Why Catholic Priests Practice Clerical Celibacy
We recently visited the issue of Clerical Celibacy in a News article on the recent Amazonian Synod. That article included a brief introduction to the scripture and tradition behind the practice. However, the contentious issue deserves a deeper dive.
A Brief History of Clerical Celibacy
Clerical Celibacy, the prohibition on marriage for priests, is almost entirely unique to Catholicism. The practice became church law at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., which states:
“This great synod absolutely forbids a bishop, [priest], deacon or any of the clergy to keep a woman who has been brought in to live with him, with the exception of course of his mother or sister or aunt, or of any person who is above suspicion.”
The council, which took place shortly after Catholicism was legalized in the Roman Empire by Emperor Constantine, was the first great church meeting, and established many laws that are still held to today. Of course, the astute reader will have noticed that some things have changed. Deacons are no longer required to take vows of celibacy, for example – though they still have the option to.
Up until that time, members of the clergy could – and did – marry in some places. But, isn’t priestly celibacy in the Bible?
A Biblical Discussion of Clerical Celibacy
While a number of passages have been pointed to by advocates, the Bible never explicitly says that Christian Priests can’t marry. That’s largely because, during the life of Jesus and through the end of the New Testament, there were no “Christian Priests.”
During the biblical period, Christianity was a movement within Judaism and in Judaism, the priesthood – which is different from the rabbis of today – was actually a hereditary position.
So, what does the Bible say about Clerical Celibacy?
St. Paul on Marriage
One of the key passages in support of Clerical Celibacy comes from St. Paul, who wrote more about marriage in general than perhaps any other biblical figure. 1 Corinthians Chapter 7 is devoted entirely to marriage. There St. Paul writes,
“The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the worried man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided...” (1 Cor. 7:32-34 RSV).
While this sounds like a prohibition for priests, it’s actually advice for everybody. Earlier in the chapter, St. Paul advises that everyone, regardless of their position in the church, should be celibate if they can, writing,
“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.” (1 Cor. 7:8-9 RSV).
While this may sound like a fairly unique stance, it does echo some of the words of Christ.
Jesus on the Ministry
The oft-quoted “a man cannot serve two masters” (Mathew 6:24; Luke 16:13) is often given as grounds for the prohibition on priestly marriage. However, the “masters” are given in both passages as “God and Mammon.”
Mammon was a regional god associated with wealth and power and later became a demon in Christian tradition. He’s even cited in Milton’s Paradise Lost. So, this might be read as more a prohibition against the clergy having multiple jobs, accumulating wealth, or serving in government.
A number of similar passages occur towards the end of the ninth Chapter of Luke’s Gospel.
“To another, [Jesus] said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ But He said to him, ‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.’” (Luke 9:59-62 RSV).
Because these lines occur when people are looking to follow Jesus in His ministry, it makes sense to apply them more directly towards the priesthood.
Of all of the Apostles, only Peter is known to have, at some point, been married. The healing of his mother-in-law by Jesus is rare in that it is recorded in all three synoptic gospels (Mathew 8:14, Mark 1:29-31, Luke 4:38-41). However, Peter’s wife is never mentioned and it is possible that she had passed away before he began his ministry.
Jesus was Unmarried
Another argument against married priests is that Jesus himself was unmarried.
Some conspiracy theorists, novelists, and even serious academics have suggested that Jesus was married because no document referencing him says that he wasn’t. As religious scholar Reza Aslan writes,
“Although there is no evidence in the New-Testament to indicate whether Jesus was married, it would have been almost unthinkable for a thirty-year-old Jewish male in Jesus’s time not to have a Wife. Celebacy was an extremely rare phenomonen in first-century Palestine.” (Azlan, Reza. “Zealot: The life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.” Random House Publishing, New York, NY. 2013. Pg.37).
However, very few take this stance seriously. Aslan continues,
“While it may be tempting to assume Jesus was married, one cannot ignore the fact that nowhere in all of the words ever written about Jesus of Nazareth – from the canonical gospels to the gnostic gospels to the letters of Paul or even the Jewish and pagan polemics written against him – is there ever any mention of a wife or children.” (ibid).
A Tradition Likely here to Stay
While the question of Clerical Celibacy has been gaining media attention recently, the fact is that it is not a new issue. While it’s possible that this ancient tradition will one-day go the way of the Latin-language mass, there’s little reason to expect that it will any time soon.
Article written by Johnathan Jaehnig with Christian Catholic Media
Jon Jaehnig is a professional freelance writer and journalist, specializing in technology and health. He is a practicing Catholic and active Knight of Columbus living in upper Michigan, USA.