A Friendly Answer to the Celibacy Question

As a Catholic Christian, I am truly blessed to have the most anointed friendships. My personal universe is enriched by people of the Jewish faith, as well as various Protestants Evangelicals. These relationships encourage me to grow as a Christian in the most amazing ways. I cherish the Jewish roots of Christianity and feel immense kinship with my Jewish friends, all the more so during Passover as I recognize that Christ was the ultimate Pesach Lamb who gave His life and His blood for me. I embrace the ways that my Protestant and Evangelical friends have shown me how to "personalize" my relationship with Christ and have given me a tremendous love of the Word. The sacraments of my Catholic faith, most especially Confession (I'm giving away my age by using that term!) and Communion never cease to bring me humbly to the feet of Christ. In countless ways God has given me opportunities to see His hand in the world around me.

Recently one of these cherished friends asked me about the celibacy of the priesthood. This is, by far, one of the most questioned practices of the Catholic faith. And with the recent scandals as well as the priest "shortage," it is even questioned within the rank and file of the Catholic Church. We no longer live during a time where we blindly follow the dictates of our faith. We are a questioning generation that wants answers, or at least to be pacified to some extent with information that sits well in our minds and hearts. Is this a good thing? Maybe to some degree it is, and to some degree it isn't. Either way, it is where we are. I know as a parent I do not welcome my children questioning me on my decisions. I often respond with the pat retort, "Because I said so." Hey, it worked for my mom and it should work for me. But I could hardly answer my friend with that response about such a hot button issue. I decided to dig a bit and here are some things I found out.

 I guess it is best to start with the fact that Christ was Jewish. He lived and died a Jew and for that we need to have a sense of the Jewish life in which He was brought up. We know He would have celebrated all the holidays and that Mary, His Jewish mother, would have brought the beauty of everything from the Sabbath blessings to the Sukkot celebrations into His life. I have to believe that when God chose Mary, He did so with the full recognition of her love of her own Jewish faith. He would have desired that His Son be steeped in the traditions of the people of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.

If we have the idea that Jewish custom dictated that Christ be married and yet, as Christians, we know He was not, we are left wondering, especially in the face of best-selling books that so idealize romantic love between Christ and Mary Magdalene that it seems "heavenly." But are these secularized notions of Christ's love for Mary Magdalene the stuff of which we have been warned: a wolf in sheep's clothing? Are we being misled by own our inability to fathom how Jesus could have been single in the face of Jewish traditions that called Him to be married? After all, to Jews, marrying and begetting children, is "mitzvah." It is a "good deed" to which all Jewish men are called. Genesis 2:24 calls every man to leave his father and his mother and cling unto his wife. Would Christ have been different? And if Jesus is not our example of celibacy, then why do we practice it? Is it simply because we choose to inflict loneliness upon our shepherds? What value does celibacy have in our Catholic faith?

One clue may lay in the example of the Essenes whose community, contemporaneous with Jesus' earthly life, adhered so strictly to the teachings of the Torah that they were highly admired and respected by all. So much of the Essene community has been revealed through the Dead Sea Scrolls and by biblical scholars that there is a wealth of information available about them. It turns out that the Essenes, in the innermost physical area of their community, practiced celibacy. Why? It appears that these men, more than familiar with the Torah, were anxious to put between themselves and their God no possible hindrances to their serving Adonai. They also relied heavily on priestly strictures that directed Jewish men to remain celibate in the holiest of locations. During the time of the Essenes, this would have been Jerusalem and especially the Temple itself. During the time of Exodus, and the acceptance of the Mosaic Law, this would have been Mount Sinai. The Mosaic Law prohibited anyone who was ceremonially unclean from being in close proximity to those places the Lord considers "holy." And the Law explicitly said that sexual relations made a man ceremonially unclean (see Exodus 19: 22, Leviticus 15:16-18).

