Sex, Heaven, and Priestly Celibacy

By: Christopher West


In a recent column called “Ostriches at Vatican City” Steven and Cokie Roberts insist that the Catholic bishops have chosen to “bury their heads in the sand” by reaffirming the requirement of priestly celibacy.   Steven and Cokie believe that “ending the ban on marriage is the easiest fix” for the priest shortage.

Priest  Can  Marry

No Catholic would deny that we need more priests.   And it’s true that the practice in the Latin rite of the Catholic Church of reserving priestly ordination to celibate men could change.   The Catholic Churches of the East have valid married priests.

So, if someone asks, “Why can’t priests be married?” the real answer is, they can.   There is more to the Catholic Church than the Latin rite.   However, with good reason, priests in the West are normally chosen from among men who have discerned celibacy as their vocation.

There is a supreme value to the celibate witness that seems entirely lost on Cokie and Steven.   This is understandable.   Generally speaking, the Church in America has done a lousy job educating her flock on the meaning of the Christian vocations, and the scandalous behavior of some avowed celibates within the Church has only added to the confusion.

The Value of the Sacrifice

A short column can’t do justice to the issues, but it’s a start.   First, in order to understand the value of celibacy, we must understand the value of marriage.   Why?   Because the Church bases the value of any sacrifice on the value of that which it sacrifices.   For example, it would be meaningless for me to give up smoking for Lent.   Smoking holds zero value for me.

The Church places such a high value on celibacy precisely because she places such a high value on that which it sacrifices — the union of the sexes.   In the Catholic view of things, the joining of man and woman in “one flesh” is a sacred foreshadowing of the eternal union that awaits us in heaven (see Eph 5:31-32).   God gave us sexual desire, you might say, to be like the fuel of a rocket that’s meant to launch us toward the stars and beyond, to the eternal mystery of Christ’s union with the Church.

But what would happen if those rocket engines became inverted, no longer pointing us heavenward, but pointing us back upon ourselves?   Welcome to the fall-out of the sexual revolution.   The union of the sexes serves as an icon, a sign of our ultimate fulfillment, but it is the beginning of our demise when we worship sex itself.   A culture that worships sex has surely lost sight of heaven.

Marriage in Heaven

Jesus says we will no longer be given in marriage in heaven (see Mt 22:30).   Why?   Because we no longer need signs to point us to  heaven, when we’re in heaven.   The “marriage of the Lamb” (Rev 19:7) — the union of love that alone can satisfy — will be eternally consummated.

In turn, Jesus calls some to remain celibate not for celibacy’s sake, but   “for the sake of the kingdom” (Mt 19:12) — that is, as a living witness to the union that awaits us in heaven.   Authentically lived, a celibate’s life proclaims that, as beautiful and wonderful as the union of the sexes is, there is a greater love, a greater union worth “selling everything” for.

It is entirely fitting that priests would be called to this level of sacrifice.   In a world that idolizes sex, we desperately need the courageous witness of priestly celibacy.   For, when it is properly lived, it very effectively reorients our rocket engines toward the heavens.

Perhaps the bishops, rather than having their heads in the sand, were actually looking toward the stars.

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