Allow me a moment to make an argument for what is likely the least popular idea I could defend, aside from making an apology for something like Trump’s natural capacity for growing hair. I wanna talk celibacy, just as everyone wants to these days, but especially of the priestly sort. And I want give you the heeve-ho, which priests are not allowed to do, as to why it’s an awesome idea, even if I can’t argue it’s necessary.
To qualify, take this argument as one dedicated to my own Church, the Catholic. I have no particular judgment of any other churches, believe it or not, and I certainly don’t seek to interfere with their doctrinal development, knowing personally some straight-up rad married clergy and priests. That said, Catholic priestly celibacy can be an awesome and an unparallelled testament to the Gospel and its eschatological horizon. Here’s why.
First, think of what the Gospel is. I’m of course one of those old-timey SOBs who thinks that the Gospel represents to us in a way unparalleled in anything else God’s coming to us. I start with the Incarnation and its Trinitarian implications, saying that in Christ, contra my hippie-process buddies, God comes to us definitively in Christ, meaning that the life death and resurrection (a real one and not a fake, spiritual one) have something irrevocable and undeniable to say about the God and who God is.
The Gospel is God’s coming to us in Christ. And the salvation it yields is exposed in the birth of Christ and God’s needless but gratuitous coming to us; the ministry of Christ as Christ restores the world through healing to its intended state of sublime peace and wholeness; and the death and resurrection of Christ, whereby Christ critiques and reorders the powers of violence, death, and decay, detracting from their awful power.
Christ is about peace in a radical, Jewish prophet sort of way. He wants to reestablish the primordial peace that emerged in the creation narratives, expressed in the Beauty of Eden and the unmitigated love that thrived there. In other words, the Gospel is God’s coming to this universe in Christ to save it all from death, destruction, decay, and violence that has made its way through, countering it like yeast in bread.
Now think of what a Priest is for us Catholic weirdos. A priest is an extension of the Bishop, the main pastor of any Diocese and its guarantor of both orthodoxy and lawful diversity. The Bishop, and through him, the priest, is a server of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, whose awesomeness I’ve already discussed elsewhere. For Catholics, the Eucharist is the continuing Incarnational and essential presence (and not merely the existential presence in and through the Being of beings) of God in the world. It is the power to reenact Christ’s ministry above.
Priestly life, then, is defined by the sacraments, especially that of Eucharist, so much so that we rightly think of the priestly commitment to them as a marriage to the sacraments and, through them, the Church who offers the sacraments. With marriage comes certain duties and responsibilities.
For instance, my wife and I, who also participate in a sacrament with one another through marriage, are bound up to one another both in love and duty. In love, we find that we can no longer call ourselves merely ourselves. Our identities are now intrinsically bound so that I cannot be who I am without my wife, and my wife cannot be who I am without me. Neither is that to say we always enjoy one another. We have two kids under three; we spend most of our time fighting about whose turn it is to change the little one or calm the temper of the older one. (Honestly, I have no clue how good Catholic families even have time to create more children once there are two in the mix.) Nevertheless, in our union of identities, we reflect the type of love that emerges in and through the Incarnation and that we’re supposed to offer actually to our families and communities and potentially ton the rest of creation.
What then are our duties in this? To continually attempt to engage in an identity of love whether we feel like it or not; that’s one. But also things like protection. Be it physically, emotionally, or something else, we are bound up to help preserve the life and joy of the other and the children that have sprung from mostly my wife’s loins.
Here’s where I think priestly celibacy, while not a necessity, becomes a blessing: the celibate priest, unlike me, is not bound to certain natural duties concerning the family first. The celibate can, rather, fully dedicate himself to the Eucharist and a similar marriage to it, including all of the ethical functions that unfold. Here’s what I mean, using a more extreme example than others.
To begin, I offer a bit of corny self-information. I’m kind of a violent guy sometimes, or at least potentially so. I’m one of the crazies who recognizes the possibilities of unlawful home break-ins, for instance, and I know the possibility of an officer coming in time to protect my family in a rural area. I train, then, in all kinds of disruptive activities through which, in a worst possible case, I can try to protect my family. Now, don’t get me wrong, I want to prevent such violence at most costs. I’m Christian. If I engage in war, or violence, or some activity de-dignifying of the other, I do so not without an admission of guilt and hope for a better world where none such violence is necessary. (Welcome to the topic of my next hopeful book: The Impossibility of Christian Ethics). So I also have other obsessive strategies that I use to prevent any potential violence: a warning system that I can alarm to drive off any potential intruders; a dog—a big one—to act in the same way. Also, my cats are absolutely ferocious! But I can and will protect my family if necessary, for they are a natural and sacramental reality that I’ve given myself over to in love and duty.
A celibate priest? Such a person can act far more as a signpost for the primary sacrament that brings meaning to all other sacraments: the Eucharist. He can marry this sacrament, giving himself to it as a husband does wife while simultaneously receiving himself through it as a husband does a wife. In such, he can become a marker through a Eucharistic life of the coming Kingdom, even as it already breaks in, better than I can in that he is not bound up with the same duties that I am to the sacrament of my family. That is, he has no family to protect; or, rather, the family he must protect is the parish and Church family, which need not be protected with violence but Christ-like sacrifice: “turning the other cheek; going the extra mile; taking up his cross.”
The priest can give himself to any such intruder in a way that I cannot, and he can do so in and through the essence of Christian life—self-sacrifice—which, in my case, I will only offer for my family and not for the intruder and the Kingdom of God.
(Take note that this ethical call on a celibate priest’s life undergirds Pope Francis’ critique of those priests who are in it for the money and convenience.)
That said, I reemphasize that I don’t think celibacy is necessary; I will not take away from those ministers who are married. You do difficult and important work. I do think celibacy, far from the manner in which culture usually demagogues it, can become an important and essential expression of the Kingdom come, and it’s a practice I affirm in my Church, the Catholic. For all ministers beyond: you will always face the difficult and real decision between “leaving your father and mother” for the parish you serve and your natural duties and desires to serve your father and mother in love. I do not envy your difficult situation.