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The Origins of Priestly Celibacy
The question of priestly celibacy is today a frequently debated issue both in society at large and within Catholic circles. There are a large number of criticisms of celibacy: some mention the number of priests who have abandoned the priesthood and renounced celibacy; others mention the decline in vocations to the priesthood in our society; and still others who argue that celibacy is unnatural and can result in physical and mental disorders.
For the first three centuries of the Church, there were no regulations concerning celibacy for bishops, priests or deacons. The rule of celibacy for priests grew through the influence of monks and hermits who were consecrated entirely to serve God. There were many objections to this new requirement of the Latin rite. Many priests refused to submit resulting in scandal amongst believers and this seriously hurt the credibility of the Church. After many unsuccessful attempts, the rule of celibacy was definitively promulgated under the papacy of Pope Gregory VII (1073-85).
The Orthodox Church and the oriental rite Church refused to adopt the practise of celibacy. Today, these two churches still allow their priests to be married, as long as they were married before their ordination, but not their bishops. Consequently, we see that celibacy is not divinely required, otherwise there would be no exceptions. It is instead a matter of the Latin rite´s internal discipline which chooses its priest from among men who wish to offer up their entire lives to God in this way.
Why celibacy ...
The Holy See has frequently restated it rule of priestly celibacy. Among the more recent documents are: "Presbyterorum Ordinis" (1965), the Encyclical "Sacerdotalis Coelibatus" (1967) by Pope Paul VI, His Holiness John Paul II´s letter to priests dated Holy Thursday 1979, the "Directory for Ministry and the Life of Priests," published in 1994 by Congregation for the Clergy and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992).
The Latin Church considers consecrated celibacy to be a gift received from God which the Church wishes to watch over, convinced that it is a blessing for the Church and all the world. Consecrated celibacy is seen as a radical witness in the footsteps of Christ and as a sign of the New Jerusalem to which the priest is totally dedicated to.
Celibacy, in its capacity as a gift and particular charism from God, requires the observance of perfect and perpetual continence for the Kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:12). This is so priests can adhere more fully and give themselves more freely to Christ and to the people. It is in full knowing and freedom that a candidate for the priesthood after several years preparation, led through meditation and prayer, assumes celibacy for the rest of his life at the moment of ordination.
The Catholic Church sees in Jesus Christ a convincing witness of celibacy. Running contrary to the dominant culture of his times, Christ choose to live as a celibate.
The ascetic life
The Church is not unaware of the demands on a life committed to celibacy particularly in today´s culture. In order to guarantee and preserve this gift in a calm equilibrium and spiritual growth, the church suggests ways that will distance priests from potential problems. The Church considers that priests should act with prudence in human relations and in situations that risk compromising the faithfulness of their commitment and the effectiveness of their ministry.