Priestly Celibacy: What About St. Peter?

A friend of mine noticed recently that Matthew 8:14 suggests that St. Peter, the first pope, was married and quite possibly had kids. He says, “I could see from [this verse] both the Roman assertion that Peter was married before he came to his office, so that it wouldn’t have any normative importance for the future celibacy requirement and the EO tradition of allowing priests to get married so long as it happens before they formally enter the priesthood. (Or, of course, the Protestant tradition that being married/father is a good thing for pastors).” He concludes by asking what this means for the debate on celibacy. Here is my response:

Any knowledgable Catholic will explicitly deny that celibacy is divinely required as an unalterable part of the Faith. There are two classes: dogmas and disciplines. Dogmas are things which are objectively true parts of the Faith, everything from “God is a Trinity” to “God will not allow a ‘priestess’ to be validly ordained.” Disciplines are those parts of the Faith which are binding only because of the authority entrusted to the Magisterium (the pope and the bishops in union with him): this ranges from the day we celebrate Easter to “the Catholic Church forbids priests to marry.”

Dogmas have an objectively right answer, with all other answers being wrong (or at least incomplete). The Trinity is the right answer: taken alone, “God is one,” and “God is three persons,” are right but incomplete forms of this answer. The statement “God is one, and thus, one person” is heresy (because it mixes truth with falsehood); likewise, “God is three persons, therefore, polygamy!” A dogmatic statement isn’t necessarily the final word on a topic, but only because further development may hone and refine the answer even further. For example, the Trinity is aided by dogmatic definitions relating to the fact that Christ the Son is “one in being” with the Father. These are more specific explanations which explain precisely how the Trinity is true. Once defined, you may not knowingly and willfully reject a dogma: the self-important “I know the Church teaches x, but I know the answer is really y,” isn’t ok. That’s an important condition, though: lots of early orthodox Christians had a shoddy understanding of the Trinity because it’s a hard concept to explain, and there was no dogmatic statement on the subject from the Church. Once it arrived, it is no longer acceptable to hold contrary views. This is called “thinking with the mind of the Church,” and it’s the reason that we don’t have to reinvent the theological wheel upon every Baptism. Individual Christians can read the Bible with an understanding that what’s being described is the Trinity, even if at certain points (e.g., John 14:28) it may seem otherwise.

Disciplines are another beast entirely. First, they’re often set by the local bishop or patriarch for an individual region, rather than by the global Church. To complicate matters, the Pope is also the Patriarch of the West (the Latin Rite), so he sets many disciplinary norms for the West (priestly celibacy is one of them). But when he’s operating in this patriarchal capacity, the rules he establishes aren’t binding on those who are non-Latin Rite Catholics. Marionites (like J.P. Howard) have a different patriarch (Patriarch Cardinal Mar Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir) than we Latin Rite Catholics do (Pope Benedict XVI).

We are bound to obey these disciplines out of obedience to the ecclesiastical authorities which we believe that God has put in place, and because it’s neccesary to functional Christian order. If every Christian (or even every local parish) got to decide when the most local time to celebrate Easter was, it would be chaos. In a stroke of supreme irony, even the most strident anti-Catholics tend to submit to the Catholic Church’s authority to set a date for Easter, while the normally very close-to-Catholic Eastern Orthodox Church does not (because they rely upon the discipline set at the Council of Nicaea, and only in the last century switched to the calendar system ordered by Pope Gregory).

The reason that many of these disciplines exist is for functional purposes, and there are often reasons why one solution is better than another, although many times, the reasons are only tangentially related to morality. Celebrating Easter in the fall would be nonsensical, but it wouldn’t be immoral. Priestly celibacy has a distinct moral element: the Bible is clear that while marriage is good, sacrificing marriage for the greater good of the Kingdom of God is virtuous. The question then turns on whether the most effective way of facilitating that process is by only ordaining men willing to make that sacrifice, or whether another option (i.e., making it entirely voluntary, or allowing already-married priests while barring marriage or remarriage once ordained). In other words, it’s a policy question about the best route to arrive at a moral good. The answer may change, depending on the circumstances. Here are some elements which deserve consideration:

