Priesthood and the Role of Celibacy
In today’s world, many wonder why Catholic priests can’t get married and have a family of their own. This issue and question can be boiled down into one word: celibacy. Being celibate is defined as being “One who abstains from sexual intercourse, especially by reason of religious vows,” according to thefreedictionary.com. This definition is not understood by many because the thought of having a life without sex is unbearable, especially in today’s society. By exploring this topic in depth, one can understand why celibacy is an important factor of the Catholic priesthood. According to Father Kenneth Doyle of the Catholic News Service, priests hold this sacred vow for three particular reasons: it closely resembles Christ Who was unmarried, it shows and proves that love can be present without being physical, and it allows a man to give all of his energy to the Lord rather than to a family.
In understanding how celibacy became so important, we have to look at its history, particularly at the third, fourth, eleventh, and sixteenth centuries, according to John O’Malley in his article Some Basics About Celibacy (8). In the third century, within the early Church, many priests and even most of the apostles of Jesus were men with wives and families. It was a common feature among the early Church, and even some of the Holy Fathers, or Popes, were known to be married and have children. It is clear that during this time period, the patristic era and early Middle Ages, celibacy was not enforced and not important within the Church. Early in this century, Constantine’s recognition of Christianity brought about status change for all Christians: because they were not being oppressed and martyred they looked for new ways to follow Christ and challenge themselves to give their lives for Him. John W. O’Malley writes, “With St. Jerome (345-420), as well as many others, virginity for those espoused to Christ began to be extolled with new fervor and consistency.” This became the building block for legislation and more teachings on the subject of celibacy (9).
O’Malley points out that the fourth century brought about more change for Christians as they came out of hiding in the catacombs (9). The Council of Elvira was held in 305, which consisted of nineteen bishops as well as a number of priests, deacons, and laypeople. O’Malley writes that Canon 33 was a product of this council and that it was the first piece of legislation that dealt with the issue of the clergy and marriage. It reads: It has seemed good absolutely to forbid the bishops, the priests, and the deacons, i.e., all the clerics in the service of the ministry, to have relations with their wives and procreate children; should anyone do so, let him be excluded from the honor of the clergy. (9) This decree changed things, because it made a tradition into a law, and any who violated it would be punished. This decree was really meant to put continence or self-restraint on married clergy, because the idea of mirroring Christ and having complete dedication to the sacraments was becoming more important, as well as trying to lead by example as clergy to the laypeople. This was very important in setting up what would change in the eleventh century as more authoritative figures wanted to establish order and set things right within the Church (9).
According to O’Malley, the eleventh century sought to recover from the Dark Ages and was able to retrieve patristic era canon law collections (10). These recovered canon law collections contained laws related to the idea of celibacy and acted as maps or blueprints for a series of holy and zealous popes for thirty-five years, who were determined to set order in the Church and society (10). During this time the papacy established a rule of authority and power, which far surpassed anything that preceded it, and began reforming the Church. The reformers had the main goal of trying to get the...
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