Celibacy in the Church and the Priesthood

All of the official documentation of the Church agrees that virginity or celibacy, whether embraced as one of the evangelical counsels vowed by consecrated religious, or as part and parcel of the vocation to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic communion, carries a special “sign” value. Virginity or celibacy is not undertaken as a philosophical asceticism, such as that of Plotinus, who, as his biographer notes, “was ashamed to be seen in the body,” or as a natural simplification of life so that it can be free of entanglements that stand in the way of personal or professional fulfillment, but rather for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven (Matt 19:12, LG §42), and thus “to devote [oneself] to God alone more easily with an undivided heart” (with reference to 1 Co. 32–24), as a “sign and stimulus of love, and as a singular source of spiritual fertility in the world” (LG ibid.).[1]

What “love” is this? Lumen Gentium makes it clear. Opening the chapter on the universal call to holiness, the same one in which the comments on celibacy just cited are found, the document states:

The Church, whose mystery is set forth by this sacred synod, is held, as a matter of faith, to be unfailingly holy. This is because Christ, the Son of God, who with the Father and the Spirit is hailed as “alone holy,” loved the Church as his Bride, giving himself up for her so as to sanctify her (see Eph 5:25–26) (LG §39).

Thus, celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom is a “sign” of the love by which Christ loved and still loves the Church, and this love “is expressed in many ways by the individuals who, each in their own state of life, tend to the perfection of charity . . . and . . . it appears in a way especially suited to it in the practice of those counsels which are usually called evangelical” (LG §39). Why “in a special way?” After all, in the very same chapter (on the universal call to holiness, Chapter V), Lumen Gentium observes that “Christian married couples and parents . . . present to all an example of unfailing and generous love, they build up the community of charity and stand as witnesses to and cooperators in the fruitfulness of mother church, as a sign of and a share in that love with which Christ loved his Bride and gave Himself for her” (LG §41).

The phrase, “in a special way,” is actually explained in the next chapter of Lumen Gentium, on “Religious” (Chapter VI): “The bonds by which [those who embrace the evangelical counsels] dedicate themselves show forth the indissoluble bond of union that exists between Christ and His Bride, the Church” in a way suitable for bearing witness that “the people of God has here no lasting city but looks to that which is to come” (LG §44, Heb 13:14). For, as already stated in the close of the previous chapter, transitioning to this one, the form of this world is passing away, and all Christians, according to 1 Cor 7:31, not just religious, are to use this world as though they were not using it (LG §42, citing 1 Cor 7:31).

What this means specifically for celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven is brought out more fully in the Decree on Religious Life, Perfectae Caritatis. By their vowed celibacy, religious “recall that wonderful marriage made by God which will be made fully manifest in the age to come, and in which the Church has Christ alone for her Spouse” (PC §12). This is also echoed in the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, Presbyterorum Ordinis, where it is noted that celibate priests “recall that mystical marriage, established by God and destined to be fully revealed in the future, by which the Church holds Christ as her only Spouse” (PO §16). The text goes on to say, continuing in this eschatological vein, that, “moreover, they are made a living sign of that world to come, already present through faith and charity, a world in which the children of the resurrection shall neither marry nor be given in marriage” (Luke 20:35–36). The children of the resurrection shall neither marry nor be given in marriage not because marriage, as a tainted or bad reality, will be thankfully a thing of the past, but because that of which all marriages, together with evangelical celibacy, are in some way a sign, will be fulfilled, or not to use loaded language, consummated, in the wedding feast of the Lamb, to which the passages from PC and PO just cited both allude, ultimately referring to Rev 19:7–9 and Rev 21:9.

