Celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom
The Gift of Celibacy
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a scholar of the law tested him by asking, "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments."
The Gift of Celibacy
We all like receiving gifts. I remember growing up, we had some strict rules about Christmas. Santa did not wrap the gifts. But if we went into the living room before 7 AM, Santa was going to take the gifts back. This managed to keep us in check most of the time. Although I do remember one Christmas morning when my brother dragged me out of bed at about 5:45 and we began playing on the brand new foosball table that Santa had brought. My father appeared briefly and managed to deliver a threat that inspired us to return to bed quickly.
In the Gospel, Jesus speaks about the greatest commandments in Matthew 22:34-40. The scholars of the Law were amazed that Jesus had been able to summarize the Law so succinctly. And I think of all of the gifts that God has given me, one that sums up these two laws is the gift of celibacy. Just a little while ago, I saw a quick video of a bishop sharing his encounter with a young woman experiencing same-sex attraction. She asked the bishop if it were possible to have a fulfilling life without engaging in a sexual relationship. The bishop made a gesture towards himself, indicating that he was an example that this was indeed possible. But then he posed a question that has reached to my core, “when is the last time that you have heard a homily that speaks about the gift of celibacy?” When I saw the Gospel of the greatest commandments, I thought, “this is my chance.”
The wonderfully mediatic Bishop Fulton Sheen commented that much of the crisis of the priesthood stems from the effort to “divorce the priesthood from the victimhood of Christ.” He explores this in his book Those Mysterious Priests. Celibacy is a gift of God, given not so that people may love less, but that they may love more.
Celibacy is a call to live out the greatest commandments. We live in a world that doubts the presence of God. God seems to be made up, a religious fantasy. But commitment to celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom is a rousing call to the reality of everlasting life. It takes guts to make a commitment to something that seems so counter-cultural.
The observation, “when they rise from the dead they neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Mk. 12:25), indicates that there is a condition of life without marriage. In that condition, man, male and female, finds at the same time the fullness of personal donation and of the intersubjective communion of persons, thanks to the glorification of his entire psychosomatic being in the eternal union with God. (Pope John Paul II, 10 March 1982)
Celibacy implies an offering of the person to God. With the fall of the Temple of Jerusalem, there are no longer animal sacrifices as a part of the Jewish religion. But sacrifice is an essential part of religion. This is done now spiritually through the celibate holocaust of priests, and also of other religious and laypeople who commit themselves to this charism for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
Many point to the practical significance of celibacy, noting the freedom and availability for work for the Kingdom that is afforded by celibacy. (cf. Thurian) A celibate requires less material sustenance than a man or woman supporting a family.
There is an inner significance of celibacy, allowing the person to dedicate him- or herself more exclusively to the Lord. Paul points out that the married woman is always worried about her household, while the unmarried woman has more opportunity to “be holy in body and spirit.” (1Cor. 8:32-34)
I would suggest that there is especially now a moral significance of celibacy. In a world in which an unbridled use of sexuality is almost expected, the testimony of celibacy reminds people that our passions can be submitted to our reason.
Finally, there is an eschatological significance of celibacy. Celibacy is a sign that we truly believe in the resurrection and life after death. If life is only in this world, it makes the most sense to seek after some sort of perpetuity through natural generation. Foregoing this possibility gives testimony to the faith of the celibate that his or her sacrifice will be rewarded in the life to come.
Celibacy is a wonderful summary of the summary of the Law. Jesus says to love God above all else and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Celibacy is an effort to do both.
Max Thurian, “The theological basis for priestly celibacy”, https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cclergy/documents/rc_con_cclergy_doc_01011993_theol_en.html
Pope Pius XII, Sacra Virginitas
de la Potterie, I. “The biblical foundations of priestly celibacy” https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cclergy/documents/rc_con_cclergy_doc_01011993_bfoun_en.html