What Is the Bible’s View?
The Controversy over Priestly Celibacy
“IT IS happy, it is lovely, it is Catholic. We must conserve and defend it.”
These words were spoken by Pope Paul VI concerning priestly celibacy, a law that prohibits Roman Catholic priests from marrying. While becoming a Catholic priest is voluntary, a person who wishes to continue in the priesthood must remain unmarried.
Considerable controversy has arisen over priestly celibacy. Protestants have continually denounced mandatory celibacy as unscriptural and unnatural. Many Roman Catholics, including some high-ranking clergy, have added their voices to this protest. Many feel that celibacy has subjected Catholic priests to loneliness, has contributed to immorality by priests and has led to large-scale abandonment of the priesthood in recent years.
In spite of protests, however, Pope Paul VI stated in his encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (“Priestly Celibacy,” 1967): “We consider that the present law of celibacy should today continue to be firmly linked to the ecclesiastical ministry.” Does the Bible support this position of the Roman Catholic Church?
Interestingly, the encyclical mentioned above concedes that the first objection to the law of priestly celibacy “seems to come from the most authoritative source, the New Testament, which preserves the teaching of Christ and the Apostles. It does not demand celibacy of sacred ministers but proposes it rather as a free act of obedience to a special vocation or to a special spiritual gift. Jesus Himself did not make it a prerequisite in his choice of the Twelve, nor did the Apostles for those who presided over the first Christian communities.”
Many are surprised when they learn what the “New Testament” actually does say about marriage and singleness among “sacred ministers.”a For example, the apostle Paul wrote: “A bishop must be irreproachable, married only once,” and “deacons may be married but once.” (1 Tim. 3:2, 12) Even the apostle Peter, whom Catholics view as the first pope, was married. We read at 1 Corinthians 9:5: “Do we not have the right to marry a believing woman like the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas [Peter]?” At that time “bishops,” “deacons,” and all others active in the Christian ministry were free to get married.
Some, however, claim that other scriptures support the idea of priestly celibacy. They refer to Jesus’ statement: “Some there are who have freely renounced sex for the sake of God’s reign.” (Matt. 19:12) The apostle Paul stressed that there can be value in remaining single, saying: “I should like you to be free of all worries. The unmarried man is busy with the Lord’s affairs, concerned with pleasing the Lord; but the married man is busy with this world’s demands and occupied with pleasing his wife. This means he is divided.”—1 Cor. 7:32, 33.
It is important to note, though, that these verses in no way encourage a law of celibacy. According to the Bible, refraining from marriage was to be optional, even for bishops and deacons. With regard to ‘freely renouncing sex for the sake of God’s reign,’ Jesus said: “Let him accept this teaching who can.” (Matt. 19:12) Paul, too, after encouraging singleness, added: “But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. It is better to marry than to be on fire [with sexual passion].”—1 Cor. 7:9.
The question naturally arises: If priestly celibacy has no roots in the Bible, where did it come from? The book History of Sacerdotal Celibacy in the Christian Church explains that before the Common Era a philosophy had developed in India that taught “the nothingness of life, and that the supreme good consisted in the absolute victory over all human wants and desires,” adding: “Already Buddha had reduced this philosophy into a system of religion, the professors of which were bound to chastity—a rule . . . which became obligatory upon its innumerable priests and monks, . . . thus furnishing the prototype which was subsequently imitated by Roman Christianity.”
However, the practice of priestly celibacy may go back even farther than the days of Buddha. The book The Two Babylons says concerning Semiramis, queen of ancient Babylon: “The Mysteries over which she presided were scenes of the rankest pollution; and yet the higher orders of the priesthood were bound to a life of celibacy, as a life of peculiar and preeminent holiness. Strange though it may seem, yet the voice of antiquity assigns to that abandoned queen the invention of clerical celibacy.”
The subject of mandatory priestly celibacy is more serious than many may think. The Bible foretold that its appearance among professing Christians would have grave significance. How so? Consider what is recorded at 1 Timothy 4:1-3: “The Spirit distinctly says that in later times some will turn away from the faith and will heed deceitful spirits and things taught by demons through plausible liars—men with seared consciences who forbid marriage.” A law that would “forbid marriage,” therefore, would serve to identify those who “turn away” from true Christian belief.
Such a law appeared in the Roman Catholic Church at the beginning of the fourth century C.E. when a decree of the Council of Elvira forbade Spanish priests to marry. Later a law of priestly celibacy became binding on all Roman Catholic priests. In fact, in the sixteenth century C.E. the Council of Trent (Session 24, Canons 9 and 10) went so far as to decree: “If anyone saith that clerics constituted in sacred orders, or regulars who have solemnly professed chastity, are able to contract marriage, and that being contracted it is valid, . . . and that all who do not feel that they have the gift of chastity, even though they have made a vow thereof, may contract marriage; let him be anathema. . . .b
“If anyone saith that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity or in celibacy than to be united in matrimony; let him be anathema.”
But, as noted above, such a law of priestly celibacy finds no justification in the Word of God. Actually, it is a sign of the foretold “mass apostasy,” or falling away from true Christian belief to “things taught by demons through plausible liars.” (2 Thess. 2:1-3; 1 Tim. 4:1-3) The fact that priestly celibacy originated in ancient Babylon marks those who practice it as part of “Babylon the great,” the world empire of false religion, concerning which the Bible counsels: “Depart from her, my people.”—Rev. 18:4.
a All Scripture quotations in this article are from The New American Bible, translated by members of The Catholic Biblical Association of America.
b The term “anathema” means: “Any person or thing cursed by ecclesiastical authority; hence, any object of intense dislike or of loathing.”—Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary.