Published (in a more extended version):
"'Die Ehelosigkeit um des Himmelreiches willen' und das Zölibatsgesetz," Stimmen der Zeit 213:12 (Dec. 1995) 823‑832.
There is a difference between "celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" and the law of celibacy. The law of celibacy is not required by the nature of priesthood itself. It should be chosen freely for service to others and find its foundation in God's love for every married or celibate person.
The NT speaks of "celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 19:12. As recommended by Jesus it belongs to the so‑called evangelical counsels (poverty, celibacy and obedience). "For the sake of the kingdom of heaven" means that through this celibacy one wants to serve the communion of all with God. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, offers a helpful interpretation. In his "Spiritual Exercises" he distinguishes two ways of living the evangelical counsels: "spiritually" and "actually" (cf nos. 98, 146f, 157, 167). By "spiritually" he meant a basic attitude of the heart from which, if circumstances required it, a visible, "actual" realization could result.
The evangelical counsels concern all believers "Spiritually" the evangelical counsels should be lived by all believers. For example, even those who are married "in the Lord" will be as if they were not married (cf 1 Cor 7:29). Christian spouses are related in such a way that they do not own each other. They are willing to acknowledge each other's freedom: "Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer ..." (1 Cor 7:5).
In certain extreme situations the evangelical counsel of "celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" must "actually" be lived also by married couples, e.g., in the case of forced absence, sickness, imprisonment in war, even for a long time.
In catechesis it is necessary to refer to this interior aspect of the sacrament of marriage. Even outside of Christanity a real marriage has this structure and is determined by a Spirit which looked upon from within the Christian faith is recognized as the Spirit of Jesus (cf Jn 3:21, the primary text for the doctrine about the "anonymous believer"). Perhaps successful marriages are so infrequent because too little attention is paid to the necessity of the "spiritual" attitude of celibacy in marriage
If and because the "evangelical counsels" should be lived "spiritually" by all believers, there is in principle the possibility for all to "actually" live them in concrete situations. This does not represent a special vocation which might be accessible to only a few, but as a basic possibility it has the same breadth as faith itself. It is also independent of the power of sexuality. Sexual impotency can only give the ground for a celibacy "from nature," which as such should not be confused with "celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven." The sentence, "Let anyone accept this who can" (Mt 19:12) refers to all believers as such and is not, as is often thought, limited to a special group among the faithful.
"Poverty for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" does not primarily refer to a lack of material possessions, but to dealing with them in a different way. Similarly, neither spiritual nor actual "celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" means a lack of corporeality and sexuality, but deals with them differently. Sexuality must be encompassed by an attitude that includes more than sexual union. It is a totally loving, attentive and liberating acknowledgement of the other. Sexuality in marriage is also the expression of personal love where the other is not an object but where "I" and "you" in the "we" of common responsibility share joy and pain. This love is not limited to moments of physical intimacy.
Indeed, the more a Christian is prepared for a good marriage, the more he is also capable of "celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven." And the reverse is also true: The more prepared one is for actual "celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven," the more prepared one might be for a successful marriage understood as a sacrament. But honest and fulfilling friendship and love between a man and a woman is possible also in forms other than sexual union, e.g., the various types of personal and social interaction and mutual support. From the history of the saints one thinks of Scholastica and Benedict, Clare and Francis, Teresa of Avila and Jerome Gracian, Jane Frances de Chantal and Francis de Sales.
The foundationIf one seeks to account for "celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven," one needs to ask to what extent both ways of life, "Christian marriage," and "celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" are helpful and liberating for one another. These ways of life are important for each other because both ways of life must be able to carry the way of the other in itself (cf 1 Cor 12:12‑31). Thus, those who are "celibate for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" can take the example of the faithfulness of married couples and the way in which they sacrifice themselves for the sake of their children. And those who are married must be faithful to each other, even to the extent of being prepared to live as "celibates for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" in case they are forced to live in the absence of their partner. One can also only live actual "celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" when at the same time one can participate in the joy of people who are joined together in a successful marriage.
Both ways of life should be mutually encouraging. This does not happen through abstract symbolism, but in real conversation and attentive listening. Furthermore, the freedom of celibacy exists not for its own sake, but for serving the freedom of others (2 Cor 3:17).
It may be true that celibates can give the Church their full-time service, but the evangelical counsels are not intended to make people into "workaholics." On the other hand, even being married can provide new energy for service to all. When one without much reflexion says the unmarried can serve God "in a special" or "deeper" way one is confusing the distinction between both ways of life with a mere "gradual" distinction according to which the one would be more and the other less, and thus both are misinterpreted. In reality, it is no "gradual" but an "essential" distinction: the one is not the other. Christian marriage as such is a sacrament.
Also people who are married "in the Lord," can only give God their "undivided service." According to Mk 12:30, one can serve God only with one's entire heart and soul. It is not possible to serve God in a divided way (cf Mt 6:24).
It is hoped that better arguments for "celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" can be found because of the promise that Jesus himself recommended this way of life. Both ways, Christian marriage and "celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" can be mutually helpful if both are lived "in the Lord" (1 Cor 7:39).
"Celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" is best lived in a community where one seeks to share one's entire life with others, and where there is an openness to the married and unmarried community. It is important in this regard that diocesan priests seek community. It is more difficult today than in the past for diocesan priests to live the celibate life. Thus it is important they find community with other priests and with pastoral co‑workers.
Freedom of choiceTo be called to live celibacy according to the Gospel means to have motives so intimately linked to celibacy itself that one can maintain them for ever. For example, one is called to be a medical practitioner only if one really wishes to help the sick; one would not be called if the only thing one was seeking was to make money, for this latter motive is not intimately linked with this profession. One and the same person can be called to marriage or to "celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven." However, because of the limitations of our human existence, one must make a choice. According to Canon Law, "All the Christian faithful have the right to be free from any kind of coercion in choosing a state in life" (c. 219). But whichever state one chooses, it is wise to hold fast to and deepen one's motivation.
