Apparently convincing arguments can be made against the practice of priestly celibacy. Let us quickly examine some of the most important of these. First of all, the New Testament does not seem to require celibacy for priests, but simply proposes it as a special grace, to which each individual may freely respond (cf. Mt 19, 11-12). Moreover, Jesus Christ did not make of it a prerequisite in the choice of His Twelve Apostles, nor did the Apostles themselves in their choice of the leaders of the first Christian communities (cf. 1Tm 3, 2-5; Tt 1, 5-6).
The fruit of an unhealthy obsession with purity?
Admittedly, throughout the centuries the Church Fathers and ecclesiastical writers established a link between a priestly vocation and consecrated celibacy. However, the Fathers rather recommend chastity in marriage than celibacy itself. Moreover, these texts appear to be inspired by an exaggerated pessimism or by a more or less unhealthy obsesssion with purity. Finally, they refer to a socio-cultural context which is no longer our's. Furthermore, this custom of ecclesiastical celibacy improperly aligns the priestly vocation with the vocation to celibacy. Moreover, we are forced to admit the tragic shrinking of the clergy: would not one of the causes of this shrinking be the obligation to remain celibate, which is too heavy a load for many young people today? Would not a suppression of this obligation give a new impetus to the recruitment of priests?
A requirement which is impossible to fulfill?
Anyway, we are forced to admit the numerous breaches of this consecrated ceibacy, either on the part of priests who leave their ministry to marry, or on the part of priests who have more or less clandestine sexual relationships. Wouldn't a frank authorisation be better than a shameful hypocrisy which ends in scandal? In reality, perfect celibacy is impossible to keep, because it is against nature and inhuman. It puts the priest in a physically and psychologically damaging condition, from which are born discouragement, or even dispair. Thus, according to its opponents, priestly celibacy is proven to be unfounded in Scripture and Tradition, excessive, inappropriate, hypocritical and against nature. It is therefore urgent to completely suppress it, or, at least, to make it entirely optional, both for today's clergy and for future priests.
Bad reasons for defending it?
In order to defend priestly celibacy, people have sometimes put forward an argument which goes something like this: “If the priest were married, he would have to devote himself to his wife and family, which would make him less available for his faithful (for example for bringing the Sacraments during the night or during an epidemic). Furthemore, the secrets which are entrusted to him under the seal of confession would risk being uncovered during discussions with his spouse, and the mere thought of this risk would repel penitents from approaching him”. Such reasonings are not entirely devoid of truth. However, they are not absolutely convincing either. In effect, the doctor must also leave home at night or during epidemics in order to cure sick people. He likewise receives the most intimate confidences of his patients. Yet, no-one has ever stopped a doctor from getting married! This is therefore proof that this reason alone (as well-founded as it appears) is not sufficient to justify priestly celibacy. Attacked by strong reasons and defended by insufficient arguments, priestly celibacy seems to be a cause which is definitively lost, destined to be swept aside by the victorious march of history and human progress.
The constant practise of the Church
Impressed by these objections (and by yet others which could be formulated), we could be tempted to accept this apparent inevitability. However, an enormous fact towers before us, which obliges us to think seriously about the gravity of the question at hand. This fact is the constant practise of the Catholic Church in the matter of ecclesiastical celibacy. In effect, since Christian antiquity, the Fathers of the Church and the ecclesiastical writers witness unanimously to the propagation (amongst the clergy of both East and West) of the freely assumed practice of consecrated celibacy. From the fourth century on, the Western Church (thanks to the interventions of several provincial councils and bishops), reinforced, developed and sanctioned this practice of priestly celibacy.
The action of the Roman pontiffs
The Roman pontiffs, in particular, were intent on protecting and restoring ecclesiastical celibacy at all times, even when the general slackening of morals was opposed to it and when a part of the clergy was publicly living in misconduct. This obligation of priestly celibacy was, in particular, solemnly recalled by the Council of Trent and inserted into the Code of Canon Law. Since the beginning of the 20th Century, all the popes without exception (following to a custom created by Saint Pius X), have addressed an encyclical letter to the priests of the entire world, notably reminding them of the solemn engagement of celibacy which they have contracted.
The pratcice of the Church of the East
If the legislation of the Eastern Church concerning ecclesiastical celibacy is partially different, it must not be forgotten that this is due to historical circumstances proper to this part of the Church. However, the Eastern Fathers have sung highly the praises of virginity and of its profound links with the priestly ministry. Furthermore, in the East, the episcopacy (that is to say, the fulness of the priesthood) is strictly reserved to celibate clergy. Finally, candidates for the priesthood who desire marriage absolutely must get married before ordination and, if they become widowers, they cannot remarry. In such manner that, even in the East, the prinicple of celibate priesthood and that of the correspondance between celibacy and priestly ministry remain established up to a certain point, at least in the episcopal priesthood.
A universal and constant practice
In a Church which claims to be essentially faithful to Tradition, this universal and constant practice of consecrated celibacy cannot be treated as a simple human custom, revocable at will. On the contrary, it brings us to think that ecclesiastical celibacy has deep links with Revelation Itself.
The real sense of priestly celibacy
However, the practice of the Church alone is not necessarily prescriptive in itself. It must furthermore rest on foundations which come from Divine Revelation or the nature of things. This is the case for priestly celibacy, which rests on supernatural motives of the highest value and is rooted directly in the Gospel itself. Sacerdos alter Christus, “the priest is another Christ”. This is the fundamental principle which illuminates the Catholic priesthood. The Priesthood of Christ is unique and definitive, and the priesthood of men, the ministerial priesthood (that is, etymologically, the priesthood of servants) is a real participation in this Sovereign Priesthood. It is therefore Christ Himself who is the Model, the “Type”, He to Whom each priest must be intimately conformed in order for his priesthood to take on all of its truth.
Jesus Christ, the True Priest, remained a virgin
But it is remarkable that Jesus Christ (in a world where celibacy was almost unknown, if not cursed), remained in the state of virginity throughout all of His life. With Him, this virginity signifies His total and unreserved consecration to God. All of His energies, all of His thoughts, all of His actions belong to God. It is by this total consecration (which in Jesus went as far as the Hypostatic Union, where the human nature no longer belongs to itself but belongs directly to the Person of the Word), that Christ was constituted Mediator between Heaven and earth, between God and men, that is to say, Priest.
Celibacy as a consecration to God
Thus, virginity signifies and brings about consecration, the essence of this Priesthood of Christ. In other words, the virginity of Jesus flows from His Priesthood and is intimately connected with it. The human priest (participator in the Priesthood of Christ) also participates in His total consecration to God and, as a consequence, in His virginity. The consecrated celibacy of the priest is therefore an intimate and love-filled union with the virginity of Jesus, sign of His consecration to the Father. This is the first and most fundamental reason for the celibacy of priests.