The Tradition of Priestly Celibacy

Fundamentalist attacks on priestly celibacy come in a number of different forms, not all compatible with one another. There is almost no other subject about which so many different confusions exist.

The first and most basic confusion is thinking of priestly celibacy as a dogma or doctrine—a central and irreformable part of the faith, believed by Catholics to come from Jesus and the apostles. Thus some Fundamentalists make a great deal of a biblical reference to Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:30), apparently supposing that, if Catholics only knew that Peter had been married, they would be unable to regard him as the first pope. Again, Fundamentalist time lines of “Catholic inventions” (a popular literary form) assign “mandatory priestly celibacy” to this or that year in Church history, as if prior to this requirement the Church could not have been Catholic.

These Fundamentalists are often surprised to learn that even today celibacy is not the rule for all Catholic priests. In fact, for Eastern Rite Catholics, married priests are the norm, just as they are for Orthodox and Oriental Christians.

Even in the Eastern churches, though, there have always been some restrictions on marriage and ordination. Although married men may become priests, unmarried priests may not marry, and married priests, if widowed, may not remarry. Moreover, there is an ancient Eastern discipline of choosing bishops from the ranks of the celibate monks, so their bishops are all unmarried.

The tradition in the Western or Latin-Rite Church has been for priests as well as bishops to take vows of celibacy, a rule that has been firmly in place since the early Middle Ages. Even today, though, exceptions are made. For example, there are married Latin-Rite priests who are converts from Lutheranism and Episcopalianism.

As these variations and exceptions indicate, priestly celibacy is not an unchangeable dogma but a disciplinary rule. The fact that Peter was married is no more contrary to the Catholic faith than the fact that the pastor of the nearest Maronite Catholic church is married.

Is Marriage Mandatory?

Another, quite different Fundamentalist confusion is the notion that celibacy is unbiblical, or even “unnatural.” Every man, it is claimed, must obey the biblical injunction to “increase and multiply;” and Paul commands that “for fear of fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.” It is even argued that celibacy somehow “causes,” or at least correlates with higher incidence of, illicit sexual behavior or perversion.

All of this is false. Although most people are at some point in their lives called to the married state, the vocation of celibacy is explicitly advocated—as well as practiced—by both Jesus and Paul.

So, far from “commanding” marriage in 1 Corinthians 7, in that very chapter Paul actually endorses celibacy for those capable of it: “But I say to the unmarried, and to the widows: It is good for them if they so continue, even as I. But if they do not contain themselves, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to be burnt.”

It is only because of this temptation to immorality that Paul gives the teaching about each man and woman having a spouse and giving each other their “conjugal rights;” he specifically clarifies, “But I speak this by indulgence, not by commandment. For I would that all men were even as myself: but every one hath his proper gift from God; one after this manner, and another after that” (emphasis added).

Paul even goes on to make a case for preferring celibacy to marriage: “Art thou bound to a wife? seek not to be loosed. Art thou loosed from a wife? seek not a wife. But if thou take a wife, thou hast not sinned. And if a virgin marry, she hath not sinned: nevertheless, such shall have tribulation of the flesh. But I spare you … But I would have you to be without solicitude. He that is without a wife, is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God. But he that is with a wife, is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife: and he is divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin thinketh on the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she that is married thinketh on the things of the world, how she may please her husband.”

Paul’s conclusion? He who marries “doth well; and he that giveth her not, doth better.”

Paul was not the first apostle to conclude that celibacy is, in some sense, “better” than marriage. After Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19 on divorce and remarriage, the disciples exclaimed, “If the case of a man with his wife be so, it is not expedient to marry.” This remark prompted Jesus’ teaching on the value of celibacy “for the sake of the kingdom”:

“All men take not this word, but they to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs, who were born so from their mother's womb: and there are eunuchs, who were made so by men: and there are eunuchs, who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. He that can take, let him take it.” (Matt. 19:11-12)

Notice that this sort of celibacy “for the sake of the kingdom” is a gift, a call that is not granted to all, or even most people, but is granted to some. Other people are called to marriage. It is true that too often individuals in both vocations fall short of the requirements of their state, but this does not diminish either vocation, nor does it mean that the individuals in question were “not really called” to that vocation. The sin of a priest doesn’t necessarily prove that he never should have taken a vow of celibacy, any more than the sin of a married man or woman proves that he or she never should have gotten married. It is possible for us to fall short of our own true calling.

Celibacy is neither unnatural nor unbiblical. “Be fruitful and multiply” is not binding upon every individual; rather, it is a general precept for the human race. Otherwise, every unmarried man and woman of marrying age would be in a state of sin by remaining single, and Jesus and Paul would be guilty of advocating sin as well as committing it.

“The Husband of One Wife”

Another Fundamentalist argument, related to the last, is that marriage is mandatory for Church leaders. For Paul says a bishop must be “the husband of one wife,” and must “ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all chastity. But if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?” This means, they argue, that only a man who has demonstrably looked after a family is fit to care for God’s Church; an unmarried man, it is implied, is somehow untried or unproven.

This interpretation leads to obvious absurdities. For one, if “the husband of one wife” really meant that a bishop had to be married, then by the same logic “keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way” would mean that he had to have children. Childless husbands (or even fathers of only one child, since Paul uses the plural) would not qualify.

In fact, following this style of interpretation to its final absurdity, since Paul speaks of bishops meeting these requirements (not of their having met them, or of candidates for bishop meeting them), it would even follow that an ordained bishop whose wife or children died would become unqualified for ministry! Clearly such excessive literalism must be rejected.

