Filling Heaven with God’s Children: Priestly Celibacy and Paternity
Carter Griffin, Why Celibacy? Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest (Emmaus Road Publishing, 2019).
Jesus calls his priest to be his co-worker in the Church, to fill Heaven with God’s children.
—Mother Teresa of Calcutta
Why are a husband and wife, father and mother of a newborn daughter and preschool-aged son, reviewing a book on priestly celibacy and fatherhood? Because we are witnesses to what Father Carter Griffin proposes Why Celibacy? Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest.
Both of us discerned celibacy. Our many close priest, religious, and consecrated friends beautifully incarnate celibacy and are among the freest, most joyful people we know. These friends have educated us about the universality of spiritual paternity and maternity. Fr. Griffin’s book taught us even more.
At a time like this, when scandal has “seriously weakened confidence in the wisdom of priestly celibacy,” Fr. Griffin contributes fresh insight on the reasons to keep the discipline. He does so by spotlighting supernatural paternity. With elegant, accessible language, he shows in only 161 pages how celibacy is inherently linked to a priest’s supernatural fatherhood, and addresses common objections and the proposal of optional celibacy.
The author’s life attests to his qualifications for this task. Fr. Griffin is rector of the St. John Paul II Seminary, a house of formation for the Archdiocese of Washington and other dioceses. He has been a formator at the seminary since 2011, including as vice rector and archdiocesan vocations director. Fr. Griffin converted to Catholicism in college and served for four years in the United States Navy as a line officer before entering seminary. He wrote his doctoral dissertation in 2011 on priestly celibacy, paternity, and masculinity.
Fr. Griffin is also a dear friend and spiritual father of our family. He prepared us for marriage, presided over our wedding, baptized our son, gives counsel, and regularly breaks bread with us. “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses,” St. Pope Paul VI told the Pontifical Council for the Laity in October 1974. Fr. Griffin has witnessed to us what he teaches in this book.
Who is a priest? Our pastors and bishops are not managers or functionaries whom we occasionally look to for administrating programs. They are fathers who provide us with the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and confession. We also rely on them to intercede for us in prayer, to teach, guide, and correct us, protecting us from error by warning us boldly about external threats.
Our priests are also our brothers who need us. Priests learn to be fathers as much from the example of natural fathers as they do from their fellow priests. Encountering and being in relationship with the lay faithful help priests to be fully human. Moreover, lay people share with clerics Christ’s offices of priest, prophet, and king through Baptism. Their holiness can educate and correct priests, especially when the devil tempts with pride.
How does celibacy fit in? Fr. Griffin argues the discipline is impossible to understand without seeing how it is ordered to supernatural fruitfulness. Fr. Griffin goes to the core: God the Father’s celibate generation of the Son. Jesus is the one high priest. He was incarnated as a celibate man and as a celibate man generated the Church. “The priest’s fatherhood [is] derived from his configuration to Christ the Head.” Celibacy most closely approximates the paternity of the Father and the generative relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Jesus incarnated that generation. He renounced natural marriage and family so that He could have an undivided heart for His sheep. Fr. Griffin quotes and echoes the fathers of the Second Vatican Council, who wrote in the decree Presbyterorum Ordinis that celibate priests “adhere to him [Christ] more easily with an undivided heart… dedicate themselves more freely in him and through him to the service of God and men, and…more expeditiously minister to his Kingdom and the work of heavenly regeneration.”
At times, when we hear the phrase “spiritual fatherhood or motherhood” we think of it as an abstract likeness or an emotional consolation for those unable to have children. Instead, Fr. Griffin clarifies that all human persons need to be generated at the biological, natural and supernatural, or “spiritual” levels. “A human child…[is] not born only to enjoy the goods of this world, but also—and even more so—to enjoy the imperishable goods of heaven. Every person is born for eternal life.” Therefore, interceding for our children, bringing them to the sacraments, and living our call to holiness is an even higher mission than toiling to keep them fed, rested, clothed and schooled.
The “undivided heart” of celibacy is about more than just having more minutes in the day for others. It is “a profound interior and spiritual availability,” exemplified in priests like St. John Vianney, the patron of parish priests. Having no natural wife calling him home was only partially what made him such an extraordinary instrument of God’s mercy in the confessional. Celibacy dilated his heart and prepared it to receive and give to others the fruits of contemplation. This is what all priests need to fulfill their three-fold office of sanctifying, teaching and shepherding, to offer people “Christ and the truth of the Gospel.” “The faithful expect only one thing from priests: that they be specialists in promoting the encounter between man and God,” as Pope Benedict XVI reminded Polish priests in 2006.
