In 1828 theologians from the University of Freiburg published a document entitled Denkschrift (Memory), calling for the elimination of celibacy from the Catholic priesthood. This work was met with widespread approval, especially among the academic communities of Germany. The authors claimed mandatory celibacy was impractical and unnecessary, a medieval ideal that needed to be expunged from Christianity. Many dioceses were suffering priest shortages and some were even dealing with issues of sexual misconduct among the clergy. Supporters reasoned that if Catholicism could simply “catch up with the times” and abolish celibacy, the priesthood would become more appealing to the masses while providing an acceptable outlet for priests who struggle with disciplining their sexual desires. It seemed a logical solution to the problem.
Yet there was at least one clergyman who disagreed: Fr. Johann Möhler, a twenty-seven-year-old priest from the Diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart. In an act of astonishing courage, this young cleric wrote a stern rebuttal to the Denkschrift called “Illumination on a Memorandum Concerning the Elimination of Celibacy Prescribed for Catholic Priests.” Masterfully written and theologically rich, the essay stunned its audiences. Many young men read Möhler’s article and began discerning the priesthood, leading to a drastic increase in vocations. In a moment when the Church’s commitment to celibacy seemed to undermine its mission and popularity, Fr. Möhler fought to preserve the discipline.
Now, 190 years after Denkshrift, the assertions made by the professors of Freiburg University are being echoed with renewed vigor. The recent abuse crisis has led many people, both within and beyond the Church, to call for a suppression of priestly celibacy. Some say if priests were allowed to get married there would be less abuse among the clergy. In the recent Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, a number of Church leaders suggested that, given the shortage of priests in certain areas, a pastoral exception should be made to ordain married men and permanent deacons to the priesthood, so as to minister in remote territories where the indigenous people are in need of sacramental care. Although I appreciate the pastoral concerns of such an initiative, we must be careful in ensuring that exceptions for such extraordinary circumstances do not muddle the overall theology and beauty of priestly celibacy by reducing it to a mere stipulation that can be inconsequentially revoked en masse.
In light of all this, I find myself today in a very similar position as Fr. Möhler: a young priest enjoying the gift of chaste celibacy yet told by many voices around me it is outdated, impractical, and unhealthy. Thus, I find it necessary, in our time, to follow Fr. Möhler’s lead and provide a similar defense of priestly celibacy.
Fr. Möhler begins his essay with an “encouragement to dig down to the deepest roots of Christianity as a whole” and “analyze the foundations of Christian life.” Möhler asserts that discussing the issue of religion in general and priestly celibacy in particular must go beyond the merely superficial or practical level. For example, some people defend celibacy by saying a priest does not have enough time to take care of a family and run a parish. Celibacy therefore is a useful discipline to ensure priests are available to serve their communities. Others attack celibacy saying it is “unhealthy” and that the lack of sexual intercourse in a priest’s life is what leads to many cases of abuse. Both of these arguments are painfully shallow. The first may be true in some cases but not universally, thus it cannot be the fundamental reason for chaste celibacy, especially since many Protestant pastors are married and serve their communities well. The second is demonstrably false given that an overwhelming number of sex offenders are, in fact, married, and that abuse rates among married Protestant clergy are nearly identical to Catholic priests. Therefore, as Möhler recognized, we must think through the question of priestly celibacy more deeply and go to its true source. For the sake of brevity, this current blog post will be limited to a reflection on the foundational text of the Christian practice for priestly celibacy. If the reader desires to continue his or her study, I strongly encourage Fr. Cantalamessa’s outstanding little book aptly titled Virginity.
The Church’s teaching on celibacy comes from Matthew 19:12. After addressing the Pharisees’ question about Mosaic Law and divorce, Jesus closes his discourse with an enigmatic reference to “eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” In order to appreciate the full ramifications of Christ’s statement, we need to understand the role of eunuchs in first-century Middle Eastern society.
Eunuchs were castrated male servants or slaves chosen by a king to work in the royal household. The purpose of their castration was two-fold. Firstly, it ensured that the slave served his master with an undivided heart. Eunuchs had regular access to imperial family members and were privy to sensitive information about the inner workings of the realm. Without any progeny of their own, eunuchs had no reason to usurp or destabilize the throne. A eunuch’s welfare was innately bound to the welfare of the empire. Thus they were trusted advisors who could offer unbiased counsel while keeping the best interest of the kingdom in mind.
Another unique responsibility of a eunuch was to protect the purity of the queen’s harem and bridal chamber. The sleeping quarters of an empress were among the most sacrosanct spaces in the entire palace. Only the king could enter when he desired to be with his wife. Otherwise, it was the eunuch’s duty to ensure that decorum was maintained in the queen’s residence. Here we see the second and most important obligation of a eunuch: to safeguard the hallowed dignity of the king’s greatest treasure, his queen.
With these two purposes in mind, the underlying brilliance of Jesus’ analogy comes to the fore. “Eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom” (i.e., priests) are those men who have been set apart by the King of Kings to serve him with an undivided heart and safeguard the dignity of his Bride, the Church. Their celibate state of life conveys the fact that they are men who belong entirely to God, body and soul. St. Paul’s words are thus infused within their very flesh: “For to me, life is Christ!” (Phil 1:21). Accordingly, priestly celibacy also takes on a sacramental character, acting as a sign that points towards the complete unity we will all share with God in the heavenly kingdom. “At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30). In this light, the Latin origin of the word “celibate” makes perfect sense: caeli, meaning “of heaven.” A “celibate,” therefore, is literally one who is “of heaven” on earth. He is a man whose state of life intrinsically points beyond itself to a higher good and an ultimate truth. Priestly celibacy is not a relic of medieval Catholicism; it is an insignia of the heavenly kingdom.
This is why the question of suppressing the ancient practice of priestly celibacy, even in restricted circumstances, cannot be dictated by practical necessity. What is more, it will only satiate the issue at hand superficially. The current shortage of priests is a spiritual problem, not a practical one. Jesus is calling just as many men to the priesthood now as he did fifty years ago. The question is, why are their vocations lying dormant? Why are there thousands of young men called to the priesthood at this very moment who are not in seminary? What failure in zeal and lapse in devotion has allowed for such a situation to develop? That is what we should be addressing because that is the real problem. Dispensing the discipline of priestly celibacy is a poor stopgap with limited, short-term results. The true solution lies in rekindling the sacredness of the celibate priesthood, embracing the tradition wholesale and without reserve.
I have seen this in my personal ministry as a parish priest. In the past year, there has been a significant increase in the number of young men from my parish and school discerning the priesthood. One of these men just entered seminary, with several more likely to follow in the years to come. The boys at the school are particularly fascinated with the priesthood. This is no coincidence. When I asked one of the middle schoolers why he was thinking about the priesthood, he responded, “Because you and Fr. Ivan always look so happy. You can just tell that you have a great life. I never thought someone could be like that as a priest.” These young men see examples of priests who are in love with their priesthood, men who unreservedly rejoice in their consecrated celibacy, not as a sterile mandate from the Code of Canon Law, but as a fecund gift from the chaste and celibate Christ. Just as Fr. Möhler made a prophetic case for priestly celibacy despite widespread opposition, so today we need to sound the call, proclaiming that celibacy is not a burden or barrier to attracting good priests . . . it is the very thing that will summon them.