The Priest as Man, Husband, and Father | Fr. John Cihak, S.T.D. | March 26, 2007 | IgnatiusInsight.comThe Priest as Man, Husband, and Father | Fr. John Cihak, S.T.D. | March 26, 2007

This article was originally published by the Congregation for the Clergy in its journal, Sacrum Ministerium 12:2 (2006): 75-85. It is based upon a presentation given to the Board of Directors of Mount Angel Seminary (Oregon, USA) on August 30, 2006. It is reprinted here by kind permission of the author.

Crisis and Renewal in the Priesthood Today

The crisis in the Church in the United States, brought on by the discovery of sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the clergy, indicates the need for clergy reform and renewal. The need for the renewal of the clergy, as for all Christians, is perennial and certain periods of the Church's history have been more intense than others in this regard. Around the year 1000 it was the reform of Pope St. Gregory VII, especially in the area of celibacy among clergy. In the late 1500s, it was the reform spearheaded by the Council of Trent and by St. Charles Borromeo, who established the seminary system for the formation of priests. Some have proposed that the current crisis can be solved by having women priests, married priests or part time priests.

The Church proposes another way. The clergy will be renewed in this age, as in previous ages, only through a re-appropriation of the very essence of priesthood.

In this brief article, I will address one foundational aspect of the path to renewal through such a re-appropriation. The contemporary crisis, profoundly marked by sexual misconduct, [1] in its essence is a problem rooted in the priest's humanity; more specifically, his fundamental human identity as man, husband, and father and the relationships that necessarily flow from it. [2] The contemporary crisis, especially in its form as sexual misconduct, is driven by the priest's rejection of his fundamental human identity in some manner. The first vocation of Christians is to become holy, and for the priest his path to holiness lies in loving with the fully human and priestly Heart of Jesus. Jesus both reveals and exercises His priesthood in a fully human way, and therefore His priests exercises the priesthood given them by Christ in a fully human way. Since Christ's manhood is indispensable for His priesthood, we can conclude that the manhood of His priests is equally indispensable in sacramentally representing Christ's priesthood. [3] Thus the current renewal of the priesthood will not happen by changing or modifying the priest's function but by renewing the identity, specifically the human identity of the priest.

The Church--in the documents of Vatican II (especially Lumen gentium and Presbyterorum ordinis) and in the ordinary magisterium of Pope John Paul II--has placed great emphasis on the inherent human relationality of the priest. By "relationality" we mean that man is essentially made to be in relationship with God and others. But how is he relational? The priest is relational following the pattern set by the Master. Jesus the priest is relational as man, as husband to the Church, and as father in generating spiritual life. The priest's relationality imitates Christ's. The priest relates in his humanity as man, as husband, and as father.

Some may characterize the renewal of the human identity of the priest by contrasting "cultic" priesthood and "pastoral" priesthood. They think that "cultic" priesthood, with its emphasis--I presume--on the priest's sanctifying office, must be deemphasized in favor of a "pastoral" priesthood in which the emphasis--again, I presume--falls on teaching and governing. I disagree with such a dichotomy for two main reasons. First, one does not find this manner of discourse in Vatican II or elsewhere in the Church's teaching. Second, the attempt to contrast "cultic" and "pastoral" presupposes wrongly that the three-fold munera of the priest (teaching, sanctifying, and governing) are somehow in competition with each other, or are exclusive of each other.

The Church instead takes a wider view. Such a solution does not reach deep enough. The problem is not "cultic" priests or "pastoral" priests, but humanly relational priests as men, as husbands and as fathers. [4] The Church ever since the Council has been emphasizing the relationality that must be a part of all the priest's offices: the relationality he brings to his teaching, the relationality he brings to offering Holy Mass and dispensing the Sacraments, and the relationality he brings to shepherding Christ's flock. The priest pours out his life in sacrificial love by teaching, sanctifying, and governing as a man, as a husband, and as a father, patterned on the way Jesus lives His priesthood. The priest's pastoral charity flows from his inherent human identity as man, husband, and father, so that the divine love which shines out from Christ's own perfect humanity can also shine through the imperfect humanity of His priest. Thus the renewal of the priesthood today will address the priest's humanity, that is, who he is as man, husband and father.

