Question: Why do priests in the Catholic Church keep celibacy?

I have always been surprised at the apparent vexation this discipline stirs among some Christian people, especially since it is explicitly recommended in the New Testament. Paul is very clear about its value for those who are, as we might phrase it today, “in ministry.” After discussing conjugal rights between Christian spouses in his First Letter to the Corinthians, he continues with:

“This I say by way of concession (his advice about marriage), not by way of command. I wish that all were as I myself am (unmarried). But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am.”

Then later in the same chapter,

“I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.” (1 Cor. 7:6-8, 32-34)

St. Paul could not be more clear and literal in emphasizing what is simultaneously a practical and spiritual advantage in having a celibate clergy. Inevitably, regardless of how lofty his intentions may be, the married man trying to serve the People of God beyond the members of his own household will find that “his interests are divided.” Paul also mentions that the celibacy he is describing is a gift – and this is one of the reasons that the call to priesthood or any form of consecrated life must always be a free choice on the part of the candidate – a true gift can never be forced on someone. As well as being a gift to be freely accepted, a call to any form of consecrated life is also a gift that must be discerned by the larger Church as well as the individual. Like priesthood itself, “no one takes this honor on himself, but he receives it when called by God” (Hebrews 5:4).

In presenting this highly counter-cultural path to his disciples, Jesus is the last word in blunt!

“His disciples said to him, ‘If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.’ But he said to them, ‘Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given (gift!). For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” (Matthew 19:11-12)

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has cited this passage as the original basis for the practice and understanding of priestly celibacy. While it is more symbolic in nature, he also reminds us of God’s distribution of the Promised Land to the tribes of Israel. Each tribe was given a portion of the Promised Land, a geographic inheritance, an earthly domain. Not the tribe of Levi, however. The Levites were the tribe of Israel’s priests. They inherited no earthly region because they were told that as priests, God Himself was their inheritance: “Then the Lord said to Aaron: ‘You shall have no allotment in their land, nor shall you have any share among them; I am your share and your possession among the Israelites’” (Numbers 18:20).

It is abundantly true that those who walk away from family ties for the sake of the Gospel will indeed receive a hundredfold of like treasures even in this age. But first, the disciple called to “full-time ministry” must quite literally walk away from personal family rights and obligations in order to give himself to a new family – to the Bride of Christ, the Church.