Clerical Celibacy—Weighed in the Balances
“POLISH BISHOP UNFROCKED.” Thus read the heading of a Warsaw, Poland, dispatch in the New York Times, December 21, 1961. Concerned was one Bishop Rode, who, “in spite of the law of celibacy by which he was bound, dared to contract marriage, incurring thereby the penalty of excommunication by canon law,” said the report. Rode had previously split with the Roman Catholic Church of Poland, refused allegiance to the Vatican and defied it by cooperating with the Communists. But it was not for these things that he was excommunicated; it was because of his contracting marriage.
Placing like emphasis on clerical celibacy, the present pope, John XXIII, early in 1960, expressed grief “that some people should talk excessively about the possibility or even the convenience, of the Catholic Church’s giving up what has been for centuries, and still remains, one of the noblest and purest glories of her priesthood.”
Does this stress on enforced clerical celibacy have a Scriptural basis? What is its origin? What has been its history? When it is weighed in the balances, what is seen to be its effect on both priests and laity?
Clerical celibacy finds no support in the Scriptures. The faithful men of old who are mentioned in the Scriptures married. The Levite priests had to marry to keep the line of priests intact. As for the prophets, only Jeremiah was commanded not to marry.—Lev. 21:1, 7, 13, 14; Jer. 16:2.
Coming down to the time of Christ, it appears that marriage was general among the apostles, for Paul wrote: “We have authority to lead about a sister as a wife, even as the rest of the apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas, do we not?” He also stated that overseers and ministerial assistants should be, not persons bound by vows of celibacy, but monogamists, “husbands of one wife.” In fact, Roman Catholic authorities are agreed that the law of compulsory clerical celibacy is a Church law, not a Scriptural law.—1 Cor. 9:5; 1 Tim. 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6.
Clerical celibacy has its roots in paganism. Long before the Christian Era Buddhist monks practiced it, and the vestal virgins were a feature of the ancient religion of pagan Rome. It was the conquests of Alexander that brought the Jews in touch with Oriental philosophy and asceticism, and one result of this was the monasticism of the Jewish sect of the Essenes. Both Mosheim and Neander, two of the leading historians of the early postapostolic times, show that this contagion spread to the early Christian church, bringing with it also the clergy-laity distinction. This trend, however, should not surprise us, since both Jesus and the apostle Paul foretold that there would be a falling away from the true faith.—Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43; Acts 20:29, 30.
Among other things, this pagan philosophy taught that all matter is evil, that man’s flesh is to be loathed and that escape from it is to be realized by transmigration. Enamored of it, some early Christians went to the extreme of holding that if Adam had not sinned he would never have had relations with his wife, but God would have populated the earth by some ‘less objectionable way’ than intercourse! Of course, such a view not only downgrades womankind but also blasphemes the wisdom and goodness of God. Had he not created the first human pair so that they could cohabit, planted in them an attraction for each other and then commanded them to “be fruitful and become many”? Certainly. Therefore the giving and receiving of marital dues are reasons for thanksgiving, even as are the partaking of food and drink.—Gen. 1:28; 1 Tim. 4:3.
On the false premise that asceticism imparts piety, the imposing structure of clerical celibacy was erected. It appears that the entering wedge was arbitrarily construing Paul’s command that an overseer should be the husband of one wife to mean that in the event his wife died he might not marry again.—1 Tim. 3:2; Rom. 7:1-3.
Gradually the opinion prevailed that once a man had been ordained he was not to marry and then that only single men should be ordained. The first church council to promulgate such a rule was that of Elvira, Spain, in A.D. 305. In the fifth century the rule became general.
Even as Tertullian had extolled the virtues of celibacy in the third century, so Gregory I, “the Great,” strongly advocated clerical celibacy in the sixth, and Gregory VII, Hildebrand, endeavored to enforce clerical celibacy in the eleventh century, taking the strongest of measures to that end. Then in the mid-sixteenth century the Council of Trent once and for all settled the matter by formulating specific rules governing celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church.
What have been the fruits of celibacy? Has celibacy proved to be among the noblest and purest glories of the Roman Catholic clergy? Far from it! The facts show that just the opposite has been the case, and that from its inception up to the present century.
One of the earliest bad fruits of clerical celibacy was “spiritual marriages.” Priests and nuns who had taken the vows of celibacy professed to be “spiritually married” and so lived in the same house and even shared the same bed! This practice became so widespread that council after council—Ancyra, Nicea and Anjou, of the fourth and fifth centuries—denounced it in the strongest of terms. Jerome, the translator of the Vulgate, who lived during this time, complained that ‘holy orders were assumed by some on account of the superior opportunities that clericature gave for improper intercourse with women.’
