Is There a Difference Between Priestly Celibacy and the Celibacy of a Single Person?

Priestly celibacy is something that Catholics and non-Catholics alike often have questions about. While there have always been married clergy in the Catholic Church, the norm is that priests are celibate and do not marry. But it is not only priests who are celibate. There are many single people who are celibate not because they have made a vow or promise of celibacy, but because it is simply their current state in life.

Recently a listener named Mark called in to Father Simon Says™ with a question about the difference between the celibacy of a priest and the celibacy of a lay person. He asked, “Is a priest given more grace to help him with his attraction to women than a single man committed to celibacy?”

Fr. Simon acknowledged the complexity of his simple question, saying, “Well, you have touched on a topic that people have gotten doctorates writing research papers on.”

Mark’s full question made note of the vow of celibacy, and Fr. Simon clarified by saying, “I don’t have a vow of celibacy, I have a promise of celibacy. What is the difference between a promise and a vow? A vow is integral to your spiritual life. I have a promise of obedience and a promise of celibacy.”

Fr. Simon illustrated how a promise of obedience is different than a vow of obedience by explaining that a priest entering a religious order who takes a vow of obedience is saying that he will treat what his superiors ask of him as if it is the will of God for him. Unless it is clearly immoral, it is taken as God’s will. However, a promise of obedience means that the priest may disagree, may not think it is God’s will, but if it is not immoral he will obey his bishop.

“So there’s a difference,” he said. “It’s about the source of it. A vow of celibacy is something that you feel God has required of you or asked of you. And you trust the Lord for the strength of it.”

That distinction between a promise and a vow is an important one, as it informs Fr. Simon’s explanation of his promise of celibacy.

He said, “I don’t think that celibacy is a gift. I really don’t. It is a discipline. Now, a lot of people who are diocesan priests who don’t have a vow of celibacy would disagree with me. And maybe they’re right. But I have a calling to the priesthood. That is my vocation. And I have no doubt of it over these many years. However, celibacy in the diocesan priesthood is a discipline. It is useful for the priesthood. It gives me the freedom to minister to people whom I otherwise could not serve.”

Celibacy as a discipline is something that many single people also practice, as they live out the virtue of chastity as one who is not married. In answer to Mark’s question, Fr. Simon said that, whether you are married, single, ordained, or a consecrated religious, God gives each of us the grace to live out our vocations faithfully.

“If someone says, ‘Well, I can’t help it. I have these passions. I must do this even though it is sinful.’ That’s not true,” he said. “If God asks you to do something he will give you the grace and the strength to do it. No matter the situation. Whether it is the difficult life of celibacy or the difficult life of marriage. They’re both difficult.”

“If a person thinks marriage is easier than celibacy he’s kidding himself. If a person thinks marriage is more difficult than celibacy he’s kidding himself. They’re both lives that take 100% commitment. And God gives his gift, his grace for the situation in which we find ourselves.”

Listen to the full conversation below:

Father Simon Says airs weekdays at 1:00 p.m. Central on Relevant Radio® and the Relevant Radio App.

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Stephanie Foley serves as a Digital Media Producer at Relevant Radio®. She is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, where she studied journalism, and she has worked in Catholic radio for 12 years. Stephanie is a wife, a mother of three boys, and in her free time she enjoys reading, running, and really good coffee. You can find more of Stephanie’s writing at relevantradio.com and on the free Relevant Radio mobile app.