Going back to LG §44, which says that the eschatological orientation of the evangelical counsels “transcends . . . all earthly things,” we note that this is not to be taken in a way that is superficially other-worldly or against the world. The love that is at the heart of the mystery of the Church, after all, is that with which God has loved the world (LG §41, John 3:16). To realize that the form of this world is passing away is not to realize that the world, as God’s creation, is passing away, but that the distortions and hurts to God’s creation introduced by sin are passing away, while the world as God’s creation is being perfected and his intentions in creating vindicated and made fully manifest. We have no lasting city in the form of the world as it is passing away, and that is why “the people of God looks to that which is to come,” not because the world itself is passing away or is evil. And so we get this very striking consequence: “This being so, the religious state, which gives its followers greater freedom from earthly cares, also reveals with greater clarity to all believers the heavenly blessings that are already present in this world” (LG §44, my emphasis).

This must include marriage too, as something “present in this world.” As a witness to the consummation of creation itself, described no less than in terms of a “marriage” and of a “wedding feast,” the charism of vowed celibacy allows the goodness of the world “already present,” including, and I would say especially, that of marriage, to show through with greater clarity. Hence the “objective superiority” (John Paul II, Vita Consecrata §32)[2] or the “greater excellence” (PO §10) of the state of vowed virginity or celibacy over that of marriage.

It is a paradox that this state is “objectively superior” precisely because it points to, and not away from, the goodness of marriage, and thus its real and intrinsic beauty. And since marriage, as John Paul II was fond of saying, is the primordial, or original, “sacrament of creation” (for example, in his General Audience of October 6, 1982),[3] the sign of vowed celibacy points, through marriage, to the real and intrinsic beauty of the whole created world of which marriage is the original, primordial sacrament.

Now, that seems to have gone by very fast. I would like to try to treat the same topic, only a little more systematically, from the point of view of the mystery of the Church that we began with in the quote above from LG §39, the Church as the Bride of Christ, for the spousal language associated both with the sacrament of marriage and with the gift of vowed celibacy all goes back to this image. Perhaps, often, and especially nowadays, this very image of the Church is not understood as deeply as it could be, and so we are left with a correct theology but fragmented picture in the end, or merely a backdrop to experience rather than a vocabulary for the actual experience of vowed celibacy. What, then, does it mean to say that the Church is the Bride of Christ?

We read in the Catechism: “St. Paul calls the nuptial union of Christ and the Church ‘a great mystery’ (Eph 5:32). Because she is united to Christ as to her bridegroom, she becomes a mystery in her turn” (CCC §772). Thus, to refer to the Church as “Bride” is to refer, under this designation, precisely to the Church as mystery, and therefore the celibate vocation is a special testimony, in the first place, to the mystery of the Church and all it entails. It is an invitation to contemplate a mystery to anyone who will stop to consider it, including the celibate person him or herself.

We see, too, from this text that the Church is a derived mystery, wholly derivative of the mystery of Christ. One could say that the Church’s mystery is a reflected mystery, a reflection of the mystery of the Person of Christ Himself, like the moon reflecting the sun (to recall an ancient patristic analogy). In particular, the mystery of the Church is the mystery of the origin of the Church in the love of Christ. Reading another section of the CCC: “The Church is born primarily of Christ’s total self-giving for our salvation, anticipated in the institution of the Eucharist and fulfilled on the Cross” (§766). Citing Lumen Gentium, the passage continues, “‘The origin and growth of the Church are symbolized by the blood and water which flowed from the open side of the crucified Jesus’” (LG §3). Next there is a citation from Sacrosanctum Concilium: “‘For it was from the side of Christ as he slept the sleep of death upon the cross that there came forth the wondrous sacrament of the whole Church’” (SC §5). This magnificent passage from the CCC ends with an allusion to St. Ambrose’s Commentary on Luke: “As Eve was formed from the sleeping Adam’s side, so the Church was born from the pierced heart of Christ hanging dead on the cross” (CCC §766). In other words, the image of the Church coming forth from the pierced side of Christ dead on the Cross as Eve came forth from the sleeping Adam’s side, that is, the image of the Church as the Spouse of Christ, is the image of the Church formed wholly by the self-giving sacrifice of Christ, i.e., by Christ’s love.

