A thoughtful case for priestly celibacy Print E-mail
Word on Fire
Thursday, Apr. 05, 2018 -- 12:00 AM

This article is the second in a two-part series.

In Grammar of Assent, John Henry Newman reminded us that truth is brought home to the mind, becoming convincing and persuasive, when it is represented, not through abstractions, but through something particular, colorful, and imaginable.

We might be intrigued by the formula of Chalcedon, but we are moved to tears and to action by the narrative of Christ's appearance on the road to Emmaus. Thus, the truth of the non-ultimacy of sex, family, and worldly relationships can and should be proclaimed through words, but it will be believed only when people can see it.

This is why, the Church is convinced, God chooses certain people to be celibate: in order to witness to a transcendent form of love, the way that we will love in heaven. In God's realm, we will experience a communion (bodily as well as spiritual) compared to which even the most intense forms of communion here below pale into insignificance, and celibates make this truth viscerally real for us now.

Living sign of transformation

Just as belief in the real presence in the Eucharist fades (as we have seen) when unaccompanied by devotional practice, so the belief in the impermanence of created love becomes attenuated in the absence of living embodiments of it. Though one can present practical reasons for it, I believe that celibacy only finally makes sense in this eschatological context.

I realize that my reader might be following the argument to this point and still feel compelled to ask, "Yes, granted that celibacy is a good thing for the Church, but why must all priests be celibate?" The medievals distinguished between arguments from necessity and arguments from "fittingness."

I can offer only the latter kind of argument, for even its most ardent defenders admit that celibacy is not essential to the priesthood. After all, married priests have been, at various times and for various reasons, accepted from the beginning of the Church to the present day. The appropriateness of linking priesthood and celibacy comes, I think, from the priest's identity as a Eucharistic person.

All that a priest is radiates outward from his unique capacity, acting in the person of Christ, to transform the Eucharistic elements into the body and blood of Jesus. As the center of a rose window anchors and orders all of the other elements in the design, so the Eucharistic act of the priest grounds and animates everything else that he does, rendering qualitatively distinctive his way of leading, sanctifying, and teaching.

But the Eucharist is the eschatological act par excellence, for as Paul says, "Every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes." To proclaim the paschal mystery through the Eucharist is to make present that event by which the new world is opened up to us.

Intimate terms with God

It is to make vividly real the transcendent dimension which effectively relativizes (without denying) all of the goods of this passing world. And it is therefore fitting that the one who is so intimately conditioned by and related to the Eucharist should be in his form of life an eschatological person.

For years, Andrew Greeley argued -- quite rightly in my view -- that the priest is fascinating, and that a large part of the fascination comes from celibacy. The compelling quality of the priest is not a matter of superficial celebrity or charm; that gets us precisely nowhere.

It is something much stranger, deeper, and more mystical: the fascination for another world, for that mysterious dimension of existence hinted at sacramentally by the universe here below and revealed to us, however tantalizingly, in the breaking of the bread.

I for one am glad that such eschatologically fascinating persons are not simply in monasteries, cloistered convents, and hermits cells, but in parishes, on the streets, and in the pulpits, moving visibly among the people of God.

There are, I realize, a couple of major problems with offering arguments for celibacy. First, it can make everything seem so pat, rational, and resolved. I've been a priest now for over 30 years, and I can assure you that the living of celibacy has been anything but that.

As I've gone through different seasons of my life as a priest, I've struggled mightily with celibacy, precisely because the tension between the goodness and ephemerality of creation of which I spoke of earlier is no abstraction, but rather runs right through my body.

Matters of love

The second problem is that reason only goes so far. As Thomas More said in that wonderful scene from A Man for All Seasons, as he was trying to make his daughter understand why he was being so stubborn: "Finally, Meg, it's not a matter of reason; finally, it's a matter of love."

People in love do strange things: they pledge eternal fidelity; they write poetry and songs; they defy their families and change their life plans; sometimes they go to their deaths.

They tend to be over-the-top, irrational, and confounding to the reasonable people around them. Though we can make a case for it -- as I have tried to do -- celibacy is finally inexplicable, unnatural, and fascinating, for it is a form of life adopted by people in love with Jesus Christ.


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