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Introduction (part 2) to Celibacy for Today

by Fr Thomas McGovern


In a world where the natural sciences provide the dominant paradigm of knowledge, and where sentiment and feelings have replaced philosophy and revelation as the key to reality, there is deep scepticism about establishing an adequate foundation for a coherent moral system. [28] From this perspective there is a restriction of the range of reason to facts verifiable by the methods of the natural sciences, and thus real knowledge is reduced to truths of the facts of such sciences.

Truth has also tended to become more subjective. It is what 'I' feel about things that makes them valid, rather than the correspondence of the mind with objective reality. Given these presuppositions it is not difficult to see how the utilitarian ethic takes precedence. In such a system, pleasure is equated with goodness and happiness, pain with evil, leading to a hedonistic morality. If goodness is the satisfaction of desires, then we don't have to look any further to justify sexual permissiveness. [29]

Utilitarianism is a philosophy of self-interest and thus contradicts the specifically Christian teaching that mans true good consists not in self-interest but in self-giving and service to others. Consequentialism and proportionalism are present-day forms of utilitarianism. They do not allow one to say that any actions are intrinsically bad, but only better or worse than others. This is an attitude which clashes head on with the idea of Christian happiness achieved by the total gift of self, especially in marriage or the betrothed love of celibacy.[30]


The term 'individualism' encapsulates much of what is happening in contemporary culture. It is characteristic of some of the attitudes outlined above, but it is also evident in the creation of an apparent conflict between the índividual and different forms of authority. One of the consequences of individualism is the loss of the notion of the common good, and of commitment to human solidarity.

This attitude has had profoundly negative effects on the structure of the family. The bonding and coherence of the family has become diluted, showing signs of fragility as an institution as the traditional social and spiritua1 supports are undermined. The family, John Paul II tells us, is threatened today
'not only by external factors, such as social mobility and the new characteristics of work organisation, but first and foremost by an individualistic culture without solid ethical moorings, which misrepresents the very meaning of conjugal love and, challenging the connatural need for stability, undermines the family unit's capacity for lasting communion and peace'.[32] Since the family is the basic unit of stability in the social structure, and the context in whích moral values, as well as traditional and cultural norms, are primarily transmitted to successive generations, any disintegration in this area is bound to have a negative effect on the living of the faith and its transmission. This has, of course, knock-on effects for vocations to the priesthood, since the Christian family is the irreplaceable locus for the nurturing of such vocations.

Because the media judge and present the Church primarily in terms of political categories, it is not surprising that many people would tend to view Church authority from this perspective. A logical development of this attitude is that the validity of particular teachings should somehow be determined by democratic sanction. One can detect echoes of this perspective in areas such as contraception, divorce, and, more recently, in relation to celibacy.

However, the Church is not a club where rules can be changed in accordance with the preference of members. The Pope is not a manager who should respond to the doctrinal or moral preferences of the faithful. He is the keeper of the Scriptures and of a Tradition which are not his, but which are guaranteed to bring man to redemption and salvation as no other human wisdom is capable of doing. The Vicar of Christ is not a facilitator or the president of a club, but the Successor of Peter to whom has been guaranteed the special light and assistance of the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth (cf. Jn 14:26; 16:13).

Individualism and democratisation have, nevertheless, produced a trend in the opposite direction - people searching more seriously for mystery and a sense of the sacred. This is because the spirit of man needs to feed on something more substantial than senitiment and ideology. There is an increasing flow of intellectual converts to Catholicism in USA, England, and other countries, impelled by the search for an authoritative teaching voice which will answer to the deepest needs of the human soul, a voice which people are increasingly recognising to be that of John Paul II.


Pluralism, as understood politically today, is the presumption to legislate for freedom in different areas, but for a freedom emancipated from its foundations in morality and truth. It is an approach which supposes there is no grounding for absolute values outside oneself, that values are subjective and therefore private, and that all that can be achieved is to legislate on the basis of a democratic consensus which is always changeable. Indeed the logic of this presumption is that values should remain private to preserve democracy.

Those eloquent words in St John's Gospel, 'and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free' (Jn 8:32) have, in the legal positivism of our times, been largely reversed. The Gospel instructs us that freedom results from our relationship with something outside of ourselves. Adapting our life-style, our ambitions, to objective truth is what gives us freedom. Yet the thrust of current social and political doctrine tries to reverse the relationship between freedom and truth, reducing it to a slogan without content.

