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Peter Knauer SJ

Celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven

and the Law of Celibacy

(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 foundation

If 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 choice

To 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 celibacy

While "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.

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