I was surprised, looking back at my blog, that I had never written an article defending priestly celibacy. I have heard some Protestants claim it was unbiblical. Apparently some Protestants even think it is mandatory for pastors to marry.
Now, it should be understood that the mandatory celibacy for Catholic priests is not an absolute rule. It is part of canon law and could change. As a matter of fact, there is such a thing as a married priest in many Eastern Catholic rites—which are, of course, equally part of the Catholic Church and share all our doctrines. Even there, of course, unmarried priests are not allowed to marry, but married men can become priests. So the fact that Peter was married is no more contrary to the Catholic Faith that the reader’s Byzantine Catholic priest might be married (I am just going to point out here that it is so weird when I go to a non-Roman rite Catholic Church and I meet a lady who says, “I’m Father —’s wife”, but it is allowed).
Objection 1:It would seem the very idea of celibacy is unbiblical and even unnatural, for from the beginning God gave unto us this command, “Be fruitful and multiply.” (Gen 1:28) And Paul writes, “Because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” (1 Cor. 7:2) Thus the fruit of abstinence from marriage is unchastity. As Paul himself teaches, “Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife.” (1 Tim. 3:2) Therefore, it seems that according to the Scriptures, it is biblically mandatory that a clergyman must be married.
To this I respond that these are all misreadings of the passages. Most people are called to the married state (hence the general command, “be fruitful and multiply”), but chaste celibacy is explicitly advocated is well and even practiced—namely by Jesus and Paul.
Now, if one is going to claim that 1 Corinthians 7:2 is a mandate of marriage, I honestly think this is massively taking this verse out of context. Paul recommends marriage in case of “temptation to immorality” so that husband and wife can give each other “conjugal rights” (7:3). However, Paul goes on to say in very explicit terms, “I say this by way of concession, not of command.” (1 Cor. 7:6)
Paul goes on to say the following: “Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a girl marries she does not sin. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that.” (1 Cor. 7:27-28)
Paul’s conclusion is quite clear: “So that he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.” (1 Cor. 7:38)
But Paul is not the first one to have taught this. It appears in the words of Jesus Christ Himself.
In Matthew 19, Jesus condemns divorce. When the apostles hear this teaching, they say, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry.” (Matthew 19:10)
To this, our Lord responds, “Not all men can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.” (Matthew 19:11-12)
Notice that this sort of celibacy is “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” This does not seem to be a gift given to all, but a few. Others are, of course, 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.
As for the second claim that Paul explicitly commands that bishops be married in 1 Timothy 3:2, I think I understand better why someone might suppose this, but I think it overlooks a lot of things. First of all, if this were true, I suspect Jesus would have married, since he was the new Teacher and would be setting us an example. Obviously, there is the conspiracy theory that He married St. Mary Magdalene, but there is no evidence for that, biblical or otherwise, and most Protestants do not take this idea seriously.
But “the husband of one wife” does not mean that marriage was a requirement. To give a parallel example, if a parent tells his or her child, “You may only have one lollypop”, this by no means signifies, “You must have a lollypop. I as thy parent command it!”
Besides, if we follow the conclusion of this line of logic, it would imply that a bishop whose wife and children were murdered by a wrathful man who had stolen a bus and rammed it into their car, thus killing his entire family (or, like Batman, a random man came down an alleyway and shot people), in other words, if the bishop’s wife and children were dead, he would have to be fired (I include children here, because “He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way.” (1 Tim. 3:4)).
If this were really true, Paul would be going against his own rule. Let us turn to 1 Corinthians 7 again. Paul says, “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do.” (1 Cor. 7:8) Hence Paul (who happened to be an eminent church leader) himself practiced priestly celibacy.
So what does this mean? A bishop may not have more than one wife. This is obviously contrary to polygamy. I also imagine it is a condemnation of a bishop remarrying.
The truth is that those who are “anxious about the affairs of the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:32), those “who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Mat. 19:12), are those who are ideally suited to follow in the footsteps of those who “have left everything” to follow Him. (Mat. 19:27)
This ministerial celibacy is found in the Old Testament. As it is written: “The word of the LORD came to me: ‘You shall not take a wife, nor shall you have sons or daughters in this place.’” (Jeremiah 16:1-2) This is different from Catholic priestly celibacy, which is not divinely ordained; yet nevertheless, the divine precedent still supports the legitimacy of the human institution.
