Celibacy is a discipline that Holy Mother Church connects with priesthood and bishopric. In the Latin Rite or Roman Catholic Church when a man is called to the priesthood, he is also called to be celibate. They are two distinct callings from God that work hand in hand. In the latter part of the twentieth century, especially after the Second Vatican Council, this discipline was attacked and maligned, so it is important to define what celibacy is. Celibacy is the formal and solemn oath to never enter the married state. Celibate men and women renounce their right to marry in order to dedicate themselves totally to God and Church. The virtue of chastity (refraining from sexual intercourse) is of course implied in celibacy, since sex is reserved for marriage.
In modern colloquialism, the terms have been used in a synonymous way but everyone, whether single, married, ordained, consecrated, religious, or widowed, is called to be chaste according to his or her particular state in life. For example, a married man must refrain from impure thoughts or desires that would tempt him from his vow of matrimony. The virtue is easily applied to everyone. Celibacy, however, is a calling from God to live a particular disciplined way of life. It is not a doctrine of the Church. In the early Church there were married clergy. Indeed, many of the apostles (including Saint Peter) were married.
In the Eastern Church, or according to Byzantine Catholics outside of the United States and the Orthodox Church, the clergy can marry, but only once and before ordination. An Orthodox or Byzantine Catholic man who either has intentions of becoming a bishop or of entering a monastery, however, has to be celibate. Even married Anglican and Lutheran pastors who convert to Catholicism may be ordained and thus become married priests, but only if they are married before their ordination in the Catholic Church. Unmarried clergy from other Christian traditions may be ordained Catholic priests if they convert to Catholicism, but once ordained, they must remain celibate. Celibacy was normative in the Western (Latin) Church since the Council of Elvira (306), and it became mandatory in 1075 by Pope Gregory VII. The Eastern and Byzantine Church always had optional celibacy, except for bishops who came from the ranks of the celibate monks.
Our Blessed Savior Jesus Christ never married. He never married Mary Magdalene or any other woman and there was never a romance between them, either. Contrary to the retelling by The DaVinci Code, which is a scurrilous and fictional fantasy, Christ never married except in a mystical way to the Church. Sacred Scripture never mentions a wife, and Sacred Tradition maintains Christ’s earthly celibacy. He is the bridegroom and the Church His spiritual bride. In this supernatural way, Jesus, who is Lord and Savior, is for all people, all generations, and all races until the end of time. A priest who observes the discipline of celibacy is imitating the great High Priest, Jesus Christ.
The classic biblical reference for celibacy is the epistle of Saint Paul 1 Corinthians
7:32–33, “I (Paul) should like you to be free of all worries. The unmarried man is busy with the Lord’s affairs, concerned with pleasing the Lord; but the married man is busy with this world’s demands and occupied with pleasing his wife. This means he is divided.” The passage is not meant to downplay marriage; rather, it highlights the importance of the priest’s undivided attention to the Lord and His people in the priest’s sacred duty. Saint Paul realistically knew that a priest would have to be brother and father to all—not a nine-to-five job but an enduring vocation that has to be lived out all his life.
Celibacy provides the discipline to help the priest give undivided attention to the Lord and His Church. How this regulation is used by the individual priest is another story. We may have all been witness to married clergy who do a superb job. We may also have observed broken vows and commitments, but this tragedy does not downplay the significance of celibacy. The discipline of celibacy implies that the priest, who acts In Persona Christi, is married to the Church. A priest is addressed as “Father” because he has many children through the sacraments. He gives spiritual birth through Baptism, feeds his children through the Holy Eucharist, and heals his children through Penance and the Anointing of the Sick.
The requirement of celibacy in the priesthood can be changed by the pope in the future; however, considering the current physical make of living quarters, clerical lifestyles, and the great witness that celibacy expresses to the Kingdom of God, it is a discipline that will be here to stay for many years. It should be noted that a priest does not give up something or deny himself anything without receiving many more great and awesome spiritual gifts in return. Rather, the discipline of celibacy is a gift that enables the priest to shepherd a great family. It also demands sacrifice. But marriage demands sacrifice as well. In marriage, the husband sacrifices his own wants, desires, and will for the sake of his spouse, and a wife does the same. In celibacy, the priest freely gives up wife and children in order to serve God and parishioners, which become his family.