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Question: What are the theological (not practical) reasons for Catholic priests being celibate? In other words, is celibacy (or at least perpetual continence) essential to the Catholic priesthood?

Note that I am not seeking for practical reasons like "If priests were not celibate they would have a harder time keeping a secret known trough confessions," etc. I am seeking for theological reasons (if they exist) that make celibacy fitting from the very notion of priesthood or something like that.

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    Related, if not a duplicate: What is the basis for clerical celibacy?. Pavel writes down some theological reasons for this. – Ken Graham Oct 16 at 11:09
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    The other question is specifically asking for scriptural reasons (I edited the title to make that clear), could you edit the question to make it a question about apologetics or magesterial teaching or Sacred Tradition and not the Biblical basis? Otherwise, I think it's got too much overlap, but I do think the question is timely. – Peter Turner Oct 16 at 13:21
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Essence of priestly celibacy

Celibacy = unmarried, although in this context it can also mean perpetual continence, as priests can be married (and unmarried priests have never been permitted to marry).

Besides the practical reasons (which can apply to non-priests, too) of

  1. being freed from the solicitudes of married life, not being so tied to worldly matters, or having a heart divided between wife/husband/family and pastoral duties (1 Cor. 7:33-34*);

*"But he that is with a wife, is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife: and he is divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin thinketh on the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she that is married thinketh on the things of the world, how she may please her husband."

or

  1. the spiritual reasons of being able to attain a higher degree of charity/holiness/perfection (Trent sess. 24 can. 10; Mt. 19:29*; Apoc. 14:4) by following the evangelical counsels and not just the precepts;

*"And every one that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands for my name's sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall possess life everlasting."
†"These are they who were not defiled with women: for they are virgins. These follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth. These were purchased from among men, the firstfruits to God and to the Lamb"

ritual purity is probably the strongest argument for priestly celibacy because it pertains to the essence of the priesthood, which is to offer sacrifice (sacerdos = "giver of the sacred"; sacer = "sacred", dare = "to give").

Ritual purity

On ritual purity in the Old and New Testaments, see Priestly Celibacy: Theological Foundations by Fr. Gary Selin, pp. 139-144.

Ch. 3 goes over the threefold dimension of priestly celibacy: christological (conforming to Christ), ecclesiastical (under which he classes ritual purity), and eschatological (because celibacy points to the life to come, where "they shall neither marry nor be married", Mt. 22:30).

Separation/distinction honors the sacred.

Magisterial Teaching

Pope Pius XII, 1954 encyclical Sacra Virginitas §23:

  1. Consider again that sacred ministers do not renounce marriage solely on account of their apostolic ministry, but also by reason of their service at the altar. For, if even the priests of the Old Testament had to abstain from the use of marriage during the period of their service in the Temple, for fear of being declared impure by the Law just as other men,42 is it not much more fitting that the ministers of Jesus Christ, who offer every day the Eucharistic Sacrifice, possess perfect chastity? St. Peter Damian, exhorting priests to perfect continence, asks: "If Our Redeemer so loved the flower of unimpaired modesty that not only was He born from a virginal womb, but was also cared for by a virgin nurse even when He was still an infant crying in the cradle, by whom, I ask, does He wish His body to be handled now that He reigns, limitless, in heaven?"43


42. Cf. Lev. XV, 16-17 XXII, 4; I Sam. XXI, 5-7; cf. S. Siric. Papa, Ep. ad Himer. 7; PL LVI, 558-559.
43. S. Petrus Dam., De coelibatu sacerdotum, c. 3; PL CXLV, 384 [English transl.].

Old Testament

Ibid. ch. 3 §"Ritual Purity in the Judaic Law", pp. 139-141:

tahor (clean, pure) or tame (unclean, impure). […] Separation is the concrete, visible expression of the exalted holiness of God, and the ritual purity laws maintained this protective system of separation. […] To come into contact with blood was to come into contact with the divine and thus one contracted a ritual impurity, “a holy contamination,” rather than a moral impurity. […] In certain rabbinic texts, the liturgical objects themselves were understood to “pollute,” for example, the handling of a sacred scroll would soil the hands of the rabbi, and he was required to wash his hands after reading it. [fn. 103: "[…] Even today, the liturgical vessels used at Mass are said to be purified when elements of the sacred species are removed."]

New Testament

Ibid. ch. 3 §"Ritual Purity in the Patristic Tradition" p. 144 quotes Ambrosiaster's Questiones Veteris et Novi Testamenti, 127, in Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum 50, 415:

Compared to the stars, the light of a lamp is but fog; while compared to the sun, the stars are obscure; and compared to the radiance of God, the sun is but night. Thus are the things which, in relationship to us, are licit and pure, and are as if illicit and impure with respect to the dignity of God; indeed, no matter how good they are, they are not appropriate to the person of God.

This is the same reason for why women and other are sacred vessels are veiled in church.

Abstaining from conjugal relations

before sacrificing

So as not to confuse two different sacreds, similar reasons are given for abstaining from conjugal relations before offering sacrifice.