Therefore, what binds the Church together into a society is nothing that the members of the Church bring or contribute—for then the Church would be a work of ours, an achievement of our status, fame, nationality, race, gender, excellence or virtue—instead of a gift, pure and simple, of communion, a communion not in any of these things, but in Christ’s love. The Church is a mystery because it is a visible communion of people where the bonds of communion are completely given in and by the blood—the self-giving sacrifice, the love—of Christ. In a sermon, St. Augustine comments by noting that no earthly bridegroom could gift such a gift to his bride, for there would then be no wedding (see Tractate 8 on the Gospel of John §4). The point is that the mystery of the Church is fully and completely a mystery of Christ’s love without remainder. This is why in CCC §1396 we also learn that “the Eucharist makes the Church.” Christ makes the Church mysteriously, that is, through his sacraments, his mysteries. We do not make the Church, but we receive communio in the Church as a gift. We have a new way, as human beings, of saying “we,” one that we did not and cannot give ourselves.

What “falls” in original sin is not so much two individual human beings but rather the bond between them: human solidarity itself. Hence, the redemption from original sin is a redemption of that solidarity, replacing the solidarity in lawlessness that Adam had created with the solidarity in Christ’s love. Before anyone is redeemed individually, it is human solidarity or communion itself that is redeemed in Christ (see the opening of LG §9), and that is the meaning of all of the major images of the Church. The “people of God” is the people “purchased with [Christ’s] own blood” (LG §9). Christ’s blood is what made those who “in times past were not a people a people . . . the people of God” (LG §9, citing 1 Pet 2:10). The image of the Body of Christ is one of an intimate union where we are members of each other precisely insofar as we are members of Christ. Incorporation into this new solidarity in the flesh of Christ is through Baptism, and it is perfected in the Eucharist. We are one flesh with Christ, and yet even as one flesh, we are not collapsed into each other or into Jesus, the Head, and that is brought out by the image of the Bride, since the Bride remains her own person. Note that all of these are physical images. That is because the mystery of the Church is precisely that it is a physical, historical reality, a visible society, the constitutive bonds of which are nevertheless not of its own physical generation or historical achievement but come from Christ’s love. Thus, to go back to the words of the CCC, “The Church is in history, but at the same time she transcends it” (§770).

“For this reason,” continuing here with Lumen Gentium §8, “the Church is compared, in no mean analogy, to the mystery of the incarnate Word.” But this is important, for it means that, like the Incarnate Word Himself, the Church’s transcendence of the world and history is not against the world but for it. “For,” it indeed says in the Gospel of John, “God so loved the world that He gave His Only-Begotten Son” (John 3:16). The CCC recalls the Shepherd of Hermas and other first and second century texts that declared, “‘The world was created for the sake of the Church’” (CCC §760, citing Shepherd 2.4.1). This sounds a little triumphalist to twenty-first century ears, until we realize that its only possible meaning is what would seem to be its opposite, namely, that the Church was created for the sake of the world. If the Church is the renewal of human solidarity in the love of Christ then, as perfected, she is the “goal of all things” (CCC §760, citing Epiphanius), and, as present now in time and history, she is the “sacrament” of that goal, the sign and instrument of that goal: “The Church’s first purpose is to be the sacrament of the inner union of human beings with God. Because human communion with one another is rooted in that union with God, the Church is also the sacrament of the unity of the human race, . . . the ‘sign and instrument’ of the full realization of the unity yet to come” (CCC §775, invoking and interpreting LG §1). But that is nothing less than the goal of all creation, if the early Fathers were right to say, and I believe they were, that the “world was created for the sake of the Church.”

The Church as Bride, then, as she exists on earth in time and history, is the new sacrament of all creation, of all creation precisely as beloved by God, created in his love and destined to find its fulfillment in his love. The Church as Bride, as a visible communion in the world effected by a love that comes not from the world but from the Creator, is the efficacious sign, the witness, that creation is beloved of God and, above and beyond any human power to deny, obscure, or block the dignity of creation as God’s beloved. Thus, in turn, Gaudium et Spes can say, “Every benefit the people of God can confer on humanity during its earthly pilgrimage is rooted in the Church’s being ‘the universal sacrament of salvation,’ at once manifesting and actualizing the mystery of God’s love for humanity” (GS §45) and for the creation of which humanity is a part.