Legislative proposals in favour of contraception, divorce, homosexuality, and abortion are purveyed as exercises in pluralism, and consequently as an advancement of freedom. Nowhere, however, are there to be found any clear definitions of what the legislators mean by freedom or pluralism. This process has also the effect of convincing people that what is legal is morally acceptable.

Yet authentic pluralism does not imply hiding our most profound differences. On the contrary it means accepting them within the bond of civility. Pluralism is not indifference with regard to the truth; it is a genuine respect for others and their convictions. [33]


It is clear then that there are influences at work in our society which are often ín direct competition with the precepts of the Gospel message and frequently hostile to them. This is the environment in which priests have to live, and in which they have to try to make their celibacy intelligible both to themselves and to others.

However, they should not be discouraged by the social and cultural pressures which create difficulties for the proclamation of Christ. The truth of the Master's teaching is always attractive and challenging, and is ultimately the only vision of reality which will satisfy the deepest yearings of the human heart. If the priest is motivated by a deep faith in the power of grace, and if he has the courage to present the full implications of the Gospel for personal, family, and social life, he has no reason to doubt that the culture can be re-evangelised and recover its Christian roots again.

Because of the shadow which has been cast on the charism of celibacy in recent years due to clerical scandals, and the efforts to undermine it in sections of the media, there is a need for priests to recover personal conviction about the value of this gift and its perennial validity. The purpose of this book is to try to make a contribution to this process of recovery.

To do this we need to consider celibacy in its historical background. The constant commitment of the Church to remain faithful to a way of life, which was invariably a sign of contradiction, tells us much about the nature and the value of this charism. At all times it had to contend with human weakness and worldly opposition but, out of the conviction that it was being faithful to a norm of apostolic origin, the Church drew on the necessary supernatural resources and fortitude to renew the discipline of celibacy many times down through the centuries. The first chapter of our study examines the main elements in the ebb and flow of that history

This background on the place of celibacy in tradition is followed by chapters on the scriptural foundations and the theology of this charism. As we have already noted, John Paul II, in Pastores dabo vobis, expressed a desire to see celibacy presented and explained more fully from a biblical, theological and spiritual perspective. [34] He is conscious that often it is badly explained, and has gone so far as to say that the widespread view that celibacy is imposed by law 'is the result of a misunderstanding, if not of downright bad faith'. [35]

While one can adduce practical arguments for celibacy, since it is an essentially supernatural charism, the theological, scriptural and spiritual reasons for it, as the Holy Father suggests, are the only adequate basis for its justification. In recent discussion little attention has been paid to these aspects of celibacy. One of the objectives of this book is to try to restate these arguments and to suggest why they have a profound importance for any real understanding of this discipline.

Nobody has done more than the present Holy Father to articulate the scriptural and theological foundations for celibacy. This he has developed in his weekly catechesis in Rome, in magisterial documents, and in his countless addresses to priests in every part of the world over the past twenty years. A particular characteristic of John Paul's teaching on celibacy is that he invariably considers it in relation to the vocation to marriage. For him they are correlative states in life, one illustrative of the commitment involved in the other, both reflective of the one vocation to holiness. He comes to this conclusion as a result of a deep and prolonged study of the data which Revelation offers to enable us construct a valid anthropology. In his weekly catechesis on "the nuptial meaning of the body", between 1979 and 1984, John Paul II developed a rich Christian anthropology based on Scripture and the reality of the Incarnation. As he graphically points out, consequent to the fact that the Word of God became flesh, "the body entered theology through the main door" . [36] Thus to formulate an adequate theology of celibacy, as well as that of marriage, it is necessary to consider the fundamental anthropological implications of these commitments. This I hope to do in Chapter 4.

The Church, through the Pope's Apostolic Letter, Pastores dabo vobis, devoted its best efforts to charting a course for the effective formation of seminarians and priests. Education in celibacy is an important element in this programme, especially at present when the very raison dêtre of celibacy is being contested, not just in the secular media, but even among some sections of the clergy themselves. However, formation in celibacy also implies, and requires, a profound awareness of the theology of conjugal love in marriage as a vocation to holiness. Indeed John Paul II makes the striking claim that a mature decision for celibacy can only derive from a full awareness of the potential for self-giving which marriage offers. [37] The seminarian needs this deeper formation also if he is to make the Church's teaching on human sexuality credible in a culture which is increasingly influenced by a utilitarian and materialistic ethic. Chapter 5 will review some of the more important elements involved in this formation.