The Priest as Man

First, the priest is a man. What does this mean? A man is made in the image and likeness of God, and thus is made for self-giving love. That is the meaning of his existence. God alone fulfills a man, yet the Lord has willed that this fulfillment happen through a man's relationship with woman, who is equal in dignity and complementary in mission. [5] This is an important point: man cannot achieve his fulfillment as man without woman, and vice versa. Man cannot attain fulfillment alone with God, which was revealed in Adam's solitude (Gen 2:20), nor can he do it in relationship only with other men. In the same way woman cannot attain her fulfillment alone or only with other women, but only through the complementary relationship with man.

The Church's teaching, therefore, is neither chauvinist nor feminist, but human--human as both masculine and feminine intrinsically related to each other in God. This is not a politically correct way of speaking, but this is Divine Revelation. Through this essential relationship with woman, a man in the order of nature becomes a husband and father. A man is fulfilled and perfected through spousal love and paternity. Furthermore, man is also comprised of body and soul, and against any heresy of Angelism or Jansenism, man's embodiment is good and holy. Man's embodiment is willed by the Lord in creation and is essential to man's ability to be in relationship.

Man and woman, made in the image and likeness of God, are called to become sharers in the divine nature. [6] Their destiny is to share eternal life with the Blessed Trinity and with all the angels and saints. Thus, man is to become holy, to become like God. He is called to a life of virtue, prayer, and total, self-giving love in imitation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who reveal themselves as Persons in their self-giving love. Holiness is the universal vocation we receive in Baptism. To be a man is to live beyond oneself with others and for others.

Because of original sin, man is a sinner who bears the wounds of original sin and its effect of concupiscence. Choosing to love the way Jesus showed us, therefore, requires grace and often involves renunciation and suffering on our part. Jesus calls His followers to the narrow path that leads to life (Mt 7:13-14; Lk 13:24), and His grace enables us to renounce our wills and to suffer well. The ability to renounce one's own will and to accept suffering in order to love lies at the root of what Pope John Paul II calls "affective maturity". [7] Affective maturity, or "responsible love" as he also terms it, is the ability to give oneself freely in love. Pope John Paul II stresses affective maturity as a fundamental and essential criterion to be able to relate to others. He writes, "We are speaking of a love that involves the entire person, in all his or her aspects--physical, psychic and spiritual--and which is expressed in the 'nuptial meaning' of the human body, thanks to which a person gives oneself to another and takes the other to oneself." [8] For most people, the affective maturity needed to love selflessly is gained through a struggle with one's concupiscence.

To be a Christian man, therefore, means to accept Jesus' invitation to enter into ongoing and life long conversion toward greater holiness. A man called to priesthood is one who practices saying "No" to his own disordered pleasures and selfish designs, and saying "Yes" to the Lord's will and acting for the good of others. This process takes into account a man's failings, sinfulness, and weakness through which divine grace can shine. The man called to priesthood, therefore, is not a perfect man. God did not call angels to be priests, but men (Heb 5:1). Rather the priesthood will perfect him if he embraces it, strives to cooperate with the grace in it, and lives it in the way Jesus and His Bride intend it to be lived. The man as priest is an earthen vessel into which is poured divine treasure (2Cor 4:7). Though not perfect and still a sinner, a man living the call to the priesthood demonstrates a sufficient capacity for self-sacrifice, and a willingness to struggle for self-mastery to become holy.

The struggle for holiness entails, furthermore, the pursuit of virtue, which often involves "long and exacting work", [9] whereby man governs his passions and gains the freedom necessary for responsible love. [10] This means he is honest and able to admit, at least eventually, when he is wrong or fails. At the foundation of the priest's manhood, therefore, is his necessary and complementary relationship with woman whereby he becomes a husband and father in some manner, and his affective maturity revealed in and developed by sacrificial love whereby he grows in holiness.

The Priest as Husband

The second aspect of the priest's fundamental human identity is that of a husband. Jesus is the Head and Bridegroom of the Church. His relationship to the Church is spousal. [11] The priest is a husband by his participation in Christ's spousal relationship with His Bride the Church. [12] The priest's participation in Christ's spousal relationship to the Church is seen most clearly in the priest's words of consecration and absolution where the "I" of Christ and the "I" of the priest are one.

