Cardinal Hummes on Priestly Celibacy
"Christ's Precious Gift to His Church"
VATICAN CITY, MARCH 24, 2007.- Here is an article written by Cardinal
Cláudio Hummes, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, on "The
Importance of Priestly Celibacy." It was published in the Italian
edition of L'Osservatore Romano.
* * *
At the beginning of the 40th anniversary of the publication of the
Encyclical "Sacerdotalis Caelibatus" of His Holiness Paul VI, the
Congregation for the Clergy deems it opportune to recall the
magisterial teaching of this important papal document.
Indeed, priestly celibacy is Christ's precious gift to his Church, a
gift one needs to meditate on anew and to strengthen, especially in
today's profoundly secularized world.
Scholars note that the origins of priestly celibacy date back to
apostolic times. Father Ignace de la Potterie writes: "Scholars
generally agree that the obligation of celibacy, or at least of
continence, became canon law from the fourth century onwards. ...
However, it is important to observe that the legislators of the fourth
and fifth centuries affirmed that this canonical enactment was based on
an apostolic tradition.
"The Council of Carthage (390), for instance, said: 'It was fitting
that those who were at the service of the divine sacraments be
perfectly continent (continentes esse in omnibus), so that what the
Apostles taught and antiquity itself maintained, we too may
In the same way, Alfons-Marie Stickler mentions biblical arguments of
apostolic inspiration that advocate celibacy.
The Church's solemn Magisterium has never ceased to reaffirm the
measures regulating ecclesiastical celibacy. The Synod of Elvira
(300-303?) prescribed in canon 27: "A bishop, like any other cleric,
should have with him either only one sister or consecrated virgin; it
is established that in no way should he have an extraneous woman"; in
canon 33: "The following overall prohibition for bishops, presbyters
and deacons and for all clerics who exercise a ministry has been
decided: they must abstain from relations with their wives and must not
beget children; those who do are to be removed from the clerical
Pope St. Siricius (384-399), in his "Letter to Bishop Himerius of
Tarragona" dated February 10, 385, affirmed: "The Lord Jesus ... wished
the figure of the Church, whose Bridegroom he is, to radiate with the
splendor of chastity ... all of us as priests are bound by the
indissoluble law of these measures ... so that from the day of our
ordination we may devote our hearts and our bodies to moderation and
modesty, to please the Lord our God in the daily sacrifices we offer to
At the First Lateran Ecumenical Council of 1123, we read from canon 3:
"We absolutely forbid priests, deacons or subdeacons to cohabit with
concubines or wives and to cohabit with women other than those whom the
Council of Nicea (325) permitted to live in the household."
So too, at the 24th session of the Council of Trent, the absolute
impossibility of contracting marriage for clerics bound by sacred
orders or for male religious who had solemnly professed chastity was
reasserted; and with it, the nullity of marriage itself was declared,
together with the duty to ask God, with an upright intention, for the
gift of chastity.
In more recent times, the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council reaffirmed
in the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, "Presbyterorum
Ordinis," the close connection between celibacy and the Kingdom of
God. It saw in the former a sign that radiantly proclaims the latter,
the beginning of a new life to whose service the minister of the Church
With the encyclical "Sacerdotalis Caelibatus" of June 24, 1967, Paul VI
kept a promise he had made to the Council Fathers two years earlier. In
it, he examined the objections raised concerning the discipline of
celibacy. Subsequently, by placing emphasis on their Christological
foundation and appealing to history and to what we learn from the
first-century documents about the origins of celibacy and continence,
he fully confirmed their value.
The 1971 Synod of Bishops, both in the presynodal program "Ministerium
Presbyterorum" (Feb. 15) and in the final document "Ultimis Temporibus"
(Nov. 30), affirmed the need to preserve celibacy in the Latin Church,
shedding light on its foundations, the convergence of motives and the
conditions that encouraged it.
The new Code of Canon Law of the Latin Church in 1983 reasserted the
age-old tradition: "Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and
perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven and
therefore are obliged to observe celibacy, which is a special gift of
God, by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an
undivided heart and can more freely dedicate themselves to the service
of God and humankind."
