Question from John Keane on 12-19-2006:
Was there a time when Priests could marry? A friend told me he watched a special where it was stated that priests could marry then they where forbidden because the church wanted to control their assects. What is the truth?
Answer by Fr. John Echert on 12-23-2006:
There are several biblical examples that support the adoption of the celibacy for priests by the Catholic Church. With regards to the first apostles, early writings of the Church suggest that all of the Twelve apostles were married when called by our Lord, except the young beloved apostle, St. John. In fact, the Fathers comment upon the designation of St. John as beloved of Jesus and suggest this special relationship with the Lord was due, at least in part, to his celibate status throughout life. We do have mention of the mother-in-law of St. Peter in the Gospel, who was cured of a fever by our Lord. But strangely, we have no mention of spouses or families of the apostles, in the Gospels or Acts. In light of the testimony of the early Church that they were married and the absence of mention in the Gospels and Acts, the Christian rightly wonders about the status of these families in light of the work of the apostles. On this matter, the Fathers reflect the early belief of the Church that the apostles lived celibate lives from the Pentecost event and thereafter, though they provided for the temporal needs of their families. In such a manner, they were not irresponsible to their natural obligations and yet were giving witness to their new call and responsibility to the preaching of the Gospel and guidance of the Church. Celibacy was not typical of Judaism in OT times, except for short periods or very specific reasons, and so it is no surprise that our Lord would choose apostles from among those who were married, which was the norm. In the case of His Mother, however, who provided the humanity of Christ and served as the Tabernacle of the Incarnate Word, our Lord did provide for this role by gracing Mary with the purity of consecrated virginity. Her response to the angel at the Annunciation, “How will this be, since I do not know man?” strongly suggest that even though she was betrothed to Joseph she did not intend to have relations thereafter, and early writings which are not canonical but may reflect reality reveal that Mary was a consecrated virgin who was entrusted to the care of Joseph with the mutual agreement that they would both remain celibate in marriage.

With regards to celibacy as normative for priests and bishops of the later Church, one text which supports celibacy as an ideal for one who wants to be devoted full time to the Gospel is found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

7:7 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. 7:8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. 7:9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion. 7:10 To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband

Paul recognizes the variety of vocations which God has given and that these are all gifts and good. At the same time, in his own life he experienced the freedom he had to commit himself entirely to the spread of the Gospel with no distractions. In the sense that the priest is called to have his primary, and sometimes exclusive, focus upon the work of the Gospel, it makes sense that priests would follow the ideal and example set by Paul. As we know, this was not a law from the beginning but the ideal was eventually universalized into an expectation of the Church of the West and formally made a law.

In addition to the words of St. Paul, we have the example of Christ Himself who is the New Covenant High Priest, His Mother, and the life of the apostles following upon the establishment of the Church and spread of the Gospel. So the basis and models of celibacy were in place, and God allowed the passage of some time for the transition in which this practice was universally adopted in the life of the Church.

Some ancient writings suggest that not only the Apostles lived celibate lives following their call, but this was true of the early priests and bishops as well, once ordained for service in the Church. Assuming this, one can see the value of ordaining only unmarried men, who can embrace celibacy without disruption to marital relations and family life. ©

Thanks, John

Father Echert

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