While offering a positive view of priestly celibacy, Fr. Griffin acknowledges the renunciation it entails. However, he reminds his readers that celibacy is a freely chosen sacrifice that participates in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, one which bears much fruit. Moreover, echoing Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, Preacher to the Papal Household, Fr. Griffin notes that the celibate renounces the exercise of sexuality, not sexuality as such: being male or female.
“Celibacy,” then, “is not the neutering of those who embrace it for the sake of the Kingdom; rather it is the channeling of their sexual energies toward higher goods.” Based partially on his own experience, Fr. Griffin explores how seminary can best form men in the chastity that harnesses those energies in well-ordered love (learning to guard against times of vulnerability and nourish oneself with exercise, exposure to beauty, a vibrant interior life, healthy relationships with friends and authority figures, and the habits of regular confession, examination of conscience and small daily mortifications, among others).
The generous spirit developed by celibacy can also be an answer to some of the pitfalls of the priesthood. Fr. Griffin notes three of these to which today’s priests are particularly prone: narcissism, clericalism, and activism. Narcissism is defined as an “excessive need for admiration…extreme sensitivity to criticism…a sense of entitlement… [and] craving for creaturely compensations, licit or illicit.” Examples include alcoholism, careerism, pornography, illicit relationships, the undue craving for fancy meals, social events, lavish vacations, collections or hobbies. The narcissistic priest may also obsessively control his time, money, and space. Narcissism sometimes even drives a priest to personalize the Mass, “modifying the Church’s liturgy to accommodate [his] theories or preferences.”
Clericalism, says Fr. Griffin, is “the disordered preoccupation with one’s clerical states and status…an elitist identification of authority with power rather than humility, with control rather than service.” The clericalist priest forgets that “he is united to Christ primarily by the baptism that he shares with all believers, not by his ordination.” Faux holiness, as well as the demand of disproportionate deference and obedience are all kinds of clericalism. When clericalism and temperamentalism mix, “priests give free rein to their mood swings, forcing colleagues and parishioners to put up with their erratic feelings.”
Activism “is an approach to the ministry that loses sight of its supernatural motive and source.” It is exemplified by primarily focusing on “programs, tasks, administration, and other forms of measurable achievement.” Fr. Griffin warns that “clericalism and activism…have this in common: both imagine that one can be a minister of Christ without being a disciple of Christ.”
All of us, of course, are just as vulnerable to these pitfalls, or versions of them. As an antidote, Fr. Griffin encourages everyone to prioritize their “grace-filled interior life,” and develop well-rooted friendships with others. Turning to priests, he encourages them to embrace their identity as supernatural fathers and to recognize that religious and laypeople are also instruments of grace for them. Fr. Griffin also encourages priests to develop deep, true friendships with brother priests and laymen, noting “the presbyteral brother provides a witness to other men that male friendship is still possible and even constitutive of a fulfilled life” “at a time with fewer male friendships.”
One of the most baseless claims about celibate priests is they have nothing useful to show or say about marriage. As we have seen in our experience, paradoxically, priests can have more insight into the struggles and beauty of marriage than our fellow spouses. This flows from the amount of time they spend with many different couples, hearing confessions of countless others, going to confession themselves, their human formation, and, above all, groundedness in the spiritual life.
The witness of their faithfulness to the Lord in celibacy bolsters our fidelity to Him and each other. We are continually reminded to lay our lives down for each other and for others, living the “vocation to love,” as priests do. Their celibacy “reminds us true love is found not primarily in sexual activity but in the life of charity, which unites us to God and to one another and which alone satisfies the deep yearning for love and meaning that the sexual revolution promised, and failed to deliver.”
Fr. Griffin wrote his book on priestly celibacy for everyone, whatever his or her vocation and state of life. From our porch, Nathaniel looked up from the phrase “the father protects his children from their own misguided decisions” to see our son drinking muddy water from a kiddie pool and stop him. Both of us worked through it while we soothed our crying newborn daughter in a baby carrier, smiling as we looked at the title Why Celibacy? The text has nourished many rich conversations and will continue to animate our marriage, family, and friendships. We are grateful for the celibate priestly fatherhood of its author, our friend.
Kristin and Nathaniel Hurd live in Hyattsville, MD with their two children. She was a novice in Rome with the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo, an order reflecting the charism of the ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation. He began considering the priesthood immediately after becoming Catholic in 2005 and was a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Washington.