The Celibate Priesthood

Catholics in Germany and elsewhere have become skeptical of celibacy

Cardinal Marx has called for “new thinking” on sexual issues, including celibacy. His liberal perspective reflects pressure to end mandatory priestly celibacy, a contested issue since sexual freedom has become a core principle of modern German culture. Catholics there have become skeptical of celibacy. Last November, the lay Central Committee of German Catholics voted to abolish mandatory celibacy for priests.

Controversy over sexual abstinence is nothing new in the history of the Church. The 10th century is claimed to be the high point of clerical marriage in the Latin communion. Most rural priests were married and many urban clergy and bishops had wives and children. The tendency of priests and bishops cohabitating with wives even in continence was taken up by the 11th-century Gregorian Reform, which aimed at eliminating Nicolaitism, that is, clerical marriage and concubinage ― theoretically excluded but widely practiced. Clerical celibacy, despite wide opposition, was strongly upheld.

New opposition appeared with the Protestant Reformation, since its leaders married. The Council of Trent considered the matter and decreed that marriage after ordination was invalid. It further declared, “ If any one saith that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity, or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony; let him be anathema.”

Practically speaking, the main reasons for celibacy are given by the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 7:7–8; 32–35:

“But I would have you to be without solicitude. He that is without a wife is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God. But he that is with a wife, is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife: and he is divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin thinks on the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit. But she that is married thinks on the things of this world how she may please her husband. And this I speak for your profit, not to cast a snare upon you, but for that which is decent and which may give you power to attend upon the Lord without impediment.”

St. Paul was himself unmarried and knew well the graces and benefits of which he spoke. He challenged not only presbyters during his day but devoted single men and women. He encouraged chastity for all who would serve the Lord with their whole body, mind, and spirit.

Is Cardinal Marx unaware of this ancient controversy when he asks for “new thinking”? He knows we stand in a great tradition but finds it incomplete.

Having struggled for chaste celibacy since my youth, I beg to differ. It’s been a gracious, fulfilling experience.


Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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