A priest strives to love the Church with the Heart of Jesus. His is a husband's love. The priest's spousal relationship with the Church is the foundation for his promise of life-long celibate chastity. The priest's spousal relationship is expressed in the promises he makes at ordination of celibacy, obedience, and prayer, as well as in his striving after the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, which the diocesan priest does not vow explicitly but which nevertheless constitute the pastoral charity of Jesus' own priesthood. To participate in Christ's spousal relationship to the Church means that his life must conform to the way in which Christ loved his spouse: through the total sacrificial gift of Himself on the Cross. "Model your life on the mystery of the Lord's Cross," the priest is told at ordination when the bishop places the chalice and paten in his hands.

The priest's spousal love for the Church, like Christ's and that of all Christian marriages, is necessarily both unitive and procreative in a spiritual way. The priest strives to become one with his Bride the Church in imitation of the way Christ is one with His Bride. He offers her his mind (1 Cor 1:16) and his oneness with the Father (1 Cor 3:23). He nurtures, protects and loves her as His own flesh (Eph 5:28-30). The unitive aspect of his spousal love can be found in the Profession of Faith and Oath of Fidelity he makes before receiving Holy Orders. He swears before God that he will hold as his own what his Bride holds as her own, that he will allow her to define him and his convictions.

Another example of the unitive aspect is the reluctance, even difficulty, and amid great grief with which the Bride grants a dispensation from celibacy for a priest who wants to leave and marry because this entails a breach of the unitive aspect of the priest's spousal love for the Church. [13] The Bride's love is a jealous love. The procreative aspect of the priest's spousal love is evident in Baptism and Confession where the priest quite literally generates new spiritual life, or in offering Holy Mass which renews Christ's marital covenant with the Church.

As a husband the priest cherishes his Bride and gives himself generously to her. He willingly and joyfully spends his time, energy and resources on those entrusted to him. He protects them from harm. The priest's procreative love is seen in his zeal for the Gospel--that the members of his Bride will receive a living faith. Just as a father's task is not just procreation of children, but their education and formation as well, so too the priest is entrusted with the education and formation of the spiritual children he has begotten. The Church as Bride is concretized for the priest, first and foremost, in the Blessed Virgin Mary, who concretely shows a priest the feminine face of his Bride the Church. [14] Thus the man called to priesthood is a man who is capable of, and inclined toward, being a good husband and father in Christian marriage. He will strive to live his specific promises, as well as poverty, chastity and obedience, as the expression of his spousal love for the Church. His priestly ministry unites him ever more closely to his spouse, the Church, and generates new spiritual life in her.

The Priest as Father

The priest's manhood and spousal relationship with the Church also makes him a father. True love always generates life, and in the priest's case it is spiritual and eternal life. St. Charles Borromeo often gave conferences to his priests when he was Archbishop of Milan. In the opening lines of the conference he addressed to his diocesan synod on April 20, 1584, he writes:
"She was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery." (Rev 12:2) said John in the Apocalypse concerning the mother, of whom we proceed to speak. O what pain, O what wailing of Holy Church! She cries out with prayers in the presence of God, and in the presence of you through my mouth, pronouncing divine words to you. It seems that I am hearing her saying to her betrothed the Lord Jesus Christ what Rachel had formerly said to her husband Jacob, "Give me children or I shall die" (Gen30:1). I am truly desirous of the one to be born. Indeed I dread this sterility; so unless you come Christ and give to me many sons, I am precisely at this very moment about to die. This is the spirit of our most beloved mother, in whom we are principally gathered here. I especially long for this, so that we may have it. [15]
The implication of his words is that Holy Mother Church cries out to her Divine Bridegroom, and to the one who participates in Christ's spousal relationship, for children. The priest's spousal love is necessarily generative. Jesus' priest, therefore, is not a bureaucrat, a hired hand, a CEO, or a careerist, but a father.
We are used to calling priests "father," yet it is no metaphorical or poetic designation. The priest's fatherhood is real because it is a participation in divine fatherhood (1 Cor 4:15, Eph 3:15). Therefore the priest's fatherhood is constituted by our heavenly Father's fatherhood--total, complete self-giving. It is the Father who gives Himself away in generating the Son, and then to save us gives away what is most precious to Him, His Son. It is the Father who says that if we want to see Him to look upon the face of His Son (Jn 14:9)--what humility! As a father the priest does not abandon his family or use his family for his own benefit, but rather is the first to sacrifice for his family. He is eager to build and generate new spiritual life in his family.

