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St. Paul and Priestly Celibacy

Tom Nash

The apostle Paul—whose conversion the Church just celebrated—is arguably the Christian for whom our Protestant brothers and sisters most name their churches. And he’s without a doubt the biblical writer to whom they turn most often to defend their doctrines, even sometimes to the point of reading Jesus’s words in light of St. Paul’s epistles, instead of vice versa.

One area in which they typically don’t extol Paul, however, is in his advocacy of celibacy. Some will even cite him to argue that a bishop must be married, based on a misreading of Paul’s directive to St. Timothy: “Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money” (1 Tim. 3:2-3). Here Paul is speaking of being married just once, not claiming that being married is essential the episcopal office.

Indeed, elsewhere Paul teaches that being single for the Lord—while also being in strong fellowship with his brother bishops and other priests, and those whom they serve—aids a bishop in his vocation, because he has more time to focus on his relationship with God and his service to the Church:

I want you to be free from anxieties. 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. 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. . . . So that he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better (1 Cor. 7:32-35, 38).

Holiness is the business of all Christians, as Jesus doesn’t make exceptions for those who are called to marriage in seeking perfection as his disciples (Matt. 5:43-48). And no doubt, as Paul teaches, marriage is an honored Christian vocation, in which husband and wife strive to help each other and their children get to heaven (see Eph. 5:21-33).

Yet being single gives a Christian freedom not only to serve more people but also to spend more time with the Lord in prayer. Indeed, that interior life with Jesus is essential to living celibacy in a joyfully fruitful way—to be a “eunuch for the sake of the kingdom” as Jesus himself exemplified and extolled (Matt. 19:12). In the Church, we speak of women religious as “brides of Christ,” but priests, bishops, and consecrated men religious can also see themselves as espoused to the Lord their beloved.

That terminology might make some laymen—Catholic and Protestant alike—feel squeamish. Aren’t priest and bishops, for example, called spiritual fathers, as St. Paul—one of the earliest apostles (and thus bishops)—refers to himself (1 Cor. 4:14-15)?

Yet there is no contradiction here. It’s a both/and. Paul is able to serve others well as a spiritual father because he himself is first loved by Jesus and his Father in heaven (John 15:16; 17:20-23). In this sense, all Christians are “feminine” or receptive in their relationship with Jesus, our divine Savior, as the biblical Song of Songs poetically affirms.

Like other holy priests, Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen emphasized how crucial his daily holy hour with Christ in Eucharistic adoration was to his serving well as a priest and bishop, for only Jesus could provide the incomparable peace and sustenance that the world cannot give, come what may (see Matt. 6:33; John 14:27). And Sheen also emphasized that the neglect of prayer is the first step in a disciple’s going astray, noting how St. Peter’s denial of Jesus began with his disregard of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (see Matt. 26:40).

Similarly, as I say to young people who have discerned a call to marriage, make sure your prospective spouse loves Jesus more than you, and vice versa; otherwise you’re setting each other up for major disappointment. It is precisely because he is solidly centered in Christ that a husband can daily lay down his life for his wife in the sacrament of marriage, as Jesus did for the Church (Eph. 5:25-27).

Joyful celibacy is not only a loving response to God’s call; to the world it can also be an unwelcome reminder of God’s existence. I recall being on a radio program in Steubenville, Ohio, years ago, when the co-host—a fallen-away Catholic—said contemptuously of celibacy, “That’s not natural.”

“Yes,” I quickly replied. “It’s supernatural.” Christian celibacy cannot be lived in a holy way without Jesus. It is a witness to the reality of God, the ephemeral nature of our earthly existence, the consequent importance of being born from above (John 1:13, 3:3-5) and thus—not always appreciated in our increasingly skeptical and atheistic age—that we must all one day render a personal account to the Lord (Heb. 9:27). Celibacy also reminds the faithful that Christ-centered marriage on earth is a precursor to the mystical marriage between Jesus and his bride, the Church, lived by all Christ’s disciples in heaven (Eph. 5:25-32; Rev. 19:9; see Ezek. 16:8-14; Matt. 22:29-30).

In my years of ministry in apologetics I’ve been blessed to know many priests who joyfully attest to Paul’s words to the Corinthians. As we celebrate the apostle and his own joyfully celibate witness, make sure to thank and encourage the priests in your life, including Eastern-rite clerics and other priests who are married. In an increasingly hostile culture, regularly and explicitly hearing they have your prayers and other loving support will be much welcome in their service to Christ and his Church.

 

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