Consecrated Celibacy: Sign of the Eschatological Kingdom

May 15th, 2010 | By | Category: Blog Posts

I want to follow up on a topic briefly raised in Tim Troutman’s article on Holy Orders, and in Jonathan Deane’s recent post. The topic is consecrated celibacy, as required for religious life and the higher Orders of Catholic clergy.

Celibacy for the Kingdom: No Application Required?

I have met some Christians who interpret 1 Timothy 3:2 as stipulating that all bishops (pastors) be married. Interestingly, I have yet to come across an interpretation which prohibits childless men from holding the office of bishop, despite the instruction given by St. Paul in 1 Timothy 3:4. There are also exegetes who follow the traditional line of interpretation up to the point of admitting that unmarried and/or childless men are not prohibited from being ordained a bishop or presbyter. The point at which virtually all of them jump off the traditional bandwagon, however, is in their failure to promote consecrated celibacy as a particularly fulfilling, much less the most fulfilling, way of life to which a Christian person might be called.

Two of the most important New Testament texts concerning consecrated celibacy are 1 Corinthians 7:1-7, 25-40 and Matthew 19:9-12. Both passages affirm the call to consecrated celibacy in the context of upholding the dignity and indissolubility of Christian marriage. [1] St. Paul, however, clearly affirms the superiority of the gift of consecrated celibacy, and recommends that state of life to his readers generally, with provisions made for those who are unable to remain continent. Of course, it would be wrong to conclude that Paul had a low view of marriage–quite the opposite (Ephesians 5:22-32).

Among many Christians, St. Paul’s advocacy of consecrated celibacy has been dismissed or tempered by restricting its application or confining its significance to the realm of practicality, even though they will sometimes admit that Our Lord, in Matthew 19, refers to continence as a special gift from God. [2] What these Christians and Christian communities have generally failed to do, however, is provide for any definite expression of this unique gift in and for the life of the Church.

Signs of the Kingdom: Celibacy and Marriage in the Catholic Church

So what is it that Catholics (and the Orthodox) see in celibacy that other Christians fail to see? The answer, I think, is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Christ is the center of all Christian life. The bond with him takes precedence over all other bonds, familial or social. (Luke 14:26; Matthew 10:28-31.) From the very beginning of the Church there have been men and women who have renounced the great good of marriage to follow the Lamb wherever he goes, to be intent on the things of the Lord, to seek to please him, and to go out to meet the Bridegroom who is coming. (Revelation 14:4; 1 Corinthians 7:32; Matthew 2:56.) Christ himself has invited certain persons to follow him in this way of life, of which he remains the model:

“For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.” (Matthew 19:12.)

Virginity for the sake of the kingdom of heaven is an unfolding of baptismal grace, a powerful sign of the supremacy of the bond with Christ and of the ardent expectation of his return, a sign which also recalls that marriage is a reality of this present age which is passing away. (Mark 12:25; 1 Corinthians 7:31.)  [3]

Notice the correlation made, at the end of this quotation, between Mark 12:25 and 1 Corinthians 7:31. According to these verses, “when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven”, and “the form of this world is passing away.” According to St. Paul, the Corinthians faced an “impending distress” in light of which it might have been prudent to refrain from marriage (all things being equal). But even if this “impending distress” refers primarily to a situation peculiar to the Corinthians in c. 56 A.D., we are not excused for failing to further apply this bit of Sacred Scripture; i.e., the “form of this world” did not become permanent once the “impending distress” had passed away. Everyone in Christ is called to the resurrection of glory (John 11:25, Romans 6:5, 1 Corinthians 15:22), although we must strive to lay hold of that high destiny (Philippians 3:7-14). By implication (Mark 12:25), we are all ultimately called to consecrated celibacy–to be “like angels” in that eternal world which is to come.

The discipline of celibacy for monastics and some clergy, in addition to being of great practical benefit to the Church, is a sign of the eschatological kingdom of God. Consecrated celibacy points towards the future consummation of the Church’s spousal union with Christ (which is already mystically consummated in the Eucharist). The celibate is a constant reminder to the Church that “the form of this world is passing away.” They live now as we shall all live in eternity.

Marriage is likewise a sign of the Kingdom, but in a different way. [4] The sign of sacramental marriage mystically represents the spousal union of Christ and the Church in the here and now. Marriage underscores the “already” of the Kingdom of God, while celibacy points towards the “not yet.”  


