coverage of some clerical sexual scandals in the media, many people seem to have been persuaded into thinking that there must be some intrinsic connection between celibacy and sexual immorality, and that it is widespread among the clergy. Indeed Pope John Paul II has referred to ‘a systematic propaganda which is hostile to celibacy’ and ‘which finds support and complicity in some of the mass media’.

In our contemporary sex-saturated culture, the very notion of a celibate life-style is incomprehensible to many people. For them celibacy is seen as a form of repression, a stunting of the natural growth of personality, leading to frustration and a deep sense of psychological and emotional isolation. When this caricature of celibacy is fostered, then it is not difficult to see why people would begin to associate it with the current problems.

            Consequently, as John Paul II affirms in his 1992 document, Pastores Dabo Vobis, on the formation of priests, there is a great need today to present and explain the charism of celibacy “in the fullness of its biblical, theological and spiritual richness”.

How in fact does the Church understand celibacy? What is the connection between celibacy and priesthood?

To understand celibacy we have first to look to Jesus Christ. The link between priesthood and celibacy was first established in him. By remaining celibate, Jesus went against the socio-cultural and religious climate of his time, since in the Jewish environment no condition was so much deprecated as that of a man who had no descendants. By freeing himself from the claims of family, Christ was totally available to do his Father’s will, to establish the new family of the children of God.

            The priestly vocation is a personal grace by which a young man is called to share in the priesthood of Christ. Implicit in this call is the grace to imitate Jesus in his celibacy, drawn by the example and the mystery of Christ. Celibacy is a well-spring of spiritual energy that enables the priest to live a very fruitful and fulfilled life.

            By sacramental ordination every priest is configured to Jesus and shares his priesthood in such an intimate way that he acts in the person of Christ. The sacrament of Order gives the priest a share in the mystery of Christ as Spouse of the Church – as in Ephesians 5:23-31. The priest, as icon of Christ, has then to love the Church with the same spousal love, loving her with an exclusive, sacrificial love which results in all the fruitfulness of spiritual paternity, generating new children of God through his sacramental and pastoral ministry. This, according to John Paul II in Pastores Dabo Vobis, is the basic theological reason for celibacy.

Does celibacy involve a sacrifice?

Responding to a celibate vocation is a decision based on faith. At the ceremony of the diaconate, when he makes his solemn promise to remain celibate and consecrate his whole life to God, the candidate for Holy Orders knows that Christ is asking a lot of him. However, he accepts the consequences of his promise secure in the knowledge that he will never lack the graces he needs to overcome any difficulties he may encounter in his priestly life.

            The calling does not eliminate the sacrifice involved in giving up the attraction to conjugal love in this life and the joyful prospect of setting up a family. Nevertheless, implicit in the response to God’s call is the readiness to share in the sacrifice involved in building up the kingdom of Heaven on earth. By living out his vocation fully, the priest manifests that Christ is sufficiently rich and great to fill the heart of man.

            By his celibacy he lets it be known that henceforth he expects everything from God, the Creator of all love, in whose hands he places his human completion and his human fruitfulness. As a result, celibacy makes a constant appeal to the priest to live in intimacy with Christ.

A commitment to celibacy is in no way a rejection of the value of human sexuality. Indeed, as John Paul II  has strikingly affirmed, it is precisely the person who understands the full potential for self-giving which marriage implies, who can best make a mature offering of himself in celibacy.

The priest who lives for Christ, and from Christ, usually has no insurmountable difficulties with celibacy. He is not immune to the normal temptations of the flesh but, as a result of the daily cultivation of his spiritual life, and the prudent distancing of himself from anything which could constitute a danger to his  chastity, he will encounter great joy in his vocation and experience a deep spiritual paternity in bringing spiritual life to souls. As a consequence of celibacy, his heart is free to love others in an inclusive way.

Would  a married clergy solve the vocations problem which many dioceses are experiencing today?            

It is often suggested that if the Church had a discipline of optional celibacy many more young men would be attracted to the priesthood. This claim is not supported either by experience or objective data. While it is true that there has been a serious decline in priestly vocations in the developed countries of the West, this is not the case in other parts of the world. In Africa the number of seminarians, diocesan and religious, increased five-fold between 1970 and 1997. There was a three fold increase in Central and South America in the same period, while candidates for the priesthood in South East Asia more than doubled.

