An Evangelical pastor I’ve been talking to lately raised a number of questions about whether clerical celibacy was compatible with Scripture, since:
- Peter and some of the Apostles were married (Mark 1:30; 1 Corinthians 9:5).
- Paul, while single himself, called for bishops to be the husband of one wife (1 Timothy 3:2).
- Paul called the doctrine of “forbidding to marry” a “doctrine of devils” (1 Timothy 4:3).
Here’s my response:
The first thing I should probably mention is that, contrary to popular belief, there are a lot of married priests in the Catholic Church (something like 20% of Catholic priests worldwide are married). There are two reasons for this. First, the Eastern half of the Catholic Church permits married priests (but not monks, for obvious reasons – trying to raise a family in a monastery isn’t good for the family, or the monastery). The Western half of the Church does not permit married priests usually, but it makes exceptions – specifically, She permits married Anglican and Lutheran pastors, who convert to Catholicism, to become priests. I’m from Kansas City, and the Catholic priest at one of the churches I grew up near, Fr. Ernie Davis, is married with three kids. Widowers are also permitted to become priests in both East and West.
So what’s the Scriptural basis for the West’s general refusal to ordain married men? There are two points which need to be established.
- The Church has an important gate-keeping role. We see this throughout the New Testament. To give but a few examples, the Church chooses Matthias (Acts 1:14-26) and Titus (2 Cor. 8:19). Titus is then put in charge of ordaining presbyters in each town (Titus 1:5), the same role that Paul and Barnabas play throughout Lystra, Antioch, and Iconium (Acts 14:21-23). Even when the Twelve give permission to the rest of the disciples to choose men to be deacons, it isn’t made official until the Twelve lay hands upon them (Acts 6:1-6). So while there are different methods for choosing clergy within the Church, there’s no question that the Church chooses the clergy, rather than the other way around.
- Celibacy is viewed as even better than marriage. We hear from Scripture, “It is good for a man not to marry” (1 Corinthians 7:1), and Paul says of the unmarried and widows, “it is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am” (1 Cor. 7:8). Paul’s depiction in this chapter is that celibacy is superior to marriage for those who can handle it, and even his rules regulating marriage are given “as a concession, not a command” (1 Cor. 7:7). When Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:2 that a bishop should be husband of one wife, then, he’s not encouraging them to be married (this would be contradictory to his teaching in 1 Corinthians 7, and hypocritical, given that he was an unmarried Apostle). Instead, he’s setting the max at one, so that divorced and remarried men are barred.
Beyond St. Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7, Our Lord Himself says the same thing in Matthew 19:12, where He praises those who are “eunuchs” “for the Kingdom of Heaven,” adding, “The one who can accept this should accept it.” I suspect we would both agree on what the Scriptures say. Marriage is good – a gift from God, even – but celibacy is even better, although not all men can achieve it, since it’s a true sacrifice. In saying this, we say nothing more than 1 Corinthians 7:38. So here’s where a question of prudential judgment comes in.
The Church has the ability to accept or reject men who desire the priesthood, and because of the Scriptures referenced above, one of the criteria that the West has opted for has been restricting the priesthood generally to only those “eunuchs for the Kingdom.” In other words, She’s not forbidding marriage, She’s forbidding certain men’s ordination to the priesthood, something which fits in perfectly with Her gate-keeping role. She would rather have just the cream of the crop, those ones who can accept Jesus’ teaching above, even if it means fewer priests. And of course, if a man has proven himself to be an able Lutheran or Anglican pastor, She’s not ironclad on the rule.
A comparison could be made between the Marines and the Army. The Marines have much tougher qualifications, and there are far fewer Marines. They consciously go for quality, not quantity. The Army’s qualifications are still tough, but less so than the Marines, and they’re willing to take men who aren’t as capable (at least on paper), and try to turn them into good soldiers anyway. The West takes the “Marine” approach, while the East takes the “Army” approach. The Bible does not require either choice, and the Church is never forced to accept a man as a priest simply because he wants it.
So what’s this bit about “forbidding to marry” in 1 Timothy 4:3? It’s simple. Certain heresies have arisen which taught that marriage was evil, and should be banned. Some Gnostics at the time of Paul were teaching this doctrine. Later, groups like the Manicheans would teach it (The Manicheans are a dead fit for what Paul was talking about in Timothy 4, since they taught that marriage was evil and that eating meat was evil). The Church that opposed them, the foe that insisted that marriage and sex were gifts from God, was the Catholic Church (The fact that the Catholic Church loves marriage, and marital sex, should be obvious from Her strong defense of traditional marriage, and the size of traditional Catholic families.). There’s no clearer example of this than St. Augustine’s Reply to Faustus the Manichean, Book XXX.:
You see, then, that there is a great difference between exhorting to virginity as the better of two good things, and forbidding to marry by denouncing the true purpose of marriage; between abstaining from food as a symbolic observance, or for the mortification of the body, and abstaining from food which God has created for the reason that God did not create it. In one case, we have the doctrine of the prophets and apostles; in the other, the doctrine of lying devils.