Edward Burne-Jones, “The Adoration of the Magi,” 1904Over the past six months the Church has suffered horrid revelations of clergy sexual abuse, homosexual activity, and attendant cover-up. These scandals have understandably prompted some to call for an end to celibacy in the Catholic Church. It would seem that the discipline no longer serves us well, and indeed might be the source of our woes. Of course, we should not quickly jettison a practice so deep in the Church’s history and so strongly recommended by our Lord and his Apostles (see Matthew 19:12; 1 Corinthians 7:25-40; Revelation 14:4). Perhaps in this season, in the light of Christ’s Epiphany, we can reflect upon this sacred discipline, which the Church has always referred to as a treasure, not a burden.

The Feast of the Epiphany is about God’s sudden self-manifestation or, from another perspective, our sudden perception about him. To borrow from the Christmas Preface, with Christ’s birth “a new light of [his] glory has shown upon the eyes of our minds.” The Word made flesh is revealed as a light to the nations, present in the Magi: “On entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage” (Matthew 2:11).

Celibacy and the Epiphany

Celibacy itself is something of an epiphany – that is, a sudden manifestation or revelation. Until Jesus Christ, it was virtually unknown. Some, but few, of the prophets appear to have been celibate (and Hosea might have desired to be). These men are significant not so much as exceptions that prove the rule but as types of the One to come. The chaste, celibate Christ is a new way of God manifesting himself. The Child in the manger will be celibate, not as an accidental feature of His life but to reveal something essential about Himself and His mission; to manifest Himself as the Bridegroom of the Church.

Our Lord’s birth is also the epiphany of spiritual generation in the world. Prior to his coming, abstaining from marriage and therefore from procreation made no sense because the Messiah was to be born of Jewish blood. Thus, every man desired to have descendants. In Bethlehem, something new appears. The new light of Christ has revealed a new kind of birth, that of the “children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). Of greater importance now is not physical generation but spiritual. The essential thing is to be born anew, or “from above” (John 3:3).

Priestly celibacy is ordered to participation in this spiritual generation, to becoming a spiritual father. Presbyterorum Ordinis, Vatican II’s decree on the life and ministry of priests, calls celibacy “a sign and a stimulus for pastoral charity and a special source of spiritual fecundity in the world.” By way of it, a priest foregoes marriage and children precisely so that he can become a spiritual father. In so doing, he witnesses to the truth and superiority of spiritual generation. As Saint Paul became father to the Corinthians through his ministry (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:16), so priests father children in Christ by their ministry, their preaching and administration of the sacraments. Without this purpose of celibacy firmly in mind, we will inevitably lose sight of its significance. Indeed, the scandals witness to this truth: one of the horrors of the current crisis is precisely that spiritual fathers – not just anyone, but spiritual fathers – have abused the children entrusted to them.

Of course, the Feast of Epiphany is best known for the mysterious gifts of the Magi: “Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11). These gifts help to flesh out or reveal the content of this epiphany of celibacy. The Church has always understood these gifts as more than just material goods. They are important not so much in themselves but in what they reveal about Christ, their recipient. Traditionally they are taken to proclaim him as king, God and man. In that same spirit, we can discern in the gifts of the Magi certain essentials of celibacy.

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National Catholic Register, January 6, 2019