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How to Argue for Priestly Celibacy

1. 1 Timothy 4:1-3: says that some give way to “doctrines of demons” by forbidding marriage. Isn’t that what the Church is doing by having a celibate clergy? 

When any passage such as this is brought up, step number one is to read it in context. In 1 Timothy 4, Paul is speaking about those who have veered away from the Christian understanding of the goodness of marriage, opting for a false asceticism that denounces it. This heresy would later raise its head against the Church in the form of the Cathari, who condemned marriage and procreation as great evils. The fortunate element of the heresy is that it soon disappeared-it wasn’t very hereditary!

Such an unbalanced idea of marriage is the opposite of the celibacy chosen by Catholic priests. Those who “renounce marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:12 NAB) do so not because marriage is bad, but precisely because its goodness makes its renunciation a valuable and generous gift to offer to God. After all, the goodness of a gift determines the value of the sacrifice. This is why the Israelites offered God their first-fruits, not their leftovers.

The decision to remain celibate is freely chosen by seminarians, and it is not the Church that is forbidding them to marry. They may choose married or celibate life according to where the Lord is calling them. Making such a pledge of celibacy is not foreign to the New Testament. In fact, one chapter after Paul denounces those who forbid marriage, he mentions Christian widows who make a pledge of celibacy-and how they will incur condemnation if their sensuality estranges them from Christ by enticing them to marry. By reading Paul’s words on marriage and celibacy in context, it becomes clear that forbidding marriage is one thing and freely making a vow of virginity is another. 

Unfortunately, celibacy is often defined by what it gives up instead of what it embraces. Contrary to popular belief, celibacy does not mean that priests and nuns are unmarried. Mother Teresa said that someone once asked her if she was married. She replied in the affirmative-and added that her Spouse can be very demanding at times! What Christians often overlook is that earthly marriages are not eternal (Luke 20:35). They are a foreshadowing and a sign of that eternal wedding that will take place in heaven between the Church and Christ. Those who have consecrated their virginity to God are simply skipping the earthly sign and participating in the eternal marriage now. This is a beautiful witness to the world that there is more to life than the passing joys we know on earth.

2. Where is clerical celibacy in the Bible? 

Biblical evidence for the discipline of celibacy can be found in both the Old and the New Testaments. In the Old, Jeremiah was forbidden by God to take a wife in order to enable him to fulfill his ministry better. “The word of the Lord came to me: ‘You shall not take a wife, nor shall you have sons or daughters in this place'” (Jer. 16:1-2).

Also in the Old Testament, God asked even married couples to practice celibacy on certain occasions. For example, Moses asked the Israelites to abstain from marital intimacy while he ascended Mount Sinai (Ex. 20:15), and Jewish tradition attests that he remained celibate for life following the command of Exodus 9:15 and Deuteronomy 5:28. The Lord also asked that the priests refrain from sexual relations with their wives during their time of service in the temple. In yet another example, the priests ordered King David and his people to abstain from marital relations on the occasion of eating the holy bread (1 Sam. 21:4).

In all these instances, there is a theme of abstaining from marital relations due to the presence of something very holy. It is not that the marital act is sinful, but that when one is in such proximity to God, it is right to offer him an undivided mind, heart, and body. If it was fitting under the Old Covenant to serve the temple, to approach God, and receive the holy bread with a consecrated body, it is no surprise that permanent celibacy is fitting for a Roman Catholic priest, since his priestly service is continual.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus states, “Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it” (19:12 NAB). This is an invitation from Christ to live as he did, and there can be nothing unacceptable in that.

Paul recognized the wisdom in this, and encouraged celibacy in order to free a man to be anxious about the things of the Lord and to serve him undividedly (1 Cor 7:8,32-35). In his words, “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. . . . 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. . . . he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better” (1 Cor. 7:8, 32-35, 38).

3. If Peter had a wife, why can’t married men become Catholic priests?

While this appears to be a simple question, there are a few misconceptions that need to be addressed. Many Protestants-and even Catholics for that matter-do not know that there are many rites within the Catholic Church that allow married men to become priests. Though the Latin (Western) Rite practices the discipline of priestly celibacy, most of the Eastern Rites allow married men to be ordained.

Even within the Latin Rite, the Church has made exceptions for a number of converted married ministers to become ordained. This is known as the “pastoral provision,” and it demonstrates that clerical celibacy is a discipline, not a doctrine. The doctrines of the Church are teachings that can never be reversed. On the other hand, disciplines refer to those practices (such as eating meat on Fridays) that may change over time as the Church sees fit.

4. Didn’t Paul say that a bishop had to be “the husband of one wife?” (1 Tim. 3:2, 4-5). 

The point of Paul’s teaching is not that a man must be married in order to be a bishop, but that a bishop may not be married more than once. If this passage meant that a bishop had to be married, Paul would have been in violation of his own rule (1 Cor. 7:7-8, 9:5). A rule forbidding a man to have more than one wife does not order him to have at least one. A man who never marries does not violate the rule. Also, Paul, being a bishop who ordained other men to be bishops (cf. 1 Tim. 1:6), would have been a hypocrite if he enjoined such a rule (“to be a bishop you must be married”) and then, by his own admission (1 Cor. 7:8-9) ignored his own rule. 

5. You always hear about priests being charged with pedophilia. If priests were allowed to get married, wouldn’t this alleviate the problem?

If a priest-or any person for that matter-has a disordered sexual desire, marriage is not the cure. Experiencing the redemptive power of Christ in one’s fallen sexuality is the cure. Getting married will only involve the transferal of a man’s unhealthy lust to his wife or children. Conversely, if a man abuses his wife, the solution to the problem is not the renunciation of his call to marriage. The solution lies precisely in his call to marriage-to love his bride as Christ loved the Church. 

The fact that marriage is not the solution to pedophilia can be demonstrated by looking at the statistics. Per capita, Catholic priests do not have a higher incidence of pedophilia than do married clergymen. The reason why you don’t hear as much about the other cases is because of the anti-Catholic bias that permeates the media. 

6. The Church has been having a vocations crisis, and if they would just allow the clergy to marry, the problem would take care of itself. 

The Vatican recently released a statement that said that the vocations crisis is ending. In a statement released on March 30, 2000, Catholic World News service reported from the Vatican: “The worldwide crisis of clerical vocations has ended, according to the prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy.” Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos reported that there are now 109,828 seminarians preparing for the priesthood around the world, which is an enormous increase from the 60,142 in 1975. The news release continued, “There were 404,626 priests serving the Catholic Church in 1999. Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos noted that some priests have returned to their ministry after having abandoned the priesthood. And the number of defections from priestly life is falling; the cardinal pointed out that in 1975 there were 3,314 men who left the priesthood; in 1997 there were 1,006.” 
The celibacy of the priesthood should not be seen as a burden that impedes vocations, but as a living witness to the world that serving Christ is worth sacrificing even the greatest joys of human life-a wife and family. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

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