Review of Priestly Celibacy Today by Joseph McCarroll
This year, Cardinal James Hickey of Washington DC sent a new book to each of his
priests and seminarians, including a retired priest working in Knock!
At a meeting in New York this year, marking among other things the contribution of Monsignor George Kelly to the
Church in America, Archbishop George Pell of Melbourne, Australia gave a paper and when he came to discuss the
meaning of priestly celibacy he referred to the same book. The book is by an lrishman, Fr Thomas McGovern, a priest
of Opus Dei and a regular contributor to the reliably Catholic
magazine, the Homiletic and Pastoral Review.
At a time when public discourse on the priesthood are dominated by a tenor and a perspective that are alien and
hostile to Catholic priesthood and celibacy, we find it hard to feel and see why the Church asks priests to be
celibate. Fr Tom has done us a surprising service in writing this book, enabling us to re-enter into the whole
viewpoint and value-system that underlie and give sense to the Church's vision of the priesthood and why She asks
our priests to be celibate.
Surprising because once we do re-enter the Church's way of understanding priesthood and celibacy, we realise that
the present time is seeing not only a growth in the numbers of vocations in most of the Church, but also a new
growth and enrichment in the understanding of priesthood and celibacy especially in the teaching of Pope John Paul
As a married person living apart from my wife, celibate in fidelity to her and to our marriage, in the midst of
a decadent culture that ridicules such a way of life as meaningless and unfulfilling if not emotionally harmful,
the fidelity of priests to their vocation is important as witness and encouragement to me. I came to this book,
thus, with several interests - to understand how the Church understands priestly celibacy, and to beach-comb any
practical hints from the Church's wisdom on how to live this form of chastity. On both counts this book lavishly
rewards a thorough reading.
The Introduction gives a nuanced and tough diagnosis of the diseases in the contemporary culture that, when we
are suffering from them, make us feel celibate priesthood as problematic. The first chapter leads us through the
history of the Church's regulations on celibacy, drawing especially on the recent studies by Cochini. Cholij and
Stickler to argue that behind, before and underpinning the regulations is a tradition of priestly celibacy reaching
back to Christ Himself.
For me, however, it is the second, third and fourth chapters that are the most valuable. assembling as they do,
the foundations of priestly celibacy in scripture, the teaching of the Church and theology. These chapters are
a treasure trove that everyone concerned with the crisis in the Church today will want to have at their fingertips,
in particular, Fr McGovern has drawn generously on an astonishing new resource that the Holy Spirit has given the
Church in our time, the long series of catecheses on human sexuality, ethics, marriage and celibacy in the form
of meditations on Scripture during his Wednesday General Audiences by Pope John Paul II starting in 1979.
I remember when they were coming out wondering why nobody seemed to be as excited about it as
I was. In these talks, the Pope finds a rich and it seemed to me new vision of the human person, male and female,
created in the image and likeness of God, and finding fulfilment in the sincere interpersonal gift of self. He
drew from these meditations a new understanding of marriage and of priestly celibacy as different vocations to
love. lt is one of the great achievements of Fr McGovern in this book to present this beautiful analysis by the
Pope of the meaning of priestly celibacy as a vocation of love that fulfils the human person at the deepest level.
The fifth and sixth chapters deal with formation for celibacy and living celibacy as a way of love and holiness
as a priest, but they are full of practical wisdom and Christian common sense for all Christians as we struggle
to live chastely in today's sexually disordered culture.
The seventh chapter considers a raft of the most frequently heard objections to priestly celibacy and shows the
power of the analysis built up in the preceding sections of the book in giving substantial rather than merely glib
answers to them. The eighth chapter presents some testimonies to celibacy, notably that of John Henry Newman.
At a time when many in the Hierarchy and among priests and religious seem almost palpably crushed by scandals involving
religious, and commentators hostile to the Church using these to write obituaries of Catholicism, Fr McGovern has
kept his nerve. He has calmly gone back to the sources and shown us how the Church has been led through meditation
on these sources to Her own characteristic understanding of the priest and of celibacy.
The only way to be able to withstand the cultural onslaught is to know what we believe as Catholics
and why we believe it. When we recover this vision we begin to see again what a beautiful and fulfilling vocation
priestly celibacy is. That is the service Fr McGovern has done us.
