God’s Call To Celibacy

On retreat at Mundelein Seminary last week, I prayed for the seminarians that are coming this week to begin or continue their studies and formation. Central to that personal formation is a deepening of their understanding of celibacy and its relationship to priestly existence.

Celibacy is a way of living full time with the Lord. Because our sexual nature is at the heart of who we are in our bodies and our spirits, the deliberate decision of how to use sexuality as a gift for loving God and others shapes our lives here and our destinies hereafter. If sexuality is not lived as something essentially spiritual as well as profoundly bodily, sex is easily exploited and leads to perversion and corruption.

How we deliberately decide to live sexually becomes the act of intention that fashions our whole life. St. Paul explains that those who marry as Christians do well, and those who decide on a life of continence or virginity do better (1 Cor 7:38). The important thing is to decide, under the influence of Christ, how to live generously in both body and spirit.

Christ himself was a celibate man, and praised those who remain celibate for the sake of God's Kingdom (Mt. 19:12). God's faithful, self-giving, covenanted presence to his people creates that Kingdom in which there will be neither marriage nor giving in marriage (Mt. 22:30). In the Kingdom, the marriage between God and his people will be finally and completely consummated; and in that infinite love, no other marriage is necessary or possible. Marriage between a man and a woman is until death; celibacy is forever.

The church, which is the Kingdom made visible in this world, needs disciples of Christ, who in closer imitation of him give witness now to the way in which we all live forever. Celibacy is at the heart of radical discipleship; it is necessary to the church's mission as the sacrament of God's kingdom.

Throughout the ages from apostolic times, the church has therefore treasured those who have been given the grace to live celibacy faithfully. Virgins were honored with martyrs in the early centuries of persecution. Most honored were those who...were both virgins and martyrs. In both their living and their dying, they gave total witness to God's Kingdom. Since apostolic times, the church has protected the gift of celibacy by vows and promises, just as she protects marriage....

The church from apostolic times has also associated celibacy with ordained priesthood. Since ordination marries a man to Christ's bride, the church, it makes sense to call to ordained priesthood only those who have also been called by Christ to celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom. The discipline of the Latin church, reaffirmed in the Second Vatican Council and in the Synods since that council, is summed up in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which speaks of the priest's obligation to observe "perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven" (Canon 271). Celibacy is described as "a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can more easily remain close to Christ with an undivided heart and can dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and their neighbor."

This discipline and teaching are maintained, despite considerable cultural pressure for change, because they are rooted in the church's history. At times one hears from interested parties that priestly celibacy was optional for a thousand years and became obligatory only at the end of the first millennium.

On the contrary, the first Church Synod to speak of priestly celibacy met in 305 (Elvira) and set out what were called the "traditional" rules. These forbade married bishops, priests and deacons to have sexual elations with their wives and to procreate children. That these were the unwritten rules from generations back, presupposing that married men who presented themselves for ordination must have worked out an agreement with their wives before accepting ordinations, is fairly evident. What married man would dare come back from a meeting to tell his wife for the first time that they could no longer live together as husband and wife! The first Ecumenical Council (Nicea, 325) upheld the tradition of celibacy for both married and unmarried clergy. And so it went through the ages.

The Eastern churches modified the apostolic tradition [by ordaining married priests] (Trullo, 692); and that discipline is respected by the Holy See. Rome however still calls the entire church back to a tradition that has marked priestly life from the earliest times...

All that being said, celibacy doesn't seem so glorious when the media are filled with the scandal of priests betraying their promises - especially when a child is sexually victimized. Nor does celibacy seem so glorious when so many priests have left their calling to marry and when stories of the psychological isolation and frustration of some priests shape popular opinions. Celibacy seems like a burden from an earlier time that is unnecessarily and even immorally imposed upon priests who would otherwise be happy in their life and ministry. Celibacy causes resentments of all sorts just because it challenges so much of what we take for granted as necessary for human happiness.

Finally of course, that is its evangelical purpose. There are other stories, not often heard these days. Talk to priests who find their own spiritual strength in their cooperating as celibate men with Christ for the salvation of his people. There are many such stories. They are not only true in themselves; they speak the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who was born of a virgin mother and himself lived only for the Kingdom he proclaimed. That is the Kingdom we all hope to enter each time we say the Lord's Prayer. God bless you.


Rev. Francis F. Baiocchi

I offer my congratulations to the Cardinal for his fine work in the Chicago archdiocese. I feel some kinship with him other than our shared priesthood because we both were parishioners of Saint Pascal parish on Chicago's northwest side about a half-century ago!