  • Countries where clergy are viewed as homosexuals may be poor places to lift the celibacy requirement: those priests who refuse marriage (for commendable moral reasons) may be singled out for derision. [And by both sides: read some of the things that the Anglican Bp. Sprong has to say about Paul, calling him a closeted homosexual, for example; even people who are pro-gay will use the alleged homosexuality of priests as a stick, particularly when the Church comes out against “gay” issues].
  • Conversely, lifting the celibacy requirement may prevent the “pinking of the collars,” by making the priesthood seem more masculine (and thus, more attractive to potential priests).
  • Additionally, the celibacy requirement can create an esprit de corps at its best, where single priests are able to support one another in a platonic way.
  • Conversely, it can create a justification for sexual abuse at its worst, or grounds for blackmail. One theory for why so many bishops so badly mishandled the sex abuse scandal is that some, such as Bp. Weakland, had their own homosexuality scandals which they were covering up and were afraid that whistleblowing might expose them. I personally think that this argument conflates “celibate” with “homosexually inclined,” which is a gross error. Nevertheless, there have undoubtedly been a substantial number of homosexual or homosexually inclined clerics, and it’s possible that the celibacy requirement plays some role in this (probably related to “pinking of the collars,” see above).
  • Unmarried priests are far more mobile: they can be sent anywhere (even war zones) without having to pull kids from school, move, etc. Many bishops rotate priests from parish to parish every seven years or so (I think). In fact, in the next few weeks, we’ll find out if any of our priests are moving from St. Mary’s (it seems unlikely, but it’s always possible). Bishops like to put priests in the place they’ll be the most effective, and they have a much freer hand to do so with the celibacy requirement.
  • The celibacy requirement is a form of sacrifice (this is actually why men who aren’t attracted to women are considered poor candidates for the priesthood): a man becoming a priest should give up marriage so he can pursue his “pearl of great price.” A priest who isn’t giving anything up is missing out on an important part of the calling. This sacrifice draws priests closer to Christ (who was Himself voluntarily celibate).
  • Conversely, encouraging but not requiring celibacy *could* facilitate more of a spirit of sacrifice. As it is in the Latin Rite, seminarians choose to make the sacrifice by pursuing ordination, and pledging their celibacy before God. But in at least some cases, ordained priests regret or resent the vow. This might be less so if the vow were only taken by those who wished to pledge this gift to God, rather than those only willing to.
  • Encouraging celibacy may, ironically, backfire: before celibacy was required, it was strongly urged by many Church Fathers in terms that can sound pretty anti-sex or even anti-woman. By skipping to the requiring stage, it avoids these rhetorical potholes, and allows the Church to be openly pro-woman, pro-marriage, pro-sex, and pro-celibacy.
  • Permitting married priests may be helpful in certain contexts, such as marriage counseling, but we need to strongly avoid any sort of reactionary move towards “Marriage > Sacrificial celibacy,” since that goes against the clear teaching of Scripture, and the long-held belief of the Church.
  • Finally, the priestly celibacy requirement seems to be a way of drawing only the cream of the crop: only those men so passionately in pursuit of our Lord that they’ll readily give up house, home, friends, family, and earthly love. The Latin Rite’s rule now basically says, “if you’re not ready to give that much, don’t apply.” But we’ve seen from experience that this standard isn’t necessarily met in reality, and in the process, many great men, like apologist Tim Staples, who feel called both to family life and to preach, may be excluded from the ordained ministry.

I would personally model the requirement for priests off of the requirement for deacons: married men may become ordained, but once ordained, no one is permitted to marry (which helps to avoid introducing sexual tension to the ministry, and all of the drama that relationships can cause). Nonetheless, I certainly see the logic in the Latin Rite’s position, and think it’s very defensible.

Finally, to address Peter on point. We know he was married, we don’t know about kids. We also don’t know if his wife was still alive during his ministry: the fact he was caring for his mother-in-law may suggest so, though I don’t know enough cultural information to say. We do know that Peter travelled from Jerusalem to Antioch, and later to Rome. So if he was married, it didn’t stop his mobility. It may, however, have limited it: he doesn’t seem to have covered as much geographical turf as the unmarried Paul (although this alone doesn’t prove anything, since not many people covered that much ground, period). We also know he was violently murdered: crucified upside-down, and we can imagine the effect this would have had on any living relatives (i.e., his widow and children), both emotionally and financially.

It wasn’t that long after St. Peter that the Church seems to have turned decisively in favor of celibacy as the norm (which is why all of the old churches still in existence have some sort of rules regarding celibacy, so far as I know). It may be that Peter and other like him, who left behind families after their martyrdoms, served as a cautionary tale, of sorts. It may be that these things simply became more the norm once the ordained life became more of a full-time gig: remember, even Paul had a second job, despite all of his travelling. Plus, when these guys were called to Christ, most of them were adults, so a celibacy requirement in the first generation of Christianity would have been pretty unworkable.

Those are all of the things that occur to me about the celibacy issue in this context; I’m sure there’s lots more that could be said. What’s the basis for the Protestant preference for “Marriage > Sacrificial celibacy” for pastors? Or are you saying that it’s just “marriage and sacrificial celibacy are both good”?

I have no doubt there are dozens of great arguments both in favor of, and opposed to, requiring celibacy. What are the big ones which I missed? And does anyone want to defend the apparent Protestant tendency towards favoring marriage? Is it just proof-texting 1 Timothy 3:2, or is there more to it? And please, if you’re going to say something on a position which isn’t your own, let’s try and make it something constructive, yeah? This hasn’t been a problem so far on the blog, but I’ve seen this particular topic get ugly.

1 Comment

  1. Great post. I can appreciate the arguement very much. I also prefer the married first than go ahead, but no marraige after model. I greatly appreciate the notion of sacrificial celibacy. Honestly, I think the main problem is that too many start to fail in the sacrifice arena but have no palatble option to remain “whole” (for lack of a better word.) So like this, a man becomes a priest, goes through all the education and training, makes the sacrifice for HO, but then (maybe in their 30s?) no longer wants to sacrifice. What do they do? They leave the priesthood (with honor?). What do they do for a living after years of nothing by theological education and priestly service? They could easily leave the Latin Rite and serve elsewhere (non-Catholics seem to love that – I tend to think it’s a selfish betrayal both of your church family and your own beliefs and would not welcome it at my church). How can they continue to earn a living in the Catholic Church? Who will hire them? What do they do – teach in area Catholic high schools? The priest who quit? There seems to be great shame (from both internal and external sources) associated with those who were once in vowed vocational ministry but who choose to leave that ministry.

    With seemingly no where to go (career / earnings / community) and so much shame associated with leaving – I think the problem isn’t the requirement associated with HO (sacrificial celibacy), I think it’s the ignorance surrounding what to do when a minister no longer wants to submit to the requirement. “Where do I go? What will I do? Who will take me in? What will they think?” That kind of fear and shame is what I think leads to secret living and closet sin, and that kind of living and sin when gone unchecked, just gets worse and worse and worse – leading to really horrible and shameful stuff.

    Does this all make sense?


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