The same cultural decadence and unrelenting anti-Catholic propaganda that has clouded the Catholic vision of priesthood
and celibacy, has also obscured the Catholic vision of marriage and fidelity, and of chastity generally. Because
the Church's vision is coherent and deeply grounded in what we are as human beings, what Fr McGovern puts before
us is startlingly relevant for married people, for those who are engaged to marry or hoping to marry and for those
struggling to live chastely in our day to day living.
Priestly Celibacy Today is a must for every priest who is interested
in filling out his understanding of his vocation and for re-appropriating in a fuller way the meaning and purpose
of it in terms of the richest vision of the human person currently available. Our priests have never been more
under more subtle and interior pressure than they are right now. They need our support in every personal and practical
and spiritual way. One practical way we might consider helping those we know ourselves might be to emulate Cardinal
Hickey and give them a copy of Fr McGovern's book. He has another book on the same subject, Priests
and Priesthood, coming out later this year, which I look forward to reviewing.
This review first appeared in the 18 June 1999 issue of The Irish Family.
Book Review by Monsignor George A. KelIy For the Fellowship of
Catholic Scholars Quarterly
Fr. Thomas McGovern, an Irish theologian and Opus Dei priest, joins a growing list of scholars emerging since Vatican II to argue the apostolic origins of
the celibate priesthood, and, as well, the appropriateness of the single state for vicars of Christ and their public
witness to God's ongoing presence among men. Roman Cholij (1988), Christian Cochini (1990), and Alfons Stickler
(1995) precede him, but all four reinforce the Church's judgement that celibacy is the preferred state for a priest
because of his spousal relationship with Mother Church.
The priest is not a simple functionary of a religious group. Mother Church places herself entirely
in a priest's hands, consecrating him to be her Preacher of the Word, Alter Christus in Eucharistic worship, and the Good Shepherd of her people on their pilgrimage to God. It is preferable
that he, like Christ, be celibate, so the Church decrees.
Catechized Catholics realize that celibacy ("unmarriedness") is a matter of Church
law, which varies with the times and the climes. Greek and Russian Orthodox (and many Eastern Catholic) priests marry before ordination.
The Church accepts married Anglo-Catholic priests, even if it re-ordains them. And, if a recent Roman circular
means what it says, the Pope is prepared now to permit married deacons, whose wives die, to remarry.
Why not, therefore, considering the shortage of clergy, a married priesthood now? Especially,
too, since, as modern pundits argue, celibacy creates an unwelcome monarchic caste isolated from the human experiences
of the people they govern.
This Dublin University chaplain unfolds his learned and persuasive case for celibacy in eight
chapters: An introductory summary of the contemporary challenges, the historical background of the discipline,
its scriptural roots, the theology of celibacy itself what social scientists say, the training necessary for the
celibate life in our day and as a way to holiness, responses to current objections, and examples of personal witness
to the discipline (e.g. Cardinal Newman, Mother Teresa, etc.).
Each chapter has as many as ten subheadings, providing the reader a page or two at a time to
grasp, in language readily understood, a complicated point. The style, an Irish gift, rnakes the book easy to read.
The book's "witness" section is somewhat endearing, especially it's recall of the lost
Christians of Nagasaki. During the 1600s, Francis Xavier Christians numbering 200,000, were martyred for their
faith, and a remnant left behind survived for two centuries without priests.
In the 1860s, when Japan was reopened to the West, and missionaries of many denominations sought
their conversion, that fragment, eventually numbering perhaps 50,000, recognized the faith of their fathers in
Catholic priests - celibates all.
Priestly Celibacy Today is an important book. It lays out the reasons
why celibacy with chastity are, and should remain, constituent elements of the Catholic priesthood. Equally appreciated,
is its defence of the priesthood itself without which the Church would not be Catholic, as John Paul II insists.
The fight over celibacy, however, as the controversy is engendered by the notion of women priests,
is a side-bar to the main casus belli: the priesthood of Christ,
the Redeemer, his sacrifice on the Cross, and Resurrection, the Mass as Sacrifice, and the priest as the ordained
icon of that saving event.