1 Samual 21:2-6:

And David said to Achimelech, the priest: The king hath commanded me a business, and said: Let no man know the thing for which thou art sent by me, and what manner of commands I have given thee: and I have appointed my servants to such and such a place. Now therefore if thou have any thing at hand, though it were but five loaves, give me, or whatsoever thou canst find. And the priest answered David, saying: I have no common bread at hand, but only holy bread [for sacrifice], if the young men be clean, especially from women? And David answered the priest, and said to him: Truly, as to what concerneth women, we have refrained ourselves from yesterday and the day before, when we came out, and the vessels of the young men were holy. Now this way is defiled, but it shall also be sanctified this day in the vessels. The priest therefore gave him hallowed bread: for there was no bread there, but only the loaves of proposition, which had been taken away from before the face of the Lord, that hot loaves might be set up.

This passage indicates two situations in which men and presumably their wives abstained from sexual relations during David's time. First, David's soldiers abstained in order to be consecrated at arms or prepared for battle. Second, the priests abstained when serving before the Lord in the Tabernacle and partaking of the holy shew-bread. On this exceptional instance in which non-priests partook of the holy bread, those non-priests could do so only upon affirming that they had abstained from sexual relations.

before receiving Holy Communion

Innocent XI's Cum ad aures (February 12, 1679) on frequent communion (DZ 1147):

In the case of married persons, however, let them seriously consider this, since the blessed Apostle does not wish them to "defraud one another, except perhaps by consent for a time, that they may give themselves to prayer" [cf. 1 Cor. 7:5], let them advise these seriously that they should give themselves more to continence, because of reverence for the most holy Eucharist, and that they should come together for communion in the heavenly banquet with a purer mind.

In coniugatis autem hoc amplius animadvertant, cum beatus Apostolus nolit eos ‘invicem fraudari, nisi forte ex consensu ad tempus, ut vacent orationi’ (cf. 1 cor 7, 5), eos serio admoneant, tanto magis ob sacratissimae Eucharistiae reverentiam continentiae vacandum purioreque mente ad caelestium epularum communionem esse conveniendum.

(Pope St. Pius X cited (but did not quote) this in his Sacra Tridentina on daily Communion.)

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    Oustanding answer; one of your best. – Sola Gratia Oct 19 at 16:45
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Is celibacy essential to the Catholic priesthood?

The short answer is no.

Celibacy is not essential to the priesthood. In fact the Prince of the Apostles, St. Peter was married and traditionally had at least one daughter, St. Petronilla. Her feast day is celebrated at the Vatican on May 31.

Priests of Catholic Eastern Rites and priests of the Eastern Orthodox Churches permit priests to be married. Bishops are universally taken from the ranks of the celibate clergy.

Anglican priests who convert and are married may become Catholic priests without putting their wives aside. They may, by indult, be ordained to the Catholic priesthood while still being married.

Although priestly celibacy is a discipline in within the Latin Rite, priestly celibacy is to be highly praised as a way of imitating the way Our Savior lived himself.

Furthermore, in over-stressing celibacy as a discipline, it soon becomes a "mere discipline", and a mere discipline is only one step removed from a dispensable discipline. Therefore, discussions which begin by always emphasizing the disciplinary nature of celibacy do so from a prejudiced starting point.

What, then, is a balanced way of approaching this subject? We mentioned above that every discipline exists for the purpose of bearing witness to, buttressing, or exemplifying some teaching of the Faith. Any discussion of the discipline of celibacy must be balanced by a reference to the more fundamental Catholic teaching the practice exists to safeguard.

And what teaching is that? The fact that many of us do not know shows how much we have lost sight of the purpose of this discipline. Too often, attempts to defend celibacy devolve down to three arguments - that it is not practical for a priest to have a family, and that Christ Himself was not married, and that there is a strong tradition of celibacy in the Latin rite. In Benedict XVI's 2007 post-synodal exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, Benedict links the discipline of celibacy to the fact of Christ's own virginity:

"The fact that Christ himself, the eternal priest, lived his mission even to the sacrifice of the Cross in the state of virginity constitutes the sure point of reference for understanding the meaning of the tradition of the Latin Church. It is not sufficient to understand priestly celibacy in purely functional terms. Celibacy is really a special way of conforming oneself to Christ's own way of life. This choice has first and foremost a nuptial meaning; it is a profound identification with the heart of Christ the Bridegroom who gives his life for his Bride. (Sacramentum Caritatis, 24).

Benedict's statement that Christ's own virginity must be the fundamental point of reference for understanding the tradition is true if we are looking at it from the standpoint of celibacy as an ascetical practice - a manner of living in imitatio christi that signifies the priest's nuptial union to the Church. However, this is not the rationale the early Church used when discussing the discipline; in fact, Benedict's assertion - that Christ's virginity is the point of reference for clerical celibacy - does not appear a single time in any patristic source. There is simply no Church Father or synod that argues that priests should be celibate because Christ was. - The Truth About Priestly Continence and Celibacy in the Early Church

For further information the following articles may be of interest:

Celibacy is not a dogma but only a disciplinary norm. Why does the Church still attach such great importance to it?

Priestly Celibacy: Apostolic Tradition, not a ‘Mere Discipline’

The Case for Clerical Celibacy: Its Historical Development and Theological Foundations

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