I am far from exaggerating and wishing to speak of the law of celibacy as a dogma, properly so called; but I hold that it belongs to the highest discipline, that it is of unrivalled importance, and that we cannot be too grateful to the Sovereign Pontiff* to whom we are indebted for having maintained it.The priest who belongs to a wife and children, belongs no longer to his flock, or does not sufficiently belong to it. An essential faculty is always wanting to him — that of giving alms, of exercising charity without sometimes considering too narrowly his own means. In thinking of his children, the married priest dares not follow the impulses of his heart; his purse is tied up against indigence, which has nothing to expect at his hands but cold exhortations. Moreover, the dignity of the priest would be mortally wounded by certain kinds of ridicule. The wife of a superior magistrate who should manifestly forget her duties would do more harm to her husband than the wife of any other man. And why? Because the higher magistracies possess a kind of holy and venerable dignity, by which they resemble the priesthood. What would it not be, then, in regard to the priesthood itself?
Not only do the vices of the wife reflect great discredit on the character of the husband-priest, but the latter, in his turn, escapes not the danger common to all men engaged in the married state — that of living criminally. The multitude of reasoners who have treated the great question of ecclesiastical celibacy, always found upon the notable sophism, that marriage is a state of purity, whilst in reality it is clean only to the clean. How many marriages are irreproachable before God? Infinitely few. The man who is blameless in the eyes of the world may be infamous at the altar. If human weakness or perversity establishes a conventional toleration in regard to certain abuses, this toleration, which is itself an abuse, is never suited to the priest, because the conscience of mankind ceases not to compare it with the type of sacerdotal perfection it contemplates within itself; so that it makes no allowance for the copy, whenever it ceases to be like the pattern.
In Christianity there is much that is high and sublime; between the priest and his people there are relations so holy and so delicate, that they can only belong to men absolutely superior to other men. Confession alone underlines the need for celibacy. Never will women — and they must be particularly considered in regard to this point — give their full confidence to a married priest. But it is not easy to write on this subject.
The churches so unfortunately separated from the center of unity were not wanting in conscience, but in strength, when they sanctioned the marriage of priests. They accuse themselves by excepting bishops, and by refusing to consecrate priests before they are married. ... Thus do they acknowledge the rule that no priest can marry; but they admit that, by toleration and for want of subjects, a married lay person may be ordained. By a species of sophistry which, from custom, no longer shocks, instead of ordaining a candidate although married they marry him in order that he may he ordained; so that in violating the ancient rule they distinctly bear witness to it.
Even the censures that are addressed to the Catholic priesthood prove their superiority. Voltaire admirably says: "The life of secular men has always been more vicious than that of priests; but the disorders of the latter have always been more remarkable, from their contrast with the rule." Nothing is forgiven them, because everything is expected of them....
The high nobility of the Catholic clergy is entirely due to celibacy; and this severe institution, being solely the work of the Popes, inwardly animated and guided by a spirit in regard to which conscience cannot be deceived, all the glory of it is attributable to them, and they must be considered by all competent judges the real founders of the priesthood.
Joseph de Maistre
* A reference to Pope Saint Gregory VII, the great reformer and restorer, and the subject of de Maistre in the preceding lines.