Thus, the man called to priesthood strives to renounce his own desires and plans, and take up his ministry of prophet-priest-king as an expression of his spiritual fatherhood. His priestly ministry generates spiritual life in the Church. His priestly ministry leads his Bride along the path of deification, holiness, transformation into the likeness of Christ, the high priest

Concluding Remarks

In the current renewal of the clergy, the Church emphasizes in the teachings of Vatican II and Pope John Paul II that the priest is relational as a man, as a husband, and as a father. A renewal of this inherent relationality, which has always been part of the essence of Jesus' priesthood, will bring about the renewal in the priest's teaching, sanctifying and governing.

With this intense focus on the nature that is configured by the grace of the priesthood, we can begin to understand more deeply the Church's recent and more specific clarifications about the priesthood, for example, the reiteration of reserving priestly ordination to men alone, or of mandatory celibacy in order to adequately express Christ's spousal love as Bridegroom of the Church. [16] The focus on the priest as man, husband and father also underlies the recent clarification that men with "deep seated" homosexual tendencies cannot be admitted as candidates for the priesthood since such a tendency necessarily implies a rejection of the complementarity of woman, a rejection of his spousal relationship with the Church and a rejection of his spiritual fatherhood. [17] This more recent clarification is not difficult to understand intellectually, especially in light of the Church's teaching on the human person, but perhaps can be a difficult clarification for some to accept.

This article investigated a renewal of the priesthood based upon a re-appropriation of the priest's fundamental human identity as man, as husband, and as father. This fundamental human identity, given to man in his creation, is also revealed in Jesus himself, the Redeemer of man. [18] The priest's fundamental human identity is as man, husband, and father because Jesus relates in His priesthood as man, husband and father. The priest is called to be in a deep relationship in his fundamental human identity, which includes his weaknesses and vulnerability, so that his human personality--indeed his entire manhood--becomes a bridge for others to encounter Jesus Christ the Redeemer of man, and thereby lead them to the life of Heaven.

As regards his inherent relationality, the priest's first and foremost relationship is with Jesus Christ. The priest who is not in deep relationship with Jesus is not being fully honest about who he is called to be, and cannot safely guide others to Him. From that deep relationship with Christ, the priest can grow in relating to others in a more human manner, that they might profit from his deep relationship with Christ. It is in his weakness and vulnerability, imbued with divine grace, that the priest knows himself as dependent and in constant need of grace. His weakness reminds him that he is not an island, but needs help from on high and from others. Through his relationship with Christ and others and the awareness of his weaknesses, idiosyncrasies and pitfalls, the priest can be shaped in his human personality to be a bridge for others to Christ and to the divine life of Heaven. A re-appropriation of the fundamental human identity of the priest is the path to authentic renewal today.


[1] It is important to observe from the beginning that clergy sexual abuse is not unique to the United States although most of the media attention has been focused there. The media, moreover, has characterized the scandal as a problem of pedophilia. The studies commissioned by the Bishops of the United States on clergy sexual abuse help to give us a better understanding of the nature of the crisis, which is more nuanced than the media reports, and which I believe supports the line of argumentation in the present article. The data from the John Jay Report of 2004 indicate that a great majority of the priest offenders were not in fact pedophiles. Their data stated that 81% of the sexual abuse victims were male (19% were female) with 78% of the victims between the ages of 11-17. Moreover, 77% of the priest offenders molested adolescent boys and 63% of the male victims were between the ages of 14-17. Thus a great majority of the victims were actually post-pubescent adolescent boys. The study further states that a majority of the priest offenders had one or two victims. Such statistics indicate that the sexual abuse crisis is less a matter of pedophilia and more a matter of deep seated homosexual tendencies. Cf. John Jay Report, section 4.3, at 69-70; Catholic Medical Association, To Protect and To Prevent: The Sexual Abuse of Children and Its Prevention, 2006, 5-6.

[2] The priest's fundamental human identity also includes his identity as son, but this important dimension of his identity extends beyond the scope of this article.

[3] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1577. [CCC hereafter] For a more detailed study of the indispensability of the priest's manhood, cf. Manfred Hauke, Women in the Priesthood? (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988); Robert Pesarchick, The Trinitarian Foundation of Human Sexuality as Revealed by Christ According to Hans Urs von Balthasar. The Revelatory Significance of the Male Christ and the Male Ministerial Priesthood (Tesi Gregoriana Teologia 63, Roma 2000).