Where to begin! Cardinal George writes as a celibate in defense of mandatory celibacy for ordained priests in the Catholic church, but his arguments are misguided and unpersuasive to me. His references to scriptural sources and historical traditions leave much to be desired. He writes well of the charism of celibacy, but his attempts to justify the imposition of celibacy upon all candidates to the ordained priesthood in the Western Rite fall far short of their mark. One can praise celibacy without proclaiming it superior to marriage. Cardinal George's remark about the generosity demanded of a celibate is true. But his implication that an equal generosity of spirit is not demanded by a married spouse betrays a mindset typical of some celibate people. ["Don't knock it till you've tried it!"]

Celibacy is indeed a gift, a specific calling by God to a spiritually worthy lifestyle; yet it is a calling having no essential relationship to the ordained priesthood of the Catholic church, despite the cardinal's protestations. Some doctors, nurses, military personnel, teachers, and even some priests may be called by God to exercise the charism of celibacy in their lives; and some may not.

Celibacy is a gift, and is not to be mandatorily put upon anyone. As a gift, it should not be legislated. It ought to be valued on its own merits, not imposed as a condition for receiving something else. It apparently escapes the mind of this cardinal and his Vatican colleagues that some people (as I and tens of thousands of other married priests throughout the world can attest) can be called by God to priestly ministry without being called to the charism of celibacy. Of course even these Vatican officials violate this discipline by currently inviting married priests from other Christian traditions to ordained ministry in the Western Rite of the church . The charism of celibacy is given at God's disposal, not the Catholic hierarchy's. This charism is not obtainable through prayer any more than is the call to ordination itself. (See Celibacy, Gift Or Law? By Heinz J. Vogels, page 111.)

More specifically, I offer five objections to Cardinal George's newspaper column as it was published: scriptural, theological, historical, canonical and personal.


Scripture offers us no arguments whatsoever for the imposition of mandatory celibacy upon priestly candidates. If celibacy were essential, even if it were preferred, then Jesus would more probably have chosen his first disciples from the Essenes, a sect of his time that highly valued celibacy. He did not. He chose married men and women. The apostles were married (presumably except for John, who was still quite young when he elected to follow Jesus). Their wives accompanied them as they traveled on their journeys (1 Corinthians 9:5).

Paul himself was most likely married at one time. Otherwise he could not have declared as he did that he had fulfilled the Jewish law completely. The fulfillment of the Jewish law for males demanded marriage and the birth of at least two children. There is little doubt that later in life, Paul was a widower. His exhortation to celibacy (referred to by Cardinal George in his column) as a wiser choice than marriage has to be seen in Paul's own perception that Jesus' Second Coming was immanent. As Raymond Collins states in his book Sexual Ethics and the New Testament, p.123, "It would not have made much sense for Paul, good Jew that he was and well aware of the Genesis story of the creation of woman and man as he was, to have encouraged those who were unmarried to remain unmarried were it not for his apocalyptic worldview." Why take on the responsibilities of spouse and children if the world as he knew it was soon to end? It had nothing to do with any "innate" superiority of celibacy over the married state.

Anthony Padovano, in a chapter of his book Resistance and Renewal, entitled Joseph's Son, raises a related question: "If Jesus [had] called for celibacy among his followers in ministry, why would the Scriptural letters to Timothy and Titus give marriage as a necessary precondition for church office, or in 1 Timothy 4:1-3 equate the prohibition of marriage with a demonic influence in the church?

Jesus himself may not have been celibate. This is a possibility (some commentators say a probability!) that the celibate mind cannot easily embrace. Even many laypeople are highly resistant to it. Is it because we cannot believe that sex and holiness are two thoroughly compatible realities? Is it because we have bought into the bad theology that human sex is impure or immoral, that it was really the devil (and not the All-Loving God!) that invited humans to intimacy and to procreate through pleasurable sexual intercourse?

The fact that there is no reference in the New Testament to Jesus having a spouse is an argument favoring being married. There would have been nothing unusual about that state of affairs. It is so commonly accepted in his culture that it doesn't need mentioning. On the contrary, if Jesus were not married, that would have been worthy of mention. The Gospels never state that Jesus claims he is celibate. Nowhere else in the Scriptures does anyone ever declare Jesus to be celibate.

Padovano goes no to make this point (p.148): "Christians are prepared to accept a Jesus who is like us in all ways except sexual experience. For many, it is not unfitting for Jesus to be weary, discouraged, hungry, angry, thirsty, sorrowful. The line is drawn, however, when sexual realities are introduced. The letter to the Hebrews, however, observes that Christ "can sympathize with our weaknesses" because "in every respect" he has been tested or tempted as we have (Hebrews 4:15-16), On what basis do we may exceptions to the clear biblical evidence?"