In the sixth century Bishop Salvianus deplored the fact that in the African Church “the most diligent search can scarcely find one chaste among so many thousands.” In the eighth century Carloman “the Pius,” son of and successor to Charlemagne, enlisted “St.” Boniface to reform the clergy. Boniface bemoaned the fact that adulterers, simonists, and so forth, were more numerous among the clergy than those who obeyed the rules of the church. Concerning this situation The Catholic Encyclopedia states: “How could it be otherwise when there were intruded into bishoprics [because of the union of church and state] on every side men of brutal nature and unbridled passions, who gave the very worst examples to the clergy over whom they ruled?” But it might be asked, from whom are Christian ministers to take their morals—from worldly, political bishops or from Scriptural examples?
By the eleventh century legitimate marriages and concubinage, open or secret, were almost universal. Nor were the priests content with but one concubine. In the twelfth century there is record of one abbot having been deposed for having seventy concubines. During the next few centuries cardinals, papal legates and penitentiaries bitterly complained about all ranks of clergy officiating at the nuptials of their own children, legitimate and illegitimate, about the scandal of priests openly keeping concubines and about “the sons of the laity being scarcely more numerous than those of the clergy” in certain provinces of Italy and Spain. With the Reformation the situation gradually improved, since it spurred a housecleaning, which was one of the ostensible purposes of the Council of Trent.
However, down to the nineteenth century the fruits of clerical celibacy left much to be desired in Latin-American lands and particularly in the Philippine Islands, where, according to one historian, “the vow of chastity was never much more than a myth.” Even in the second half of the twentieth century every now and then the press reports on a crime committed by a priest that he probably would not have been guilty of had he not been tied to a vow of celibacy.
Thus a few years ago a young French priest committed one of the most shocking crimes ever recorded. He not only murdered the young woman whom he had caused to become pregnant, but also cut her open and mutilated the unborn child lest it be found to resemble him. At the trial, at which he pleaded guilty, it was brought out that he was father of another child by another parishioner and had had affairs with still others. Had he not committed this double murder, these other sins would have gone unnoted. As it was, he was not excommunicated by the Catholic Church for his crime. And the New York Herald-Tribune, December 3, 1960, under the heading “Priest Pleads Guilty in Girl’s Abduction,” told of a forty-seven-year-old Roman Catholic priest, F. Dudink, being “whisked rapidly through two court appearances” and that “Judge A. Walter Dahl pronounced sentence in an unusual closed court” for the priest’s abduction of seventeen-year-old Rosalie O’Connel of Gilbert, Minnesota.
In view of all these bad fruits it is not surprising that from the very beginning of clerical celibacy dissenting voices were heard. In fact, the Greek part of the Catholic Church never did require celibacy of its rank-and-file priests. Even her bishops were free to marry until the end of the seventh century. As for dissent in the Roman part of the Catholic Church, as early as the third century Clement of Alexandria asked: “What, cannot people cohabit in matrimony with the character of temperance? Without a doubt; let us not, therefore, attempt to dissolve a union of God’s institution.”
When clerical celibacy was proposed at the Council of Nicea, Bishop Paphnutius, although himself a celibate, not only argued that chastity was compatible with cohabitation with one’s lawfully wedded wife, but also earnestly entreated the assembled bishops not to impose so heavy a yoke as compulsory celibacy upon the ministers of religion. And Ambrose, of the same century, observed that a bishop by conjugal chastity would be able to guard his virtue.
Thus also Henry of Huntington, twelfth-century English historian and theologian, records that when celibacy was being introduced by “St.” Anselm, then archbishop of Canterbury, many feared “lest the clergy, in striving after a purity too great for human strength, should fall into horrible impurity, to the extreme dishonor of the Christian name.”
In the fourteenth century the Council of Valladolid took note of a very common dissent, that by the laity, for the Council castigated the parishioners for insisting that their priests marry so as to protect their own women. At the Council of Trent strong representations were made against clerical celibacy, but these were overruled. Early in the nineteenth century 180 priests of Baden, Germany, petitioned the secular power for permission to marry, and right after World War I, an overwhelming majority of priests in Czechoslovakia voted to abolish celibacy. And as already noted, in 1960 the present pope expressed grief that people should talk excessively about ending compulsory celibacy for Roman Catholic priests. Yes, from the very beginning to the present time dissenting voices have been raised within the Roman Catholic Church on the matter of clerical celibacy.
Why has clerical celibacy been retained in spite of its bad fruits and the many dissenting voices? The reason given by the pope is that celibacy is a purer and nobler state than matrimony. This claim, however, finds no support in the Scriptures and is based on the false premise of asceticism, which is condemned therein: “Those very things are, indeed, possessed of an appearance of wisdom in a self-imposed form of worship and mock humility, a severe treatment of the body; but they are of no value in combating the satisfying of the flesh.”—Col. 2:23.
