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DEAR FATHER | Priestly celibacy is a discipline of commitment to God and Church

The Gospels talk about Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law, so we understand that Peter was married. So why don’t priests marry today?

St. Peter was certainly married (Luke 4:38-41). There is no other reasonable explanation for having a mother-in-law apart from marriage. We know little about his marriage from either Scripture or tradition, apart from a few small clues.

Peter said to Jesus, “We have given up everything and followed you. What will there be for us?” Jesus responded that the Kingdom of Heaven has a hundred-fold reward for those who have “given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name…” (Matthew 19:27-29), which implies that giving up family life very well may have been part of the sacrifice Peter made to follow Jesus. We also never hear of Peter’s wife directly, despite hearing of other prominent women among Jesus’ followers. It seems that, for reasons unexplained, Peter was not continuing in the common life of marriage once he was called.

However, the heart of your question deals with celibacy. To understand this gift from God, we must first understand that celibacy is not simply the state of being single, nor is celibacy an infallible doctrine. Celibacy is a discipline of our faith — an intentional commitment to remaining unmarried for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Many people are single without committing to that state for the good of God’s Kingdom. It is fitting that priests, who daily re-present Jesus’ sacrifice to the Father, observe this discipline out of reverence for the mystery. Furthermore, celibacy is not a doctrine; doctrines are teachings that express some truth revealed by God. Celibacy, however, is a practice to help an individual better serve God and the Church. This changes the conversation from asserting “Peter had a wife; therefore, priests do not need to be celibate” to asking the question “Is celibacy conducive to freeing a man to giving himself entirely to serving God’s kingdom?” The question could also be applied to men and women religious.

I will offer two truths you may reflect upon in answering this question. First, Jesus Himself chose celibacy, which makes it difficult to claim celibacy is a negative thing. Secondly, St. Paul comments “an unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided” (1 Corinthians 7: 32-34). St. Paul does not condemn marriage but has a realistic perspective that marriage takes a lot of work. The practice of celibacy foregoes both the joys and challenges of marriage to serve the Lord in a different state of life.

Father Archer is associate pastor of St. Peter Parish in Kirkwood.

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