It is a constant source of amazement and embarrassment to me and many others how the magisterial church can teach that the receiving of one sacrament of Jesus Christ (matrimony) can be an actual church-originated impediment to the receiving of another sacrament of Jesus Christ (holy orders). The whole purpose of sacramental theology is to establish ourselves as a sacramental people, graced many times over by the sacred signs "established by Christ" to become ourselves more Christ-like. Why then should one sign be an obstacle, a contradiction as it were, to another?

I challenge the Cardinal's statement that "celibacy is at the heart of radical discipleship." That simply is not true. It is not good theology. And it is an affront to the married Catholic priests of the Eastern Rite as well as to the many thoroughly dedicated married ministers - both men and women - of other Christian denominations. What is really at the heart of radical discipleship is loving service to people. This is what Jesus teaches us by his words and by his life. Whether he was celibate or married begs the question. Whether his disciple is celibate or married also begs the question. Is the disciple truly engaged in loving service? Then and then only do you have what the cardinal calls the "radical discipleship" envisioned and modeled by Jesus Christ. Nothing more, nothing less.

Unfortunately our theology of human sexuality leaves much to be desired. The church has had a preoccupation with the sinfulness of sex almost from its origins. So long as celibate minds, inexperienced in the realities of a practiced human sexuality, continue to make up the moral rules of the game, our theology will remain poor. What if married people (instead of the celibates) had the power and authority in the Catholic church to make up moral regulations for others to live by? More specifically, what if married people took it upon themselves to determine the specific rules for celibates to live by? Hmmm! The shoe always fits uncomfortably when it's on the wrong foot.


Cardinal George is a recognized authority on church history; but his interpretation of the historical facts on this point of celibacy is unfair and misleading. What church authorities have been trying to do for a long time now is to "spiritualize" the reasons for adopting celibacy as a pre-requisite condition for priestly ordination. These revisionist strategies were taught us in the seminary, and I personally was a firm believer in their legitimacy for close to a quarter-century, until I took a closer look at what really happened and saw the "big picture."

There were married priests for the first thousand years of the church's history, and there were 39 married popes during that time. As the Scripture sources mentioned above suggested, this was what Jesus envisioned. Priests working in the early centuries with faith communities of what we today call "laypeople" were almost always married. They were specifically called and chosen by the people to minister to them. Their ability to manage their families well was taken as a sign by the community that they were spiritually fit ministers to respond to the community's Eucharist and spiritual needs. These priests lived as neighbors in their communities and were held in high esteem. (Far too often today's bishops live in palatial-like surroundings, far apart geographically and socially from the people they serve.)

In a recent column, Fr. Richard McBrien writes: "It is important to note that neither Jesus nor Paul presumed to impose celibacy on anyone.... The earliest demands for clerical celibacy arose in the 4th century; but they were based on the Old Testament, not the New. The appeal was to the Book of Leviticus, which required abstinence from sexual relations before performing ritual service." [There was no New Testament justification for this!] He continues. "When the Council of Elvira (a local synod referenced by Cardinal George above) held in Spain, 306, mandated that even married priests were not to engage in sexual relations, it did so on the deplorable assumption that sexual activity was somehow dishonorable. Since the overwhelming majority of laypeople were married and had normal conjugal relations, that local synod reduced them to second-class citizenship in the church." Obviously bad theology translates into unfortunate history!

As time went on, more local synods and papal decrees were promoting clerical celibacy; but the reasoning was always identical: sexual activity even among married people, was impure and sinful, and it severely compromised a priest's capacity to celebrate Eucharist worthily.

Church history had many strong proponents of celibacy early on; among them were Augustine, Origen and Jerome. But one wonders about their balance. Augustine in his youth was in a long-term sexually dysfunctional relationship for which he grieved and felt pangs of guilt the rest of his life. Origen was unable to deal with his sexual passions so he castrated himself. Jerome "got so carried away and dwelt on the disagreeable aspects of marriage in such crude and excessive terms that even his friends were embarrassed and felt it necessary to remonstrate with him. Jerome's response was characteristic: 'In order to make my meaning quite clear, let me state that I should definitely like to see every man take a wife - the kind of man, that is, who perhaps is frightened of the dark and just cannot quite manage to lie down in his bed all alone.'" (Thomas Bokenkotter, A Concise History of the Catholic Church, p. 63) So much for the holiness and wholesomeness of marital relations!

