The Real Reason for Priestly Celibacy

Eamonn Clark, STL

Do you remember the Amazon Synod? Well, it seems it failed to give certain people what they wanted: widespread married priests in the Latin Church. Of all the many arguments made in both directions, one consideration in favor of the discipline deserves our full attention today.

It is not that of economics, though the problems of time and energy and money are real. “But the East does it, so why can’t we?” Well, never mind that they have been doing this a long time and have gotten used to it, but the real question is: why are there so few Eastern Catholics? It’s because their priests are typically not very free for mission work, for frequent mobility, for constant preaching and teaching… due to marriage. They cannot nearly as easily embrace the faithful as fathers, because they have a biological family. They are not as available in their ministries as celibates, even though they are certainly valuable ministries nonetheless.

It is not that of the eschatological sign of celibacy. Though this is certainly powerful – one knows that the Catholic priest is different, in part because of this. He is a counter-cultural symbol. And to “cave” on this is to give up a massive moral authority over a world which the Church seeks to convert, a world which, to reiterate, stands in need of missionaries who are not tied down by the demands of domestic life.

The reason of reasons is neither of these important things. Rather, it is contemplation.

I was reading up a bit just the other day on the Carthusians. You may have heard of them because of a famous documentary which took 21 years to make. Well, they do exist, and they are a nice starting point for the discussion. What exactly is the point of Carthusian life? What do they do all day? Why don’t they go preach and hear confessions or even at least allow for retreats in their monasteries? They walk into the mountains, live practically alone in a room for their entire lives, and don’t hardly even communicate with the outside world at all except when absolutely necessary.

The Order explains it bluntly: the only goal of Carthusian life is the contemplation of God.

After all, “Mary has chosen the better part, and it shall not be taken from her.” (Luke 10:42) Apostolic activity is good, and it is even necessary in a way, but it is not the best thing to do absolutely speaking, and it is not, ultimately, the most necessary thing to do either. The higher thing is to meet God face to face – the real “one thing necessary.”

We bracket here the question of apostolic life that comes from an “overflow” of contemplation… In fact, from my reading of Thomas, it seems the objectively highest vocation for him is to be a bishop freed from administration, living in a hermitage under religious vows, who occasionally comes into public to preach and administer the sacraments out of an abundance of mystical illumination from the depths of his prayer. Not exactly the norm – but the argument is strong. And its strength comes in part from his doctrine on the contemplative life, a doctrine which beautifully matches his teaching on the ascetical (“penitential”) life. Let’s dive in with Thomas on fasting. (And no – St. Thomas Aquinas was not “fat,” or at least not large from overeating. Stay tuned for a post on that in a few weeks.)

There are three purposes for fasting, and by extension, other ascetical practices. First, to do penance in reparation for sin. By taking on some small pains, we atone for what wrong we have done, thus alleviating some of our due punishment (greatly aided by the Church’s generosity in granting indulgences). Second, fasting is for cooling the passions. It is really difficult to be pining after a beautiful woman if you are really hungry. (And this is not the only good trick to help with chastity, as I’ve explored elsewhere.) Third, we fast to elevate our minds to God. The passions being cooled allows for the mind to be freed of preoccupation with the lower things and to move instead to higher things, such as meditation on the Passion, or a consideration of the meaning of our lives in the light of eternity, to examine our consciences clearly, to think on the love of God and the Mysteries of the Life of Christ… and simply to be attentive to God with an habitual, loving gaze, longing for Him and His Will, no matter how distasteful it may be to our lower appetites. This is the Wisdom which comes from the Cross, which is where perfect freedom was and is still. Christ, though physically tormented – and even physically trapped – manifested the highest degree of personal freedom on the Cross. By draining Himself of all earthly desires, He fully and completely accomplished an act of superabundant charity in accord with the Will of the Father Who had sent Him for this precise purpose. And, though physically trapped, we must remember that every moment was nonetheless chosen deliberately and without constraint; indeed, He could have come down if He had willed to. This is the pattern for growth in discipleship – to deny the lower self in favor of uniting the higher self with God, to do His Will for its own sake, and for its own sake alone. Contemplation is the highest part of our mind dwelling on the Almighty God, a quiet foretaste of the exhilarating enthrallment of Heaven.

Astute readers will notice an opening for the teaching of St. John of the Cross to sneak in. While John certainly is valuable in many ways, I would suggest that his specific teaching on the active purgation (“doing penance/fasting/deprivations,” especially in order to initiate the first passive purgation or “dark night of the senses”) is a bit too narrow or strict, even if rhetorically helpful when set alongside the more moderate approach of Thomas. In fact, Thomas seems to say precisely this, in a roundabout way, both in his teaching on the usefulness of marriage (which John seems to have been rather suspicious of, given his comment in Ascent of Mount Carmel that the married ought to be “perplexed” by the lack of a higher vocation) and in his critique of the Stoics, the Greek philosophical sect that disdained the enjoyment of any physical pleasures. We should recall that this was a very hot topic for Thomas, as the Albigensian heresy was not yet dead… This made it all the more necessary to stress the goodness of the physical world and its proper use, yes, even of physical pleasures.