It should not surprise anyone in a media-wise post-Christian world, that the assault on Catholicity
is rather oblique, not on the creed, but on the two sacraments which govern the public well-being of God's people.
Matrimony redefined by counter-magisterium to connote togetherness
more than motherhood; Orders, in the alien view, creating vicars of the people engaged in humanitarian service,
more than vicars of Christ for purposes of worship and sanctification.
In one case we have gone from "responsible parenthood" to contraception to 1.8 family
size to quasi-infanticide. We are working on priests without cassocks to priests without chastity to few priests
at all. Sic transit gloria sacerdotii et ecclesiae.
Fr McGovern makes the case that priestly celibacy is a Christ-like charism which eminently belongs
to those who stand at the altar in his place. The "law of celibacy" for the priest may not be divinely
ordained, any more than the valid marriage of Catholics before a priest is.
But, both laws represent a judgement by successors of Peter and the Apostles, exercising the
power of the Keys, that celibacy for the priest, and marriage before him, appropriately underpin the holiness of
those in the "little" or "big" Church who commit themselves for life to the care of Christ's
The Dean of one of the country's most prestigious Episcopal churches once directed me in all
seriousness, if thoughtlessly: "Don't let the Vatican give up on priestly
celibacy". Fr McGovern's book argues in a scholarly way for that cause with the
very reasons the Anglo-Catholic Dean drew from his personal experience.
Why does a publisher of a paperback rarely stamp its price on the cover?
Book Review by Fr Brendan Purcell
In the present cultural climate, where sex outside marriage is pervasive in the media, literature,
cinema, videos, and the internet, its hard to avoid the impression that anyone who abstains from sexual activity
is emotionally stunted, if not a total freak. This could lead to a priest coming to see his celibacy as an unreasonable
burden. Priestly Celibacy Today, by opening up a refreshing
and convincing defence of celibacy, gives a scriptural, theological and spiritual understanding of this gift of
the Spirit to the Church.
lt also offers the priest, in the light of the Paschal Mystery, a very practical and encouraging
programme for living a committed celibate life. Cardinal Hickey of Washington was so taken with this book that
he sent a free copy to every priest in his diocese. The book brings out the interdependence of the priestly vocation
and the vocation of marriage, in that faithfulness to one is a powerful and encouraging sign for faithfulness to
McGovern develops Pope John Paul II's striking teaching that only a person who grasps the greatness
of the Christian vocation to marriage, with its tremendous potential and requirement of self-giving. will truly
be able to appreciate the full implication of priestly celibacy as a service to others. It might look as if the
recent closure of seminaries in Ireland suggests the need for a married priesthood. Yet the world-wide figures
indicate a 75% increase in the number of seminarians in the past 20 years (p.l88).
Even in the US, which went through one of the most serious downturns in vocations, the number
of seminarians in dioceses like Arlington, Denver, Lincoln, Omaha and Peoria, has risen significantly in the last
10 years. Fr. McGovern's study indicates how our own attitudes towards celibacy can be renewed. As one priest of
over 50 years remarked, Priestly Celibacy Today 'is one of the most strengthening and consoling spiritual works l have read for many a
Fr Brendan Purcell lectures in philosophy in UCD.
This review first appeared in the June 1999 issue of Link-Up.
Edited by:The Communications Office
"Easy-to-read book on celibacy: Patrick McCarthy commends
Thomas McGovern's comprehensive overview"
Earlier this year, the former government minister, Mr Justin Keating, excited quite a controversy
with his remark: 'I would not allow celibates near disadvantaged institutionalised
children, not because they are all bad, but because the risk is too high'.
(The Irish Catholic, 22 July, 1999) The Irish
Council for Civil Liberties, called on Mr Keating to withdraw the remark and apologise. Mr Donnacha O'Connell.
Director of the ICCL, made the comment: 'If, in any other context, one were
to castigate a class of people because of the actions of a few in that class, it would be called hate speech'.
Comments such as those made by Mr Keating also suggest a need exists for a better understanding
of the charism of priestly celibacy today. Priestly Celibacy Today
is a worthy response to this need.
Since the close of the Second Vatican Council, much scholarly research has taken place on the
historical, scriptural and theological foundations of priestly celibacy by people such as Christian Cochini, Alfons
Stickler and others.
