A thoughtful case for priestly celibacy Print E-mail
Word on Fire
Thursday, Mar. 29, 2018 -- 12:00 AM

This article is the first of a two-part series.

There is a very bad argument for celibacy which has reared its head throughout the tradition and which is, even today, defended by some. It runs something like this: married life is morally and spiritually suspect; priests, as religious leaders, should be spiritual athletes above reproach; therefore, priests shouldn't be married.

I love Augustine, but it is hard to deny that this kind of argumentation finds support in some of Augustine's more unfortunate reflections on sexuality (original sin as a sexually transmitted disease; sex even within marriage is venially sinful; the birth of a baby associated with excretion, etc.).

I once ran across a book in which the author presented a version of this justification, appealing to the purity codes in the book of Leviticus. His implication was that any sort of sexual contact, even within marriage, would render a minister at the altar impure.

This approach to the question is, in my judgment, not just silly but dangerous, for it rests on assumptions that are repugnant to good Christian metaphysics.

God made all things good

The doctrine of creation ex nihilo necessarily implies the essential integrity of the world and everything in it. Genesis tells us that God found each thing he had made good and that he found the ensemble of creatures very good. Expressing the same idea with typical scholastic understatement, Thomas Aquinas commented that "being" and "good" are convertible terms.

Catholic theology, at its best, has always been resolutely anti-Manichaean, anti-gnostic, anti-dualist -- and this means that matter, the body, and sexual activity are never, in themselves, to be despised.

In his book A People Adrift, Peter Steinfels correctly suggests that the post-conciliar reaffirmation of this aspect of the tradition effectively undermined the dualist justification for celibacy that I sketched above.

Defining divinity

But there is more to the doctrine of creation than an affirmation of the goodness of the world. To say that the finite realm in its entirety is created is to imply that nothing in the universe is God.

All aspects of created reality reflect God, point to God, and bear traces of the divine goodness (just as every detail of a building gives evidence of the mind of the architect), but no creature and no collectivity of creatures is divine (just as no part of a structure is the architect).

This essential distinction between God and the world is the ground for the anti-idolatry principle that is reiterated from beginning to end of the Bible: do not turn something which is less than God into God.

The prophet Isaiah put it thus: "As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my thoughts above your thoughts and my ways above your ways, says the Lord." And it is at the heart of the first commandment: "I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods besides me."

Clarity in God's directions

The Bible thus holds off all forms of pantheism, immanentism, and nature mysticism -- all the attempts of human beings to divinize or render ultimate some worldly reality. The doctrine of creation, in a word, involves both a great "yes" and a great "no" to the universe.

Now there is a behavioral concomitant to the anti-idolatry principle: it is the detachment which is urged throughout the Bible and by practically every figure in the great tradition from Irenaeus and Chrysostom to Bernard, John of the Cross, and Thérèse of Lisieux. Detachment is the refusal to make anything less than God the organizing principle or center of one's life.

Anthony de Mello looked at it from the other side and said that "an attachment is anything in this worl­­d -- including your own life -- that you are convinced you cannot live without." Even as we reverence everything that God has made, we must let go of everything that God has made, precisely for the sake of God.

Augustine saw to the bottom of this truth, commenting that creatures are loved better, more authentically, precisely when they are loved in God. This is why, as G.K. Chesterton noted, there is an odd, tensive, and bi-polar quality to Christian life.

In accord with its affirmation of the world, the Church loves color, pageantry, music, and rich decoration (as in the liturgy and papal ceremonials), even as, in accord with its detachment from the world, it loves the poverty of St. Francis and the simplicity of Mother Teresa.

The same tensiveness governs its attitude toward sex and family. Again in Chesterton's language, the Church is "fiercely for having children" (through marriage) even as it remains "fiercely against having them" (in religious celibacy).

Everything in this world -- including sex and intimate friendship -- is good, but impermanently so; all finite reality is beautiful, but its beauty, if I can put it in explicitly Catholic terms, is sacramental and not ultimate.

According to the Biblical narratives, when God wanted to make a certain truth vividly known to his people, he would occasionally choose a prophet and command him to act out that truth, to embody it concretely. Hence, he told Hosea to marry the unfaithful Gomer in order to sacramentalize God's fidelity to wavering Israel.


Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Learn more at www.WordOnFire.org