Along the same lines, the 1990 synod resulted in the Apostolic
Exhortation of the Servant of God, Pope John Paul II, "Pastores Dabo
Vobis," in which the Pontiff presented celibacy as a radical Gospel
requirement that especially favors the style of spousal life and
springs from the priest's configuration to Jesus Christ through the
sacrament of orders.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1992 and which
gathers the first fruits of the great event of the Second Vatican
Council, reaffirms the same doctrine: "All the ordained ministers of
the Latin Church, with the exception of permanent deacons, are normally
chosen from among men of faith who live a celibate life and who intend
to remain celibate 'for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.'"
At the most recent Synod on the Eucharist itself, according to the
preliminary unofficial draft of its final propositions authorized by
Pope Benedict XVI, in proposition. 11, "the importance of the priceless
gift of ecclesiastical celibacy in the practices of the Latin Church is
recognized" despite the scarcity of clergy in certain parts of the
world as well as the "Eucharistic hunger" of the People of God.
With the reference to the Magisterium, particularly that of the Second
Vatican Council and of the most recent Pontiffs, the Fathers asked that
the reasons for the relationship between celibacy and priestly
ordination be properly described, with full respect for the tradition
of the Eastern Churches. Some of them referred to the matter of the
"viri probabi," but the hypothesis was judged to be a way not to be
Only recently, on Nov. 16, 2006, Benedict XVI presided at one of the
regular meetings held in the Apostolic Palace of the Heads of the
Dicasteries of the Roman Curia. On that occasion, the value of the
choice of priestly celibacy in accordance with the unbroken Catholic
tradition was reasserted and the need for the sound human and Christian
formation of seminarians and ordained priests was reaffirmed.
Reasons for holy celibacy
In his encyclical "Sacerdotalis Caelibatus," Paul VI begins by
presenting the situation of priestly celibacy at that time, from the
viewpoint of the appreciation of it and of the objections to it. His
first words are crucial and ever timely: "Priestly celibacy has been
guarded by the Church for centuries as a brilliant jewel, and retains
its value undiminished even in our time when the outlook of men and the
state of the world have undergone such profound changes."
Paul VI revealed what he himself meditated upon, questioning himself on
the subject in order to be able to respond to the objections. He
concluded: "Hence, we consider that the present law of holy celibacy
should today continue to be linked to the ecclesiastical ministry. This
law should support the minister in his exclusive, definitive and total
choice of the unique and supreme love of Christ and of the Church; it
should uphold him in the entire dedication of himself to the public
worship of God and to the service of the Church; it should distinguish
his state of life both among the faithful and in the world at
"It is true," the Pope added, "that virginity, as the Second Vatican
Council declared, is not demanded of the priesthood by its nature. This
is clear from the practice of the early Church and the tradition of the
Eastern Churches (cf. "Presbyterorum Ordinis," no. 16). But at the same
time the Council did not hesitate to confirm solemnly the ancient,
sacred and providential present law of priestly celibacy. In addition,
it set forth the motives which justify this law for those who, in a
spirit of faith and with generous fervor, know how to appreciate the
gifts of God."
It is true. Celibacy is a gift that Christ offers to men called to the
priesthood. This gift must be accepted with love, joy and gratitude.
Thus, it will become a source of happiness and holiness.
Paul VI gave three reasons for sacred celibacy: its Christological,
ecclesiological and eschatological significance.
Let us start with its Christological significance.
Christ is newness. He brings about a new creation. His priesthood is
new. He renews all things. Jesus, the only-begotten Son of the Father
sent into the world, "became man in order that humanity which was
subject to sin and death might be reborn, and through this new birth
might enter the Kingdom of Heaven."
"Being entirely consecrated to the will of the Father, Jesus brought
forth this new creation by means of his Paschal Mystery; thus, he
introduced into time and into the world a new form of life which is
sublime and divine and which radically transforms the human
Natural marriage itself, blessed by God since creation but damaged by
sin, was renewed by Christ, who "has raised it to the dignity of a
sacrament and of a mysterious symbol of his own union with the Church.