It was not until the 12th century at the Lateran Councils that celibacy was finally mandated for all Western-Rite priests. The mandate was carried out savagely, with some marriages being annulled against the wishes of the spouses, some married priests being tortured, and some wives and children being thrown into prison.

The cardinal would like us to believe that celibacy was mandated so priests could be more like Christ (who himself may not have been celibate! - see the Scripture point above). The historical truth is that the church at this time was most concerned about losing money and property to the married priests with children. According to the primogeniture laws in place at the time, the first-born son inherited the father's deeds, monies and property. In order to retain these properties and maintain the political power associated with these real estate holdings, church authorities made certain these celibacy mandates were firmly and ruthlessly put in place. Celibate priests, if they were true to their vows, had no children to inherit things.


By encoding celibacy requirements in its canon law, church authority has implicitly (some insist, explicitly) expressed a strong bias against human sexuality. It has also contributed to a "preferred" membership and a "second-class" membership within the church community. Celibates are in the preferred category, while the married are not. It is not a far cry to move from such perceptions to the current clerical scandal of sexual molestation of children. Because celibate priests are seen as being on a pedestal and oftentimes perceived as superior, remote and untouchable by laypeople, the grounds of clerical silence, lack of accountability and at times even arrogance, are too readily established. This is why some parents were reluctant to complain and even to believe their children. This is also why some parents who had the courage to confront church authorities were sometimes shunned by their fellow parishioners. This may be a consequence, however unintended, of canonical privileges given to celibates.

Heinz J. Vogels adds an important point to this discussion in his book Celibacy: Gift or Law: "Canon 1026 speaks of 'canonically suitable'. Anyone who would have been 'suitable' at the time of the early church and is [currently] 'suited' in the Eastern church cannot be 'unsuited' in the West. If in fact married men, in general and on principle, according to the evidence of early times and Eastern parts of the church, are suitable in God's eyes and in the view of the church authorities, the Latin [Western] authorities cannot for their part declare them unsuitable. Contra factum non valet argumentum! There is no arguing against a fact! - something we learned well back in seminary days. It is an indisputable fact that God calls married men to the priesthood as well as celibates." (Mark 1:30 and 1 Tim 3:2,12)

Vogels continues, insisting that church authorities are not wholly free as to general principles when setting down conditions of admission to share in Christ's ordained priestly ministry. These church authorities are bound by the norms of divine law laid down in Scripture. Since the right to have married priests is firmly established both in Scripture and in Tradition, the Latin church is effectively barred from prohibiting in general and on principle those who are married and declaring them "unsuited" for that responsibility.


I was within the clerical system for almost 25 years. I have now been out of the clerical system for 32 years. This gives me (and other married priests) a perspective that many others do not enjoy.

Vatican II (Constitution on the Church in the Modern World) expresses strongly the divinely given right of every human being to marry. The church compromises that right by bonding celibacy with ordained priesthood. This is a violation of my God-given right to marry and my response to the God-given call to the ordained priesthood. Given the above arguments from Scripture, theology, history and canon law, I conclude that church authorities made a terrible disciplinary decision 900 years ago in universally mandating celibacy for Western Rite priests. Not only was it a bad decision; it was made for the wrong reasons. But more importantly church leaders both then and now have usurped a power they did not have then and do not have now.

There is no fault for church authorities to value celibacy, as Cardinal George does. There is no fault for men like Cardinal George and those priests truly gifted with the charism to live lives of celibacy they have freely chosen. Yet if celibacy is truly a charism from God, a divine gift, then it must be offered freely and chosen freely, on its own merits - just as marriage is, just as the priesthood ought to be. (Can you imagine a law dictating that the only people who can marry are those who voluntarily join the nation's military? Such a law would make just about as much sense as the one the church authorities now have in place.) I know in my heart that I am called to ordained priestly ministry. I know in my heart that the Holy Spirit has called me to this. I know too that God has called me to marriage, and I have responded. I chose to leave celibacy thirty-two years ago. I never chose to leave ministry. I was abruptly dismissed by the archdiocesan chancery. I am today a better priest than I was a clergyman ministering in Chicago parishes back in the 1960s. My experiences as a husband and father of two (now) grown children has made me much wiser and has enabled me to understand and empathize with people in ways I could not have done as a celibate priest.

Jesus was always "inclusive" in his ministry to people. He is our model par excellence for how ministry should be done. He never condemned sinners or excluded anyone (except those hard-hearted religious leaders of his day that knowingly imposed harsh burdens on people). Why does today's church leadership still insist on excluding candidates for ordained ministry simply because they have chosen to respond also to God's invitation to marry?

Cardinal George, I await your answer.

Share:Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestEmail this to someonePrint this page