From Scripture and Tradition, we can learn that the notion of a priest’s fatherhood is rooted in the witness of Jesus, the perfect high priest who himself was a celibate, supernatural father in the order of grace.
Scripture reveals the profound truth that all human fatherhood, including that of the priest, is grounded in God’s own fathering of the eternal Son, as St. Paul teaches in Ephesians 3:15. We recognize that God is not simply a generator, but “the generator of generators.” This supernatural fatherhood gives us a window into how a priest can also be a true, spiritual father in the order of grace. Though biological (natural) fatherhood is the basis for all human fatherhood, in a certain sense a priest is more a father than a natural father, because he more closely reflects the supernatural fatherhood of God. The priest’s fatherhood conforms to Christ’s mission through the offices of sanctification, preaching and teaching, and ruling and shepherding.
While celibacy offers priests many incredible benefits, there are also pitfalls that priests must be aware of. The first of these is narcissism, which can lead to obsessions with controlling time, money, and space in ways that push the priest away from the very people entrusted to him. A second danger is clericalism, which occurs when a priest places ministry before discipleship. The third danger is the temptation to reduce ministry to activism in the midst of very busy schedules and being so easily accessible through cell phones, text messaging, and social media.
Fr. Griffin draws from his years of experience forming men for the priesthood. First, those responsible for evaluating candidates for the priesthood must have a mindset of finding future spiritual fathers who can be committed to a life of supernatural paternity. These men must exhibit qualities that make men good natural fathers. They should demonstrate self-sacrifice, responsibility, the ability to make and keep commitments, warmth, sincerity, and humility. Additionally, men selected for the seminary must be self-confident in their masculinity, since men who experience same-sex attraction indicate an ambiguous masculine identity, weakening their capacity to exercise a celibate paternity.
There are many gifts and blessings that accompany priestly celibacy. First, celibacy serves to enhance the priest’s ministry and should contribute to his personal holiness. Second, celibacy allows the priest to intensify his pastoral charity for the people in his care. Third, celibacy offers the priest a heightened awareness of his spiritual paternity and moves him to deeper love for the Church. Fourth, celibacy gives priests the space to grow in brotherhood with their fellow priests, witnessing to other men that male friendship is still possible. Fifth, celibacy serves to affirm the priest’s identity, a major part of which is found in the spiritual fatherhood of the priest.
Celibacy enhances a priest’s identity as a spiritual father. The greatest models of virginal parenthood are that of St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother. St. Joseph offers a model for spiritual paternity that is enhanced rather than diminished by the forfeiting of children. The Blessed Mother offers her powerful and perfect example of holiness and chastity to priests.
These are without question difficult days for the priesthood and for priestly celibacy. In the wake of staggering and scandalous betrayals by priests and bishops alike, many Catholics—and I think almost all non-Catholics—assume that celibacy shares the blame. And yet, that assumption squares neither with the objective data, nor with the testimony of countless priests and religious through the ages, nor with my own personal experience as a celibate priest.
Just as marriage does not cause adultery, the sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults is not caused by celibacy. When priests or bishops become dangerous predators and superiors do not stem them, It Is not a failure of celibacy—it is a failure to live celibacy well. It is a failure of chastity, not celibacy.
Because celibacy is a unique and powerful way of living spiritual fatherhood, our responsibility today is not to turn our backs on this gift, but to revitalize it, help priests and seminarians (and all Catholics) appreciate its extraordinary beauty and significance, and prepare young men in formation to live celibacy with maturity and joy.
Abolishing or limiting the gift of celibacy or making it optional, while theoretically possible, would forfeit one of the great gifts to the Church and render more challenging the fullest realization of priestly paternity.
Taken seriously, celibate priestly fatherhood is a path to genuine clerical renewal and reform today, ensuring that the priesthood ever more clearly radiates the humble, joyful vocation of service exemplified in the life of Jesus the High Priest.
When celibacy is understood to enhance the priest’s very identity as a spiritual father, as coloring every fiber of his being and his priestly ministry, then it becomes a rich source of human satisfaction, personal joy, and priestly fruitfulness. Celibacy is no longer viewed as a burden to carry but as a gift to treasure and protect. It is the bearer of tremendous spiritual and human gifts to the Church and to the world at large, which would be lost or diminished should the practice of celibacy be weakened.
Perhaps the greatest champions of celibacy are two individuals who themselves modeled virginal parenthood in their generative love of Jesus the High Priest: St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother.
In many respects the celibate, supernatural fatherhood of priests finds a model in the paternity of St. Joseph. The Holy Patriarch uniquely reflected the paternity of God as the guardian of God’s Son.
Mary, the archetype of the Church, represents the Bride through whom the priest generates new children. Like a new mother who helps draw a man out of himself toward his new paternal responsibilities, Mary can help the celibate priest discover his own fatherhood.