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WHY ARE CATHOLIC PRIESTS CELIBATE?

Not all Catholic priests are celibates, for in the Catholic Eastern Churches priests are permitted to marry before ordination. This is the practice also in the Orthodox Churches.

Celibacy has traditionally been a highly valued way of ascetic life in Oriental religion. In Brahmanism, celibacy is incorporated in the four ashrams or stages of life: student, householder, forest-dwelling ascetic and wandering ascetic. Celibacy is observed in the first and last two stages. In Buddhism one who becomes a monk has to be a celibate for life. This practice, though not in vogue in Mahayana Buddhism, continues in Theravada tradition.

An ascetical movement similar to that in North India in the 6th century BC , from which evolved Buddhism, Jainism and now the defunct Ajivkism, took place in Eastern Christendom in the 4th and 5th centuries. It was a movement for the practice of eremitic asceticism as solitaries in the desert. This was followed by forms of coenobitical or communal asceticism, the most prominent of which, arising in the 6th century, was Benedictnism, which became the dominant form of religious life in Europe during the next six centuries. Celibacy was an essential characteristic of both eremitic and coenobitical life.

On the point of celibacy, Christian monasticism had an influence on clergy life. Apart from the ascetical value of celibacy, there was also, in the case of the clergy, the practical advantages of total commitment to the ministry without being impeded by the encumbrances of family life. It was felt moreover that following the example of Christ and in keeping with his counsels (Matthew 19:29; Mark 10:29; Luke 14:26) and the admonition of St. Paul (1 Cor. 7.7), celibacy would be desirable also for those dedicated to God's service in the ranks of the clergy.

A drift towards celibacy for the clergy, though in slow stages, was the result. The Spanish synod of Elvira (c.306) legislated that bishops, priests and deacons should abstain sexually from their wives. In 325 the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea prohibited the marriage of clergy after the diaconate. In 1123 the First Lateran Ecumenical Council imposed celibacy on all the clergy of the Latin Rite. This has remained in force up to the present.

In spite of pressure in modern times from some sections of the clergy and others for optional celibacy., Vatican II has upheld the decision of the First Lateran Council. After referring to the historical facts that at one time celibacy was recommended to priests, and at a later date, imposed on them, the Council states "This most holy synod again approves and confirms" the legislation requiring celibacy of the clergy of the Latin Rite (Ministry and Life of Priests, 16). The Synod however respects the traditional practice of optional celibacy in the Eastern Churches. "While this most sacred Synod recommends ecclesiastical celibacy, it in no way intends to change that different discipline which lawfully prevails in Eastern Churches (ibid)

The decision of the Council has been passed on to the new Code of Canon Law. While reaffirming the traditional legislation, the Code also points out also the two chief merits of celibacy, namely, its ascetical value and the fact that it enables the priest to dedicate himself fully to his pastoral ministry. "Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven, and are therefore bound to celibacy. Celibacy is a special gift of God by which sacred ministries can more easily remain close to Christ with an undivided heart, and can dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and their neighbour" (Can. 277, sec.1)

In the section on prerequisites for ordination, the Code says again: "A candidate for the permanent diaconate who is not married, and likewise, a candidate for the priesthood is not to be admitted to the order of diaconate unless he has, in the prescribed rite, publicly before God and the Church undertaken the obligation of celibacy, or unless he has taken perpetual vows in a religious institute." (Can. 1037).

There is another aspect of the significance of celibacy in the life of the priest. The sacrifice of Christ is unique in that he was both priest and victim. He offered his life as a sacrifice for the salvation of man. "I lay down my life for my sheep.. No one takes it from me; I lay it down of my own free will" (John 9:15,18). The human priest who participates in the priesthood of Christ should also participate in the priesthood of Christ should also participate in the victim aspect of Christ's priesthood. Celibacy by which the priest renounces marriage for good brings the sacrificial element into his life Perpetual chastity involves a perpetual sacrifice.

The view has been put forward that optional celibacy in the Latin Church might be a way of meeting the problem of shortage of priests, particularly in Western countries. While the real reasons for the shortage of priests should be sought elsewhere for instance in the materialistic outlook of secularized society in the West, the question may be asked whether celibacy is really a hindrance to genuine vocations. In any case, marriage should in no way become a bait to attract vocations.

 

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