Where are we with regard to our topic, which we seem at this point to have lost somewhere by the side of the road? But we only seem to have lost it. My intention is to show the utterly ecclesial location of the charism of celibacy, and what that helps us see about its meaning. If virginity and celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom have a sign value that in some sense transcends this world and looks forward to the next, because it “recalls that wonderful marriage made by God which will be made fully manifest in the age to come, and in which the Church has Christ alone for her Spouse” (PC §12), and because it “recalls that mystical marriage, established by God and destined to be fully revealed in the future, by which the Church holds Christ as her only Spouse” (PO §16), this sign value cannot therefore be incongruent with the sign value of the Church herself as Spouse. As Bride, the Church is a visible society in the world constituted by a love that transcends the world for the sake of the world. Although marriage is an efficacious sign of Christ’s spousal love for the Bride-Church, it is the celibate witness that is the objectively superior sign of this same love because, in its renunciation of something as beautiful as marriage, it most profoundly bears witness to something that must be even more beautiful, namely, the final consummation in God’s eschatological purposes of the very reality that marriage signifies. In this, then, the celibate witness most closely mirrors the sign value of the Bride-Church herself, a love that transcends the world for the sake of the world.

Too often, I think, the spousal language that is the very vocabulary for working out the theology of the charism of consecrated virginity and celibacy in the Church is alienated from itself, as though it were not a language of intimacy, but really a language of distance from the world and all that is worldly—at best a language of an individual bridal mysticism that is a kind of a consolation prize, a compensation for having left the world, with all of its attractions, behind. But, in fact, this spousal love, the love of Christ for the Church that constitutes the Church, is a love on behalf of the world. It thus participates in what Gaudium et Spes describes as the vindication of human dignity (e.g., GS §40) and with it the dignity of all of creation apart from everything that disfigures and degrades creation, beloved of God from its inception in his love.

Celibacy for the kingdom is a charism of deep affection for the world, for all of its beauty, its sublimity, its fragility, its vulnerability, its “joys and hopes” and its “grief and anguish” too (in the opening words of Gaudium et Spes, from which it takes its title, GS §1). It can and certainly should give rise to a mysticism, but it is the mysticism of which Origen speaks in his Commentary on the Song of Songs; that is, one that is at once ecclesial and individual, one that is at once the love of the Bride-Church, rejoicing that “God so loved the world that he sent his Only-Begotten Son” and that her presence in the world is proof and witness of that love, in the person of the ecclesial soul, in our case, the vowed celibate, whose mysticism is a deepening of that ecclesial love and joy in the depth at which God so loved the world. It is the intimate mysticism of a heart that has grown large enough to fit, with love and bursting with affection, the whole world into it, because it is the virginal heart of Christ who gave everything, not for a distant and abstract kingdom that will coldly look back on this world as an empty, discarded husk in its eventual reign, but in this world, the only one there is, which will be taken up and transfigured into the love which is now present, efficaciously, as a seed growing secretly, in the Bride-Church.

Thus, as we have already hinted, the witness of the celibate redounds back, in a kind of ricochet effect, on marriage itself, the original sacrament of creation, because it is an image of the self-giving love of the Creator God. Far from dishonoring marriage or demeaning it, it opens its heart to the beauty of marriage and lifts its beauty by pointing to the consummation of that love of which marriage is not simply a sign but an efficacious sign, a participating-in and making-present kind of sign. In my view, it is a caricature of the true theology of virginity and celibacy to say that they are a reminder that marriage is only a sign of something to come, that it is only something worldly that is passing away, when in fact, like the Eucharist itself, it is at once part of the economy of signs that passes away, and yet a participation in the love that is an enduring reality that will transfigure and is transfiguring everything that came forth from the Creator’s hand. This “only a sign” kind of theology only serves, on some level, to alienate the married from the celibate and vice versa.

