The Ministerial Priesthood and Celibacy

One of the most often asked questions of Catholics is why celibacy is required of our priests.  Some will claim this requirement is not Biblical, and will cite St. Paul writing in 1 Timothy 4:1-5 “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, through the pretensions of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.  For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving; for then it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”

The Catholic Church does not “forbid marriage” of course.  We marry people all the time.  Marriage is so highly valued by the Catholic Church we believe “this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament” (CCC1601).  “Christian marriage in its turn becomes an efficacious sign, the sacrament of the covenant of Christ and the Church.  Since it signifies and communicates grace, marriage between baptized persons is a true sacrament of the New Covenant.”  (CCC1617).  We most definitely consecrate those who are joined in marriage “by the word of God and prayer,” receive it with thanksgiving and believe God created marriage and it is good (1 Timothy 4:4-5).

Yet the Church also recognizes that there will be those who are called to serve Christ in a state of celibacy – “From the very beginning of the Church there have been men and women who have renounced the great good of marriage to follow the Lamb wherever he goes, to be intent on the things of the Lord, to seek to please him, and to go out to meet the Bridegroom who is coming.  Christ himself has invited certain persons to follow him in this way of life, of which he remains the model (CCC1618).  This invitation from Christ comes in Matthew 19:10-12“The disciples said to him, ‘If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry.’ But he said to them, ‘Not all men can receive this precept, 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.’” And we see it noted in the Book of Revelation there will be those who “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” and they are seen as the “first fruits” of the redeemed — “It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are chaste; it is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes; these have been redeemed from mankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb” (Revelation 14:4) Those men and women in the Catholic faith who choose to forego marriage and follow Christ in whatever capacity he calls them to serve are the “first fruits,” or the foreshadowing of the time when marriage will be no more and we will all serve God in this way (Matthew 22:30).

One aspect of the celibacy requirement for Catholic priests that many do not realize is that this is understood to be a “discipline” of the Church, not doctrine.  So it is something that could change, and indeed there are exceptions.  Of course, many of the original apostles were married.  Even today, the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church will ordain married men as priests, although bishops are required to be celibate.  Occasionally a married man will become Catholic who has served as a minister in another faith, and will receive a special dispensation to study and then be ordained as a Catholic priest.  But these examples are by far the exception and not the rule.  So it’s a fair question – why the rule?

The Church received the authority from Christ to “bind and loose” (Matthew 18:18).  And requiring priests to be celibate is a discipline the Church has chosen to “bind” on those who are called to the priesthood. Along with Christ, a model of this in Sacred Scripture is St. Paul.  He has some very strong words on this topic.  As he himself has a singular devotion to serving Christ, he sees how those married men around him have “divided” interests.  He writes to the Corinthians “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.  To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do.  But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry.  For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion…..  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.”  (1 Corinthians 7:7-9, 32-35)

St. Paul recognizes as Christ did that not all are able to receive the gift of celibacy.  But he also knows that for those who can, it allows them to have an undivided devotion to the service of Christ.  And for those of us who have benefited throughout our lives from the service of our priests, we are thankful.

St. Paul’s words are just as applicable today as they were 2000 years ago about the anxiety that can occur when a married man chooses to serve full time in ministry.  In 2011 the Christian post published an article titled “Leading and Loving It: Pastors’ Wives Overcome Depression” (link below).  Some noteworthy findings from their research:

  • Eight in 10 pastors’ wives say they feel unappreciated or unaccepted by their husbands’ congregations
  • 80 percent of pastors’ wives responded that they wish their husbands would choose another profession
  • “Wives’ issues” is the No.  1 reason pastors leave their ministries
  • The divorce rate among pastoral couples is similar to that of general public, around 50 percent.

And perhaps one of the more noteworthy quotes from the article is from H.B.  London, former vice president of church and clergy for Focus on the Family and author of “Married to a Pastor”– “The church becomes their husband’s mistress, and they in many ways [wives] lose their identity.”

When 80% of pastors’ wives today wish their husband would choose another profession, it is impossible to believe that the anxiety St. Paul noticed 2000 years ago when married men entered full time ministry is a minor issue or a temporary one.  The resulting impact to both the ministry and the marriage is at the root of why the Church requires celibacy of its ordained priesthood.  And while those who have been given the authority to “bind and loose” may someday see a valid reason to change this discipline, we can certainly see within Sacred Scripture and current day experiences the wisdom of why this discipline is in place, and can be extremely thankful that there are those who can indeed accept it. 

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