So we can't make a blanket statement that Jewish tradition called for Jesus to marry as though there was no strain of Jewish thinking that would have enjoined celibacy on Him knowing that He Himself was the Holy Sacrifice being offered for one and all. Would He have jeopardized our salvation for a relationship with Mary Magdalene? Unthinkable.

And this is where I offer tremendous gratitude to my Protestant and Evangelical friends. I am able to look past the secularized notions that Christ's love for Mary Magdalene would have been physical. It isn't just a Church dogma to denounce such a notion. There is something about this that we can live. My friends have shown me that my relationship with Christ must be on the same personal level exemplified by Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene is that beautiful Gospel example of what it means to have a personal, loving relationship with Christ. She loved Him, she accepted His forgiveness, and she supported His ministry. For her faith, Jesus revealed Himself to Mary Magdalene upon His resurrection. He knew He could count on her belief in Him and His ministry.

So why do priests remain celibate? To mirror Christ's example of adherence of celibacy of those who are in the closest proximity to the places that the Lord has called his own. For Christ, that was His very life itself. For us, it is the altar which allows us, day after day, week after week, to transcend time and space and participate in the Paschal mystery of Jesus giving Himself — Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity — for our salvation.

Cheryl Dickow


Cheryl Dickow is a Catholic wife, mother, author and speaker. Cheryl’s newest book is Wrapped Up: God’s Ten Gifts for Womenwhich is co-authored with Teresa Tomeo and is published by Servant (a division of Franciscan Media); there is also a companion journal that accompanies the book and an audio version intended for women’s studies or for individual reflection. Cheryl’s titles also include the woman’s inspirational fiction book Elizabeth: A Holy Land Pilgrimage. Elizabeth is available in paperback or Kindle format. Her company is Bezalel Books where her goal is to publish great Catholic books for families and classrooms that entertain while uplifting the Catholic faith and is located at www.BezalelBooks.com. To invite Cheryl to speak at your event, write her at Cheryl@BezalelBooks.com.

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  • Guest

    Yet another Scriptural foundation for clerical celibacy can be found in the New Testament.  See Mt 19:11-12.  This is a good place to point your Evangelical friends.


    God bless you,


    Fr. John Lankeit

    Diocese of Phoenix 

  • Guest

    I think that the Mrs Dickow does a very nice job defending the celibacy of our Lord, and by extension the Church's discipline. But we have to be careful to never buy into the presumption underlying many of these attacks (I am NOT saying that Mrs Dickow is guilty of this). That presumption is to reduce our Lord to someone who is merely a product of His times. First, as regards His sacred humanity, great people, especially prophets, set trends, they do not follow them. Second, though He was truly man, He was also truly God, therefore it is doubly wrong to limit Him to what was common in the culture He operated in. As Fr Groeschel has pointed out, we simply have no clue about the psychology of our Lord, given He was truly "one of a kind," true God and true man united in the Divine Person of the Word of God. This is offered only as something for us all to keep in mind as we defend the faith of the Apostles!

    Fr John Grimm

    Diocese of Wilmington

  • Guest

    These two pastors have given us remarkably valuable insights, and I thank them profoundly.  I'd like to offer an insight from a lay point of view.

    During my "Protestant phase", I was very close friends with our pastor and his family….close enough to witness, more than once, the conflict between being a husband/father and a pastor.  True, there are "adjustments" that can be made to a schedule, but emergencies happen.  Should he opt for his family or for his church members?  It was a dilemna, and I always felt sorry for him AND for his family.  It was the greatest practical lesson in celibacy I could have received.

    From this lesson, if for no other reason, I support priestly celibacy as a GIFT given and freely received.

  • Guest

    Here's another viewpoint (and I like all of the previous ones) — the sacrament of Matrimony mirrors God's Intimate love for each of us, we are to be the bride of Christ. The sacrament of Orders mirrors God's Universal love for all humanity. God can be both intimate and universal, but we humans have a bit of a problem with this. (for example, Cooky's pastor having to choose between family and flock.)