But the true theology, as I see it, unites them very intimately. It is not an accident that the Protestant churches have lost both the witness of consecrated virginity and celibacy and the understanding of marriage as a sacrament of God’s spousal love in Christ. The loss of the celibate charisms is the loss of, could we say, a depth dimension that does not work against marriage but deepens it, showing that marriage points to and participates in an intimacy even deeper than itself by embracing that very intimacy. Without this gift of celibate witness, this depth dimension, marriage itself remains on the surface, without a clear reference beyond itself, and the pleasure of sex, which properly speaking is not reductively physical but the pleasure of being married, of the unique intimacy of permanent partnership, fizzes out at the surface of what becomes the hermetically sealed, self-enclosed self-referentiality of the couple, locked in to something too small to accommodate its true meaning.

And yet the benefit goes the other way, too. For the virginal or celibate life finally has no way of giving an adequate account of itself without the use of spousal language. Without it, the renunciation of sex can only be accounted for as a philosophical or natural endeavor. The spousal language situates the consecrated virginal or celibate life within the economy of self-gift and grace rather than within the Pelagian economy of works righteousness. “The entire Christian life,” the CCC reminds us, “bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church. Already Baptism, the entry into the people of God, is a nuptial mystery; it is so to speak the nuptial bath which precedes the wedding feast, the Eucharist. Christian marriage in its turn becomes an efficacious sign, the sacrament of the covenant of Christ and the Church” (CCC §1617).  Another way of looking at this: without marriage precisely as a sacrament in the physical order as are all the sacraments, the eschatological witness of the celibate would ironically lose precisely its eschatological character, which consists in a witness about the purposes of God being accomplished bodily in history towards the fulfillment of history including the bodily. Instead, celibacy would have only a symbolic character, symbolic of a spiritual, inner marriage to wisdom, which leaves the physical world behind as mere appearance or meaningless flux, or worse, as illusion, error, or evil, as in gnostic literature such as The Gospel of Truth.

As John Paul II says, with regard to Ephesians 5:31–32:

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will cling to his wife, and the two shall become one body (Eph 5:31, Gen 2:24). Then he immediately states: This is a great mystery: I mean that it refers to Christ and the Church (Eph 5.32) He seems to indicate not only the identity of the mystery hidden in God from all eternity, but also that continuity of its actuation. This exists between the primordial sacrament connected with the supernatural gracing of man in creation itself and the new gracing, which occurred when Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her to make her holy (Eph 5:25–26)” (General Audience of October 13, 1982).

Again, “in this way, the sacrament of redemption again takes on, in a certain sense, the figure and form of the primordial sacrament” (ibid.). It is as though on the Cross, and anticipating the Cross in the institution of the Eucharist, the love of God for creation is definitively and once for all revealed not only as Agape but as Eros, which, as Benedict XVI has reminded us (see Deus Caritas Est §10), thus perfectly coincide in Christ. Christ, naked and dead on the Cross, is the virginal Bridegroom whose love has brought him to this extremity of love. Having become one of us in the Incarnation and mixed himself up with us sinners in his Baptism though having no sin, he did not back away from this solidarity even when it meant his death. This love thus creates a new solidarity defined solely in him, the solidarity of the Spouse, the Bride, the Church. Christ the Bridegroom thus enacts and reveals the true depth of meaning with which marriage, as the primordial sacrament of creative, self-giving love, was invested. He thus elevated it into a sacrament of the New Covenant, at the same time revealing a vocation that relativizes marriage, that of the imitation of his virginal spousal love.

Thus a paradox: as marriage is relativized, it is uplifted; as it is uplifted, it is relativized. But this also means that the virginal or celibate vocation loses its proper, Christian meaning if it is dissociated from marriage and from the vocabulary of spousal love. The point of calling, as the documents repeatedly do, the charism of celibacy a gift (see, e.g., the last sentence of PO §16) is that it derives from, and mirrors, Christ’s own gift of love on the Cross, a gift, the depth of which can only be captured in spousal language. The witness of celibacy in turn shows that the charism of sacramental marriage is also a gift because the whole spousal economy of creation and redemption is gift—pure gift.

