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Fr. Emmanuel Salifu writes: Celibacy; a gift or a problem?

The ongoing amazon synod has brought back the long standing opinion that priests should be allowed to marry or at least that the possibility should be there for those who wish to marry.

In the midst of this debate a second debate has arisen as a result of the first. Is celibate chastity relevant in our days?

In fact some have stretched the argument to insist that the sexual misconducts and abuses that have rocked the church in recent times are as a result of celibacy.

By making this connection, they seem to suggest two things: first that celibate chastity may not be a way of life that helps anyone to grow in holiness for if it has this “side effect” then obviously it may not be regarded as a gift or that if it is a gift, then it was a gift for the past.  Secondly, they seem to propose that marriage would be a healing of the “side effect” of celibacy.

Catholic tradition has always maintained and taught that both celibacy and marriage are gifts of God to his church. Both are vocations in which man is called to live out an aspect of the love of God.

A Nigerian theologian (John Egbulefu) states that both sacraments reveal the love of God: Celibacy reveals the universal love of God for mankind and Marriage reveals the particular love of God for an individual.

In both sacraments what God does is to show his love for mankind (in general) and for man (in particular) since in marriage one’s love is geared specifically for one person, while the love of a celibate particularly because it is not given to any specific person is directed to all (1 Cor. 7:32).

As to whether that possibility of marriage would be granted to those who want to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders is neither against scripture nor against the tradition of the church both the Latin (Western) Church and the Orthodox (Eastern) Church.

In fact, very few people seem to be aware that for example the catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1203) lists seven rites within the Catholic Church of which the Maronite rite is included. In the Maronites rite (which can be found in Osu-Accra) there remains to this day the tradition of married priests.

We in the Latin rite have the discipline of celibacy as a gift of God to follow Christ the bridegroom who gave himself up for his bride the church in order to honour and serve her (Cf. Eph. 5:25-27, 2 Cor 11:2).

In fact this theme of bridegroom who offers himself for his bride the church is also one of the theological reasons why women cannot be priest. This however is not the focus of this write up. Therefore, as to whether the concept of vir probatus would be accepted or not; or whether the Latin rite of the Catholic Church would in future give that option for those to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders is not really my concern in this write up, acknowledging that it is an ecclesiastical discipline and not a divine law.

Mine is that within the context of these reflections, some seem to be insinuating that celibacy as a problem in the church. Can a gift of God be a problem? Can the gift of God become obsolete at a point in history?

One bishop mentioned that his people do not grasp the concept of celibacy and that it makes no meaning to them. This argument is very familiar as at the beginning of the 19th century when Catholicism entered Africa, it was purported that celibacy was foreign to the African culture. Some even argued that this is why Africans cannot be celibates.

This was not only an insult to the African culture (which has shown that celibacy was not entirely foreign to our culture) but also to the African Christian who having heard the word of God accepts it and tries to live the life of Christ. Today there is vocation growth among Africans (the same people said not to have the capacity to live celibate lives). But we have to ask: do we have to eliminate the gift and value of Gospel and God because that gift or value is not valued in a culture (granted that this is so). Then what can we say about the transformative character of the gospel.

Another bishop at the Amazon Synod mentioned that the root of the problem of shortage in vocation has to do with holiness. This I agree with. The attractiveness of the life of celibate priests has dwindled because we have lost the aroma of holiness that this gift brings to our lives.

In a world of sexual promiscuity would we be true to the gospel if we continue to insist that a man dedicating his life and his sexuality to God is either impossible or makes him strange or weird. What would be its effect on the virtues of virginity and even chastity?

Today, there are even theologians who think that the teaching of the church on virginity before marriage is too difficult for young people to follow. How can the church be a witness if it lowers the values of the gospel because it is too difficult to live?

That seems to be the way of the world today: if it’s too difficult to live then let’s make the wrong right so we don’t feel guilty.

Heaven and earth would pass away but my word (my values, my love, my virtues, my teachings etc) would never pass away (Matt. 24:35). Values of our faith are not only perennial but they are also transformative.


Source: Rev. Fr. Emmanuel Salifu

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