The Celibate Priesthood

Dear Grace,
When and why did celibacy become required of priests in the Catholic Church?

Many people want to know, “Why can’t a Catholic priest get married?” Sometimes people ask this because they might think that the life of a priest looks lonely and they are concerned for him. This kind of thinking, however, stems from a lack of understanding about the priesthood. Perhaps we are looking too much at the law and not seeing celibacy as a “gift.” We miss something when we do that. To abandon “everything” for Christ is truly a call from God. This in no way means that it will always be easy, but then no true vocation is always so.

Celibacy, which describes the state of being unmarried, has been an issue in the Church throughout her history, and there has been much misunderstanding, especially in recent times. The law requiring a celibate clergy developed over centuries. However, historical documents clearly show that not only is the ideal of celibacy found in the Gospels, but that it was practiced from the very beginning of the Church.

Though some of the apostles had wives, they never lived with them as husband and wife once they began to follow Christ and we see also that the wife of a priest was referred to as his “sister.” In a recent definitive study, Cardinal Alfons Stickler maintains that celibacy is a mandate from Christ Himself and the Church can only obey it, not change it. Even though the Eastern Orthodox Churches allow their priests to marry, their bishops must be celibate. This shows that celibacy has always been part of the Tradition.

Jesus pointed out to His followers that, “there is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life” (Luke 18: 28-30). One can almost imagine that the apostles began to see that in emphasizing the putting aside of all things to follow Him, Jesus was saying that celibacy was required for Gospel ministry. But, because He did not absolutely command it, it was up to the Church to eventually decide. This, of course, happened slowly.

We have evidence that from the beginning of the fourth century, the Church of the West strengthened, spread and confirmed this practice, which is shown in the documents of various provincial councils and through the supreme pontiffs. More than anyone else, the popes (teachers of the Church of God) promoted, defended, and restored ecclesiastical celibacy in successive eras of history. The obligation of celibacy was then solemnly sanctioned by the Sacred Ecumenical Council of Trent and finally included in the Code of Canon Law.

The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, states that the ultimate foundation for celibacy is the “mystery of Christ and His mission.” In the ordained priesthood, a man is called in a very particular way to imitate Christ and continue His mission. With time, the Church came to believe strongly that a celibate way of life is the best way for a man to fulfill this holy vocation. It is indeed a call from God Himself, and it is not meant for everyone. What many people sadly misunderstand is that celibacy is a gift and a man freely accepts it by his own choice when he answers his call to the ministry of Christ.

Pope Paul VI wrote so beautifully, “At times loneliness will weigh heavily on the priest, but he will not for that reason regret having generously chosen it. Christ, too, in the most tragic hours of His life was alone — abandoned by the very ones whom He had chosen and whom He had loved “to the end” — but He stated, ‘I am not alone, for the Father is with me.’” So, there is no need to feel sorry for a priest because he is celebate. He is completely devoted to his beloved, the love of his life — Jesus!

Grace MacKinnon is a syndicated columnist and public speaker on Catholic doctrine and teaches in the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas. Her new book Dear Grace: Answers to Questions About the Faith is available in our online store. If you enjoy reading Grace’s column, you will certainly want to have this book, which is a collection of the first two years of “Dear Grace.” Faith questions may be sent to Grace via e-mail at: You may also visit her online at

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