Should Priests Be Free to Marry?
ANOTHER issue dividing Catholic clergymen is the question: Should priests be free to marry?
Church law forbids a priest to marry. He must remain celibate. If a priest marries without a dispensation freeing him from his vows, he is to be excommunicated.
But in recent years, many priests demanded a change. They wanted the right to marry and remain priests. In 1966 a poll by the National Catholic Reporter revealed that 62 percent of the priests questioned said they should be free to marry.
However, in 1967 Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (Priestly Celibacy). It reaffirmed the ‘hard line’ of the Church on this question and disapproved public discussion of it. The pope declared: “Priestly celibacy has been guarded by the Church for centuries as a brilliant jewel, and retains its value undiminished.”
But this did not stop priests from publicly talking about the problem. All over the world they continued to mount objections.
For instance, early in 1969 a report from Paris by the Melbourne Herald stated: “A group of 425 French Catholic priests today condemned the authority of the church, and demanded the right to marry.” Later in the year a survey of priests in Italy showed that the majority favored priests marrying.
Roman Catholic cardinal John Wright of Pittsburgh said that the Church’s strong stand on celibacy was a major factor in the dropping number of Catholic priests. Giving weight to this opinion, the New York Times noted that the number now asking for dispensation from their celibacy vow “was more than 10 times that in 1963, according to a secret Vatican report disclosed today by the Turin newspaper La Stampa.” Others did not ask. They just left.
Also being affected are young men who were thinking about becoming priests. Catholic writer Daniel Callahan says:
“One of these new circumstances is a recent and accelerating decline in the number of candidates for the priesthood . . . Though this decline is by no means exclusively traceable to the celibacy issue, it is one common reason given by young men for not entering the priesthood.
“The situation is already acute in some parts of the world. During the Second Vatican Council, a Brazilian bishop, Peter Koop, stated, ‘We have to make a choice right away; either to multiply the number of priests, both celibate and married, or look forward to the collapse of the church in Latin America.’”
Where Did It Originate?
Some people feel that celibacy must have originated with Jesus Christ or his apostles. So they are surprised to read statements such as that of former Pope John XXIII, who said:
“Ecclesiastical celibacy is not a dogma. The Scriptures do not impose it. It is even easy to effect a change. I take a pen, I sign a decree and, the next day, priests who wish to may get married. But I cannot.”
Why not? One of several reasons is that it is such a deep-rooted Church tradition. The first Church council forbidding marriage for the higher clergy was held at Elvira, Spain, in the fourth century. Over the centuries, other decrees reinforced this. Then, during the period of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent passed legislation enforcing celibacy. It has remained much the same up to the present time.
Thus, celibacy has been acquired by tradition. As former high-ranking Catholic theologian Charles Davis said:
“The taboo was not Christian in origin; it is a very ancient one in the history of religion. Its introduction into Christianity was part of the general shift toward paganism . . .
“The insistence upon celibacy was reinforced in the Middle Ages by concern to keep Church property from passing under secular control.”
No, neither Jesus nor his apostles required celibacy among God’s servants. While they showed that a single person would have more freedom to serve God, they did not lay down a law of celibacy.—Matt. 19:11, 12; 1 Cor. 7:32-38.
God’s own Word, the Bible, according to the Catholic Douay version says: “It behoveth therefore a bishop to be blameless, the husband of one wife . . . One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all chastity.” It also says: “Let deacons be the husbands of one wife: who rule well their children, and their own houses.” (1 Tim. 3:2-4, 12) So the doctrine of priestly celibacy does not originate with God, for his own Word clearly shows that his ministers are free to marry.
From where, then, do such doctrines that go contrary to God’s will originate? God’s own Word answers: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in after times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of devils, speaking lies hypocritically, and having their conscience branded. They will forbid marriage.”—1 Tim. 4:1-3, Catholic Confraternity.
It is no wonder, then, that there is such confusion in the Catholic Church on this matter. And that confusion will likely continue, for German theologian Hans Kung said: “There will be no peace in the Catholic Church until such time as celibacy has again become a matter for individual choice, as it originally was.”