            Yet, there are good reasons for hope in the West as we can see from the healthy developments in some dioceses in the US and elsewhere. Peoria (Ill.), Arlington (Va.), Denver, and Lincoln (Neb.) have been singularly successful in attracting young men to the priesthood. Atlanta, which in 1985 had nine seminarians, now boasts sixty one. Another diocese with a healthy seminary situation is Omaha, Neb. –  56 men ordained in 1991-98 for a diocese of  215,000 Catholics.  Mount St Mary’s seminary in Emmetsburg, and  seminaries like those in Denver and Lincoln are thriving with the increased influx of vocations.

            What all this says is that there are plenty of young men ready and willing to give their lives to Christ if they are challenged in the right way. John Paul II himself has been a great promoter of priestly vocations because of his compelling witness to a priesthood which reflects the person of Christ so clearly.

            He generates a deep conviction about priestly identity – this is why he attracts many young men to the priesthood. It was in this context that Cardinal Baum said the present Holy Father is “the best vocation director the Church has ever had”. [2] It is not without significance that in Europe as a whole vocations have increased significantly since John Paul II’s accession to the papacy in 1978. 

          Pope Paul VI said it simply was not possible to demonstrate that the abolition of ecclesiastical celibacy would considerably increase the number of priestly vocations. The contrary seems to be proven by those churches and ecclesial communities which allow ministers to marry. The cause of the decrease in vocations is, he tells us, to be found elsewhere, especially in the fact that individuals and families have lost their sense of God, and their esteem for the Church as the institution willed by Christ for the salvation of men. [3]

          This phenomenon is a particular expression of a much more widespread condition of lack of faith and lack of vibrant Christian families. Indeed, in this post-Vatican II era, it is only when evangelization promotes Christian commitment as a vocation for all that the ground will be adequately prepared for the fostering of the particular vocation to the priesthood. [4]

What sorts of challenges does celibacy present to the individual priest, and do these challenges change over time?

Priestly celibacy is a call to a special friendship with Christ, a call to holiness. John Paul II, when he recently ordained twenty priests for the diocese of Rome (Sunday 21 April, 2002) told them very directly, “the Lord wants you to be saints”.

            A vocation to holiness requires daily effort and, for the priest, the commitment to celibacy is an integral part of that quest for sanctity. It is interesting to note that the US cardinals, in their final  statement about the Rome meeting, 23-24 April, made their own the challenge of the Holy Father that the present crisis had to “lead to a holier priesthood”.

             The chastity which goes with priestly celibacy is not something which is acquired once and for all. It is, as for all Christians, the result of daily effort. Because he is a normally constituted person, the priest is going to experience at times the brittleness of his virtue, the tug of his passions, or the renewed attraction of married life.

            Yet the wisdom and experience of the Church offer him all the necessary resources to achieve holiness. Daily prayer, love for the Eucharist, a spirit of self-denial, frequent confession, and devotion to our Lady are some of the tried and tested means which will give the priest joy and fulfilment in his vocation. In addition, if a priest has regular spiritual counselling, he will find it a powerful help to overcome any difficulties in the area of celibacy.

            Personal spiritual guidance is an opportunity for communicating at the deepest and most intimate level of our being. It provides an awareness of being understood, supported  and appreciated. This relationship is a powerful defence against the dangers of pessimism and frustration which can undermine the commitment of the priest.           

            In today’s environment the enticements to sensuality which are purveyed by TV and advertising, by immodesty and bad example, are an opportunity for the priest, as well as for others, to make constant decisions in favour of purity of mind and heart, especially through guard of sight. As Christ reminds us, “Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8).      

What influence does our contemporary culture have on the idea of celibacy? 

Celibacy, which calls into question the reductionist philosophy of man spread abroad by our culture of scientism, is a challenge to that incapacity to make a permanent commitment which seems to be a characteristic of contemporary culture. This inability to commit oneself irrevocably is demonstrated, particularly in the Western world, by the increasing rate of marriage breakdown and divorce, as well as by the rise in the number of couples living together without any binding commitment, civil or ecclesiastical. This is the result of a breakdown in basic social relationships where values such as loyalty, friendship, and a spirit of service have less and less significance. Love as self-giving is replaced by love as possession, where the other is regarded as an object of sexual fulfilment rather than a person to be cherished for themselves. In addition, the process whereby the sense of human fatherhood has been diminished or obscured in contemporary culture, has contributed to an impoverished understanding of the spiritual fatherhood of the priest.        

