I am well aware that many Catholics disagree with the Church’s understanding of the priesthood. Many object to the requirement of celibacy, pointing back to a time in the early church when many priests were married. They argue that the requirement of celibacy is a discipline, not a dogma, and that the mandatory discipline of celibacy can be changed. They are right. If the Holy Father wanted to, he could remove the celibacy requirement. But he has not done so.
Others view the Church’s refusal to ordain women as a justice issue and as a violation of women’s rights. They accuse the Church of committing an injustice against women for denying them full participation in the sacramental life of the Church. Here I would say that they are not right. However, from a secular worldview, I will grant that the argument makes perfect sense.
The purpose of this essay, however, isn’t so much to offer a defense of the male celibate priesthood, as much as it is an attempt to highlight two important features of the male celibate priesthood that cannot be denied and that often go unnoticed, by both those who agree with and disagree with the Church’s teaching on the priesthood.
Here is the first: that the priesthood is reserved to men alone highlights the fundamental distinction between men and women. Of course, such a distinction seems obvious at first. Public bathrooms are designated for men and women by signs, symbols and words. My dad is eighty-eight years old and legally blind, and when we go out to eat or to shop, I always have to accompany him to the bathroom door and let him know which one is the men’s room. And even if the bathroom is unisex, I find it portentous that the sign on or next to the door still has a picture of both a man and a woman, not a hybrid of the two. Common sense tells us that men and women are different, that the distinction between male and female is a natural one.
Even when it comes to sports, music and theatre, we make the male/female distinction. In the Olympics men and women have their own competitions – men swim against men and women ski against women. Surprisingly, MTV still makes a distinction between men and women at its annual Video Music Awards show with categories for “Best Female Video” and “Best Male Video.” And the Academy and Tony Awards continue to make the obvious distinction between men and women with their gender specific award categories.
At this point, one could argue that although it is true that bathrooms, the Olympics, and various award shows still reveal the natural distinction between men and women, that that distinction does not limit the function of one gender. That is, men and women both go to the bathroom, ski, swim, sing, and act, even if at times they do so separately. And that would be true. But there is something much deeper going on here than how one functions or what one does. More fundamental than what one does is the reality of who one is. Philosophers call this ontology or being. It’s the deepest and truest reality of a thing. And the truth is that there is a real difference between male and female, not just in what they do, but in who they are.
Men and women are both created in God’s image and likeness. They are both good and equal in dignity. And they complement one another. But they are not the same. A man’s body makes no sense by itself, just as a woman’s body makes no sense by itself. A man and woman can come together in such a way to create another life. Such is not possible for a man and a man or a woman and a woman, no matter how hard they try. There is a real difference between men and women that is natural and good. Only a man can be a father and only a woman can be a mother. Only a man can be a brother and only a woman can be a sister. Only a man can be a son and only a woman can be a daughter. These distinctions are not negotiable – they are given. Nature is intelligible, and any reasonable person can come to know and understand the beautiful complementarity and difference of men and women.
The male celibate priesthood by its nature points to the natural distinction of men and women. After all, a priest is a spiritual father, and only men can be fathers. The “father” aspect of the priesthood is a constant reminder of sexual difference and of sexual complementarity, both at the same time. For as much as it is true that only a man can be a father, it is equally true that a man cannot be a father without the complement of a woman, who is a mother. The male priesthood protects and highlights this important and natural distinction.
The second underappreciated feature of the priesthood is this: Celibacy is a great reminder that sex in itself cannot make a person happy. Wherever we turn, we see images, and hear songs, and smell body sprays that remind us of sex. Even a cloistered nun could tell you that we live in an over-sexed culture. Of course, the kind of sex that the world wants to sell is empty, but for some reason, it’s still attractive and alluring.
Celibacy stands boldly in the face of a fallen world as a powerful witness that there is more to life than sexual pleasure, and that there is more to sex than just pleasure. A healthy celibate priest (or religious or layperson) becomes a prophetic sign that points to a much deeper and more satisfying reality than can be contained in the material world. In the spirit of St. Augustine, the healthy celibate reminds us that our hearts are restless until they rest in God, no matter how much sex we may have to try and fill them up.
And this is not to say that celibacy somehow downplays the beauty and power and holiness of marital love. But the witness of the healthy celibate is a reminder to married couples that their marital love must always be celebrated as a participation in God’s love, and make present the love between Christ the Bridegroom and his Church in order to be truly satisfying.
Deep down, if people are honest, I think that most folks want to believe in God and that He alone can satisfy. But, I think it’s hard to believe. A good celibate priest makes God more believable. The healthy celibate priest is a living witness of God’s eternal love and of the reality of Heaven – he holds the world to a higher standard and to higher expectations by his celibate love. People look at him and think, “He’s happy, and he doesn’t have sex. How is that possible?” The joyful celibate priest is a prophet, reminding the world that God is real and He alone can satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart. He offers a living witness to counter the empty promises held out by the fallen world.
(Of course, when a celibate priest falls, especially in sexual sin, the media goes crazy. Part of me takes their response as a backhanded compliment of sorts. That is to say that even the media expects more from priests, and they actually look upon priests as living witnesses of God’s existence and love. In a strange and ironic way, even the media understands, on some mysterious level, the beauty and power of celibacy.)
As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, I realize that many people struggle with the Church’s teaching on the male celibate priesthood. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. What might be a surprise, however, are the two important realities highlighted by the male celibate priesthood that often go unnoticed – the complementarity of men and women, and the reminder that sex per se is not equipped to satisfy the hungry heart.
In a world in which the lines of sexual difference are blurring quickly, and where sexual temptation becomes greater by the minute, the male celibate priesthood has a prophetic and liberating word to speak. I hope we’re all listening.