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Don’t Sell Celibacy Short

The pope and curial officials met last week to discuss the surreal affairs of the globetrotting apostate Archbishop Milingo. At the conclusion of their meeting they reaffirmed the value of priestly celibacy. Milingo has said publicly that he thinks it wise to jettison the western tradition to alleviate the “dire … shortage of priests.” Blazing a trail in this direction, he himself married a member of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. He then went on to ordain a few married men, including one guy who had already been consecrated by almost a half-dozen other bishops of questionable credentials.

My friends among the Lutheran and Episcopal clergy say that Milingo’s claim is absurd. In fact, their denominations — which permit clergy to marry — have experienced a similar decline in candidates over the last few decades. They’ve relaxed academic standards (so they tell me), bumped up the salaries and benefits, and doubled the potential pool of candidates by admitting women — but they’re still coming up short.

The Vatican’s right to remind us of the value of celibacy. We shouldn’t need the reminder, with all the scriptural passages that so clearly promote the celibate life (e.g., Matthew 19:10-12; 1 Corinthians 7; Revelation 14:4). (It’s a marvel to me that so-called “sola scriptura” Christians have never warmed to something taught so explicitly and emphatically in the New Testament.) And if we manage to miss the message in the Good Book, the Fathers are always around to remind us. I just finished re-reading Eusebius’s History of the Church, where celibates and consecrated virgins are everywhere celebrated. Last week I mentioned Aphrahat’s Demonstration 18, which complements the New Testament witness with an argument drawn from numerous Old Testament texts.

In both the east and the west, the Church has always prized celibacy. In the west, celibacy has almost always been obligatory for priests. In the east, parish priests have ordinarily been married, while bishops are celibate. As a result, the eastern churches usually draw their bishops from the ranks of the monks. In the age of the Fathers, married priests who were elevated to the episcopacy ordinarily lived with their wives “as brother and sister.”

Some years back, the Vatican posted an interesting study, by an easterner, on the Fathers and celibacy. I’m fond of two book-length treatments: Celibacy in the Early Church: The Beginnings of Obligatory Continence for Clerics in East and West by Stefan Heid and Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy by Christian Cochini.

None of these authors claim that celibacy is essential to the priesthood. It’s certainly not. But it seems clear to me from Scripture and the Fathers that celibacy should be more revered — and more common — than it is in the Church today. I don’t think that celibacy is the great deterrent to priesthood that Archbishop Milingo thinks it is. I suspect that we in the west — addicted as we are to comfort and control — fear the cost of discipleship. And that fear will keep us out of the seminaries and convents, which are all about training disciples.

We’re weak. And until we recognize our weakness — and begin with God’s help to build up our strength — we’ll remain in this “dire” situation that Archbishop Milingo laments. But we’re never going to get stronger by indulging our weaknesses. If we demand little, we’ll get nothing. If we demand much, we just might see our way out of this man-made crisis.

I’ll wager that’s true not just for us Catholics, but for the Orthodox, Lutherans, and Episcopalians who are also wringing their hands over a “vocations shortage.”

4 thoughts on “Don’t Sell Celibacy Short

  1. The question that needs to be confronted is – why were they celebrated? Because sex was seen as always sinful. Always, even if only venially, if there was the slightest glimmer of concupiscence. Not exactly the Theology of the Body going there. That gulf in understanding really has to be confronted before one can even begin to compare then and now.

  2. Unless I’m mistaken, John Paul II confronted this squarely within the Theology of the Body addresses (see especially those on “Virginity for the Sake of the Kingdom,” March 10, 1982, to July 21, 1982). They’re available for perusal on They’re also available in a new edition, with excellent commentary: Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology Of The Body.

    In any event, I can assure you that neither Jesus nor Paul nor John was suggesting that “sex was … always sinful.” Otherwise there would be no Theology of the Body.

    The patristic record is mixed on sex and marriage. It’s at least arguable that Clement of Alexandria anticipated the Theology of the Body by some eighteen centuries. He had a refined appreciation for marriage and for the couple’s bodily union. I know that Chrysostom is sometimes cited in the negative column; but his nasty passages are almost all drawn from his pleas to a friend to return to the practice of celibacy — and I think his hyperbole is understandable, given the circumstance. Even Augustine didn’t say quite what you’re saying here — that sex is “always sinful … even if venially.” He did say that our practice of sex almost always involves some venial sin, but that’s a different statement altogether. My practice of phone conversation almost always involves some venial sin, but that doesn’t mean the phone is a bad thing.

    Even so, we shouldn’t project Augustine (or Jerome!) back on the earlier Fathers. They’re writing with a far different set of concerns.

  3. See also Chrysostom’s Homilies on Ephesians. That’s a stunning theology of marriage. And he points out that celibacy has no value unless marriage is highly valued.

  4. You know, the more I think about this line — “Because sex was seen as always sinful” — the more it ticks me off. It’s a gross caricature of the Church Fathers. Does anybody really believe we’re a lot more enlightened about sex these days than Clement of Alexandria was in the third century? Yeesh, look around you.

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