... But Christ, 'Mediator of a more excellent covenant' (cf. Hebrews
8:6), has also opened a new way in which the human creature adheres
wholly and directly to the Lord, and is concerned only with him and
with his affairs; thus, he manifests in a clearer and more complete way
the profoundly transforming reality of the New Testament."
This newness, this new process, is life in virginity, which Jesus
himself lived in harmony with his role as Mediator between heaven and
earth, between the Father and the human race. "Wholly in accord with
this mission, Christ remained throughout his whole life in the state of
celibacy, which signified his total dedication to the service of God
and men." The service of God and men means that total love without
reserve which distinguished Jesus' life among us: virginity for the
sake of the Kingdom of God!
Now Christ, by calling his priests to be ministers of salvation, that
is, of the new creation, calls them to be and to live in newness of
life, united and similar to him in the most perfect way possible. From
this derives the gift of sacred celibacy, as the fullest configuration
with the Lord Jesus and a prophecy of the new creation. He called his
apostles "friends." He called them to follow him very closely in
everything, even to the cross. And the cross brought them to the
Resurrection, to the new creation's completion.
We know, therefore, that following him with faithfulness in virginity,
which includes sacrifice, will lead us to happiness. God does not call
anyone to unhappiness; he calls us all to happiness. Happiness,
however, always goes hand in hand with faithfulness. The late Pope John
Paul II said this to the married couples whom he met at the Second
World Meeting of Families in Rio de Janeiro.
Thus, the theme of the eschatological meaning of celibacy is revealed
as a sign and a prophecy of the new creation, in other words, of the
definitive Kingdom of God in the parousia, when we will all be raised
from the dead.
As the Second Vatican Council teaches, "She [the Church] is, on earth,
the seed and the beginning of that kingdom." Virginity, lived for
love of the Kingdom of God, is a special sign of these "final times,"
because the Lord announced that "in the resurrection they neither marry
nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven."
In a world like ours, a world of entertainment and superficial
pleasures, captivated by earthly things and especially by the progress
of science and technology -- let us remember the biological sciences
and biotechnology -- the proclamation of an afterlife, of a future
world, a parousia, as a definitive event of a new creation is crucial
and at the same time free from the ambiguity of aporia, of din,
suffering and contradictions with regard to the true good and the new,
profound knowledge that human progress brings with it.
Finally, the ecclesiological meaning of celibacy leads us more directly
to the priest's pastoral activity.
The encyclical "Sacerdotalis Caelibatus" affirms: "The consecrated
celibacy of the sacred ministers actually manifests the virginal love
of Christ for the Church, and the virginal and supernatural fecundity
of this marriage."
Like Christ and in Christ, the priest mystically weds the Church and
loves the Church with an exclusive love. Thus, dedicating himself
totally to the affairs of Christ and of his Mystical Body, the priest
enjoys ample spiritual freedom to put himself at the loving and total
service of all people without distinction.
"In a similar way, by a daily dying to himself and by giving up the
legitimate love of a family of his own for the love of Christ and of
his Kingdom, the priest will find the glory of an exceedingly rich and
fruitful life in Christ, because like him and in him he loves and
dedicates himself to all the children of God."
The encyclical likewise adds that celibacy makes it easier for the
priest to devote himself to listening to the Word of God and to prayer,
and prepares him to offer upon the altar the whole of his life, marked
Value of chastity, celibacy
Even before it is a canonical disposition, celibacy is God's gift to
his Church. It is an issue bound to the complete gift of self to the
In the distinction between the age-old discipline of celibacy and the
religious experience of consecration and the pronouncement of vows, it
is beyond doubt that there is no other possible interpretation or
justification of ecclesiastical celibacy than unreserved dedication to
the Lord in a relationship that must also be exclusive from the
emotional viewpoint. This presupposes a strong personal and communal
relationship with Christ, who transforms the hearts of his disciples.
The option for celibacy of the Latin Rite Catholic Church has developed
since apostolic times precisely in line with the priest's relationship
with his Lord, moved by the inspiring question, "Do you love me more
than these?" which the Risen Jesus addressed to Peter.
