Celibacy of the Priest
The Second Vatican Council reaffirmed the centuries old requirement of celibacy for priests and Bishops in the Latin Rite. In its document, On the Ministry and Life of Priests, the Second Vatican Council declares that celibacy should be embraced and esteemed as a gift. The Council states that, “Perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven…is held by the Church to be of great value in a special manner for the priestly life.” While decreeing that celibacy is mandatory for priests in the Latin Rite, it declares that “It recommends ecclesiastical celibacy…in the Eastern Churches” (III, 16).
Historically, the practice of clerical celibacy in the Eastern Rite (the Eastern Catholic Churches in union with Rome) differed from the Latin Rite, mainly in the admission of married men to Sacred Orders. The Eastern Rite permitted married men to be ordained up to the episcopacy. Even though the Eastern Rite allow married men to be ordained priests, this does not apply to the episcopate. Celibacy for Bishops is a requirement in the Eastern Churches that are in communion with the Holy See.
In the Western Church, secular or diocesan priests make a promise of celibacy to the Bishop at the time of their ordination to the diaconate. (Diocesan priests are called “secular” because they are considered to be living in the world.) At the time of their ordination to the priesthood they make promises of obedience to the Bishop and commitments to pray daily the Divine Office and lead holy lives. The promises made by diocesan priests are serious and binding under pain of sin.
Priests in Religious Orders, Institutes, Congregations or Communities make vows of chastity, along with vows of poverty and obedience. These vows are made to God through their major superiors. The vows (or final promises made without vows) are also binding under pain of sin.
In Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical, The Celibacy of the Priest, promulgated on 24 June 1967, he rejects the notion that ending celibacy would increase priestly vocations. He trusts the Lord will provide the graces needed for priests to live celibate lives. He states, “We are not easily led to believe that the abolition of ecclesiastical celibacy would considerably increase the number of priestly vocations: the contemporary experience of those Churches and ecclesial communities which allow their ministers to marry seems to prove the contrary. The causes of the decrease in vocations to the priesthood are to be found elsewhere—for example, in the fact that individuals and families have lost their sense of God and of all that is holy, their esteem for the Church as the Institution of Salvation through faith and the Sacraments. The problem must be examined at its real source (49). Moreover, the Church cannot and should not fail to realize that the choice of celibacy—provided that it is made with human and Christian prudence and responsibility—is governed by grace which, far from destroying or doing violences to nature, elevates it and imparts to it supernatural powers and vigor. God, who has created and redeemed man, knows what He can ask of him and gives him everything necessary to be able to do what his Creator and Redeemer asks of him. St. Augustine, who had fully and painfully experienced in himself the nature of man, exclaimed: “Grant what You command, and command what You will” (51). (For Advanced Course, lesson 23.)