While there is a good deal of reflection (some good, most bad) in the secular media, as well as in Catholic media, on the value and role of priestly celibacy in the Church, there is yet very little theological consideration of the topic.
Nearly every argument for or against priestly celibacy is related either to practical concerns (i.e. “we will get more priests,” or “they will not have time to care for family and parish”) or to devotional thoughts (i.e. “marriage is given by God to all,” or “an undivided heart”). Now, there is certainly something to be said for both practical and devotional points, but we must first consider something of the theology behind celibacy if we are to have any hope of discussing the topic intelligently.
Interestingly, the question of clerical continence for married priests and deacons may be of great aid in helping us to consider the doctrine behind the discipline of priestly celibacy.
Continence and Celibacy
To be clear on our terms:
“Celibacy” refers to the state of remaining unmarried by a vow or promise, or at least by an intentional and perpetual commitment.
“Continence” entails abstaining from sexual intimacy, even within married life. By “continence,” we refer to the practice of refraining from any sexual pleasures, even those which may be legitimate.
For a celibate, to be chaste requires being entirely continent. However, it is important to realize that even a married couple could be continent by refraining from the conjugal act and all sexual intimacies – living “as brother and sister.”
In this article, I want to discuss the question of clerical continence primarily, and only make a brief comment about clerical celibacy at the end.
Clerical continence for married priests
From the Code of Canon Law:
“Can. 277 §1 Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven, and are therefore bound to celibacy. Celibacy is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can more easily remain close to Christ with an undivided heart, and can dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and their neighbour.”
Dr. Ed Peters has offered extensive commentary on this canon, which can be found at his blog [here]. It is quite clear that, at least on the most obvious reading of this canon, all clerics (married deacons and priests included) are bound to observe perfect and perpetual continence.
It is no small thing that, as this canon was being inserted into the Code, any exception for married clerics was specifically rejected.
Though not interpreted in this most obvious way by (practically) anyone of any authority in the Church, the Law is strikingly affirmative of clerical continence even for married priests and deacons.
It is quite likely that, in the early Church, the married men who were chosen as priests lived perpetual continence. While I will not enter into the scholarship, I simply point to the superb work by Cardinal Stickler, The Case for Clerical Celibacy.
In other words, though it is true that many priests in the early Church were married, it is also true that there was an equally ancient discipline according to which married priests refrained from any sexual intimacy.
Thus, both by the current Law of the Church, and by the ancient tradition, there is much to be said for clerical continence even among the married clergy.
Theologically – Why continence?
Though few recognize it, the primary historical and theological reasoning for clerical continence has to do with ritual purity. Sexual union makes a man (and woman) to be ritually impure. However, this is not to say that sexual union need be sinful in any respect. Ritual purity is quite diverse from any question of sin.
When the tradition states that the conjugal act makes a man to be ritually unclean, there is yet no accusation of sin. Indeed, it is one of the great myths of the modern age to claim that the scholastic theologians thought that all sexual pleasure came from and led to sin. Not at all.
However, according to the general tradition of the Church, because the conjugal act makes a man to be ritually impure, it is not fitting that he offer the Holy Sacrifice or even approach the altar for Communion. For this reason, even in the East, married priests would abstain from such intimacy in the day(s) preceding the Divine Liturgy.
In the Latin Church of the West, this focus on ritual purity was a major factor in the movement toward priestly celibacy. Because the priest must minister at the altar of God, he ought to avoid all that renders him to be ritually impure – which means that he must avoid all sexual intimacy, and therefore embraces celibacy.
Furthermore, ever for the rare exception of a married priest in the West, because the very body of the priest is consecrated to God, it is thought to be unbecoming for that married priest to engage in the conjugal act, as this act is contrary to ritual purity. Furthermore, as the Latin Church encourages priests to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass daily, continence would be perpetual (if the priest desired to retain ritual purity for the Holy Mass).
Ritual Purity and Holy Communion
Discussing the related question of nocturnal emissions, St. Thomas Aquinas offers a good summary of the tradition regarding ritual purity – Whether the seminal loss that occurs during sleep hinders anyone from receiving Communion? (ST III, q.80, a.7 [here]):
“At the same time a sense of decency forbids Communion on two accounts. The first of these is always verified, viz. the bodily defilement, with which, out of reverence for the sacrament, it is unbecoming to approach the altar (and hence those who wish to touch any sacred object, wash their hands): except perchance such uncleanness be perpetual or of long standing, such as leprosy or issue of blood, or anything else of the kind. The other reason is the mental distraction which follows after the aforesaid movements, especially when they take place with unclean imaginings.”
The Angelic Doctor, following the tradition on the subject, maintains that a number of acts (some involuntary, others voluntary) cause ritual impurity: Nocturnal emissions, the conjugal act, and menstrual bleeding, to name a few. However, those bodily defilements which are long-standing need not hinder the reception of Communion, as this would cause grave harm to the soul which must not go a long time without the Sacrament.
St. Thomas points out that, just as the priest ought to wash his hands before offering the Mass, so too ought all who approach the altar have abstained from marital intimacy. The priest, even if he be married, more than any other would then be required to observe continence.
Setting aside ritual purity
Now, without entirely dismissing the historical importance of ritual purity, it is good to realize that there has been significant development within the Church’s tradition on this subject.
St. Thomas notes that St. Gregory the Great already maintained that neither the nocturnal emission nor even the conjugal act itself need necessarily hinder any from receiving Holy Communion. Thus, we see that concern for ritual purity can be set aside for a good cause.
Indeed, St. Alphonsus maintained that the conjugal act and the nocturnal emission, as well as any other form of bodily defilement, need not hinder a man (or woman) from receiving Communion.
St. Francis de Sales says much the same in Part I, Chapter 20 of an early edition of Introduction to the Devout Life:
“No one, therefore, should be debarred from Holy Communion by compliance in this matter, if their devotion causes them to desire it. In the primitive Church Christians communicated every day although they were married and blessed with children. … As to bodily maladies there are none which lawfully impede Communion, save such as cause frequent vomiting.”
Thus, it is clear that, even within the tradition of the Latin Church, ritual purity has gradually been set aside and the conjugal act is no longer seen as a ritual barrier to Holy Communion. While a certain concern for ritual purity was maintained, the discipline of requiring ritual purity for the celebration of the Mass or the reception of Communion has been greatly relaxed, so that the concern for ritual purity could be set aside for any good reason.
Today, there is scarcely any concern for ritual purity in relation to the reception of Communion or the offering of the Mass. Even celibacy itself is no longer presented by the Magisterium as being related to ritual purity.
If continence is mandatory for the priest to offer Mass …
If however, any would maintain the traditional discipline by which a period of continence would be mandatory (or at least strongly encouraged) for the priest to offer the Holy Mass, then he would also have to hold the same for any form of bodily defilement (excepting those which are of long duration).
Hence, if the conjugal act renders a married priest to be ritually impure and unable to offer the Mass, then so too would a nocturnal emission.
Furthermore, it would seem that such a one would have to further hold that ritual purity would be of importance for any who would approach the altar for Holy Communion. Thus, a woman would not be permitted to receive Communion on certain days, according to her monthly cycle.
Shall we really maintain a concern for ritual purity? Especially considering that St. Alphonsus and St. Francis de Sales (as well as St. Gregory the Great and, to some extent, even St. Thomas) set it aside quite readily?
If this concern for ritual purity be set aside, there will be little theological foundation for requiring continence of married priests or deacons.
Indeed, if a married man can receive Communion without observing a period of continence, there is no reason why a married priest could not offer the Mass. And, if a woman can receive Communion during her monthly period, there is no reason why a married deacon would have to observe a time of continence before assisting at Mass. If the nocturnal emission need not hinder a celibate priest from offering Mass, neither would the conjugal act keep a married priest from approaching the altar of God.
A final thought – On Priestly Celibacy
However, even if theologically there is no good reason to demand continence of married priests and deacons, there may still be good reason to maintain the general requirement of celibacy.
Would it not be possible that the real reason for celibacy is not related to ritual purity or to clerical continence, but rather to the hierarchical structure of vocations within the life of the Church? Might we not say that, as the clerical state is a higher and more perfect vocation than married life, it is unbecoming of a cleric to lower himself to marriage?
Thus, we would hold that theologically Sacred Orders is fittingly seen an impediment to marriage – so that a priest should not enter into marriage. However, we could still maintain that marriage need not be an impediment to the priesthood (at least not for all) – so that some married men could be ordained priests. Further, the exercise of marriage need not impede a married priest or deacon from performing his proper ministry.
Still, while allowing for certain exceptions to the norm, there could be good reason for generally choosing priests only from among those men who have chosen celibacy. Indeed, as the priesthood is such an exalted vocation, it is fitting that priests be consecrated to a higher state than that of the married.
Thus, the discipline of clerical celibacy would be effectively removed from any question of ritual purity (indeed, from the question of sexual intimacy and pleasure all together) and would be seen entirely within the context of the relative perfection of the priestly vocation and the proper ordering of states of life in the Church.
Magisterial teaching on the primacy of celibacy
Because I know that there are some who will object to statements like “celibacy is a higher calling that married life” or “consecrated virginity is a more perfect vocation than marriage,” I offer magisterial statements to the same effect:
Pope John Paul II , Vita Consecrata, no. 32: “As a way of showing forth the Church's holiness, it is to be recognized that the consecrated life, which mirrors Christ's own way of life, has an objective superiority. Precisely for this reason, it is an especially rich manifestation of Gospel values and a more complete expression of the Church's purpose, which is the sanctification of humanity. The consecrated life proclaims and in a certain way anticipates the future age, when the fullness of the Kingdom of Heaven, already present in its first fruits and in mystery, will be achieved and when the children of the resurrection will take neither wife nor husband, but will be like the angels of God (cf. Mt. 22:30)”
Pope Pius XII, Sacra Virginitas, no. 32: “This doctrine of the excellence of virginity and of celibacy and of their superiority over the married state was, as we have already said, revealed by our Divine Redeemer and by the Apostle of the Gentiles; so too, it was solemnly defined as a dogma of divine faith by the holy council of Trent, and explained in the same way by all the holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church."
Council of Trent, pg. 225: "If anyone saith that the marriage state is to be preferred before the state of virginity, let him be anathema." [...] "writing to the Corinthians, [Paul] says: I would that all men were even as myself; that is, that all embrace the virtue of continence...A life of continence is to be desired by all.”