The Christological, ecclesiological and eschatological reasons for
celibacy, all rooted in the special communion with Christ to which
priests are called, can therefore be expressed in various ways,
according to what is authoritatively stated in "Sacerdotalis
Celibacy is first and foremost a "symbol of and stimulus to
charity." Charity is the supreme criterion for judging Christian
life in all its aspects; celibacy is a path of love, even if, as the
Gospel according to Matthew says, Jesus himself states that not all are
able to understand this reality: "Not all men can receive this precept,
but only those to whom it is given."
This charity develops in the classical, twofold aspect of love for God
and for others: "By preserving virginity or celibacy for the sake of
the Kingdom of Heaven, priests are consecrated in a new and excellent
way to Christ. They more readily cling to him with undivided heart."
St. Paul, in the passage alluded to here, presents celibacy and
virginity as the way "to please God" without divided interests: in
other words, a "way of love" which certainly presupposes a special
vocation; in this sense it is a charism and in itself excellent for
both Christians and priests.
Through pastoral charity, radical love for God becomes love for one's
brethren. In "Presbyterorum Ordinis" we read that priests "dedicate
themselves more freely in him and through him to the service of God and
of men. They are less encumbered in their service of his Kingdom and of
the task of heavenly regeneration. In this way they become better
fitted for a broader acceptance of fatherhood in Christ."
Common experience confirms that it is easier for those who, apart from
Christ, are not bound by other affections, however legitimate and holy
they may be, to give their heart to their brethren fully and without
Celibacy is the example that Christ himself left us. He wanted to be
celibate. The encyclical explains further: "Wholly in accord with this
mission, Christ remained throughout his whole life in the state of
celibacy, which signified his total dedication to the service of God
and men. This deep connection between celibacy and the priesthood of
Christ is reflected in those whose fortune it is to share in the
dignity and mission of the Mediator and the Eternal Priest; this
sharing will be more perfect the freer the sacred minister is from the
bonds of flesh and blood."
Jesus Christ's historical existence is the most visible sign that
chastity voluntarily embraced for God's sake is a solidly founded
vocation, both at the Christian level and at that of common human logic.
If ordinary Christian life cannot legitimately claim to be such if it
excludes the dimension of the cross, how much more incomprehensible
would priestly life be were the perspective of the crucified One to be
Suffering, sometimes weariness and boredom and even setbacks have to be
dealt with in a priest's life which, however, is not ultimately
determined by them. In choosing to follow Christ, one learns from the
very outset to go with him to Calvary, mindful that taking up one's
cross is the element that qualifies the radical nature of the sequela.
Lastly, as previously stated, celibacy is an eschatological sign. In
the Church, from this moment, the future Kingdom is present. She not
only proclaims it but brings it about through the sacraments,
contributing to the "new creation" until her glory is fully manifested.
While the sacrament of marriage roots the Church in the present,
immersing her totally in the earthly realm which can thus become a
possible place for sanctification, celibacy refers immediately to the
future, to that full perfection of the created world that will be
brought to complete fulfillment only at the end of time.
Being faithful to celibacy
The 2,000-year-old wisdom of the Church, an expert in humanity, has in
the course of time constantly determined several fundamental and
indispensable elements to foster her children's fidelity to the
supernatural charism of celibacy.
Among them, also in the recent Magisterium, the importance of spiritual
formation for the priest, who is called to be "a witness of the
Absolute," stands out. "Pastores Dabo Vobis" states: "In preparing for
the priesthood we learn how to respond from the heart to Christ's basic
question: 'Do you love me?'. For the future priest the answer can only
mean total self-giving."
In this regard, the years of formation are absolutely fundamental, both
those distant years lived in the family, and especially the more recent
years spent at the seminary. At this true school of love, like the
apostolic community, young seminarians cluster round Jesus, awaiting
the gift of his Spirit for their mission.
