A priest leads the celebration of Easter Mass in the southern Philippines. (Photo by Joe Torres/ucanews.com)
There has been a clamor among some priests to abolish mandatory celibacy and make it optional. For them, celibacy is a burden that is very difficult to live with. They contend that if it was made optional, more men will be attracted to the priesthood, especially at a time when there is a shortage of priests. After all, celibacy is not really essential to the ordained ministry.
During the first millennium, most priests and even bishops were married. It was only in the 12th century that obligatory celibacy was legislated for the Roman Catholic Church. After Vatican II, many expected that the church would make it optional sooner or later.
The church continues to maintain that mandatory celibacy is appropriate and required for the priesthood. The only exception is for those belonging to the Oriental rite and married Anglican and Episcopalian priests who convert to Catholicism.
What is the basis for holding on to the discipline of celibacy? The church looks up to Jesus as the basis and model for celibacy. His celibacy was unusual because a Jew was normally expected to marry and raise a family. This was demanded by the prevailing culture and by Jewish religion of his time. Even priests who offered sacrifices in the temple were married.
Celibacy was indeed counter-cultural and not in accordance with Judaism. So how did Jesus justify his celibacy? It was for the sake of the kingdom. When Jesus spoke about those who became eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of God, he was implicitly referring to himself and to those who would come after him.
The proclamation and inauguration of the kingdom was so central to Jesus' mission that all his attention, time and energy were focused on this. His celibacy was a radical expression of his total dedication to the work for the kingdom.
Instead of marrying and raising a family, Jesus' entire life was dedicated to raising up and engendering a community and a people who will make up God's family — a spiritual family who are adopted children of God whom they recognize as their loving Father and related to each other as brothers and sisters, not by blood but by one faith, one baptism, one Spirit.
Jesus made himself a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom and recommended it to some of his followers who freely decided to dedicate themselves totally to the work of the kingdom.
Jesus made it clear that celibacy is not for everyone. He did not make it a requirement for discipleship. The apostles were presumably married, including Peter who had a mother-in-law. But according to the Gospels they left everything to follow him — perhaps including their families, their wives and children to fulfil their mission all over the Roman Empire.
Paul, the great missionary to the Gentiles, was himself a celibate and he recommended it to those who totally dedicated themselves to the Lord and in carrying out their mission.
Jesus' celibacy was not due to a negative attitude towards sex, marriage or family. It was a radical expression of the priority of his mission — for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
His love was not focused exclusively on one woman and some children, but rather an inclusive and universal form of love. Thus, Jesus' celibacy would later be used as the basis and model for the ordained ministers of the church. It took over a millennium for the church to universally adopt it.
Following Jesus as the model, the priest's celibacy is a radical expression of the priest's total dedication to God and to God's kingdom. It is for the sake of the kingdom.
Through a celibate lifestyle, the priest can dedicate all his attention, time and energy in carrying out his ministry and mission of evangelization — of proclaiming the Good News of God's kingdom and prophetically denouncing evil in society, in forming and leading the Christian community (including the basic ecclesial communities within the parish), in presiding over the liturgical and sacramental celebrations of the community, in working for the kingdom through action for justice, peace, development and the integrity of creation, and in caring for the poor and the needy.
When he does this, celibacy becomes meaningful and easier to live out. Instead of being a yoke or burden, celibacy provides more freedom to carry out his mission for the kingdom.
A priest's celibacy is empty and meaningless when he spends most of his time and energy solely in beautifying the church or rectory, watching television, drinking and playing mahjong, shopping, surfing the internet, going out with his friends to bars and night spots, or managing his business ventures.
When he is not available to the people, to his parishioners, to the poor, when he does not have time for encounters with God in prayer, a priest's celibacy becomes empty and meaningless. His life is characterized by perpetual boredom and loneliness making him more vulnerable to the "temptations of the flesh."
When celibacy is not intimately connected to ministry and mission, when it does not further the realization of the Kingdom of God, it turns the priest into an irresponsible bachelor. Instead of being an authentic sign of selfless dedication to the kingdom it becomes a sign of selfishness and self-indulgence.
Father Amado Picardal CSsR is known for his activism and advocacy for human rights. He is executive secretary of the Committee on Basic Ecclesial Communities of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines.