Priestly Celibacy


Priestly (Clerical) celibacy is traditional practice of the Catholic Church where all the ordained ministers remain unmarried. Theologically speaking this is an attempt to imitate the life of Jesus with regard to chastity and the sacrifice to married life for the “sake of the Kingdom” (Lk 18, 28-30; Mt 19, 27-30; Mk 10, 20-21; cf. 1Cor 7, 7-8 – practically this text was understood to mean that celibacy is superior to married life).

Celibacy for priests is considered as a discipline in the Catholic Church rather than a doctrine. It means that it is more of a Church regulation or rule without being an integral part of the doctrine of the Church.

We have different opinions and views with regard to the beginning of celibacy. Taking the example of St. Peter, many would jump into the conclusion that it is not of apostolic origin. On the other hand, Christian Cochini in his scholarly work, ‘The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy’ would trace its origin to the apostolic times. The fact that there were married popes, bishops, and priests during the Church’s first 300 years does not negate the apostolic origin of celibacy of priests in the Catholic Church. By the Council of Elvira in 306 CE, the practice of clerical continence became a law. This law was adopted in the West at the Council of Carthage in 390 CE. It remains the law today for Latin Rite Catholics, but not for all Eastern Catholic Churches. Second Vatican Council called for the restoration of Eastern Catholic traditions as a result married men also are being ordained to the presbyterate in some Eastern Catholic Communities.

Exceptions are sometimes permitted in the Western Catholic Church too by the authority of the Pope, when in certain cases married Protestant or Anglican clergy become Catholic, they were allowed to lead a married life while exercising the priestly ministry. This was possible as the rule of celibacy is a disciplinary law of the Church and not a doctrine of the Church. In principle it can be altered by the Church. But the Catholic Church treasures this tradition of several centuries going back to the apostles (Pope John Paul II, in his letter to priests of the Church on Holy Thursday 1979).

In spite of the high esteem for the priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church, it is being questioned and disputed as regards its origin is concerned. Its value for priestly ministry is challenged as there is no strict connection between priesthood and celibacy. The Second Vatican Council has repeated the traditional view that there is no essential and intrinsic relation between these two. Presbyterorum Ordinis mentions and praises the priesthood of the Oriental Church where marriage is accepted (PO, 16).

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