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The celibacy doctrine

By Bob Kasango

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 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.

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 “Be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28); Paul commands that each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband (1 Cor. 7:2). It is even argued that celibacy somehow causes, or at least correlates with higher incidence of, illicit sexual behaviour or perversion.

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

So far from commanding marriage in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul endorses celibacy for those capable of it: To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion (7:8-9).

It is only because of this “temptation to immorality” (7:2) that Paul gives the teaching about each man and woman having a spouse and giving each other their “conjugal rights” (7:3). He specifically clarifies, “I say this by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another” (7:6-7,).
Paul even makes a case for preferring celibacy to marriage: “Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage. . . those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. . . . The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband” (7:27-34).

Paul’s conclusion: “He who marries does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better” (7:38).

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 such is the case between a man and his wife, it is better not to marry” (Matt 19:10). This remark prompted Jesus’ teaching on the value of celibacy “for the sake of the kingdom.”

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. 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 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!

Forbidden to marry?

Yet none of these passages gives us an example of humanly mandated celibacy. Jeremiah’s celibacy was mandatory, but it was from the Lord. In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul qualifies his strong endorsement of celibacy by adding: “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” (7:35).

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

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” (Matt. 19:12), 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 from among those who voluntarily renounce marriage.

Dignity of celibacy and marriage

Most Catholics marry, and all Catholics are taught to venerate marriage as a holy institution. 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, just as Abraham in obedience was willing and ready to sacrifice his only son for the sake of his faith in the Lord, celibacy presupposes the goodness of marriage. To despise celibacy, therefore, is to undermine marriage itself.

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