Celibacy for the Kingdom
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus Christ speaks of those who choose to be celibate for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. The practice of celibacy has endured in the Roman Church and in the Greek Churches to this day; however, there has always been debate about it. There are those who wish to end clerical celibacy, or at least to make it optional, but I fear they don't understand what they wish to do away with. The question is not whether it is useful or not, Christ himself recommended it (Mt. 19:12), the question is why.
In the seminary, we were often told that priests are "in the world, but not of the world." Priests live in the world, in the midst of the secular culture, the media, and the everyday lives of normal people, but we are not of the world. We live in the world as those who are about the business of God the Father. Celibacy is one of the main ways that we live this reality, as well as detachment from material possessions and obedience.
The Catechism of the Catholic Churchsays, "Celibacy is a sign of this new life to the service of which the Church's minister is consecrated; accepted with a joyous heart celibacy radiantly proclaims the Reign of God (CCC 1579)." This statement gives the main reason for the practice of priestly celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church: complete dedication to the Lord.
The life of celibacy allows the priest to be completely devoted to the service of God and of His Church, and to the service of the people entrusted to His care. It allows us to order our lives to God instead of to the world. Instead of worrying about raising a family and all of the concerns that go with it, we focus on prayer, the sacraments, and the care of souls.
Although the practice of priestly celibacy is primarily a theological concern, there are also practical benefits from it. Priest are payed by and taken care of by the Church, because being a priest is a full time job. If priests had families, we would need a much bigger salary because, as you know, children are very expensive, or we would need to be part time, but then our parishioners would suffer. However, this is a minor reason, the Eastern Orthodox Churches have married priests and they make out just fine.
This reminds me of another reason that some people want to allow priests to marry. They say that more people would want to become priests if they could also get married. However, the Eastern Orthodox Churches show that this is false. They allow priests to choose marriage or celibacy and most of them have a shortage of priests just like we do. This shows us that the priesthood is not chosen by people, but that priests are called by God; our job is to respond to that call.
An important part of Catholic culture is sacrifice. We fast during Lent to prepare ourselves for the Resurrection of the Lord, we fast out of sorrow for our sins, and we fast to increase our desire for God by denying ourselves. Priestly celibacy is also a fast, or a sacrifice; it is abstaining from marriage. When we fast from anything, we choose something that is good, that we like, to fast from. We don't fast from bad or evil things, because we're supposed to avoid those anyway. Fasting from something good is our way to saying that God is better than that thing, than chocolate, or television, or meat. Priestly celibacy is not forced on the priest, it is something that we choose; it is a sacrifice that the priest makes because he puts God first in His life, above everything else, even above having a wife and children.
In this way it is also a sign of the Kingdom of Heaven. We give up marriage because we are not living just for this world and the things of this world (res mundi); we are living for God and the things of God (res Dei). We are living in the expectation of the Kingdom of God, of the second coming of Christ, and of the resurrection of the dead. More than just a sacrifice, celibacy is a witness that reminds everyone that God is with us, that He loves us, and that we are called to love Him "with our whole heart, our whole soul, our whole mind, and our whole strength."
Fr. Bryan became pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes on July 3, 2017. Read his bio here.