The theory that Church leaders must be married also contradicts the obvious fact that Paul himself, an eminent Church leader, was single and happy to be so. Unless Paul was a hypocrite, he could hardly have imposed a requirement on bishops which he did not himself meet. Consider, too, the implications regarding Paul’s positive attitude toward celibacy in 1 Corinthians 7: the married have worldly anxieties and divided interests, yet only they are qualified to be bishops; whereas the unmarried have single-minded devotion to the Lord, yet are barred from ministry!

The suggestion that the unmarried man is somehow untried or unproven is equally absurd. Each vocation has its own proper challenges: celibate men must “contain themselves;” the husband must love and care for his wife selflessly; and the father must raise his children well. Every man must meet Paul’s standard of “managing his household well,” even if his “household” is only himself. If anything, the chaste celibate man meets a higher standard than the respectable family man.

Clearly, the point of Paul’s requirement that a bishop be “the husband of one wife” is not that he must have one wife, but that he must have only one wife. Expressed conversely, Paul is saying that a bishop must not have unruly or undisciplined children (not that he must have children who are well behaved), and must not be married more than once (not that he must be married).

The truth is, it is precisely those who are uniquely “solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord,” those to whom it has been given to renounce marriage for the “kingdom of heaven,” who are ideally suited to follow in the footsteps of those who have “left all things” to follow Christ: the calling of the clergy and consecrated religious (i.e., monks and nuns).

Thus Paul warned Timothy, a young bishop, that those called to be “soldiers” of Christ must avoid “civilian pursuits”: “Labour as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No man, being a soldier to God, entangleth himself with secular businesses; that he may please him to whom he hath engaged himself.” In light of Paul’s remarks in 1 Corinthians 7 about the advantages of celibacy, marriage and family clearly stand out in connection with these “civilian pursuits.”

An example of ministerial celibacy can also be seen in the Old Testament. The prophet Jeremiah, as part of his prophetic ministry, was forbidden to take a wife: “And the word of the Lord came to me, saying: Thou shalt not take thee a wife, neither shalt thou have thee sons and daughters in this place.” Of course, this is different from Catholic priestly celibacy, which is not divinely ordained; yet the divine precedent still supports the legitimacy of the human institution.

Forbidden to Marry?

Yet none of these passages give us an example of humanly mandated celibacy. Jeremiah’s celibacy was mandatory, but it was from the Lord. Paul’s remark to Timothy about “civilian pursuits” is only a general admonition, not a specific command; and even in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul qualifies his strong endorsement of celibacy by adding: “And this I speak for your profit: not to cast a snare upon you; but for that which is decent, and which may give you power to attend upon the Lord, without impediment.”

This brings us to Fundamentalism’s last line of attack: that, by requiring at least some of its clerics and its religious not to marry, the Catholic Church falls under Paul’s condemnation in 1 Timothy 4:3 against apostates who “forbid marriage.”

In fact, the Catholic Church forbids no one to marry. No one is required to take a vow of celibacy; those who do, do so voluntarily. They renounce marriage; no one forbids it to them. Any Catholic who doesn’t wish to take such a vow doesn’t have to, and is almost always free to marry with the Church’s blessing. The Church simply elects candidates for the priesthood (or, in the Eastern rites, for the episcopacy) from among those who voluntarily renounce marriage.

But is there scriptural precedent for this practice of restricting membership in a group to those who take a voluntary vow of celibacy? Yes. Paul, writing once again to Timothy, mentions an order of widows pledged not to remarry; in particular advising: “But the younger widows avoid. For when they have grown wanton in Christ, they will marry: Having damnation, because they have made void their first faith.”

This “first pledge” broken by remarriage cannot refer to previous wedding vows, for Paul does not condemn widows for remarrying (cf. Rom. 7:2-3). It can only refer to a vow not to remarry taken by widows enrolled in this group. In effect, they were an early form of women religious—New Testament nuns. The New Testament Church did contain orders with mandatory celibacy, just as the Catholic Church does today.

Such orders are not, then, what Paul meant when he warned against “forbidding to marry.” The real culprits here are the many Gnostic sects through the ages which denounced marriage, sex, and the body as intrinsically evil. Some early heretics fit this description, as did the medieval Albigensians and Catharists (whom, ironically, some anti-Catholic writers such as Loraine Boettner admire in ignorance, apparently purely because they happened to have insisted on using their own vernacular translation of the Bible).

The Dignity of Celibacy and Marriage

Most Catholics marry, and all Catholics are taught to venerate marriage as a holy institution: a sacrament, an action of God upon our souls; one of the holiest things we encounter in this life.

In fact, it is precisely the holiness of marriage that makes celibacy precious; for only what is good and holy in itself can be given up for God as a sacrifice. Just as fasting presupposes the goodness of food, celibacy presupposes the goodness of marriage. To despise celibacy, therefore, is to undermine marriage itself, as the early Fathers pointed out.

Celibacy is also a life-affirming institution. In the Old Testament, where celibacy was almost unknown, the childless were often despised by others and themselves; only through children, it was felt, did one acquire value. By renouncing marriage, the celibate affirms the intrinsic value of each human life in itself, regardless of offspring.

Finally, celibacy is an eschatological sign to the Church, a living-out in the present of the universal celibacy of heaven: “For in the resurrection they shall neither marry nor be married; but shall be as the angels of God in heaven.”