And one should publicly acknowledge one's choice in the Church. As with Christian marriage, the confirmation of "celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" should be shared and supported by the community. "Celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" is not simply accepted "once and for all." Rather, it needs to be renewed and appropriated daily so that all one's strength can be lovingly involved in this service.
The Christian faith says that all people are infinitely valuable. Everyone is loved with the same love that the Father gave to the Son from eternity. God's Son became flesh to proclaim the Father's love and to witness to that love with his life. This means that no worldly power can ever separate one from communion with God (Mt 6:26‑30). This security in God's love means that vulnerability and transitoriness no longer have the last word for anyone, regardless of their state in life.
The law of celibacyWhile "celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" like Christian marriage a jewel for the Church, many perceive the law of celibacy to be a festering wound in the Church's body.
On one hand, the law of celibacy was bound to the intenable view that sexual union makes priests impure for the celebration of the Christian liturgy. On the other hand, it also may have had to do with preserving the Church's assets and wanting to loosen the grip of the feudal interests of large families. But in no way did the law of celibacy have to do with the essence of the Church and its faith tradition.
Frequently, advocates of the law of celibacy argue that this law does not contradict the voluntary nature of celibacy. According to their way of thinking, the decision to become a priest is totally free, and thus one also freely accepts celibacy that is bound to priesthood. This argument overlooks the fact that the connection between priesthood and celibacy is in no way voluntary; it is demanded by a law which is not necessary to the very nature of priesthood itself (Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests 16).
If "celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" is a call that comes from God, it cannot be improved upon by a law, as if God's call did not suffice. The call to an office in the Church, and the call to "celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" should not be equated as one and the same thing. Indeed, both can be mutually helpful, but only provided that they are voluntarily bound together. In themselves both states are not necessarily connected, and to connect them by a law means the imposition of an unnecessary burden (cf Acts 15:28). "Celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" would be better supported only if it were completely free, and not required to attain an office. Instead of demanding celibacy by a law, it would be better to seek more convincing arguments for the decision to choose actual "celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven."
Endangerment of the evangelical counsels
In fact, the law of celibacy casts a shadow on "celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven." It remains unclear whether one freely chooses it, or whether one "buys into it" because one strives for a consecrated ministry in the Church. In the final analysis it then appears to be a "celibacy made by human beings" against which Mt 19:12 warns.
After years of celibacy a priest said to me that on his own he probably would not have chosen celibacy, but that through a series of crises he came to choose it personally, and then it became helpful for him and his ministry. But I have also known priests who have performed their office very well, but who had to give it up because they felt they were no longer able to observe the law of celibacy. I also know priests who would rather accept canonical "suspension" than ask their ordination to be declared invalid or to be laicized; they feel that the law of celibacy may be an injustice directed against their vocation.
Ministry is necessary for service to the community. All Christians have the task of witnessing faith to others and they do so with Christ's authority. The uniqueness of ordained ministry consists in acting "in the authority of Christ as head" (cf Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests 2), i.e., over against the entire community. The priest makes clear that the faith is not something only for each individual, but for the whole community, that comes "by hearing" (Rom 10: 17). Established ministers appoint new ministers in their ministry in order to emphasize that the Faith is handed down to the entire community. The law of celibacy, however, prevents married people in the ministry who are capable of such service and who would choose it with good motivation which is grounded in faith. Parishes, which have the right to the celebration of the eucharist, suffer due to the lack of ministers. Furthermore, no service is being done to the Church by accepting persons, just because they are celibate and who only have a limited capacity for the ministry, while other more capable persons are denied access to ministry because they are not celibate. In this way damage is being done to the ministry itself. No one can seriously claim that this comes from a good Spirit.
In recent times, married priests from other confessions who have converted to the Catholic Church have often been allowed to be active as married priests (or even to be reordained if their original ordination was not considered valid). Still there is an attempt to keep them away from assuming chief responsibility in a parish or, if in fact they are in charge, one tries at least to give the "canonical" impression that someone else bears the chief responsibility. This last practice, too, appears to lack a theological foundation, and makes the law of celibacy appear even more ideological
Bishops have pastoral responsibility for their communities and their brother priests. They cannnot behave as if they are unaffected by the needs of their flocks (cf Jn 10:13). They can no longer allow the question of the law of celibacy to rest on them. Is it not their responsibility to bring this question with Christian freedom to the highest authority in the Church (cf Gal 2:11)? Peter can strengthen his brothers and sisters (Lk 22:32), only if he is the spokesman of the faith (cf Mt 16:17), and does not make himself the spokesman of human thoughts (cf Mt 16:22f). Peter is only the spokesman of a faith that is reliable and is applied to morals, when he proclaims a word that is understandable as the self-communication of God. Such a word is true "by itself" (cf DS 3074) because it speaks about what happens in itself, when it is spoken. The Christian message is indeed known only in the faith of the Church as God's Word, but it is not made God's Word through the Church's faith (cf The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 25). And God's self-communication in his word is accessible as true only for a faith that is filled with the Holy Spirit (cf 1 Cor 12:3). Aside from God's self-communication everything else is world, and as such an object of reason and not of faith (cf DS 3015).
The preceding has been a plea for a true "celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven." Such celibacy is not really supported by the law of celibacy, but rather appears to be undermined by such a law. It is "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" that one must consider how to change the legislation with regard to the celibacy of priests today. This is a demand which is proposed precisely by those who freely want to remain "celibates for the sake of the kingdom of heaven." We place our trust for this request in the persuasive power of the word, and thus in the Spirit who constantly renews the Church.