At the level of official Church teaching, the last 30 years has also been very fruitful, in particular,
with the 1967 encyclical letter of Pope Paul VI, Sacerdotalis caelibatus, and the teaching of Pope John Paul II. Fr McGovern's book is an excellent synthesis of all of these
The introduction presents critical factors - in particular the subjectivisation and relativisation
of the concept of truth -which have reduced the terms in which many moral issues are debated in our times. Understanding
of priestly celibacy, the author affirms, is one area harmed by those reduced terms.
In this regard, the author follows the analysis of modem moral debate associated in particular
with the name of Alasdair Maclntyre. The purpose of his book is to make a contribution in a process of recovery
(p. 28) of a broader understanding of priestly celibacy.
The author sets about his aim on a number of fronts. The author first of aIl presents the most
up-to-date historical scholarship on priestly celibacy, which has shown that an unwritten legal custom of continence
for married men, who were ordained, and celibacy for single men being ordained preceded any written church legislation
and goes back to earliest times.
The author next examines the scriptural foundations and theology of celibacy before treating
of the contribution of Pope John Paul II to the understanding of priestly celibacy, which is located within the
context of his wider development of the theology of the human person. The author also includes chapters on formation
for priestly celibacy; celibacy and holiness; objections to celibacy and various witnesses and testimonies to celibacy.
The various chapters of this work are helpfully broken down into specific parts, which makes
the book easy to read and the various arguments clear. Sources are clearly but unobtrusively given and the author
provides a valuable bibliographv and Index.
President George Bush once said he believed what hindered his bid for re-election as president
was that he had difficulty articulating what he called the "vision thing". Much credit is due to the
Fr McGovern for his well-researched, comprehensive and clear presentation of the Church's vision of priestly celibacy.
This review first appeared in the October 1999 issue of Intercom (Dublin)
Why Priests are Single by Michael Keating
Father Thomas McGovern, an Opus Dei priest from Ireland, begins this excellent volume by noting
that writing a book on celibacy could be regarded as a foolhardy undertaking.
The wider culture, after all, has little room for chastity and thinks celibacy positively perverse,
while within the Church itself there has been a lot of talk about the 'burden of celibacy' and repeated calls to
allow for a married clergy in the Latin rite.
Given this, to come forward and energetically defend celibacy, which is what Father McGovern
ably does, might seem out of step with the times. But Father McGovern is surely right in thinking otherwise, and
in seeing signs of a recovery of the ideal of celibacy.
This timely book is much more than a defense of celibacy. It goes beyond points of controversy
deeply into the heart of the Church's long tradition of celibate priesthood.
Central to Father McGovern's presentation is the contention that there is a direct and profound
congruence between the charism of celibacy and the exercise of priestly ministry. This congruence is founded in
the theology of priesthood and in a Christian anthropo1ogy that have been progressively maintained and elucidated
through two thousand years, and have been recently and beautifully expressed by Pope John Paul II.
It has become common to speak of priestly celibacy as nothing more than a disciplinary law, first
mentioned in the fourth century, and only definitively imposed upon the Western Church at the Second Lateran Council
in 1139. As such, so this line of reasoning goes, priestly celibacy, not being of ancient origin and concerned
primarily with pastoral matters, might be relaxed at any time.
The Eastern Churches are often called as witnesses to what would seem to be the true ancient
practice of having both a married and a celibate clergy, in the light of which the Western insistence on celibacy
seems unnecessary at best, and rigorist and unhealthy at worst.
Especially in light of changing pastoral realities, including a shortage of priests, it is high
time for the Latin Church to do away with an outmoded practice that places unreasonable burdens on its clergy -
so the argument goes.
In dealing with these questions Father McGovern wants to show that the Church has always recognized
the inner congruence between celibacy and priesthood. To do so he notes that a crucia1 distinction often goes unnoticed.
True, a married clergy existed in both East and West in patristic and into medieval times, but it was expected
of a married priest that once he was ordained, he would practice sexual abstinence and live with his wife as with
a sister - an arrangement to which she had also to agree!
