Why Are Priests Celibate?


The Roman Catholic Church chooses its priests from those men who are called to a life of celibacy.

Not every person who wants to be something has the ability to be. 

Prayer for Priests Holy Card

Celibate for life?

Many people, including some Catholics and most Protestants, think that Church teaching regarding the celibacy of clergy is out-dated and extreme. Complicating the issue is that fact that this teaching is a unique requirement of the western Latin rite and is not traditionally practiced by the Eastern Catholic churches. The venerable tradition of clerical celibacy in the West, however, dates from the early days of the Church. Perhaps the first thing to note about clerical celibacy is that it is not Church dogma, but rather it is a Church requirement that is supported by Sacred Scripture.

It is not accurate to think celibacy is something forced on otherwise unwilling men. God gives certain gifts, like celibacy, to some people and the Church selects its priests from this group of men. If a man is not called to celibacy then he is not called to be a priest in the Latin Church. Similarly, if a man is not able to give up all his material possessions he does not belong in a religious community that takes a vow of poverty.

The vow of chastity makes practical sense because a priest's first duty is to his flock. His vocation requires that he be available 24/7 to help parishioners with spiritual needs. Talk to any priest and he will tell you he has very little free time for himself because his priestly obligations are so numerous and time consuming. Imagine adding the care of a wife and children to his list of duties!

St. Paul warns that this is a danger in Fist Corinthians 7:32-34. "An unmarried man can devote himself to the Lord's affairs, all he need worry about is pleasing the Lord; but a married man has to bother about the world's affairs and devote himself to pleasing his wife: he is torn in two ways."

The western Church does not want its priests torn in two ways. Like the apostles, they are asked to leave everything behind and follow Jesus (Matthew 19:27); to make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom (Matthew 9:12). Luke 18:29-30 says that every person who makes this choice will receive manifold more in this life and the next.

The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy

And speaking of the next life

The Catholic view of marriage is that it is a symbol of the union with God that can only be found in heaven. Those men and women who choose to live a celibate life are doing so in anticipation of this heavenly marriage with God. Pope John Paul II's theology of the body teaches that both the celibate and married vocations are similar in that they ask for the total giving of one's self. If we consider that neither vocation allows us to selfishly indulge in our own desires, then there isn't such a stark contrast between the married life and the celibate one.

Many priests and religious wear wedding rings as a reminder that they are bound to God and the Church in love just like two spouses are bound to each other. Just as a spouse asks for undivided commitment, so does the Lord.

When God Asks for an Undivided Heart

"Conduct me, O Lord, in thy way, and I will walk in thy truth: let my heart rejoice that it may fear thy name. I will praise thee, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify thy name for ever . .” - Psalm 86

To learn more about the ministry of the priest in the Catholic Church, please browse the resources available in our Year of the Priest specialty store.


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