[1] The “exception clause” in Matthew 19:9 has been variously interpreted. The Catholic Church has disallowed the interpretation which reads Our Lord’s words as permitting an “absolute divorce,” i.e., the dissolution of a valid, sacramental marriage. Other interpretive options are summarized in this article from the Catholic Encyclopedia [1909]. For an overview of the issue of divorce and remarriage, with reference to Canon Law, see this article from

[2] See, for example, this post; also, Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Eighteenth Topic, Question XXVI, “The Marriage of the Clergy,” Paragraphs XV and XVIII.

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1618-19.

[4] Isaiah 62:1-5; Matthew 25:1-13; Ephesians 5:22-32.

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  1. This is a great post! When reverting back to the Church one of the many insightful clues that led me here was the fact that the Catholic Church practiced celibacy, and that it was, as far as I can tell, non-existent in Protestantism. This was one of the things that helped me see that the Holy Spirit was truly present in the Catholic Church.

  2. Most Protestants also don’t know the differences between the Western rite and the Eastern rites on this issue. For that matter, most Protestants don’t have any idea that there are Eastern rites.

  3. Interestingly, the secular/pagan culture during the period of the early Church was the one that demanded married rulers while the norm for the early Christians was celibate leaders. Celibacy in early Christian ministers was a scandal to pagan society. St. Clement of Alexandria says:

    Legislators, moreover, do not allow those who are unmarried to discharge the highest magisterial offices. For instance, the legislator of the Spartans imposed a fine not on bachelorhood only, but on monogamy, and late marriage, and single life. And the renowned Plato orders the man who has not married to pay a wife’s maintenance into the public treasury, and to give to the magistrates a suitable sum of money as expenses. For if they shall not beget children, not having married, they produce, as far as in them lies, a scarcity of men, and dissolve states and the world that is composed of them, impiously doing away with divine generation. It is also unmanly and weak to shun living with a wife and children. For of that of which the loss is an evil, the possession is by all means a good; and this is the case with the rest of things. But the loss of children is, they say, among the chiefest evils: the possession of children is consequently a good thing; and if it be so, so also is marriage. (Stromata 2.23)

    I remember reading Bruce Shelley’s book on Church History as a Protestant (when I had no Catholic leanings) and I remember how struck I was by his unfair treatment of celibacy. He treated it as if it were something evil. These sorts of radical departures from Scripture and Tradition are, like Jared said, things that actually propel folks towards the Catholic Church – not away from her.

    I remember contemplating celibacy as a Protestant. If I ever mentioned that to someone, I immediately got a ten minute lecture on how God wants us all to get married. Not only is celibacy not advocated in Protestantism, it’s shunned as an abnormality at best, and an evil at worst.

    I love this line from Jaroslav Pelikan’s “Mary Through the Centuries”:

    The paradox of Mary as Virgin Mother not only effectively illustrated but decisively shaped the fundamental paradox of the Orthodox and Catholic view of sexuality, which was epitomized by the glorification of virginity over matrimony – and by the celebration of matrimony, but not of virginity, as a sacrament.

  4. Hey David,

    Most Catholics don’t know that there are such things as the Eastern Catholic Churches. I like this breakdown of Catholic Rites and Churches.

    I don’t know how many Eastern Catholic Churches actually have married clergy. Some do, but of these, I don’t know how many have, or are supposed to get, permission from Papa. There are married clergy in the Roman Rite as well, mostly former Anglican ministers.

  5. Marriage underscores the “already” of the Kingdom of God, while celibacy points towards the “not yet.”

    That is brilliant, Andrew. Thank you!


  6. “Consecrated celibacy points towards the future consummation of the Church’s spousal union with Christ (which is mystically brought about in the Eucharist). The celibate is a constant reminder to the Church that “the form of this world is passing away.””

    Is it a sin for celibate Catholic clergy to masturbate? Or is it okay?

    If it’s a sin, do they have to go in the confessional booth and confess their sin of masturbation to another priest?

    On a more general scale, is the teaching that masturbation is a sin formally taught in the Roman Catholic Catechism? If not, then might it be understandable that there may be a large number of Catholics who don’t believe masturbation is a sin.

  7. All sins need to be confessed whether one is a priest or not. Yes masturbation is a sin (see CCC 2352). I’m not sure how this comment is related to the thread though.

