Why Are Priests Celibate?
It is almost funny, but Jesus’ discourse on marriage caused some of His followers to conclude it was better for one not to marry. Jesus agreed with them in part, declaring:
“Not all men can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.” (Matthew 19:11-12)
That the celibate life “is given,” as the Lord put it, to particular individuals implies it belongs to the call to the ministry.
The Apostle Paul recommended celibacy as well to whomever could accept it.
“I wish that all were as I myself am, … To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do” (1 Cor. 7:7, 8). He went on to say, “I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.” (7:32-34)
Not only did Paul approve of celibacy, he actually considered it to be preferable to marriage for certain individuals. “He who marries his betrothed does well,” he noted; “and he who refrains from marriage will do better” (7:38; cf. 7:7, cited above).
Also in the Apostle’s letters we find reference to the Order of Widows.
Listing some of the guidelines for admission to the order, for instance, Paul wrote in his First Letter to Timothy:
“Honor widows who are real widows… She who is a real widow, and is left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day; whereas she who is self-indulgent is even while she lives. Command this, so that they may be without reproach” (5:3, 5-7; emphasis added)
It was the duty of consecrated widows, then, to pray continuously as well as to live ascetic lives with set regulations. Paul went on to say:
“Let a widow be enrolled, if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband; 10 and she must be well attested for her good deeds, as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the feet of the saints, relieved the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way.” (5:9-10; emphasis added)
Admittance to the order was formalized by a roll (v. 9) and, in addition to prayer, the widows were expected to perform acts of piety (v. 10). Finally, Paul confirmed they did indeed take vows of chastity, writing, “But refuse to enroll younger widows; for when they grow wanton against Christ they desire to marry, and so they incur condemnation for having violated their first pledge” (5:11-12; emphasis added).
These celibate women, dedicated to lives of prayer and charity, formed the first consecrated female religious order; these were the first nuns.
The Church’s critics on this issue often point out that married men were allowed to become bishops and presbyters in the Apostolic Church, and that even Saint Peter had a wife (see Paul’s First Letter to Timothy 3:2; his Letter to Titus 1:6; and Matthew 8:14).1
The Church readily acknowledges that mandatory celibacy was not always the rule. Celibacy, in fact, is not a doctrine of the Church, but merely a discipline; and as such it remains open to change—to be imposed or withdrawn—in order to accommodate the needs of the time.
Nevertheless, though not yet mandatory, the Apostolic Church clearly preferred celibacy for the clergy (see Matthew 19:12 and The First Letter to the Corinthians 7:32, 38).
That Paul preferred bishops to be unmarried may be deduced from his advice to Timothy that “no soldier [of Christ] on service gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to satisfy the one who enlisted him” (Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy 2:4 and his The First Letter to the Corinthians 7:32-34).
Despite the fact that married men were admitted to the clergy in the first centuries, moreover, unmarried men were prohibited from marrying once they had been ordained and widowed priests were to remarry.2 The Church’s constant reverence for religious celibacy is well-documented from her earliest days forward. Around the year 177, for instance, the Christian writer Athenagoras stated, “You would, indeed, find many among us, both men and women, who have grown to old age unmarried, in the hope of being closer to God” (A Plea for Christians 33).
Anti-Catholics have misused Paul’s reproach of those “who forbid marriage” (First Letter to Timothy 4:3) to attack the Church’s stance on celibacy.
In actuality, though, Paul was referring here to the gnostics, who saw the physical world, including marital love and pregnancy, as inherently evil because they believed it had been created by an evil god. To the contrary, the Catholic Church, far from being opposed to marriage, esteems Holy Matrimony as a Sacrament and a sanctified state. Priests do not forsake marriage, therefore, because they think it is “bad,” but because they know it is good and desire to give up this good thing in a spirit of sacrificial love for God.
Celibacy “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:12) is favorable to God for it points to the manner in which the Saints in Heaven live (see Matthew 22:30).
In The Book of Revelation we see that God’s faithful priests will be given an exalted status in Paradise. “It is these,” writes Saint John, “who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are chaste; it is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes; these have been redeemed from mankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are spotless” (14:4-5).
- We know Peter was married because of the Gospel story of the healing of his mother-in-law (see Mark 1:29-31, et al.). It is interesting to note, however, that his wife is not mentioned in the story, leading some scholars to conclude she had perished before Peter entered the ministry. ↩
- It remains the practice in the Eastern Rites for those who enter into the priesthood in the unmarried state to remain unmarried. Furthermore, while ordination is open to married men in the East, they are ineligible for the episcopacy. Eastern bishops are chosen exclusively from the ranks of celibate monks. Coincidentally, it is not altogether unheard of for a priest in the Latin Rite to be married. A small number of former Lutheran and Anglican ministers, who were married prior to reconciliation with the Catholic Faith, have been granted a special dispensation to serve as priests. ↩