"The relation of the priest to Jesus Christ, and in him to his Church,
is found in the very being of the priest, by virtue of his sacramental
consecration/anointing and in his activity, that is, in his mission or
The priesthood is no more than "'living intimately united' to Jesus
Christ" in a relationship of intimate communion, described "in
terms of friendship." The priest's life is basically that form of
existence which would be inconceivable without Christ. Precisely in
this lies the power of his witness: Virginity for the sake of the
Kingdom of God is a real element, it exists because Christ, who makes
it possible, exists.
Love for the Lord is authentic when it endeavors to be total: Falling
in love with Christ means having a deep knowledge of him, it means a
close association with his person, the identification and assimilation
of his thought, and lastly, unreserved acceptance of the radical
demands of the Gospel.
It is only possible to be witnesses of God through a deep experience of
Christ; the whole of a priest's life depends on his relationship with
the Lord, the quality of his experience of martyria, of his witness.
Only someone who truly has Jesus for his friend and Lord, one who
enjoys his communion, can be a witness of the Absolute. Christ is not
only a subject of reflection, of a theological thesis or of a
historical memory; he is the Lord who is present, he is alive because
he is the Risen One and we live only to the extent that we participate
ever more deeply in his life. The entire priestly existence is founded
on this explicit faith.
Consequently, the encyclical says: "The priest should apply himself
above all else to developing, with all the love grace inspires in him,
his close relationship with Christ, and exploring this inexhaustible
and enriching mystery; he should also acquire an ever deeper sense of
the mystery of the Church. There would be the risk of his state of life
seeming unreasonable and unfounded if it were viewed apart from this
In addition to formation and love for Christ, an essential element for
preserving celibacy is passion for the Kingdom of God, which means the
ability to work cheerfully, sparing no effort to make Christ known,
loved and followed.
Like the peasant who, having found the precious pearl, sold all he had
in order to purchase the field, so those who find Christ and spend
their whole lives with him and for him cannot but live by working to
enable others to encounter him.
Without this clear perspective, any "missionary urge" is doomed to
failure, methodologies are transformed into techniques for maintaining
a structure, and even prayers can become techniques for meditation and
for contact with the sacred in which both the human "I" and the "you"
of God dissolve.
One fundamental and necessary occupation, a requirement and a task, is
prayer. Prayer is irreplaceable in Christian life and in the life of
priests. Prayer should be given special attention.
The Eucharistic Celebration, the Divine Office, frequent confession, an
affectionate relationship with Mary Most Holy, spiritual retreats and
the daily recitation of the holy rosary are some of the spiritual signs
of a love which, were it lacking, would risk being replaced by unworthy
substitutes such as appearances, ambition, money and sex.
The priest is a man of God because God calls him to be one, and he
lives this personal identity in an exclusive belonging to his Lord,
also borne out by his choice of celibacy. He is a man of God because he
lives by God and talks to God. With God he discerns and decides in
filial obedience on the steps of his own Christian existence.
The more radically a priest is a man of God through a life that is
totally theocentric, as the Holy Father stressed in his Address at the
Christmas Meeting with the Roman Curia on Dec. 22, 2006, the more
effective and fertile his witness will be, and the richer in fruits of
conversion his ministry. There is no opposition between fidelity to God
and fidelity to man: On the contrary, the former is a prerequisite for
Conclusion: a holy vocation
"Pastores Dabo Vobis," speaking on the priest's vocation to holiness,
having underlined the importance of the personal relationship with
Christ, expresses another need: The priest, called to the mission of
preaching the Good News, sees himself entrusted with it in order to
give it to everyone. He is nevertheless called in the first place to
accept the Gospel as a gift offered for his life, for himself, and as a
saving event that commits him to a holy life.
In this perspective, John Paul II has spoken of the evangelical
radicalism that must be a feature of the priest's holiness. It is
therefore possible in the evangelical counsels, traditionally proposed
by the Church and lived in the various states of consecrated life, to
map out the vitally radical journey to which, also and in his own way,
the priest is called to be faithful.
"Pastores Dabo Vobis" states: "A particularly significant expression of
the radicalism of the Gospel is seen in the different 'evangelical
counsels' which Jesus proposes in the Sermon on the Mount, and among
them the intimately related counsels of obedience, chastity and
poverty. The priest is called to live these counsels in accordance with
those ways and, more specifically, those goals and that basic meaning
which derive from and express his own priestly identity."