[4] It may be argued that a candidate for the priesthood may take refuge in the cultic relationship of priesthood, in which the relationality is scripted according to rubrics, in order to avoid the difficult task of the constant relational improvisation required by the teaching and governing offices of the priesthood. Such refuge taking is understandable. It is much easier to be in a relationship that is already scripted, and fallen human persons tend to relate in a way that is more secure and requires the least amount of vulnerability. The solution to the problem of "hiding" in cultic relationality, however, lies not in de-emphasizing the cultic relationship (the approach of some seminary formators) or by hiding in the cultic relationship (the approach of some candidates), but rather in going deeper into the candidate's relationality as a man. Trying to shape the candidate's relationality by emphasizing or de-emphasizing one of the munera does not get to the root of a candidate's difficulties in relating. Since relationships are founded upon trust, it seems best in my view for the formator to affirm the candidate's ability to relate in the cultic realm, and from that point to help him unpack the tremendous vulnerability that the Lord Jesus asks of His priest in the cultic realm. Then the candidate can be more easily led down into his ability or inability to relate as a man. Cultic relationality is necessary but not sufficient for a priest. However, it can be argued that the priest's cultic relationality is primary among the three munera because his relationality as priest is necessarily Christ's priestly relationality. Without a foundation in the cultic relationship, the priest's relationality easily becomes unfettered from Christ's priestly relationality and devolves into simply his own. The cultic relationality of the priest is Christ's total self-giving to the Father on the Cross. Christ's total self-giving in love seen clearly in the cultic realm sets the pattern for the priest's relationships in preaching and governing.

[5] Cf. CCC, nn. 371-372

[6] Vatican II. Dei Verbum, 2.

[7] Cf. John Paul II. Pastores Dabo Vobis, 1992, nn. 43-44. [PDV hereafter]

[8] PDV, n. 44.

[9] CCC, n. 2342.

[10] Cf. CCC, nn. 2337-2339, 2342.

[11] Cf. Gen 2:21-25; Jn 19:34-37, Eph 5:23-25, Rev 21:2.

[12] Cf. Vatican II. Presbyterorum ordinis,2; PDV. 16, 22. The Church affirms her identity as Bride not only in her teaching but also in her Liturgy, for example, in the Easter Exultet, in the Preface for the Dedication of a Church, and in the anamnesis of Eucharistic Prayer III. The priest as husband to the Church has a strong theological current in the Fathers. The other strong current in the Fathers is the priest as friend of the Bridegroom. I emphasize the first current while recognizing the importance of the second. The two currents are related. The first shows the priest that he indeed participates in Christ's spousal relationship to His Bride. The second current reminds the priest that he is not Christ, and thus his sharing in Christ's spousal relationship is participatory and not identical.

[13] This point is made with priests of the Latin Rite in mind, but it also reveals the fittingness of the ancient tradition of obligatory continence for clerics. Cf. Stefan Heid, Celibacy in the Early Church: The Beginnings of a Disciple of Obligatory Contience for Clerics in East and West (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000).

[14] For this reason, I believe, PDV (cf. n. 46), the Program of Priestly Formation, 5th ed (cf. nn. 26, 110, 125, 280) and the Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests (cf. nn. 60, 68, 85) emphasize the importance of the priest's living and affective devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The complementarity of woman is never abolished or left behind in the priest's free promise of celibacy. The complementarity of woman does not threaten the priest's celibacy, but actually supports it spiritually since her complementarity is necessary to his perfection as a man.

[15] Acta Ecclesiae Mediolanensis, Pars II, 20 April 1584, 347. [Translation G. O'Connor]

[16] John Paul II. Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 1994. The tremendous symbolic value of the priest's free promise of celibacy in showing Christ's spousal relationship to the Church is a compelling reason why the Latin Church must exercise extreme caution in ordaining married men to the priesthood.

[17] Congregation for Education. Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in view of their Admission to Seminary and Holy Orders, 2005.

[18] Cf. PDV, n. 43.

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Fr. John Cihak, S.T.D., a priest of the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, works in the Vatican. He helped to start Quo Vadis Days camps promoting discernment and the priesthood at the high school level that now operate in several US dioceses. He has been a pastor and served in seminary formation.

He is the author of Balthasar and Anxiety (T&TClark, 2009).

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