Celibacy is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and thus an essentially supernatural charism. However, we bear this treasure in vessels of clay and, as we are forcefully reminded by St Paul, there is a constant battle between the desires of the flesh and the aspirations of the Spirit. To protect and nurture this gift requires a constant effort, an asceticism which is sustained by a daily incorporation into the paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ. The pastoral experience of the Church over the centuries has given rise to a rich store of Christian wisdom about how to cultivate priestly celibacy as a means for deeper identification with Christ the Eternal High Priest, and how to offset the obstacles that can arise in this quest. In Chapter 6 we review how the challenge of celibacy can be approached in a positive sense, and see how it is a means to personal holiness and effective pastoral activity.

As we have already seen, contemporary culture suggests a number of objections against the discipline of celibacy. In Chapter 7 I have tried to deal with the more common ones. At a time when celibacy has many critics, and is generally treated in a hostile way by the media, one could be forgiven for thinking that there is a lack of cogent testimony to the relevance and authenticity of this charism. That, however, is not the case. Support for celibacy comes from many different sources, and thus at the present time it is encouraging to read the testimonies of people who can affirm priests in the value of their commitment. The final chapter of the book gives a few examples of such testimonies.


It is not surprising, given the way they have been bashed by the media in the past few years, that priests might feel ínsecure and uncertain about their identity and self-image. In addition, the prestige of the priesthood would seem to have lost some of its status in the eyes of people. As a consequence priests could be influenced to be more tentative in their pastoral outreach and more defensive in their preaching of the Gospel. They could be tempted to a lack of conviction about the validity of their vocation.

In the present circumstances priests need to rediscover their sense of the dignity and greatness of their calling. They will do this, not so much by considering it from a human point of view, as by reflecting more deeply on the mystery of Jesus Christ and their insertion into that mystery. This is essential for the priest at any tirne, but it is a particularly appropriate enterprise in these years of preparation for the Jubilee 2000. [38]

Through the sacrament of Order the priest is appropriated by Christ as his own. As a consequence he can do what he could never do on his own initiative - make present the sacrifice of Christ, confect the Eucharist, absolve from sin, impart the Holy Spirit. These are divine prerogatives which no man can acquire by his own effort or by delegation from any community. [39]

At a time when there is much talk about freedom, the priest is the only man who can absolve people from the weight of their sins, and thus confer on them the greatest of all freedoms. Chesterton admitted that the ultimate reason he converted to Catholicism was because the Catholic Church was the only church that guaranteed him it would forgive him his sins. And it was in this that he saw the fundamental dignity of the Catholic priesthood. [40] Perhaps priests need to rediscover this truth for themselves.

The priesthood is a demanding commitment but, if it is exercised in true fidelity to the priesthood of Christ, it is the most fulfilling of all professions or human advocations. It offers a deep intellectual and theological formation. It encourages priests to be familiar with the great inheritance of Christian culture and wisdom, and all that the human sciences can offer to win the heart of man for Christ. [41] The priesthood is Christ's greatest gift to humanity, but it is offered to relatively few. Only to them has Christ said: 'As the Father has sent me, even so I send you' (Jn 20:21) [42] They have every reason to be immensely proud of their calling. [43]

Much has been written as part of the current debate about celibacy. One item struck me particularly, not least because it was penned by a convert who is the wife of a convert - a former Anglican minister. 'Priestly celibacy', she affirms, 'is a jewel in the Catholic Church, which has only been questioned since we became obsessed with sexual fulfilment, rather than the other fulfilment that the priesthood offers. We need look no further than Pope John Paul to see a fully rounded person whose intellectual gifts and physical accomplishments are combined with deep compassion and sympathy which celibacy has enabled him to use for the benefit of the whole human race'. [44] The following pages are an effort to suggest why she is right, why celibacy is a unique gift that enables priests to live a life of total personal fulfilment in the service of the Master.