            Clearly, education has a decisive role in determining the type of people our society produces. If children learn little about self-denial or a spirit of service through self-giving to others, they will have limited capacity to understand and accept the sacrificial love which is required to live celibacy, or, indeed, to respond generously to the full implications of marriage as a Christian vocation and a way to holiness.

            Many of the arguments against celibacy derive from the secular and Freudian idea that unless a person enjoys sexual fulfilment he is somehow diminished or is likely to be emotionally or psychologically unbalanced, a sort of freak in the modern hedonistic culture. In a world where the definition of man is strongly influenced by such presuppositions, and where more importance is given to psychological and sociological models of the human person than to those drawn from biblical revelation, there is a real need for seminarians to be deeply formed in Christian anthropology. It is only in the light of divine revelation, culminating in the Incarnation of the Word, that we can fully appreciate the unique value of the call to celibacy, and have the audacity to proclaim it as a great good.  


It is often argued that, since celibacy is not a datum of divine revelation but a merely matter of ecclesiastical discipline and canon law, it can be abrogated at any time? How valid is this attitude?

Recent scholarship on the history of celibacy in both the Easter and Western Church has shown that there is a considerable body of evidence in favour of the argument that priestly celibacy is of apostolic origin, based on Christ’s invitation to the Twelve to leave all things and follow him (cf. Mt 19:29). [5]  Indeed, John Paul II points out in his 1979 Holy Thursday Letter to Priests that celibacy is so closely linked to the language of the Gospel that it refers back to the teaching of Christ and to apostolic tradition.

             What is clear from Scripture, from the early history of the Church, the writings of the Fathers, and the witness of many clerics, is that there has always been a tradition of priestly celibacy in the Church. This tradition was approved and spread by various provincial councils and Popes.

            It was promoted, defended and restored in successive eras of the first millennium of the history of the Church, although it frequently encountered opposition from the clergy themselves and the worldly values of a decadent society. Apart from the historical argument, the theological justification for celibacy has gained considerable ground since Vatican II, not least in the writings of John Paul II.[6]

Consequently the idea that clerical celibacy is merely an ecclesiastical discipline is an argument that becomes progressively less convincing.  As if anticipating the current questioning of celibacy, John Paul II, in his 1992 document, Pastores Dabo Vobis, said that he did “not wish to leave any doubts in the mind of anyone regarding the Church’s firm will to maintain the law that demands perpetual and freely chosen celibacy for present and future candidates for priestly ordination in the Latin rite” (no. 29).

Can it not be argued that by imposing celibacy, the Church infringes the rights of the individual?

The objection that the Church, by “imposing” celibacy, offends the rights of individuals has no real basis. In the first place no candidate for the priesthood has a subjective right to be ordained. The priestly vocation is a gift God can bestow on whom he pleases, irrespective of the merits of the individual. Secondly, those who are called to the priesthood accept with full freedom the discipline of celibacy laid down by the Church. This they do after several years of preparation and prayerful reflection, at an age when they are fully capable of making a mature decision.

            Can the Church “impose” celibacy? The Church responds to the guidance of the Holy Spirit who is active within it and leads it into all truth (cf. Jn 16:13). In this sense it is perfectly entitled – drawing on its experience, its tradition, and the witness of celibacy lived to the full down through the centuries – to require its priests to be celibate. Certainly, in doing so, it is asking more than is humanly justifiable.             However, the Church is not a human organisation. It has a divine origin and has been given powerful supernatural means of grace and charisms of the Holy Spirit, which justify it making the audacious claim that in the Western rite it is God’s will that its ministers should be celibate, and that in giving a vocation to the priesthood the Holy Spirit also endows it with the charism of celibacy.

          At the same time the point has to be made that the Church obliges nobody to celibacy. The seminary years are an opportunity for the candidate for Orders to reach a mature decision concerning his vocation to celibacy as a result of the specific formation he receives there. The seminary authorities have a complementary role to play in helping the student come to a conclusion about the authenticity of his vocation to the celibate priesthood. There is no pressure on the candidate to go ahead. On the contrary, he will be discouraged from doing so if there is any reasonable doubt about his aptitudes or suitability.