This practice of abstinence, or continence as it was often called, was held by the patristic
Church to have come directly from the apostles themselves. It was confirmed at the Council of Elvira in 303, which
proclairned that sexual abstinence was necessury for aIl clergy whether married or celibate, and that those who
had neglected this rule were to be excluded from the clerical state.
Clement of Jerusalem, Augustine, Jerome, the Council of Carthage (390) all witnessed to the same
understanding. Only at the Council of Trullo in 691 did the East allow married príests to "use"
their marriages, a ruling that was rejected by the Westem Church as out of keeping with apostolic and traditional
Even so, the Eastern Churches reserved the office of bishop to those who practiced perfect conitinence,
and demanded temporary abstinence (eventually a three-day period) as preparation for priestly service at the altar.
The East also maintained the tradition that a clergyman once ordained could not marry, a stipulation which originally
had to do with the inability of a priest to consummate such a marriage.
In the West married clergy gradually died out as a celibate clergy came to the fore. But the
practice of perfect sexual abstinence was expected of both, however much this ideal was decayed in certain times
The Second Lateran Council thus confirmed the long tradition of priestly abstinence from sex,
and imposed celibacy as the best and most fitting way to secure it, a ruling upheld and expanded by the Council
of Trent in the l6th century, and kept in the Latin Church down to our own day.
Father McGovern contends that it is the Western Church in this case that has preserved most faithfully
the ancient practice of the Church. But more importantly still he explains why: that there is an intimate inner
affinity between celibacy and priestly service.
This affinity has been at the heart of John PauI II's theology of priesthood. Far from being
a mere negation of marriage or sexuality, priestly celibacy according to John Paul is itself an expression of spousal
"In virtue of his configuration to Christ, the Head and Shepherd, the priest
stands in a spousal relationship with regard to the community" (Pastores Dabo Vobis).
Father McGovern joins to this as the fundamental theological reason for priestly
"The priest's total self-giving to the Church finds its justification in
the fact that she is the Body and the Bride of Christ. Following Christ, the Church as Bride is the only woman
the priest can be wedded to, the only Body over which he can have nuptia1 ríghts (105-6). He exercises a
kind of spiritual paternity over his flock".
Celibacy is thus not just an external constraint imposed on priestly ministry, nor is it a merely
human institution established by law. It is rather a sign and a means by which this fundamental conformity of the
priest to Chríst is expressed.
Father McGovern, refreshingly, sees celibacy not as a burden but as a gift. The priest who lives
for Christ and from Christ, while not immune from difficulty, will find great joy in his vocation, and will have
no insurmountable difficulties in living out his celibacy.
Seminarian Michael Keating writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.
This review first appeared in the 22 April 1999 issue of National Catholic
PRIESTLY CELIBACY TODAY by Fr. Kenneth Baker
The present-day attacks on priestly celibacy are not new in the long history of the Church. Today
we often hear impassioned calls for "optional celibacy", that is, the Church should retain the discipline
of celibacy as a noble ideal, but at the same time should allow some men to marry and have families.
Some of the reasons adduced in support of a married clergy are: celibacy is not required by revelation,
full development as a human person requires sexual fulfillment in marriage, the shortage of priests. The assumption
behind the last reason is that, allowing priests to marry would solve the problem of not having enough priests
to staff all the parishes.
It has also been claimed that married priests could understand the problems of married people
better than celibate priests and so would be better able to counsel them.
These are just a few of the questions treated by Fr. Thomas McGovem in his excellent book on
priestly celibacy. By "celibacy" he means the practice of perfect continence for one's whole life on
the part of priests and bishops in the Catholic Church. This has been a requirement for ordination to the priesthood
in the Latin Church since about the 12th century.
The author begins his book with an overview of the present situation and problems. Then he presents
a history of celibacy in the Latin Church which is followed by the scriptural foundations and the theology of the
celibacy. Next come chapters on Christian anthropology, formation for celibacy in seminaries, celibacy as a way
to holiness, objections to celibacy and individual witnesses to the high value of celibacy, such as Cardinal Newman
and Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
In his presentation of the theology the author relies heavily on the writings and talks of Pope
John Paul II: there is emphasis on the "spousal" meaning of the body and identification with Christ as
the Spouse or Bridegroom of the Church.
