Priestly Celibacy: Eunuchs for the Kingdom

I don’t feel comfortable sharing the full content of my e-mails back and forth with Reese (Currie), but this didn’t seem too personal, so I thought I’d see what people thought. Do these points make sense, and are they compelling? Are there other and better things I should be saying?

I. Priestly Celibacy
I wanted to raise two major points:
1. The first of these is that there isn’t a global ban on married priests within the Catholic Church: only within the Latin Rite , which is the Western Church. The pope, in addition to being head of the global Church, is Patriarch of the West, what we call Latin Rite (because the Liturgy was traditionally in Latin). The Patriarch sets disciplinary rules – such as how old or young you have to be to enter the priesthood, what color vestments to wear on certain Sundays, the order of the Mass, which readings to say on which Sundays, etc. These aren’t issues of faith and morals: they’re issues of discipline.

In the east, there are Eastern Catholic churches: unlike Eastern Orthodox, these Eastern Catholics recognize the pope as the head of the universal Church for issues of faith and morals. They have their own Patriarch. These churches all, to my knowledge, allow priests to be married (but not bishops, although they could if they wanted to). My friend J.P. is Maronite Catholic, for example, and his priest is married. Additionally, married Lutheran and Anglican pastors who convert can become Catholic priests, even if they were married – there are about 100 of these men in the US alone. Total, it’s estimated that about 20% of the world’s Catholic priests are married.

2. But you’re right that the norm is for priests to be celibate. You cited in your original e-mail to 1 Timothy 4:1-3. I don’t think that passage applies to the situation of Catholic priests. Paul isn’t saying you can never require celibacy:

Paul himself requires certain widows dedicated to God (the first nuns, basically) to remain celibate. In fact the very same letter (1 Timothy), Paul says, “Do not accept younger widows; they may have other desires than for Christ and want to marry; then they deserve condemnation for breaking their first commitment” (1 Timothy 5:11). So if Paul were saying that requiring celibacy for certain religious vocations is wrong, he’d have violated it himself in the very next chapter!

Rather, Paul is warning about a specific heresy which says that eating meat and marrying is inherently sinful: we’ve seen this heresy in the past – the Gnostics believed marriage was wrong, and so did the Manicheans. They believed this because they thought that matter was inherently evil, distorting orthodox teachings on original sin in the process. Consistently, it has been the Catholic Church which has fought this heresy. The Synod of Gangra anathemized this position sometime around 362 A.D. So the Catholic Church, rather than being party to this heresy, was on the front-lines against it. Traditionally, Catholics who didn’t become priests or nuns would marry and have large families – a “quiver full of arrows” (Psalms 127:5). Rather, they just say that they’ll (usually) only hire celibate men for the priesthood.

Rather than saying that marriage is inherently evil (the condemned position), the Church says that for those who can handle it, celibacy is (a) preferable, and (b) the best way to dedicate oneself to God. Both of these are Biblically supported positions. Look at what St. Paul himself has to say about the desirability of celibacy:

I would like everyone to be like me, but each has from God a particular gift,
some in one way, others differently. To the unmarried and the widows I say that
it would be good for them to remain as I am, but if they cannot control
themselves, let them marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
(1 Corinthians 7:7-9).

As for it being the best way to dedicate oneself to God, we find support for this from St. Paul and even from Christ Himself. St. Paul says that, “He who is not married is concerned about the things of the Lord and how to please the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:32b). This is also the “first commitment” which 1 Timothy 5:11 refers to. Additionally, Christ say that:

there are some eunuchs who were that way from birth, and some who were made
eunuchs by others, and some who became eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of
heaven. The one who is able to accept this should accept it. (Matthew
19:12).

The Western wing of the Roman Catholic Church (usually) opts to hire only those men who are willing and able to go this extra mile. Requiring this extra mile isn’t not required by the Bible, but it’s certainly not forbidden, either.

In addition to what I sent him, these factors may be worth consideration:
In addition to the Biblical exhortation to celibacy (for those who can handle it), there are other sound reasons for not allowing priests to marry. One of the biggest is the confessional. If a small town/village/parish, etc., has only one pastor, and he’s romantically involved with a parishoner, there are certain sins which she may be uniquely uncomfortable confessing. Mortal sexual sins (for example, if she was his wife, and cheated on him) might put these parishoners in particularly precarious positions. The risk of eternal damnation from a wife afraid to tell her husband of her marital infidelity is a risk that should be taken seriously in this discussion, even if it is a rarity.

A second factor is the “priest on the prowl” concern: that a single priest who is looking for a wife may put female parishoners in an uncomfortable position by virtue of the power dynamic. It’s similar to the problem of a manager trying to date an employee. This second problem could be solved by placing the same limits on priests which we place on deacons: married men can become priests, but once a priest, you cannot marry or remarry.

Thoughts?

Tomorrow, I address the other concern he had, the Deuterocanon. It’ll dovetail nicely with the conversation started about it a few days ago.

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