Celibacy is topic de jour with the well publicized story of Miami priest whose dalliance was recorded in photos in a Spanish-language magazine. Discussing the issue, some points worth noting are that the Catholic Church’s teaching goes back to Scripture: Jesus was not married and St. Paul speaks of the significance of an “undivided heart.” (1 Cor 7 32-34)
The need for a priest’s undivided heart is paramount. At ordination priests assume a spiritual fatherhood, which means they called to be available to all. When people phone a priest they shouldn’t have to worry about imposing on his family time or taking him away from a sick child. The priest belongs to the people and his time should be theirs. Such service has been honored even in jokes. For instance, there’s the one about the Jewish man who calls a priest to his bedside on a rainy evening because “you wouldn’t call out a rabbi on a night like this!”
Priests obviously are not the only men called to think of others first and their families second. Doctors and policemen come to mind. But that choice is often hard on spouses and children who may not have the same sense of vocation. It's one thing to be selfless for one self. It's quite another to expect your loved ones to be so as well.
Another issue shining through today’s news reports is fidelity to a commitment. Lifetime commitments are respected by the church, whether it is a man’s promise of celibacy in the priesthood or a man or woman promising fidelity in marriage. Both commitments are entered into freely and, hopefully, with aforethought. It is painful to everyone involved when someone abandons a commitment. Like it or not, we all find inspiration in the commitments we see around us. To paraphrase John Donne, everyone’s fractured commitment diminishes me. That’s why wives grow anxious when they see infidelity. Elizabeth Edwards is example number one with her Resilience book tour.
People often point out that in the Eastern Rite churches, priests can marry, but it is worth noting they cannot marry once ordained. And when it comes to selecting their bishops, the Eastern churches choose bishops from among their celibate clergy. It’s more testimony to what the church sees as needed in its leadership, the spiritual fathers with an undivided heart.
Celibacy is not a matter of dogma; it’s a matter of discipline. Dogma is a matter of faith; a discipline is something put into place because it has a tangible, practical value in the life of the church here and now. Thus, theoretically it’s possible that the rule of celibacy could change. Whether or not it should will be discussed for a long time. Meanwhile, there’s no denying the benefit of celibacy to the church and society around it.