CELIBACY, as a requirement for the priesthood, is less and less popular among Catholics. When Pope John Paul II recently visited Switzerland, a poll showed that only 38 percent of Catholics in that country were in favor of compulsory celibacy for priests. In the United States, a 1983 Gallup poll showed that 58 percent of Roman Catholics were in favor of allowing priests to marry.
Yet Pope John Paul II has reaffirmed the law of clerical celibacy, as Paul VI did in his famous encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (Priestly Celibacy), published in 1967. Why does the Vatican continue to impose this unpopular law, even though it appears to be against its own interests? Was priestly celibacy a requirement laid down by Christ and the apostles?
Where Did It Originate?
In the preamble to this 1967 encyclical, Pope Paul VI admitted that “the New Testament, which preserves the teaching of Christ and the Apostles . . . does not demand celibacy of sacred ministers.” Similarly, The Catholic Encyclopedia states: “These passages [1 Timothy 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6] seem fatal to any contention that celibacy was made obligatory upon the clergy from the beginning. . . . This freedom of choice seems to have lasted during the whole of what we may call . . . the first period of the Church’s legislation, [that is] down to about the time of Constantine and the Council of Nicæa.”
So if obligatory celibacy for priests originates neither with Christ nor with his apostles, where did it come from?
“In the old Pagan times celibacy had been held in honor,” notes M’Clintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia. Other reference works indicate that such “old Pagan times” go back to ancient Babylon and Egypt. The New Encyclopædia Britannica states: “With the rise of the great civilizations of antiquity, celibacy emerged in various contexts.” It was, for instance, connected with the worship of Isis, the Egyptian goddess of fertility, as the Britannica notes: “Sexual abstinence was an absolute requirement of those who celebrated her holy mysteries.”
In addition, Alexander Hislop observed in his book The Two Babylons: “Every scholar knows that when the worship of Cybele, the Babylonian goddess, was introduced into Pagan Rome, it was introduced in its primitive form, with its celibate clergy.”
Why, in imitation of ancient pagan religions, did the Catholic Church adopt the requirement of a celibate clergy?
Why It Was Adopted
For one thing, a celibate priesthood gives power to the church authorities. This is because, having no heirs to their priestly function, priests can be replaced only by hierarchical appointment. Even The Catholic Encyclopedia admits that Rome has been accused of using celibacy as a device “to ensure the subjection of the clergy to the central authority of the Roman See.”
But there is more to it than that. The chart on the following page, outlining the “History of Clerical Celibacy,” shows that compulsory celibacy became canon law only in the 12th century C.E. The pope who did much to prepare the way for its adoption was Gregory VII (1073-85). Interestingly, it is said of him that he “saw more clearly than any other the enormous increase of influence which would accrue to a strictly celibate body of clergy.”
Yet, in addition to bolstering up the hierarchical system of the Catholic Church, the law of priestly celibacy also conferred on the priesthood an ascendancy over the common people. Georges Duby, one of France’s leading historians, said recently of medieval monks and priests that, because of their celibacy, “they were hierarchically above others; they had the right to dominate the rest of society.”
Regarding the effects of denying the opportunity of marriage to its priests, The Catholic Encyclopedia observes: “We have no wish to deny or to palliate the very low level of morality to which at different periods of the world’s history, and in different countries calling themselves Christian, the Catholic priesthood has occasionally sunk.” Even today, priestly immorality in many countries has had the effect of downgrading the priesthood in the eyes of honest people.
The law of priestly celibacy, adapted from pagan cults, has also had the effect of downgrading marriage, which is an honorable arrangement instituted by God himself. (Matthew 19:4-6; Genesis 2:21-24; Hebrews 13:4) As The New Encyclopædia Britannica says: “This idea of cultic purity has increased the tendency to devaluate marriage and to demonize sex and has led to the demand that priests and monks observe celibacy, which has caused a centuries-long struggle within the church.”
Priestly celibacy was adopted with ulterior motives, which may explain why it is being maintained. Yet it actually has benefited neither the Catholic people nor the clergy. Even the church itself has suffered, since it is generally believed that the current dearth of priests is largely due to this unscriptural law.
Another aspect of the Catholic Church’s views of marriage and sex comes to light when examining the dogma of the perpetual virginity of Mary.
[Blurb on page 5]
“The New Testament . . . does not demand celibacy of sacred ministers.”—Pope Paul VI
[Box on page 6]
History of Clerical Celibacy
First Century: “We do not find in the New Testament any indication of celibacy being made compulsory either upon the Apostles or those whom they ordained.”—The Catholic Encyclopedia.
Fourth Century: “The oldest evidence of a law on priestly celibacy is Canon 33 of the Council of Elvira [Spain], circa 300 C.E.”—Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique.
“The Council of Nicaea [325 C.E.] refused to impose this law [Elvira Canon 33] on the whole Church.”—A Catholic Dictionary.
Up to Tenth Century: “For centuries this question of the celibacy of the clergy was a subject of constant struggle within the Church. Unnatural crimes abounded among the clergy; their office, in the ninth and tenth centuries, seemed to be held as a license for excess. . . . Many priests lived openly in wedlock, although the councils were always issuing new orders against them.”—M’Clintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia.
Eleventh Century: “The Synod of Paris (1074), without hesitation, declared that the law of celibacy was intolerable and unreasonable. . . . In some countries, again, the law remained unobserved, either wholly or in part for a long time. In England the Synod of Winchester in 1076 thought it right to allow, at least to priests already married, in the country and small towns, permission to retain their wives.”—A Manual of Church History (Catholic), by F. X. Funk.
Twelfth Century: “Finally, in 1123, at the First Lateran Council, an enactment was passed (confirmed more explicitly in the Second Lateran Council, can[on] vii) which, while not in itself very plainly worded, was held to pronounce the marriages contracted by subdeacons or ecclesiastics of any of the higher orders to be invalid. . . . This may be said to mark the victory of the cause of celibacy.” (Italics ours.)—The Catholic Encyclopedia.
Up to Sixteenth Century: “In the Latin Church, the publishing of the law [of celibacy] did not end the controversy. In the 13th and 14th centuries, many specialists in canon law and even bishops called for the adoption of Eastern [Church] legislation that allowed priests to marry. They found a ready argument in the degradation of priestly and even religious morals that were characteristic of the early Middle Ages. The great councils of Constance (1414-18), Basel (1431-39), and Trent (1545-63) witnessed bishops and theologians calling for the abrogation of the law of celibacy.”—Encyclopædia Universalis.
“At the Council of Trent (1545-63) several bishops, and the emperor Charles V, favored a relaxation of the [celibacy] rule. But the majority of voices decided that God would not withhold the gift of chastity from those that rightly prayed for it, and the rule of celibacy was thus finally and forever imposed on the ministers of the Roman Catholic Church.” (Italics ours.)—M’Clintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia.
Twentieth Century: “In connection with the second Vatican Council (1962-65) clerical celibacy has once again become a cause of ferment in the Roman Church. . . . Subsequent to the council, the number of priests seeking to leave the priesthood and marry has vastly increased. . . . Pope Paul VI, however, issued an encyclical, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (June 23, 1967), reaffirming the traditional law on celibacy.”—Encyclopædia Britannica.