Debate about whether Catholic priests should be allowed to marry often concentrates on secondary considerations.
Supporters of clerical celibacy say that a single man will be able to devote himself more fully to his ministry because he will not have the distractions inseparable from married life. It is claimed that he will be freer to relocate. It is said that people will be more willing to confide in him if there is no danger of his revealing confidential facts to his wife. A financial reason is also given: he will need less to live on if single. Then there's the potential scandal if a priest's marriage breaks up.
What do the Scriptures and the Church teach about celibacy?
The fact is that, despite variations in practices over the years between Eastern and Western rites of Catholicism regarding compulsory celibacy, the principle is clearly and constantly taught that celibacy chosen for the love of God is a higher state of life than marriage. This is the basis for the discipline of clerical celibacy required in Latin Rite Catholicism.
Christ, for example, spoke approvingly of those who forgo marriage "for the sake of the Kingdom of God", assuring his Apostles that one who left wife and relatives for this reason would "receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life" (Luke 18:29-30). St Paul observed that "the unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord, but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided" (I Cor 7:32f).
He is speaking here of the single man willing to devote himself wholeheartedly to divine things. Today, the truth that consecrated celibacy is a higher state of life than marriage is often rejected, and when not rejected, is usually ignored, as though it were an embarrassing secret about which we should keep silent.
Tradition through the centuries steadily maintained this teaching, and when it was denied in the 16th century by Protestants, the Council of Trent issued an infallible pronouncement: "If anyone says that it is not better and holier to remain in virginity or celibacy than to be joined in marriage ... let him be anathema" (DS 1810). Trent was speaking of celibacy chosen for the love of God.
Pius XII later confirmed that this "was solemnly defined as a dogma of faith by the Holy Council of Trent, and explained in the same way by all the Holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church" (Encyclical Sacra virginitas, n. 32).
The Second Vatican Council endorsed this doctrine, saying that in recognising the dignity of marriage, students for the priesthood "should recognise the greater excellence of virginity consecrated to Christ" (Decree on the Training of Priests, n. 10).
More recently, Pope John Paul II has insisted on the same thing, asserting that consecrated virginity is certainly superior to marriage (L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, 19 April 1982, pp. 7ff.)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, while upholding clearly the dignity of marriage, points out that esteem for marriage and for consecrated virginity reinforce each other, and quotes St John Chrysostom: "Whoever denigrates marriage also diminishes the glory of virginity. Whoever praises it makes virginity more admirable and resplendent. What appears good only in comparison with evil would not be truly good. The most excellent good is something even better than what is admitted to be good" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1620).
If this constant and infallible teaching were to be more widely known and appreciated by Catholics in general, and especially by potential candidates for the priesthood, this would lead to an increase in vocations.
Here it must be emphasised that celibacy as such is not superior to marriage, for it is merely an absence of something - an absence of the great good which is marriage. But it is a superior state to marriage if it is chosen for the sake of devoting oneself wholeheartedly to God.
Now suppose this is not seen. Suppose a young man with a possible vocation to the priesthood doesn't see that the state of celibacy for the sake of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom is more sublime even than Christian marriage. He sees the goodness of marriage and loves the thought of having a wife and children. He will have to forgo this great good if he becomes a priest, and he does not see consecrated celibacy as something intrinsically better.
He probably won't be impressed by the arguments noted at the beginning of this article. While agreeing that the distractions arising from marriage would be a reality, he may point out that the encouragement given by a loving wife could easily compensate, so that his ministry would be more fruitful than if he were single - with the loneliness and lack of warm support to which the celibate priest is subject.
Love of God
The argument that the Church would have to pay him more if he had a wife and family is hardly likely to impress a young man who considers he would be a better priest if married. As for the argument that scandal will be caused if a priest's marriage breaks up: mightn't such occurrences be more than counterbalanced by the good example given by faithful priestly marriages?
Will people be more willing to confide in him if he is single? He may think the opposite would often happen, because some people would judge that he lacked the personal experience to help with marital problems.
After thinking the matter over, the man may choose to serve God in the lay state, viewing celibacy as an obstacle to his human fulfilment.
It is important to see that celibacy for the love of God is even nobler, as a state of life, than marriage. The self-giving it involves tends more directly to fulfilment of Jesus' injunction to love God with all one's powers. But while it is a gift to God, it is (more importantly) a gift from Him, and brings with it many graces.
John Young is a Sydney writer on philosophical and theological topics.