And again, taking up the ontological dimension on which evangelical
radicalism is founded, the postsynodal apostolic exhortation says: "The
Spirit, by consecrating the priest and configuring him to Jesus Christ,
Head and Shepherd, creates a bond which, located in the priest's very
being, demands to be assimilated and lived out in a personal, free and
conscious way through an ever richer communion of life and love and an
ever broader and more radical sharing in the feelings and attitudes of
Jesus Christ. In this bond between the Lord Jesus and the priest, an
ontological and psychological bond, a sacramental and moral bond, is
the foundation and likewise the power for that 'life according to the
Spirit' and that 'radicalism of the Gospel' to which every priest is
called today and which is fostered by ongoing formation in its
The nuptial dimension of ecclesiastical celibacy, proper to this
relationship between Christ and the Church which the priest is called
to interpret and to live, must enlarge his mind, illumine his life and
warm his heart. Celibacy must be a happy sacrifice, a need to live with
Christ so that he will pour out into the priest the effusions of his
goodness and love that are ineffably full and perfect.
In this regard the words of the Holy Father Benedict XVI are
enlightening: "The true foundation of celibacy can be contained in the
phrase: Dominus pars (mea) -- You are my land. It can only be
theocentric. It cannot mean being deprived of love, but must mean
letting oneself be consumed by passion for God and subsequently, thanks
to a more intimate way of being with him, to serve men and women, too.
Celibacy must be a witness to faith: faith in God materializes in that
form of life which only has meaning if it is based on God.
"Basing one's life on him, renouncing marriage and family, means that I
accept and experience God as a reality and that I can therefore bring
him to men and women."
1. Cf. Father Ignace de la Potterie , Il fondamento biblico del
celibato sacerdotale, in Solo per amore. Riflessioni sul celibato
sacerdotale, Cinisello Balsamo, 1993, pp. 14-15.
2. Cf. Alfons-Marie Stickler, in Ch. Cochini, Origines apostoliques du
Célibat sacerdotal, Preface, p. 6.
3. Cf. Heinrich Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum definitionum et
declarationum de rebus fidei et morum, ed. P. Hünermann., Bologna,
1995, nn. 118-119, p. 61.
4. Ibid., op. cit., n. 185, p. 103; [n. 10].
5. Cf. ibid., op. cit., n. 711, p. 405.
6. Ibid., op. cit., n. 1809, p. 739.
7. Second Vatican Council, Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests,
Presbyterorum Ordinis, n. 16.
8. Enchiridion of the Synod of Bishops, 1, 1965-1988 ed. General
Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, Bologna, 2005, nn. 755-855;
1068-1114; especially nn. 1100-1105.
9. Code of Canon Law, canon 277, §1.
10. John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo
Vobis, 25 March 1992, n. 44.
11. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1579.
12. Paul VI, Encyclical Letter Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, n. 1.
13. Ibid., n. 14.
14. Ibid., n. 17.
15. Ibid., n. 19.
16. Ibid., n. 20.
17. Ibid., n. 21.
18. Cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,
Lumen Gentium, n. 5.
19. Paul VI, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, n. 34.
20. Ibid., n. 26.
21. Ibid., n. 30.
22. Cf. ibid., nn. 27-29.
23. John 21:15.
24. Paul VI, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, n. 24.
25. Matthew 19:11.
26. Second Vatican Council, Presbyterorum Ordinis, n. 16.
27. Cf. I Corinthians 7:32-33.
28. Second Vatican Council, Presbyterorum Ordinis, n. 16.
29. Paul VI, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, n. 21.
30. John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, n. 42.
31. Ibid., n. 16.
32. Ibid., n. 46.
34. Paul VI, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, n. 75.
35. John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, n. 27.
36. Ibid., n. 72.
37. Benedict XVI, Address at the Audience with the Roman Curia for the
Exchange of Christmas Greetings, 22 December 2006; L'Osservatore Romano
English edition, 3 January 2007, p. 5.