The last couple of weeks we talked about the vocation to consecrated life-men and women religious. Previously, we had considered the vocation to the priesthood. To round out the reflections on vocation, it is also important to touch upon the vocation and sacrament of marriage.
Before moving on to consider the married vocation, there is one other topic I wish to bring forward, precisely because it has become controversial in the last few decades. I wish to explain briefly and shed some light on the practice of priestly celibacy.
The reason that priestly celibacy has become controversial is because it is so often misunderstood and inaccurately communicated. More often than not, people will say things like “priests are required to be celibate” or that “they can’t be married.” Neither of these statements are accurate and portray a completely false vision of priestly celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church.
First, priests can be married. There are many Orthodox priests, Byzantine priests, and members of the Anglican Ordinariate that are sacramentally married. Though Orthodox priests are not in union with the Holy Father, Byzantine priests and members of the Anglican Ordinariate most certainly are.
Second, priests are not required to be celibate. To understand this point correctly we must first understand that there are only two primary vocations. On the one hand, there is the vocation to marriage. On the other hand, there is the vocation to celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Christ calls all to this latter vocation “who are capable of accepting it” Matthew 19:12.
So the first step of discernment is not between marriage or religious life. It is not religious life or the priesthood. It is not the priesthood or marriage. The first step of discernment is between either godly marriage or celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom. If, in a desire to more perfectly follow Christ, one discerns that he or she is called to celibacy, then the individual needs to further discern how that celibate vocation is to be lived. One could be a consecrated virgin, a monk, a cloistered nun, a priest, an active religious sister, etc.
Now, from those men who have discerned that God has called them to embrace celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom, the Church chooses some to serve her as priests. She does not impose celibacy. She does not require that priests be celibate (as we have seen, sometimes married men are ordained). Rather, the Roman Catholic Church has normally chosen only to call men to the priesthood who have already freely resolved to follow Christ more closely through the celibate vocation.
The priesthood conforms a man in a special way to be another Christ. It is only by standing in the person of Christ that a priest can change bread and wine into Christ ’s body and blood. It is only be standing in the person of Christ that he can forgive sins. It is for this reason that the Church chooses to bestow this special conformity (the priesthood) upon those men who have already freely sought the closest conformity to him that they can, by choosing to live even as he did-celibate for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.