1 Cf.
Irish Times, 21 Scptembcr 1996.

2 Irish Times, 25 November 1996.

3 Cf. Presbyterorum ordinis, 16

4 Published on 24 June 1967

5 Synodal document, The Ministerial Priesthood, Part Two, Section l, no. 4c.

6 Canon 271, §1.

7 John Paul II affirming Propositio no.11 of the 1990 Synod of Bishops in Pastores dabo vobis, 29.

8 Optatam totius, 28 Octobcr 1965

9 Presbyterorum ordinis, 7 December 1965.

10 Different sources give different figures. Statistics in thc 1995 Vatican Year Book for the period 1964 to 1992 indicate that departures from thc priestly ministry were 54,432 during that period (cf. statistical summary by thc Revd Professor Michael Nolan in the Sund ay Business Post, Dublin, 9 July 1995).

11 Cf. Address to Priests in Maynooth, 1 October 1979.

12 Cf. Address 'Thc Nature of Priesthood', 1 October 1990, published in Osservatore Romano, 29 Octobcr 1990.

13 Thc Ministry and Life of Priests, lecture at lnternational Symposium organised by thc Vatican Congregation for the Clergy, 24 October 1995, in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, August-Septembcr 1997, pp 7-18.

14 Address, 1 Octobcr 1990. For a deep analysis of the origins and development of the crisis about priesthood, see 'Priestly Ministry', in
International Theological Commission: Texts and Documents: 1969-1985, San Francisco, 1959, pp 3-18.

15 What were these arguments which had such an influence on Catholic theology? ln the analysis of the scríptural basis of priesthood it is claimed that there is a discontinuity between thc ministries of thc New Testament and the priesthood of the Mosaic Law. The fact that the early Church used the term 'elder' rather than 'priest', that there is a certain lack of definition about the variety of names used for ministries during the first century of the Church, that these ministries are nowhere linked with the Eucharistic celebration, and that the preaching of thc Gospel appears as their primary function - these are the arguments from Reformation theology to the effect that in subsequent centuries the Church changed the role of thc priest from its original definition in the New Testament. Thus it is affirmed that the ministries of the early Church were not at that timc perceived as linked to sacramental ordination but in terms of function.

Another Reformation argument which has also influenced recent theology of the priesthood is the affirmation that, since at the death of Jesus the veil of thc Temple was rent, there was no longcr any separation between temple and world, between the sacred and the profane.

A hermeneutical key used in recent Catholic writing about priesthood, which also has its roots in Protestant exegesis, is thc perceived opposition between Law and Gospel deduced from Pauline theology. Because thc Law was abolished by Christ it is opposed to the Gospel. And therefore since priesthood and cult (sacrifice) belong to the category of law they acquired a negativc connotation bccause they lead man to the letter that kills and to works that don't justify. On the other hand, the essence of the Gospel consists in hearing the Word of God, and in faith, which is what alone makes a man just. Thus the understanding of the priest as prophet and teacher is the authentic interpretation of the New Testament. Related to this conception of ministry is a bluring of the essential distinction between the ministerial priesthood and the common priesthood of the laity, which Catholic Tradition has always taught.

Ratzinger says that it is this hermeneutical perspective which has dominated biblical exegesis, and which Catholic theology since thc Council has accepted almost without argument, thus giving rise to the crisis already referred to. However, in the meantime the work of theologians is beginning to acquire a more balanced view of these questions, as indeed happened among Protestants after the reformation. (cf. Ratzinger, Address, 1 Octotober 1990).

16 Paul Vl, Letter, 2 February 1970, to Cardinal Villot, Secretary of State, published in The Tablet, 14 February 1970.

I7 Jean Galot, SJ, Theology of Priesthood, San Francisco, 1955, p.243.

Le Mínistère sacerdotal (Paris, 1971), p. 106, quoted by Galot, ibid., p. 249. Galot's assessment of the document is that, because thc Commission took the position that celibacy was attached to thc priesthood by ecclesiastical tradition, it failed to givc adequate recogition to the commitment Jesus required of thc Twelve, a commitment which included thc renunciation of marriagc (cf ibid.).

19 The Ministerial Priesthood, Part Two, l, 4e, p. 27.

20 Cf. Religious Belief, Practice and Moral Attitudes: A Comparison of two Surveys 1974-1984, Council for Research and Development, Maynooth College, Report no 21, with particular reference to the 18-30 age group, under headings of attitudes to: Usc of Contraceptives, Pre-marital Sex, Abortion, and Divorce; Thomas F. Inglis, 'Dimensions of lrish Student's Religiosity', Economic and Social Review, 11, no 4, July 1980, pp 237-56; Christopher W. Whelan, ed., Values and Social Change in Ireland, Dublin 1994; Julian MacAirt, 'Religion Amongst Irish University Students', in Doctrine and Life, 40, April 1990, pp 172-83.

