Celibacy and Priesthood
For most Christian folk, marriage is a sacred (and intimate) union between two people in love. Married people have the rights and duties of matrimony they need to fulfill. Most Christians go to a church and get a priest or a minister to marry them. They give vows before God that they will respect their marriage and each other. They hope to receive God’s blessings and pray the Lord will shower them with love and happiness. For most Christian folk, marriage is one of the main pillars of a family. In a way, it’s mandatory as premarital sex is a sin according to the Scripture.
So, if all of the above is true, we come across a contradiction. If God approves of marriage, why is there such a thing as priestly celibacy? As a Christian, when you go to church to get married, a priest will greet you. That priest will talk about the difficulties and beauties of married life. He’ll talk about how your marriage is a sacrament and your symbol of Christ’s love for the church. Yet, that priest will not be a married man himself. Why is that? Why are Catholic priests celibate? If marriage is important in the eyes of God, then surely priests should be able to marry as well. So why does clerical celibacy exist? How did that come to be? Let’s find out!
History of Celibacy in the Catholic Church
In early church history, before Christianity established itself as the most dominant religion, there was no such thing as mandatory celibacy. Priests were mostly married men, including the apostles themselves. Apostle Paul, however, was celibate.
Some studies maintain that those early priests were basically already married adults before they chose to devote their lives to God. Many of the priests were older men when they took on the priesthood, becoming elders and overseers. Now, here comes the twist. Once they became elders, even though they were still married, they had to practice continence. They had to refrain from all and any sexual relation with their significant other.
The problem with that was that, as time went by, the Church started realizing that this wasn’t the case. Those priests who actually carried out continence were far and few between. As a result, later on, the Western (Catholic) Church ordinated exclusively unmarried men who would take vows of celibacy. The Eastern (Orthodox) Church took a more liberal approach, allowing their married clergy to consummate their marriage after a period of abstinence.
Were There Married Priests?
As we’ve already mentioned, at first, people who became priests were already married men. Celibacy became mandatory once it became obvious that these married priests were still engaging sexually with their wives. Historians don’t agree on when the Church made celibate priests an obligation. Some say that it was Pope Leo the Great who introduced the rule back in the mid-fifth century. Others claim that there was no such rule until the 11th century.
However, the second date is more realistic. In the early years of the Church, there was simply a shortage of priests. Obviously, not anyone could become a priest, but the selection had to have been laxer in order to have enough “manpower.” As a result, as we’ve said, they’ve accepted married men who had to abstain from sex.
In Medieval times, that changed. Christianity as a religion was way more powerful, and devotion to your faith was unavoidable. Parents would send their children at a very young age to join the Church. Basically, being a priest for many Medieval priests was the only life they knew. They were born into celibacy, and there was no further need for allowing married men to join. This pathed the way for the introduction of mandatory celibacy.
The Church today still has the rule of celibacy. The only major difference regards deacons. Pope Paul VI, after the Second Vatican Council, allowed married men aged 35 or older to become deacons. However, they remain deacons forever, not being able to use their diaconate as a stopgap to priestly ordination. Pope Francis has said multiple times that he would be open to discussion regarding revisiting the rule though he himself was in favor of maintaining it.
There’s also a possibility that a priest becomes exempt from the rule. The Pope has the authority to grant such exemption, which mostly happens when a married Protestant priest becomes Catholic. Why More and More People Are Choosing Celibacy?
Why Is Celibacy Practiced in the Catholic Church?
Now that we’ve briefly gone over how the Church introduced celibacy, let’s talk about the act itself. Why is celibacy important in the Catholic priesthood? Well, celibacy lies in what priests themselves epitomize. According to the Catholic Church, priesthood represents a ministry that “conforms to the work and life of Jesus Christ.” Priests act in the mask of Christ, which means that a priest’s whole life belongs to God and conforms to the chastity of Christ. Making that sacrifice (avoiding marriage) is for “the sake of the Kingdom.” In fact, if you look at it strictly theologically, priests have to follow Christ’s life. To do that, you have to follow His example in being “married to the Church.” This way, priests are actually married to Christ himself, which is why Christian art depicts priests as “brides of Christ.”
Let’s get back to what we said in the beginning. Marriage is an intimate union between two people in love. But for a priest to marry, it means to divide love between a wife and God. Instead, priests have to dedicate themselves entirely and undividedly to God and to “the affairs of the Lord.” Priests are there to establish God’s reign, and they have to do so devotedly.
Celibacy is a spiritual discipline. Among other disciplines, it was also the reason why the Christian Church maintained its dominance and importance throughout the turbulent Medieval times. Empires grew and collapsed, but the Church was always there. As a discipline, celibacy allowed them to stay independent and express its primary function as a spiritual institution. Clergy had no family worries. The general folk perceived them as free of secular needs, allowing them to focus fully on spirituality.
The Effects and Challenges of Celibacy
All of this sounds logical and well thought out, except for one little thing. What of priests themselves? After all, they are men, flesh and blood, just like any of us. Just because they choose to ignore their physical needs doesn’t magically make those needs disappear. What are the effects of celibacy that never ends?
The main problems that come with celibacy come in the shape of the physical and psychological wellbeing of a celibate. They simply cannot engage in any emotional relationship that results in intimacy. This leaves them devoid of some crucial aspects of life experiences. At the end of the day, we are a species, and we have an evolutionary need to reproduce and continue our kind.
Many priests found it to be too grand a task. Some of them have switched to other forms of Christianity, such as Protestantism and Anglicanism, where priests don’t have to take a vow of celibacy. Additionally, others simply couldn’t deal with celibacy. In 1962, after the Second Vatican Council, 60,000 priests reportedly left the Church so that they could marry.
Some, as we know, go against their vows and engage in sexual activities in secrecy. In 2010, there was a scandal in Italy where around 40 women came out and publicly spoke about being secret wives of priests.