However, despite his mockery of the Stoic doctrine – which he says nobody follows anyway, including the teachers of such things – Thomas insists on the usefulness of asceticism for the sake of better contemplation. This is a function not of physical pleasures being “bad,” nor of suffering or deprivation being “good” on their own, but because of the brokenness of human nature in the context of the body-soul composite. Physical pleasures drag the mind toward the things from which they derive, thus tending to drag the mind away from God, unless, as John rightly points out in Book I of Dark Night of the Soul, they are enjoyed precisely on account of elevating the mind to God, a point which St. Paul himself indicates should come through the mode of thanksgiving, in 1 Timothy 4:1-5: “We are expressly told by inspiration that, in later days, there will be some who abandon the faith, listening to false inspirations, and doctrines taught by the devils. They will be deceived by the pretensions of impostors, whose conscience is hardened as if by a searing-iron. Such teachers bid them abstain from marriage, and from certain kinds of food, although God has made these for the grateful enjoyment of those whom faith has enabled to recognize the truth. All is good that God has made, nothing is to be rejected; only we must be thankful to him when we partake of it, then it is hallowed for our use by God’s blessing and the prayer which brings it.”

But that much gratitude is difficult to keep up. In many cases, it is better to forego the pleasures entirely rather than count on having a perpetual habit of thanksgiving, which is certainly as laudable of a goal as it is an unreachable one, especially over a long period of time, wherein one becomes habituated to the use of pleasures, especially in marriage, and may even grow a bit entitled in spirit. Even barring this, one’s mind will nevertheless still be pulled down by the mere fact of the energy of the intellect and will being drained in the use of intense pleasures with any kind of frequency. It is not immoral, it is simply not ideal.

However, the flip side is that many do not have the gifts to give up certain pleasures in favor of contemplation – a point running somewhat contrary to the spirit of John’s teaching – and this attempt can even become the sin of presumption (against magnanimity by excess, not against hope by excess). The one whose mind is dragged down even more by the lack of certain licit pleasures, such as in marriage, after some attempt at getting above this struggle, is in fact better off resigning to weakness, at least for the time being. By a moderate use of these pleasures, he will free his mind more than he was able to without their use. The fixation will disappear, and he can move on with life, including in prayer, and perhaps later on he can go higher up if there is occasion, for instance, by a mutual agreement to live in perpetual continence with his spouse.

This brings us almost all the way to the point. It belongs to the priest especially to know God, and the things of God, and to judge well as an administrator and spiritual father. This requires the sharpest and freest of minds. This means, first of all, that priests should be doing a lot of fasting and other penances. It also means that they should be free of the weight of the pleasures of marriage, ideally freed from the married state altogether (which perhaps relates more to availability than to contemplation, though it still does free the mind of the activities proper to domestic concerns).

The capital vices (the “seven deadly sins”) each have “daughters” – these are other vices or sins which tend to flow from the capital vices. The capital vice of gluttony, opposed by abstinence (moderation in food and normal drink) and especially by fasting (which is an act of infused temperance properly speaking), has five daughters: unseemly joy, scurrility or foolish manners, loquaciousness, uncleanness/pollution, and dullness of mind as regards the understanding. This doesn’t mean that enjoying food is sinful, but even a lot of licit enjoyment of food will tend towards these unfortunate actions… The last one is especially pertinent, namely, dullness of mind as regards the understanding. The daughters of lust, we should note, are eight: blindness of mind, thoughtlessness, inconstancy, rashness, narcissism, hatred of God, love of this world, and hatred or despair of the world to come. Again, several of these relate directly to the well-functioning of the rational part of the soul with respect to contemplation… especially blindness of mind.

The dull and blind in mind have a hard time understanding spiritual things without a lot of help. Their attention is too focused on worldly pleasures – even licit ones – to be easily elevated to the world of the spirit.

Where are all the discussions about this, I wonder?

The great Carthusian dictum is true: “Stat crux dum volvitur orbis.” The Cross is still, while the world turns. If we want spiritual fathers who are “alter Christi,” “other Christs,” then conformity with the unchanging dynamic of the Cross, at least in a basic way, is of the utmost importance. As we see, the availability for ministry is only a part of the equation. What does one bring into his ministry without easy access to the deeper kind of contemplation which is generally only available to the celibate? The flesh must be brought into subjection – crucified, as it were – so that spiritual strength and power may lead the priest into the wisdom proper to his office as a teacher, judge, intercessor, and administrator. For, “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:23-25) Let the world have its misguided opinions about clerical celibacy – for they have such opinions about the Cross, too. And let the Church stand as still as the Cross, while the world continues to turn.