Priestly Celibacy

Author: Karl Keating


Karl Keating

Have you ever heard these common misconceptions? "Whatever the pope says is the gospel truth." "At every Mass Jesus is sacrificed again." This book addresses these and fifty other confusions about the Catholic faith that are held by Catholics and other Christians as well. Drawing upon Scripture and the Catholic tradition, the author not only shows the logical errors in these positions, but clearly spells out Catholic teaching and explains the rationale behind frequently misunderstood doctrines and practices. As a sample, we present the chapter on priestly celibacy.

Chapter 46: Priestly Celibacy

Fundamentalists, and even some Catholics, are surprised to learn that celibacy has not been a rule for all Catholic priests. In the Eastern Rites, married men can be ordained; this has been the custom from the first. Once ordained, though, an unmarried priest may not marry, and a married priest, if widowed, may not remarry. Marriage is possible only for priests in the Eastern Rites. All monks in the East are celibate, and Eastern Rite bishops are always chosen from the ranks of the monks, which means all Eastern Rite bishops are unmarried.

In the West, of course, the rule has been different. In the early centuries priests and bishops could be married—the practices in the West and East were the same—but celibacy was soon preferred, and eventually it became mandatory. By the early Middle Ages, the rule of celibacy, in the Latin or Western Rite, was firmly in place. Note that this was a disciplinary rule, not a doctrine. The imposition of the rule did not imply a change of doctrine.

In recent years we have seen a few married Latin Rite priests, some who were converts from Lutheranism and, as Lutheran ministers, were married, and more recently a growing number of converts from Episcopalianism. These are clearly exceptions to the rule.

Fundamentalists do not approve of what they refer to as "mandatory celibacy," with emphasis on the adjective, as though the Church were imposing a discipline against the will of prospective priests. They have a number of arguments against celibacy. They say, first of all, that celibacy is unnatural. After all, they claim, God commanded all men to marry when he said, "Increase and multiply" (Gen. 1:28).

Not so. "Increase and multiply" is a general precept for the human race; it does not bind each individual. If it did, every unmarried man (and woman, for that matter) of marrying age would be in a state of sin by remaining single. Christ himself would have been in violation of the commandment. If you exempt him because of his divinity, you still have John the Baptist and most of the apostles sinning by not marrying. Remember that even Paul, fundamentalism's favorite apostle, was single: "Now to the unmarried and to widows, I say: it is a good thing for them to remain as they are, as I do, but if they cannot exercise self-control the should marry, for it is better to marry than to be on fire" (1 Cor. 7:8-9).

Fundamentalists note that "a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body" (Gen. 2:24). This means a man is supposed to marry, they say. But Christ praised those who would not only leave parents, but give up the chance for a wife and children: "And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life" (Matt. 19:29).

That may be, opponents of the Catholic position say, but Paul insisted a bishop must be the husband of one wife (1 Tim. 3:2), and this means that at least bishops must marry. Such a notion betrays an elementary confusion. The point of Paul's injunction is not that a man must be married to be a bishop, but that a bishop may not be married more than once. After all, if a bishop had to be married, Paul violated his own rule. A rule forbidding a man to have more than one wife—which means forbidding him to remarry after being widowed—does not order him to have at least one. A man who never marries does not violate the rule.

In the early years of the Church, because of the scarcity of single men who were eligible for ordination, men who were already married were accepted for the priesthood and episcopacy. As the supply of single, eligible men became greater, only single men were accepted for ordination in the West, in accordance with Paul's "wish [that] everyone . . . be as I am" (1 Cor. 7:7). The East kept to the old custom.

Continuing along the same line, some people cite Paul's comment that a bishop "must manage his household well, keeping his children under control with perfect dignity; for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of the church of God?" (1 Tim. 3:4-5). See, they say, a bishop must be married. If that were the proper interpretation, the logic of Paul's statement implies a bishop must also have children, and all his children must respect him without qualification.

Would a married man without children thus be ineligible for a bishopric? Apparently so. Would a married man with children, one of whom does not respect him fully, be ineligible? Again, yes. And how is one to measure the respect of the children, to determine whether it is "full"? Who's to say? No, all this passage means is that a married man, to be chosen as a bishop, must rule his own household well.

Ah, but we know that "forbidding to marry" (1 Tim. 4:3) is a sign of an apostate church, say fundamentalists. The Catholic Church forbids some people, clergy and Religious, to marry, so it must not be the Church Christ founded. In fact, the Catholic Church does not forbid anyone to marry. Most Catholics marry with the Church's full blessing. The phrase "forbidding to marry" refers to people who declare all marriages to be evil. Some early heretics held this, as did the medieval Albigensians (Catharists), whom anti-Catholic writers, knowing little about them, seem to admire because they happened to insist on using their own vernacular translation of the Bible.

Marriage is not evil in the eyes of the Church (remember, it is the Catholic Church that claims Christ raised marriage to a sacrament), and no Catholic is forbidden to marry. It is true that Catholic priests in the West may not be married, but no one is obliged to become a priest. Marriage is not forbidden to them as human beings, but as priests. A Catholic man is free to choose the celibate priesthood, the married life, or even the single life (which also is celibate). Celibacy is forced on no one.

The above is excerpted from "What Catholics Really Believe: Setting the Record Straight" (1992 Karl Keating), which contains 52 chapters, each devoted to a common misconception about the Catholic faith. The book is available from Catholic Answers for $9.95 postpaid. California residents should add $0.56 sales tax.