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Celibacy? What it means in today’s culture Print
Guest column
Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019 -- 12:00 AM
Fr. Gregory Ihm

Celibacy has been the source of much recent conversation both in the Church, and those outside the Church.

With the recent sex abuse scandals and now the Amazon Synod, questions arise: Is celibacy a contributing part of the problem of sexual abuse? Is the shortage of priests due to celibacy? Is it an old practice that ought to be updated to fit the needs of the times?

In a culture overly saturated and obsessed with sex, the Church is both a contradiction and a beacon of hope. Celibacy, rather than being a problem to be solved, is a solution to the problem.

Celibacy orients our focus and energy toward eternal life, it aids those called to it in giving themselves wholeheartedly to Christ and those whom He calls them to serve. Rather than celibacy being an itch looking to be scratched, it is rather comparable to nuclear power that when understood and exercised properly is an endless source of life and renewal.

A Church discipline

Celibacy has been a part of priestly practice for a majority of her history, but not always and everywhere. Celibacy is not a doctrine of the Church but rather a discipline/practice — a very important one, but still only a practice.

The Eastern rites allow for married clergy, and a few years ago, the Latin Rite welcomed former Anglican married clergy into the Church, allowing them to continue in their married state. It is believed that St. Peter and many of the early Apostles and clergy were married.

Rooted in Christ

The practice of celibacy first and foremost is rooted in the source of the priesthood, Jesus Christ. Jesus lived as a chaste celibate, and we can learn from Him why the Church still holds it up as a praiseworthy practice.

Both with Jesus and His ministerial priests it lends itself to a radical availability, not only of one’s time, but also of one’s heart: attention, commitment, affection, etc. Zeal for souls is a characteristic that is heightened by celibacy, and Jesus gave witness to this: leaving home for public ministry, calling 12 apostles, seeking, feeding, and teaching the lost, calling of Zacchaeus, and ultimately obediently accepting His passion for His bride the Church.

It has an ecclesial nature to it in the sense that it creates a bond between the priest and the members of the Church, it is fruitful/meritorious, and it helps in nurturing trust and affection between the Church’s priests and members.

Supernatural life source

Celibacy is more than a practice; it is also a source of abundant supernatural life for the priest and those he is called to serve. “Celibacy is a sign of this new life to the service of which the Church’s minister is consecrated; accepted with a joyous heart, celibacy radiantly proclaims the Reign of God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1579).

The priest in his identity carries the fecundity of Jesus Christ, which makes him a spiritual father, and it is most often seen and experienced through the celebration of the sacraments. To limit it to the actions of the priest is to miss the truth that a priest in his being is conformed to Jesus Christ the priest, and so in his very existence he carries the supernatural power of fruitfulness. Celibacy when lived healthily is integrated into who the priest is and has an impact on what he does.

In a culture in need of discovering her true identity and a renewal of her soul, the priest living out chaste celibacy is driven to bring the healing mercy to the individuals and organizations he encounters.

In his desire to renew her, he proclaims the truth so as to feed, guide, and strengthen her. While the culture is looking for satisfaction and meaning in one’s self, the priest is looking to give himself away for the good of the other and in this way finds meaning.

Fr. Gregory Ihm is the director of vocations for the Diocese of Madison.