Objection 2: It is written, “I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 7:35) If no restraint may be lain on a Christian against marriage. Therefore, the Catholic Church’s rule against clerical marriage is unbiblical.
To this I respond that the Catholic Church never forbids anyone from marriage, since the celibate life is never mandatory (if there were any cases of forced monastic life or whatever in Church history, this was an abuse). Priests and religious have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom. (Matthew 19:12)
As a matter of fact, Paul writes to Timothy of widows who have pledged not to remarry (1 Timothy 5:9-16), in particular saying, “But refuse to enrol younger widows; for when they grow wanton against Christ they desire to marry, and so they incur condemnation for having violated their first pledge.” (1 Timothy 5:11-12) This “first pledge” broken by remarriage cannot refer to previous wedding vows, since these are widows and Paul does not condemn widows for remarrying (see Rom. 7:2-3). It can only refer to a vow not to remarry taken by widows enrolled in this group.
It can only be assumed that Paul was referencing an order of female religious. These were the earliest Catholic nuns. Obviously, these are not quite what Catholics have now, of course, but the blueprint is clear in Scripture.
Catholics do not oppose marriage. Marriage is a sacrament. Most Catholics marry (not to make everyone feel old, as I probably do, since most of my readers were born in the twentieth century and I was born in the twenty-first, but most of my friends seem more openly interested in the religious life, but I highly suspect most of them will end up married). Nevertheless, it is precisely because marriage is good that celibacy is precious; for only what is good and holy in itself can be given up for God as a sacrifice. As an example, people fast from food because food is good. Similarly, celibacy presupposes marriage is good.
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 neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” (Matthew 22:30)
“In short, there is no place at all where we read that nuptials are prohibited; of course on the ground that they are “a good thing.” What, however, is better than this “good,” we learn from the apostle, who permits marrying indeed, but prefers abstinence; the former on account of the insidiousnesses of temptations, the latter on account of the straits of the times.”Tertullian (A.D. 155-220), To His Wife 1:3
“If then ‘he who is married cares for the things of the world’, and a Bishop ought not to care for the things of the world, why does he say the husband of one wife? Some indeed think that he says this with reference to one who remains free from a wife. But if otherwise, he that hath a wife may be as though he had none. For that liberty was then properly granted, as suited to the nature of the circumstances then existing. And it is very possible, if a man will, so to regulate his conduct. For as riches make it difficult to enter into the kingdom of Heaven, yet rich men have often entered in, so it is with marriage.”St. John Chrisostom (c. A.D. 347-407), Commentary on 1 Timothy 3:1-4
“Let marriages possess their own good […]: but virginal chastity and freedom through pious continence from all sexual intercourse is the portion of Angels, and a practice, in corruptible flesh, of perpetual incorruption. To this let all fruitfulness of the flesh yield, all chastity of married life; the one is not in (man’s) power, the other is not in eternity; free choice has not fruitfulness of the flesh, heaven has not chastity of married life. Assuredly they will have something great beyond others in that common immortality, who have something already not of the flesh in the flesh.”St. Augustine (A.D. 354-354), Of Holy Virginity 12
“When at the past council the matter on continency and chastity was considered, those three grades, which by a sort of bond are joined to chastity by their consecration, to wit bishops, presbyters, and deacons, so it seemed that it was becoming that the sacred rulers and priests of God as well as the Levites, or those who served at the divine sacraments, should be continent altogether, by which they would be able with singleness of heart to ask what they sought from the Lord: so that what the apostles taught and antiquity kept, that we might also keep.”Council of Carthage, Can. 3 (A.D. 419)
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All Scripture verses are from the Revised Standard Version.
6 replies on “A Biblical Defense of Clerical Celibacy”
You make a great case here. I have a much more lowbrow thing to add, namely that it’s kinda icky to think your priest could have done the deed right before Mass, and then consecrated the Eucharist 🤢.
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By the “deed”, do you mean of the marital variety? That would be disturbing.
Yeah.. that variety.
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It is my understanding they are not allowed to. Byzantine Catholics only have the liturgy a couple of times a week. Abstinence on the part of the priest before the celebration is required. It is my understanding that it is about two days. The Roman Catholic priests celebrate the liturgy daily. This is one reason given for why they can’t marry.
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Why, thank you!