How valid is the argument that celibacy was imposed in the Middle Ages in order to prevent married clergy handing down Church property to their sons?

This argument is invalid because it results from a confusion of several distinct but related elements in Church history which need to be clarified. In the first millennium of the Church, apart from single men who came forward for ordination, many candidates for the priesthood were already married.

            Nevertheless, a precondition for these men to be ordained was a commitment to perpetual continence in their subsequent married life. Church legislation on this requirement for married higher clergy (bishops, priests, and deacons) goes back to the Council of Elvira in the year 305 or thereabouts.

            On the other hand, a single man, once he was ordained a priest, could not marry subsequently if he wished to continue in the ministry – this was a law which applied to the Church in both East and West from time immemorial and was never subsequently abrogated.

            Down through the history of the Church many such priests failed in their commitment to celibacy and took to living with concubines, an abuse which became widespread during the Middle Ages. Pope Gregory VII (1073-85) reaffirmed the ancient norms concerning the prohibition of marriage for clerics in major orders but met with stiff  opposition from priests in irregular situations who campaigned vigorously for the right to marry.

            At the Second Lateran Council (1139), it was decreed that a marriage attempted by a bishop, priest, or deacon was not only gravely illicit but also invalid. This led to the misunderstanding, still widespread today, that celibacy for higher clergy was introduced as late as Lateran II. In reality that Council declared invalid something that had always been prohibited.

            During this same period the benefice system dominated the life of the Church. Ecclesiastical property, which was often very valuable, was linked to certain Church offices and could thus make the holder economically independent. The conferral of the benefice-office, frequently carried out by the secular power independent of Church authority, usually referred to as lay investiture, meant that these ecclesiastical offices were often filled by candidates – bishops, abbots, priests – who were anything but worthy.

            This resulted in two fundamental abuses in the Church – simony (the sale of ecclesiastical offices), and the widespread infraction of the discipline of priestly celibacy whether due to the incontinence of married priests or the concubinage of single men. It was precisely against these abuses that the Gregorian reform was primarily directed. As a consequence, a serious effort was made to find more worthy candidates for the priesthood and to give them a better formation.

            Also, as part of the drive to recover the obligation to celibacy, the number of married men accepted for ordination was gradually limited. From the time of Pope Alexander III (1159-81) married priests, as a rule, were not allowed to have ecclesiastical benefices, and the ordained son of a priest was prohibited from succeeding to his father’s benefice. The accession of unworthy priests to ecclesiastical benefices did create the risk of alienating church property, but the laws introduced by the Gregorian reform were focussed essentially on the eradication of the abuses of simony and lay investiture, as well as bringing about a return to a chaste way of life for the clergy.  

            Fr Thomas J McGovern was ordained in Rome by John Paul II in 1982. He holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Navarre, Pamplona, Spain.

            He is a regular contributor to Homiletic and Pastoral Review and Position Papers (Dublin). His book, Priestly Celibacy Today, published in 1998, is scheduled for a second printing.

            His most recent book, Priestly Identity: A Study in the Theology of Priesthood, has just been published by Four Courts Press.

            He is at present chaplain to Glenard University Residence, Dublin.   

[1]   Cf. Philip Jenkins, Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis, Oxford University Press, 1996, where he demolishes a number of myths created by the media about priests and pedophilia.    

[2]   Cf. George Weigel, Witness to Hope : The Biography of Pope John Paul II,  p. 658.

[3]   Cf. his 1967 encyclical Priestly Celibacy, no. 40.

[4]   Cf. John Paul II, Letter, At the Beginning of the New Millenium,  6 January 2001.

[5] Christian Cochini, Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1990; Roman Cholij,  Clerical Celibacy in East and West, Fowler Wright, Leominister, 1988; Alfons M. Stickler, The Case for Clerical Celibacy: Its Historical Development and Theological Foundations, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1995;  Stanley L. Jaki, Theology of Priestly Celibacy, Front Royal, Va. 1997; Stefan Heid, Celibacy in the Early Church, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2000.

[6]   Cf. Holy Thursday Letter for 1979, nos.8-9; Pastores Dabo Vobis, no.29; The Theology of Marriage and Celibacy: Catechesis on Marriage and Celibacy in the Light of the Resurrection of the Lord,  Boston 1986.; Priesthood in the Third Millennium: Addresses of John Paul II, Chicago, 1994, passim.  

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