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Intimate Friends of Jesus Christ

The Charism of Priestly Celibacy: Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Reflections

By John C. Cavadini

Publisher: Ave Maria Press

Pages: 186 pages

Price: $15.95

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the seventeenth century.

When priestly celibacy began to be questioned in earnest in the 1960s, Pope Paul VI rose to its defense with his 1967 encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus. The eight essays in The Charism of Priestly Celibacy, a development of this defense, are truly extraordinary for their depth of insight and eloquence of expression. Several themes cast new light on the beauty of priestly celibacy.

First, celibacy is a prophetic sign. As Raniero Cantalamessa notes, Christ gives new eschatological meaning to the word eunuch in Matthew 19:12. Since virgins and celibates can now live on earth as they will in their “ultimate state” in Heaven, it is false to say that celibacy is “contrary to nature.” In reality, celibacy fulfills nature “at a more profound level,” pointing to the “definitive state” toward which we all journey. Mary Healy observes that St. Paul offered as motive for celibacy that the world is passing away (cf. 1 Cor. 7:25-31). And so, by witnessing to “the fulfillment found in self-donation apart from sexual intimacy,” celibates are “signs of the joy of the future kingdom already anticipated here on earth.” Joseph T. Lienhard, S.J., adds that priestly celibacy is “incomprehensible without Christian faith in the supernatural order. It is possible only for those who believe, with the creed, in ‘the life of the world to come.'”

Archbishop J. Peter Sartain calls priestly celibacy “a necessary sign of contradiction” in a world that wants to make the truths of faith invisible. It also “bears within itself an image of Mary, whose virginity…produced great fruit.” When “lived clearly,” says Archbishop Allen Vigneron, celibacy is “a great foreshadowing.” As the gulf widens between the celibate priesthood and a sex-addicted society, Msgr. Stephen J. Rossetti notes, priests are a sign that “there is something more to the human person than what our materialistic society can see and touch.”

Second, celibacy is a cause of joy. Msgr. Michael Heintz finds that celibacy is often equated with stoic restraint and repression when it is actually “a charism, a gift, a grace,” and offers great freedom. Sartain points to the “beloved disciple” as a model for priests, who need to be “constantly at the Lord’s side as his intimate friends, faithful disciples, and stewards of the house of God, the Church.” Without this closeness, he adds, priests will not “lean” into their “comfort” and know deeply that they are loved. They must go “beyond discipline to depth, beyond routine to fire,” and be “signs that the kingdom of God is here.”

Rossetti conducted two large polls in 2004 and 2009, the first with 1,242 priests, the second with 2,482, and in both surveys nine out of ten priests agreed that they were happy in their priesthood. Other polls from this decade yield similar results. The most important variables for priestly happiness, Rossetti found, were “inner peace” and “closeness to God.” Those who saw their celibacy as a “calling” and a “grace,” and who were devoted to Mary, were also more likely to be happy. Interestingly, younger priests were twice as likely as older priests to support mandatory celibacy. It would seem, then, that the celibate priest “will increasingly become a sign of contradiction for the secular world around him.” Little wonder that Cantalamessa urges young men to “embrace the vocation of priesthood not in spite of celibacy but because of it.”

Third, celibacy is a sharing in Christ’s spousal love. Vigneron explains that Jesus has assumed the name of Bridegroom, God’s title as Spouse of Israel (Mk. 2:19; cf. Hos. 2:19-20). He is the virginal spouse “who loves his bride with an undivided love.” Their union is exclusive because His gift of self is “exhaustive.” As high priest, Christ brings His virginal love to the paschal sacrifice and gives Himself from the cross to His bride, becoming “one flesh with her alone.” The new covenant is both “nuptial” and “established by a sacrifice.” Priestly celibacy, then, “presents this total virginal self-giving of Jesus, which is the essence and foundation of his priesthood.”

Healy agrees that the celibacy of Jesus is “intrinsically nuptial” and that through it He founds a new messianic family (cf. Mt. 12:50). As friend of the Bridegroom, the Apostle Paul “shares in Christ’s spousal love for his Church” (Rom. 15:16). Celibacy thus becomes the motive, Heintz says, for “an ever-deepening gift of the priest on behalf of God’s people.” Sartain affirms that priests “both pray and minister from the cross…. A life of priestly ministry entails loving from the cross in one unfolding and lifelong act of self-oblation. That is why the Eucharist will always stand at the center of our lives.”

Fourth, celibacy enables the priest to reach the most sublime form of fatherhood. As Sartain puts it, “In Christ our family expands to include all those to whom he sends us. No matter their age, race, culture, or language, they are our children — and they have a claim on us.” Those who receive the charism of celibacy, Vigneron says, “will find in this form of existence the fulfillment of the aspirations to intimacy and paternity he [God] has inscribed in their very being.” They will express the “charity that flows from the priestly heart of Christ, a charity no less ardent for being grounded in a virginal heart.” Like Paul, who said, “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls” (2 Cor. 12:15), they will be “as self-forgetful for their spiritual children as parents are for their offspring.”

Fr. Carter Griffin expands on this theme, declaring that “celibacy is ordered precisely to the exercise of that priestly fatherhood,” a fatherhood “more real” than any other. It is “to Jesus as head — that is to his fatherhood — that a priest is configured in ordination.” Jesus, the “new father of humanity, the father in the order of grace,” generates children for the Kingdom and gives them food for body and soul. Thomas Aquinas tells us that celibacy is ordered to contemplation, which in turn prepares the priest to preach and generate children “with his voice.” As Paul said, “I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15). Moreover, the priest administers the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, and in so doing “visibly represents Christ the head, Christ the Father.” Finally, the priest’s sublime fatherhood closely images “the virginal generation of the Eternal Son” by the Father and “the virginal generation of the Church” by the Son.

This book also contains two essays on the history of celibacy in the Church. As Healy recounts, the emphasis changed from “priestly continence within marriage (in the early centuries when many clerics were married) to priestly celibacy.” When Paul says, “Do we not have the right to take along a Christian wife, as do the rest of the apostles” (1 Cor. 9:5), he uses the Greek word for sister wife and gives no hint of young children or a missionary family who need to be supported. In early Church documents, the term sister wife referred to “a wife with whom a sacred minister lived in sexual continence after ordination.” Early Church legislation claimed that 1 Timothy 3, which states that a candidate for bishop, presbyter, or deacon must be “the husband of one wife,” was “evidence for the apostolic origin of clerical continence” — the point being that a man who married more than once was incapable of that continence required of the clergy.

Starting in the fourth century, when the Church began raising her head from persecution, one sees a pattern of local councils and popes “requiring continence of married clerics.” Lienhard cites Pope Siricius in A.D. 385 complaining of priests and deacons who procreate offspring from their wives. St. Ambrose says that Paul speaks in 1 Timothy 3:2 of a bishop having children but not of begetting them, and that Epiphanius says a deacon, presbyter, or bishop must not beget children but keep himself “back from his one wife.” In A.D. 405 Pope Innocent sought to suspend clergy who violate continence and beget children. It appears, then, that priestly celibacy in the West has antiquity on its side.

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