  8. TUAD,

    This question is only tangentially related to the topic, but since it is something that many people, men in particular, struggle with and have questions about, I will briefly answer by appealing to Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium:

    Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21, RSV; emphasis added)

    As stated above (Aa. 6,9) wherever there occurs a special kind of deformity whereby the venereal act is rendered unbecoming, there is a determinate species of lust. This may occur in two ways: First, through being contrary to right reason, and this is common to all lustful vices; secondly, because, in addition, it is contrary to the natural order of the venereal act as becoming to the human race: and this is called “the unnatural vice.” This may happen in several ways. First, by procuring pollution, without any copulation, for the sake of venereal pleasure: this pertains to the sin of “uncleanness” which some call “effeminacy.” Secondly, by copulation with a thing of undue species, and this is called “bestiality.” Thirdly, by copulation with an undue sex, male with male, or female with female, as the Apostle states (Rom. 1:27): and this is called the “vice of sodomy.” Fourthly, by not observing the natural manner of copulation, either as to undue means, or as to other monstrous and bestial manners of copulation. (Summa theologica, IIa IIae q. 154 a. 11)

    By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. “Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” “The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.” For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of “the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2352)

    The “impurity” (or “uncleanness”) mentioned by St. Paul, is a sin somehow distinct from adultery and fornication, and has been taken to be among the “unnatural vices,” under which rubric St. Thomas includes masturbation (“procuring pollution, without any copulation”). The Catechism explicitly uses and further defines the term “masturbation,” and clearly states that the action is “intrinsically and gravely disordered.” Thus, this action, done with deliberate consent and in the knowledge that it is intrinsically and gravely disordered, is a mortal sin.

    So the answers to your questions are: Yes it is a sin; no it is not okay; yes, because the action involves grave matter, one must, with contrition and with the purpose to amend one’s life, avail oneself of the grace of sacramental penance; yes, the teaching that masturbation is a sin has always been the teaching of the Church.

    There might be a large number of Catholics who do not know that this is the teaching of the Church. Regardless, masturbation involves grave matter, being classified by St. Thomas with the unnatural vices of bestiality, sodomy and contraception. Anyone who wishes to enter the Kingdom of God must flee such forms of immorality.

  9. “In the Catholic Church, the eschatological sign of celibacy has been given concrete and enduring expression, through the discipline of clerical celibacy and the institutions of religious life.”

    This “enduring expression” of clerical celibacy seems to be subject to the possibility of reversal according to this news report about Cardinal Christoph Schonborn’s conversation with Pope Benedict XVI:

    “The issue was put back on the Vatican’s agenda in March when one of Pope Benedict’s senior advisers, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna, said the abolition of the celibacy rule might curb sex abuse by priests, a suggestion he hastily withdrew after Benedict spoke up for “the principle of holy celibacy”.”

    From: Italian priests’ secret mistresses ask pope to scrap celibacy rule.

    Why would Cardinal Schonborn even think to mention the abolition of the celibacy rule unless he thought it could be reversed?

  10. TUAD,

    The discipline of clerical celibacy can, in theory, be changed. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Our Lord’s intention for the Church, that there be eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, has been given concrete expression in the Catholic Church, East and West, in the religious life and by the discipline of clerical celibacy.

    Regarding the article to which you link, I will repeat (with some additions) what I wrote to you earlier:

    Undoubtedly, many who have not been given this gift (of celibacy) wrongly assume that they have, and some have fallen short of their solemn vows, and still others have used their office as a cloak for vice. Nevertheless, the biblical data concerning the high calling and eschatological ultimacy of consecrated celibacy remains. It will not do to complain that this calling is difficult, or that some who aspire to this goal have fallen along the way. [If Frodo had thought like that, he would never have set out from Bag End.] Traditional applications of the biblical data likewise remain in effect, in the Catholic Church and Orthodoxy, where consecrated celibacy continues to be promoted by ecclesiastical discipline and lived by men and women who freely, cheerfully and faithfully submit to that discipline, as befits the teachings of Our Lord, his Apostle Paul, and his One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

  11. TUAD:

    The norm of celibacy for priests in the Latin Church is reversible in principle because it is a discipline which did not always obtain and which was universalized only at a certain point. Since it is not a doctrine, it does not meet the conditions on irreformable doctrine. But in the Catholic Church, celibacy for bishops and priests has always been presented as the ideal, and as a normative discipline it has “endured” for a millennium. Since it continues to be the normative discipline, Andrew P. is right to call it “enduring.” And even if it is eventually dropped altogether for diocesan or “secular” priests, it will never be reversed for monks and other “religious,” many of whom are priests. The life of monks, nuns, friars, and other “religious” would make no sense without it. Even the Orthodox and the Anglicans agree with us about that, for the reasons Andrew has given.

    Now given that the celibacy norm for bishops and diocesan priests could be changed without doctrinal corruption, should it be? Some Catholic prelates think it should be, for reasons it’s not important to review here. They certainly have a right to that opinion. The Pope, however, is of a different opinion. I agree with him. In an age when the most common reason for apostasy from and hatred of the Catholic Church is her teaching about sexuality, gender, and marriage, it is all the more important to uphold the celibacy norm as a countercultural sign of the supernatural realities Andrew talked about in his post.


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