In what continues to be a paradox in an immoral society, celibacy in the Roman Catholic priesthood is not a doctrine of the Church, but a discipline.
“Our world is very sexualized, so it’s confused by celibacy because the directive from the world is to act on our sexuality, regardless of what that means, instead of examining our sexuality within the larger, mysterious plan of God,” said Fr. Matt Lowry, chaplain of Holy Trinity Catholic Newman Center in Flagstaff, and associate director of vocations for the diocese.
“Celibacy is seen as a gift in the Church as opposed to a burden. It’s a blessing. A man is free to give himself completely to the bride — the Church.”
Mirroring the actions of Jesus, priests choose the discipline of celibacy. That’s why during the history of the Church we read of married men who were then called to Holy orders.
Fr. Lowry said early on, the Roman Catholic Church moved away from married clergy to celibacy as a pragmatic decision because, “how can you hand off the Church to your children,” but at the heart, it’s truly a spiritual gift.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “All the ordained ministers of the Latin Church, with the exception of permanent deacons, are normally chosen from among men of faith who live a celibate life and who intend to remain celibate for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Called to consecrate themselves with undivided heart to the Lord and to the affairs of the Lord, they give themselves entirely to God and to men.” (§1579)
Fr. Paul Sullivan, diocesan director of vocations, said the discipline of celibacy should be shared in its context of goodness and glory, and not something that has to be done.
“It’s part of the calling; we give ourselves as an inspiration to others. In a real way, we are living the life that Christ lived,” he said.
Fr. Sullivan said people often ask him if he thinks celibacy is outdated for our time.
“I say our time is so confused about sex, which has been reduced to pleasure and not transcendent love of the Father,” he said. “So much more is received from God in His power and grace. It’s less about what we give up, and more about what we receive in this life.”
Fr. Lowry said that some speculate that priests should be allowed to marry, but that their perception is misguided.
“People think they should let priests get married, as if the Church is impeding us,” he said. “I, in fact, choose to be celibate. What people are suggesting is that you have to be married to be happy, and it’s a fallacy. There are a lot of unhappy married people in the world.”
Sometimes the confusion lies in how a priest can be intimate while being celibate. Human beings are capable of being open, authentic and intimate without intercourse.
“No one has ever died for lack of sex, but when we have lack of intimacy, that’s what leads to depression and suicide,” Fr. Lowry said. “Our hearts are created for intimacy and communion.”
He said because of the sacrament of Holy Orders, he is allowed into the lives of parishioners in an intimate, nonsexual way.
“I’m seen as a spiritual father without mixed motives, and pure of heart,” Fr. Lowry said. “We are made for a life beyond this world, not just of this world. Priests and sisters are living out the mystery of heaven, and encourage those of us who struggle. You don’t have to have sex. We can offer our sexuality as a gift to God.”
As it stands, in the West, priests and bishops are celibate. In the East, priests but not bishops may marry, though they must marry before their priestly ordination.
Based on recent comments coming out of Rome, Fr. Doug Lorig, pastor of St. Maria Goretti in Scottsdale, said the pontificate of Pope Francis may open discussions on celibacy.
Fr. Lorig, ordained in 1984, was previously an Episcopal priest for seven years prior to joining the Roman Catholic Church. He has been married 41 years, has four children and 15 grandchildren.
“I see it in a wider picture. The daily life of a priest is keeping the commandments,” he said. “If priests want to seek ‘the more,’ they need the time to do it in their interior prayer life.” ✴
Gina Keating, a regular contributor to The Catholic Sun, leads children’s faith formation and sacramental preparation at St. Theresa Parish. “Our Faith” is a special Year of Faith feature that seeks to clarify often misunderstood Catholic teachings.