Another reason, doubtless, is economic. In the Middle Ages church councils repeatedly stressed this factor. As “St.” Bonaventura put it: “If archbishops and bishops now had children they would rob and plunder all the goods of the Church so that little or nothing would be left for the poor. For since they now heap up wealth and enrich nephews removed from them by almost incalculable degrees of affinity, what would they do if they had legitimate children? . . . Therefore the Holy Ghost in his providence has removed this stumblingblock.”
A celibate clergy also has many organizational advantages. A celibate priest can be more easily transferred and can subsist on less than can a priest with a family to support. Through celibacy new blood is continually brought into the priesthood, avoiding a hereditary caste system. A celibate priesthood has also more influence over the laity, since they are prone to exalt celibacy, not being able to practice it themselves.
In view of these factors and others that might be mentioned, it is apparent why the Roman Catholic Church clings so tenaciously to clerical celibacy, and did so even when its observance was practically nil, as during the Middle Ages, and this in spite of its bad fruits and the many dissenting voices.
EXALTING MAN’S LAW ABOVE GOD’S
It is admitted that compulsory clerical celibacy is based on a church law, not a divine law. And the Roman Catholic Church does make an exception in the case of her priesthood of the Eastern Rites, such as the Uniats. Among these, candidates for the priesthood marry just before taking orders or being ordained.
True, God’s Word recommends singleness, but voluntarily, individually, to any Christian able to practice it, and that regardless of whether he may occupy some office in the congregation or not. But wherever it is mentioned it is qualified. Thus Jesus added: “Let him that can make room for it make room for it.” And the apostle Paul: “Yet, because of prevalence of fornication, let each man have his own wife.” “But if they do not have self-control, let them marry.” “He does not sin. Let them marry.”—Matt. 19:11, 12; 1 Cor. 7:2, 9, 36.
Support for clerical celibacy is sought in the fact that on certain occasions the Jews were given commands such as: “Get ready during the three days. Do not you men come near a woman.” True, but that no more recommends clerical celibacy than the commands to fast at times implied that the ideal state is for Christians to starve to death!—Ex. 19:15.
And not only do the Scriptures make singleness optional, but with few, if any, exceptions the reasons given are practical advantages, not superior piety. This is apparent from the remarks of both Jesus and Paul. The single person who can exercise self-control can serve God more freely, is spared tribulation in the flesh, and so forth.
But avoiding fornication is not optional. “What! Do you not know that . . . fornicators” will not “inherit God’s kingdom”? “Let marriage be honorable among all, . . . for God will judge fornicators.” “Let fornication and uncleanness of every kind or greediness not even be mentioned among you, just as it befits holy people.”—1 Cor. 6:9, 10; Heb. 13:4; Eph. 5:3.
The practice of the Roman Catholic Church in applying her canon law runs counter to God’s law. Even though certain early church councils condemned “spiritual marriages” and concubinage among priests, usually they did little but warn priests that they could not expect advancement while guilty of such practices. In the sixth century Popes Pelagius I and II on the one hand refused to advance clerics who had children by lawfully wedded wives but did advance those who had children by concubines. In the twelfth century matters were made far more difficult for priests who had married than for those who had openly been guilty of concubinage. This caused Gratian, “the father of canon law” of the Catholic Church, to exclaim: “Here is a case where lechery has more rights at law than chastity!”
In the thirteenth century Pope Innocent ruled that a man who had had many concubines could be ordained to the priesthood but not one who was lawfully married the second time after the death of his first wife. And in the sixteenth century the “sainted” Thomas More summed up the church’s official position by stating that marriage “defileth a man [that is, a priest] more than double or treble whoredom.” So it is that one seldom, if ever, hears of a priest being excommunicated because of fornication, but we do hear of their being unfrocked because of having married.
God’s Word commands self-control. It limits sex relations to properly married couples. It makes no position in the Christian congregation dependent upon celibacy, and the continence it recommends is wholly a voluntary, individual matter. God’s way is reasonable and just; it shows divine understanding and love. It reaps good fruits.—1 John 5:3.
But compulsory clerical celibacy finds support only in asceticism, which is of pagan origin. Weighed in the balances of reason, the facts and the Scriptures, compulsory clerical celibacy is found to be sadly wanting, bringing forth only bitter fruits. It clearly comes under the prophetic condemnation: “The inspired utterance says definitely that in later periods of time some will fall away from the faith, . . . forbidding to marry.”—1 Tim. 4:1-3.