Not infrequently some ecclesiastic raises the question of priestly celibacy implying that it can be discussed because it is not a dogma of the faith. The secular media immediately take such statements and scatter them to the four winds, implying that the Church is about to abandon the discipline of celibacy.
The latest statement in this regard was made by the newly appointed Secretary of State of the Holy See, Archbishop Pietro Parolin in a September 8 interview with El Universal of Caracas.
He is reported to have said that priestly celibacy “is not a Church dogma and can be discussed because it is an ecclesiastical tradition.”1
Continence and Celibacy
In the primitive Church, since a large number of Christians were adult converts (a typical example is Saint Augustine, who converted at the age of 30), it was common for a married man to be ordained priest and made bishop. However, the condition for married men to receive Holy Orders was for them, by common agreement with their wives, to cease having marital relations and start to live in continence.
As to the famous statement by Saint Paul in his Epistles to Titus and Timothy that a bishop had to be a “man of only one woman,”2 according to the interpretation commonly adopted in the early Church (and attested to by the Fathers of the Church), a candidate to the priesthood could not be married more than once. Thus, a widower who remarried was ineligible.3
“What the Apostles Taught”
In his monumental study The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, Father Christian Cochini, S.J. concludes:
“The study that we have undertaken of the documents and of the historical facts demonstrates it [the requirement of celibacy/continence], we think, with enough certainty. Let us conclude that the obligations demanded from married deacons, priests, and bishops to observe perfect continence with their wives is not, in the Church, the fruit of a belated development, but on the contrary, in the full meaning of the term, an unwritten tradition of apostolic origin that, so far as we know, found its first canonical expression in the 4th century.
“Ut quod apostoli docuerunt, et ipsa servavit antiquitas, nos quoque custodiamos” – “What the apostles taught, and what antiquity itself observed, let us endeavor also to keep.” The affirmation of the Fathers of Carthage [A.D. 390] will always remain an essential link with the origins.”4
“We Left All We Had to Follow You”
Among the Apostles, only Saint Peter is known to have been married due to the fact his mother-in-law is mentioned in the Gospels. Some of the others might have been married but there is a clear indication that they left everything, including their families, to follow Christ.
Thus, in the Gospels, one reads that Saint Peter asked Our Lord, “What about us? We left all we had to follow you.” The Divine Master answered: “I tell you solemnly, there is no one who has left house, wife, brothers, parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not be given repayment many times over in this present time and, in the world to come, eternal life.”5
To use the words of Saint Paul to the Corinthians (9:5) so as to imply that all the Apostles, including Saint Paul, were married and living with their wives while preaching the Gospel results from an incorrect translation (believing wife instead of a woman, a sister) and from a false exegesis. For the Apostle was referring to the pious women who in Jewish tradition used to serve their spiritual guides and are mentioned in the Gospels as following the Savior.6
The context of the Epistle to the Corinthians does not warrant any conclusion that the Apostle was claiming some right to take a wife with him, since a little earlier (7:7-8) he had made clear that he was not married and had no intention to marry. He preferred perfect chastity to the married state which he, nonetheless, held in high esteem. In that passage, addressing both the single and widowed, he writes:
“For I would that all men were even as myself: but every one hath his proper gift from God; one after this manner, and another after that. But I say to the unmarried, and to the widows: It is good for them if they so continue, even as I.”
Celibacy Was Not Introduced in the Middle Ages
Some mistakenly conclude that Saint Gregory VII introduced the law of celibacy into the Church. Quite the contrary. What Saint Gregory VII, and later the Second Lateran Council (1139) did was not to “introduce” the law of celibacy but simply confirm that it was in force and issue regulations for its observance. Since most recruiting for the priesthood was already among the unmarried, the Second Lateran Council forbade priestly marriage, declaring it null and void in the case of priests, deacons or anyone with a solemn vow of religion.
In the Old Testament, the priesthood was merely a temporary function received by way of inheritance and marriage was allowed. But when the priest would perform his priestly duties he would leave his wife and retreat to the Temple, where he practiced continence.
Priesthood in the New Testament is a vocation, a calling that transforms the person and confiscates him entirely. He is a sanctifier, a mediator.
Above all, in the New Testament, the priesthood is a participation in the Priesthood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the High Priest. And, therefore, the priest has a mysterious and special bond with Christ, in whose Name and by whose power he offers the bloodless sacrifice (in persona Christi). The most profound reason for priestly celibacy comes from this supernatural bond with the Savior. He is an alter Christus, another Christ, Who is the Model he must follow.
- Pietro Parolin: “La renovación implica una vuelta al cristianismo primitivo,” El Universal, Sept. 8, 2013, http://www.eluniversal.com/nacional-y-politica/130908/pietro-parolin-la-renovacion-implica-una-vuelta-al-cristianismo-primit, accessed Sept. 20, 2013.
- 1 Tim. 3:2; 3:12; Titus 1:6.
- Alfons Cardinal Stickler, The Case for Clerical Celibacy (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1995), 38-9.
- Ibid., 439.
- Cf. Luke 18:28-30; Matt. 19:27-30; Mark 10:20-21.
- See in this regard my article The Wiles and Guiles of a Campaign Against Priestly Celibacy, https://www.tfp.org/tfp-home/catholic-perspective/the-wiles-and-guiles-of-a-campaign-against-priestly-celibacy.html.