The celibacy of priests is one of the greatest glories of the Latin Church: such has been the unanimous opinion of Roman Pontiffs, including all recent ones, solemnly reaffirmed by Pope Paul VI soon after the last Ecumenical Council, despite the enormous pressures of the "Spirit of the Council", with the publication of his next-to-last Encyclical Letter, Sacerdotalis Cælibatus, signed forty years ago, on June 24, 1967.
It is said that in the world of our time the observance of celibacy has come to be difficult or even impossible. This state of affairs is troubling consciences, perplexing some priests and young aspirants to the priesthood; it is a cause for alarm in many of the faithful and constrains Us to fulfill the promise We made to the Council Fathers. We told them that it was Our intention to give new luster and strength to priestly celibacy in the world of today.
...We consider that the present law of 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; 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 large.
The reasons for the need to maintain priestly celibacy in the Latin Church were thoroughly expounded by Pope Paul:
[1. Christological Significance:]
The Christian priesthood, being of a new order, can be understood only in the light of the newness of Christ, the Supreme Pontiff and eternal Priest, who instituted the priesthood of the ministry as a real participation in His own unique priesthood. ... 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 condition. ... 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 concern 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 eternal Priest; this sharing will be more perfect the freer the sacred minister is from the bonds of flesh and blood. ... This biblical and theological view associates our ministerial priesthood with the priesthood of Christ; the total and exclusive dedication of Christ to His mission of salvation provides reason and example for our assimilation to the form of charity and sacrifice proper to Christ our Savior.
[2. Ecclesiological Significance:]
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, by which the children of God are born, "not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh." The priest dedicates himself to the service of the Lord Jesus and of His Mystical Body with complete liberty, which is made easier by his total offering, and thus he depicts more fully the unity and harmony of the priestly life.
[3. Pastoral Efficacy:]
The consecration to Christ under an additional and lofty title like celibacy evidently gives to the priest, even in the practical field, the maximum efficiency and the best disposition of mind, mentally and emotionally, for the continuous exercise of a perfect charity. ... It also obviously guarantees him a greater freedom and flexibility in the pastoral ministry ... .
[4. The Western Witness:]
In any case, the Church of the West cannot weaken her faithful observance of her own tradition. Nor can she be regarded as having followed for centuries a path which instead of favoring the spiritual richness of individual souls and of the People of God, has in some way compromised it, or of having stifled, with arbitrary juridical prescriptions, the free expansion of the most profound realities of nature and of grace.
Pope Paul also warned those involved in priestly formation to be strict in finding and excluding unsuitable candidates (a warning which was mostly ignored in the following decades):
Those who are discovered to be unfit for physical, psychological or moral reasons should be quickly removed from the path to the priesthood. Let educators appreciate that this is one of their very grave duties. ... care should be taken for the progressive development of a mature personality through physical, intellectual and moral education directed toward the control and personal dominion of his temperament, sentiments and passions.
As we prepare to celebrate the centennial of one of the greatest and most influential Vatican documents of the 20th Century (Lamentabili Sane Exitu), next Tuesday, excerpts of the Encyclical of Paul VI remind Catholics of the perennity of their Tradition. One of the errors condemned by the Holy Office in Lamentabili was the notion that "Modern Catholicism can be reconciled with true science only if it is transformed into a non-dogmatic Christianity; that is to say, into a broad and liberal Protestantism." Though the great desire for ecumenically good relations influenced so many of Pope Paul's decisions, the beauty remains in those traditional doctrinal and disciplinary notions which he, aided by the Holy Ghost, refused to alter, in the middle of the storm: and his two final encyclicals (Sacerdotalis Cælibatus and Humanæ Vitæ) are great signs, tamquam scintillæ in arundineto, of this endless Divine Mercy for the Throne of Peter and the Magisterium of the Church.