“Remaining unmarried and living celibate for the Kingdom of God is of great merit. It is part of religious life. With our vows of poverty, obedience and chastity we distance ourselves from our desire for possession, for doing things our own way and for a sexual life. These are natural and human desires, but we want to relativise them out of love for Christ, to fully dedicate ourselves to Him. This must however always be a free and personal choice.”
Wise words from Fr. Filip Noël, a Norbertine at Averbode Abbey in Belgium. Celibacy is often seen, both inside and outside the Church as something that is forced upon priests. But I am certain that a celibate life is doomed to failure if it is not the choice of the priest in question. A good formation during the years in seminary is vital, since celibacy is not a magic cure that will prevent the priest from ever falling in love or succumbing to temptation. No, a priest always remains fully human, of course. The key to celibacy is not avoiding these very human desires and urges, but learning how to integrate them in your priestly life. There are no guarantees of success, but it is a vital part of the priestly identity.
The priesthood is not a nine-to-five job which you can step out of at the end of the working day. No, during ordination, the very identity of the priest is changed. No longer is he just a man among other people: he is now a priest for them, while at the same a Christian with them, to paraphrase St. Augustine. He is called to act in persona Christi during the liturgy and the ministering of the sacraments. It is something that changes every element of his life. Besides a sacrifice given freely and willingly to God, celibacy can be an aid in living that life, confirming the priestly identity as being different from that of other men.
The above quote by Father Noël comes from an article in Belgian weekly Tertio, which looks at the question of how sensible celibacy is. Fr. Noël speaks partly against it, taking a somewhat double position: he doesn’t deny the value of celibacy, but suggests it should be subject to the demands of daily life. “In eastern Christianity the choice between a celibate and non-celibate priesthood remained. And that seems to function quite well,” he says. And, “There are also married priests within the Roman Catholic Church, namely in the eastern rites. Why should all the benefits of celibacy not count for them?”
In my opinion, Fr. Noël reduces celibacy to a simplistic balance between advantages and disadvantages. There is no doubt that, in theory, married priests can function just as well as priests who are celibate. Does that mean that celibacy has lost its value? Of course not. Celibacy is not a dogma, it is not a deciding factor of the Catholic faith. Over the centuries it has grown out of necessity, only then revealing its nature as a sacrifice and a means to show a priest’s dedication to the Church of Christ. Simply saying that non-celibate priests also function well is a negative comparison; it looks at the characteristics that celibacy does not have to say something about what it is. It would be better to do the same comparison based on the characteristics that celibacy does have: not saying what celibacy deprives priests of, but what it adds.
Luckily, Fr. Noël is aware of the downsides of the non-celibate life: “The Protestant tradition has done away with all forms of religious life. But when the clergy consists almost totally out of married men, like in the Anglican church, there is a risk of ‘standardisation’. The radicality expressed in celibate life, may work as a correction of the standardisation of the Church.” The Church does not belong to the world, after all (cf. John 17, 16).
Father Noël further talks about the problems of celibacy for seminarians. He say that he has seen many seminarians and young priests leave because of the problems they had with celibacy. I wonder if that is truly due to the nature of celibacy or to the formation and education they receive?
Celibacy is a free choice, but in order to make that free choice, a future priest must be fully aware of what he chooses. A thorough formation and education is vital for that. And then, if a man decides that celibacy is not for him, we can’t say that celibacy is intrinsically flawed. The only conclusion we can draw from that is that the person in question is not called to a celibate life. We can’t even say that the priesthood is not for him.