Since the priest acts in persona Christi in
the sacraments, the argument is that he should be as much like Christ, who was celibate, as possible. So the main
arguments offered by Fr. McGovern are theological rather than practical, that is, the obvious advantage that the
unmarried priest is more available to the people than is the married priest.
The historical presentation is very important, for there the author shows, relying on the studies
of Roman Cholij, Christian Cochini and Cardinal Alfons Stickler, that continence on the part of priests and bishops
can be traced back to the Apostles, that is, those who received ordination in the Church, if they were married,
had to cease having marital relations with their wives: if they violated that, as some did, they were then deposed
and removed from office.
The first written codification of the requirement of celibacy can be traced back to the Council
of Elvira (Spain) about 305. But the authors mentioned above offer evidence that the unwritten custom of continent
priests and bishops can be traced back to the Apostles.
This makes for very interesting reading and seems to imply that continence for married men and
celibacy for single men can be traced back to Jesus himself. So the real innovation was the ruling of the Council
of Trullo in 691 which allowed married priests to use their marital rights and have children.
The conclusion of this is that the Latin requirement of celibacy is more ancient than the Eastern
custom of ordaining married men. And the fact that only celibates can be bishops in the Eastern Church indicates
a preference going back to the Apostles.
The chapters of this book are logically broken up into smaller sections which are easy to read.
It is not difficult to follow the train of thought. Statements are well documented, but the text is not overburdened
with too much scholarly apparatus.
The book is highly recommended for bishops, priests, seminarians, and especially for priests
who are spiritual directors of seminarians.
This review first appeared in the July 1999 issue of Homiletic &
"A comprehensive defence of celibacy": Review by Fr
The atmosphere today is thick with the dust of the great celibacy debate. Unfortunately, that
debate is often more conspicuous for its fire than for its light. Sometimes the facts of Church history and the
truth of things seem to matter but little to some of the debaters.
Who has not heard ad nauseam the claim that
the celibacy of priests is merely a matter of Church law, without any apostolic traditions or Gospel foundations,
and imposed on the priestly ministry only in this millennium?
Or the claim that in the first millennium there were married bishops, priests and deacons, so
that ordination did not affect their conjugal life if already married, nor prevent them from marrying if not yet
married? ln the debate these claims are in control of the public square in spite of the fact that in each case
the opposite happens to be the truth!
In Priestly Celibacy Today one finds an up-to-speed
engagement with all these questions and much more besides. Since priests have a need to a deeper personal conviction
about the value of the gift of celibacy, this book provides the background on the place of celibacy in the history
and the tradition of the Church (chapter 1).
Interestingly, following the splendid historical research already provided by Cochini, Stickler
and others, Fr McGovern shows that from the most ancient times those ordained were not allowed to marry subsequently,
while those already married had to live as brother and sister upon the reception of Holy Orders.
What are the foundations for celibacy? They cannot be only practical, psychological or economic/sociological
ones. Chapters 2 and 3 show how they must be scriptural, theological, and spiritual, "since it is an essentially supernatural charism". (28).
The author draws in this context on the highly original reflection of Pope John Paul II whose
teaching on celibacy "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". (29).
Implied in both vocations is a fresh understanding of the human person, an anthropology whose
roots are to be found in the Council and which highlights the "nuptial
quality of the body". (Pope John Paul II).
To live a life of celibate consecration to God and to his People presupposes an appropriate formation.
Chapter 5 outlines the thinking of the Church on the matter. The priestly life faithfully lived is a special way
to that holiness without which no one shall see God (Heb 12:14).
Chapter 6 deals very concretely with the helps, the challenges and the dífficulties along
that way, while the next chapter responds to present-day objections to the dispensation of a celibate priesthood.
I found this a delightful book to read. Well researched and informative, it is a stimulating
treatment of its chosen subject. And while it engages courageously the half-truths of widespread assumptions, it
does so with a candour and delicacy that combine to create an atmosphere of serenity and an injection of hope for
priests. This is an insightful meditation that offers nourishment to priests who have chosen celibacy.
Fr Tom Norris lectures at St Patricks College, Maynooth.
This review first appeared in the 15 April 1999 issue of Irish Catholic.
Section Contents Copyright ©;Fr Thomas McGovern
This version: 17th January 2003