What this means, in the end, is that the fullest eschatological sign of the kingdom of God is neither individual vocation, but the Church herself, specifically as a communio among the married and the celibate. Within this communio the celibate for the Kingdom of God, have, as it were, the lead role in signifying the virginal spousal love of Christ that created the bonds of solidarity that make the Church. But precisely in so doing, they do not transcend the Church but at once clarify and participate in its sign value as the sacrament of the perfection and healing of creation as God’s beloved, and in bearing witness that it is this charity, that binds the whole Body of the Church into one, that is perfection, and not either marriage or the renunciation of marriage in itself.[4] In a sense, what the celibate witness points us towards is not the eschatological fulfillment of marriage directly, but towards the communio of the Church as itself the fullest sign of that fulfillment, as indeed the presence of that fulfillment in a mystery, in a “sacrament,” right here and right now. For if celibacy is a sign that we are living in a world whose form is passing away, it is also and thereby a sign of what will not be passing away, the love that forms the communio of the Church and thus points us back to that very communio as something inestimably precious, something to be grateful for every day and to seek to ponder the meaning of ever more deeply, an intimacy which, like all intimacy in this fallen world, is difficult and beset with temptations to pride, to status-seeking, and to envy.

And yet that is the glory of the mystery of the Church: it exists in the midst of the fallenness of this world, it does not require an unfallen world to take root, it has no contempt for fallenness which can never make void the Cross but is rather progressively and tenderly healed by it. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and our hands have handled” (1 John 1:1, KJV) is, miraculously, still here, still able to be heard, to be seen with our eyes, to be looked upon, and to be touched with our hands, the Word of Life, whose incarnation continues in the Church, self-emptied in utter solidarity with sinful flesh, without the slightest trace of contempt but only love.

The love of the celibate Christian touches this flesh with the tenderness of the virginal love of Christ, who, by taking on “the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom 8:3), united Himself with this very flesh, and not an unfallen version of it. Such is the intimacy of the celibate vocation. It is part of the mystery of drawing near, rather than being revolted by, this fallen flesh that Christ has made his own. Looking upon that, the married Christian can experience the one flesh union proper to marriage as, wonderful to tell, a participation in the virginal love of Christ, the progressive, difficult, and slow recovery of an original innocence that had seemed completely beyond reach. Together this communio of vocations forms the pilgrim people who have no lasting city here, “endowed with a sanctity that is true though imperfect” (LG §48), journeying towards a perfection where, on the one hand, “they do not marry nor are they given in marriage,” and, on the other, where the fruits of bodily union, all of the bodies of the elect, are glorified. According to St. Augustine (see City of God 22.17), they are glorified, in fact, precisely in their gendered state as a permanent memorial of the spousal love of Christ for the Church, creation redeemed and not rejected.

Finally, although celibacy is not a necessary concomitant of Holy Orders, as there do exist married priests, the discipline of the Latin Church teaches that celibacy is particularly apt and suited for the ordained priest. This is intelligible in the light of the spousal imagery we have been developing for the Church and states of life that are ecclesial. John Paul II lays this out beautifully in Pastores Dabo Vobis. In the first place, he emphasizes that Church and ministerial priesthood come into existence together; one is not prior or posterior to the other: “The ordained ministry arises with the Church . . . . Consequently, the ordained priesthood ought not to be thought of as existing prior to the Church, because it is totally at the service of the Church. Nor should it be considered as posterior to the ecclesial community, as if the Church could be imagined as already established without this priesthood (PDV §16).[5]

This reflects the fact that Christ’s high priestly love heads up the Church and so brings her into existence, as we see in the image from John 19. Elaborating on that image, we read:

Christ’s gift of himself to his Church, the fruit of his love, is described in terms of that unique gift of self made by the bridegroom to the bride, as the sacred texts often suggest. Jesus is the true bridegroom who offers to the Church the wine of salvation (cf. John 2:11). He who is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its savior (Eph 5:23) loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish (Eph 5:25–27). The Church is indeed the body in which Christ the head is present and active, but she is also the bride who proceeds like a new Eve from the open side of the redeemer on the cross (PDV §22).