21 lllegitimate births in the Republic rose from 1709 in 1970 to 12,484 in 1996, representing an increase from 2.6% to 24.8% of total live births. Abortions ìncreased from 261 in 1970 to 4894 in 1996. Sources: annual reports of Central Statistics Office, Dublin, and Office for Population Census and Surveys, London.

22 Cf. Western Health Board study by E. MacHale, and. J. M. Newell, Sexual Behaviour and Sex Education in Irish School-going Teenagers (forthcoming). See also Midland Health Board survey of secondary schools, reported in Irish Independent, 23 September 1997.

23 Cf. survey by the Economic and Social Research Institute, Women and Health Care in Ireland, Dublin, 1996; North Eastern Health Board Survey of Contraceptive Usage (Irish Medical Times, 31 May 1996); UCD Department of Sociology Survey of Family Planning (Irish Independent, 9 November 1995). However, perhaps the most revealing statistic in this context is the remarkable drop in the fertility rate - from 3.97 in the 1960's to 1.87 in 1995. In 1993 for the first time births dropped significantly below the replacement level level of 2.1 (source: Statistical Abstract 1995).

24 Cf. John M. Haas, 'Crisis of Conscience and Culture', in Crisis of Conscience, New York, 1996, pp 21-49. This is a comprehensive analysis of the philosophical influences which underlie present trends towards subjectivism and moral relativism, and the increasing inability of consciences to distinguish between good and evil (cf. Evangelium vitae, 4). Haas illustrates the influence of Kant in particular on current moral attitudes.

25 Cf. John PauI II, Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 2 December 1984, no. 18.

26 Cf. Alasdair Maclntyre, Aftcr Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, London, 1981, especially Chapter 5, 'Why the Enlightenment Project of Justitying Morality had to Fail', pp 49-59, and Chapter 6, 'Some Consequences of the Failure of the Enlightenment Project, pp 60-75.

27 ln Veritatis splendor (6 August 1993), John Paul II speaks of 'the risk of an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism, which would remove any sure moral reference point from political and social life, and on a deeper level make the acknowledgement of truth impossible' (no 101; italics in original).

28 Recovery of this situation is, however, well under way through the work of Finnis and MacIntyre in the field of ethics, and that of Garcia de Haro, Grisez, May and Pinckaers in moral theology. In addition, the encyclical Veritatis splendor of John Paul II has articulated a synthesis of the fundamental principles of Catholic moral teaching in a way no previous Pope has attempted.

29 Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus 1: Christian Moral Principles, Chicago, 1983, p. 86.

30 Cf. ibid., pp 141-164.

31 Cf. ibid., pp 206-207.

32 Address, 8 November 1995.

33 John Paul II has argued, especially in his encyclical
Centesimus annus (1 May 1991), that it is not agnosticism which guarantees a free and just society, but a religiously grounded respect for the person: 'Nowadays there is a tendency to claim that agnosticism and sceptical relativism are the philosophy and and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life ... lt must be observed in this regard that if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or disguised totalitarianism' (no. 46). See also Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America, Grand Rapids, Mich. 1984.

34 Cf. no. 29.

35 Cf. Holy Thursday Letter to Priests, 1979, no. 9.

36 Address, 2 April 1980, no. 4.

37 Cf. Address, May 1982, no. 2.

38 Cf. Apostolic Letter, Tertio millennio adveniente, 40, 10 November 1994.

39 Cf Ratzinger, "Thc Ministry and Life of Priests", op. cit., p. 12.

40 Autobiography, London, 1937, pp 329-30.

41 Cf. Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests, 69- 79, published by thc Congregation for the Clergy, 31 January 1994.

42 Whilc it is true that every Christian is called to the apostolate as a consequcnce of Baptism, only thc priest can act fully in persona Christi in the work of evangelization.

43 'When we grasp thc greatness and thc sacredness of thc office of thc priest, we understand that the sacrifice which thc priest makes in accepting celibacy is small in comparison with the gift which he receives in being able to be a priest of the Holy Church' : Dietrich von Hildebrand, Celibacy and the Crisis of Faith, Chicago, 197l, p. 35.

44 Pamela Nightingale, Daily Telegraph, 18 September 1996.

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This version: 17th January 2003

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