The ordained priest, in his person as ordained, is the sacramental representation of this spousal love:

The priest is called to be the living image of Jesus Christ, the spouse of the Church. Of course, he will always remain a member of the community as a believer alongside his other brothers and sisters who have been called by the Spirit, but in virtue of his configuration to Christ, the head and shepherd, the priest stands in this spousal relationship with regard to the community (PDV §22).

The theological motivation of the Church’s law on celibacy proceeds, then, directly from the spousal ecclesiology we have been developing here. As John Paul II goes on to comment:

It is especially important that the priest understand the theological motivation of the Church’s law on celibacy. Inasmuch as it is a law, it expresses the Church’s will, even before the will of the subject expressed by his readiness. But the will of the Church finds its ultimate motivation in the link between celibacy and sacred ordination, which configures the priest to Jesus Christ the head and spouse of the Church. The Church, as the spouse of Jesus Christ, wishes to be loved by the priest in the total and exclusive manner in which Jesus Christ her head and spouse loved her. Priestly celibacy, then, is the gift of self in and with Christ to his Church and expresses the priest’s service to the Church in and with the Lord (PDV §29).

To conclude, as Pope Benedict reminded us in Sacramentum Caritatis, the Lord wished, in the Eucharist, to remain our “companion” on our pilgrim way (see SC §2).[6] Pope Francis calls this the art of accompaniment. Those who maintain a celibate witness in the Church, especially diocesan priests, cultivate the art of Eucharistic and spousal accompaniment by cultivating the dimension of depth in the Church, creating in their hearts by their oblation a space of love for me and for everyone in the Church. John Paul II says in Vita Consecrata §59 that this “space in the heart” is a Eucharistic space, and so the mark of a “spousal” existence, which, in its single-hearted devotion to Christ, is a devotion to all whom Christ loves. This is the “sacramental ‘mysticism’” to which Benedict XVI refers in Deus Caritas Est (§14).[7]

For my part, I feel profoundly and deeply accompanied by the celibate witness of the priests I have known and that their sacrifice has made my life as a married man richer and more full of possibility. I also found myself thinking that perhaps the married offer a gift of accompaniment back, insofar as through fidelity and family life there is a witness to a love which is, in its own way, just as “hidden” from the prestige and glory of the world, for it is true of all Christians that “we have died, and our life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3, slightly adjusted). Perhaps the whole communio of the Church is an art of mutual accompaniment in Christ, and therefore, mutual gratitude in Christ, mutual edification in Christ, and mutual love in Christ. What better sign of the Kingdom could there be? “See how they love one another.”

[1] All translations of the documents of Vatican II are taken from Vatican Council II: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations, General Editor Austin Flannery, O.P. (Dublin: Dominican Publications, 1996). I have felt free to adjust the translations on occasion.

[2] Text taken from the official English translation as found here.

[3] Text taken from John Paul II, The Theology of the Body, With a Foreword by John S. Grabowski, Ph.D. (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1977)

[4] As John Paul II brings out in his general audience on April 14, 1982: “Such perfection is possible and accessible to every person, both in a religious institute and in the ‘world.’” The General Audiences from April 7, 1982 to May 5, 1982 are especially beautiful in pointing out the complementarity of marriage and celibacy.

[5] Official English translation as found here.

[6] Official English translation as found here.

[7] Text taken from official English translation as found here.

Featured Image: Hans Pleydenwurff The Presentation Of Christ In The Temple (Mary and Joseph), 1462; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


John Cavadini

John Cavadini is the McGrath-Cavadini Director of the Institute for Church Life and a professor in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame. He was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to a five-year term on the International Theological Commission in 2009. He is the recipient of the Monika Hellwig Award for Outstanding Contributions to Catholic Intellectual Life and is the author of Visioning Augustine.

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