Monday, February 06, 2006

Clerical Celibacy: The Biblical Rationale

[originally written in 1996. Bible verses: RSV; in green]

With regard to clerical, or priestly celibacy, Protestants (and today, many Catholics) often mirror Luther's viewpoint that chastity is well-nigh impossible. Orthodox Catholics contend that such a view is not biblical. Our Lord Jesus and St. Paul were of a different opinion. Jesus said (Matthew 19:12):

For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.

Other modern translations use the phrase "others have renounced marriage." One might argue that Jesus was merely describing this state of affairs, not sanctioning it, but this is made implausible by His concluding comment, "He who is able to receive this, let him receive it."

But if it is to be denied that Jesus taught the desirability of celibacy for those called to it, there can be little doubt about St. Paul's position, expressed in great detail in 1 Corinthians 7:7-38:

7 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.

8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do.

9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion . . .

20 Every one should remain in the state in which he was called . . . . .

27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage.

28 But if you marry, you do not sin . . . Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. . .

32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord;

33 But the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife,

34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband.

35 I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord . . .

38 So that he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.

These verses form the scriptural rationale for the much-maligned Catholic requirement of celibacy for priests, monks, and nuns. St. Paul's argument is clear enough, for anyone able to receive it. The celibate priest can singleheartedly devote himself both to God and his flock. The practical advantages of having more time and not being burdened by multiple loyalties are obvious to common sense.

Why, then, is there so much uproar today (and in Luther's era) over this disciplinary requirement (it is neither a dogma nor irreversible, although it is firmly established in Catholic Tradition)? I submit that it is a lack of belief in the power of God to assist one in such a difficult life-choice (especially given the present sexually-crazed atmosphere). Opponents of celibacy often simply assume, like Luther, that a life without sex is utterly impossible, whereas our Lord Jesus and St. Paul undeniably teach the contrary, and the desirability - even preferability - of celibacy for those so called. One must make a choice for or against the biblical teaching. If sexual abstinence is impossible and "unnatural," men and women are reduced to the level of mere beasts, devoid of God's image and strengthening power, utterly unable to control their appetites and passions. This is not the Christian view!

It needs to be stressed at this point that no one is forced to be celibate. It is both a matter of personal choice, and, on a deeper level, an acceptance of one's calling, as given by God. Paul acknowledges both the divine impetus (1 Corinthians 7:7,20) and the free will initiative of human beings (7:35,38). These two are not contradictory, but rather, complementary. In other words, if a man is called to celibacy (and further, to the priesthood in the Latin, Western Rites), he will be given both the desire and the ability to carry out this lifestyle successfully (see Philippians 2:13). If one is not called, like most of us, to celibacy and/or the priesthood, then he or she ought to get married (1 Corinthians 7:7,9,20,28,38).

The issue is not a matter of either/or, with one option being good and the other bad. Both are good, but one has a certain practical superiority and an obviously somewhat heroic aspect. To personally renounce something is not equivalent to regarding the state or thing renounced evil. I may give up eating potatoes, reading fiction, ice skating, or swimming, for various and sundry reasons, but this does not make any of them evil in and of themselves.

Likewise, the Catholic Church is not in any sense whatsoever against marriage, or sexuality (7:38), as long as these are within the proper biblical and moral guidelines. Marriage and ordination are both sacraments in Catholicism; both are positive and wonderful means of God's grace. The Catholic view of holy matrimony, which considers a valid, sacramental marriage between two baptized Catholics absolutely indissoluble, provides women in particular with the greatest degree of security and dignity known to history (we are already reaping the bitter fruit of today's "easy divorcism"). The Church only wants to see everyone fulfill the estate in life to which they are called (7:20).

No one is compelled to become a Catholic priest, and the complaining and moaning of those who have ill-advisedly taken on such a commitment, or, who (through loss of the supernatural virtue of faith) no longer believe it to be possible, is highly annoying. Anyone who is not called to celibacy is free to become a married priest in the Orthodox or Anglican Churches (or even in the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church, where married men can be ordained).

When Catholic priests today forsake their vows of ordination (usually taking on wives), this is no disproof whatsoever of the Catholic doctrine of the desirability of celibacy, but rather, an indication that (oftentimes) something was seriously awry in the intellectual honesty of these men or in the perception of God's calling on their lives. Again, no one forced any of these men to take the vows they did, and it is improper for them to complain about it after the fact. This is as foolish and silly as a man whining that he can't join the army because he can't stand constantly being with thirty other men! Numerous other analogies could be given. Every institution has the inherent right to create whatever rules and regulations it deems necessary for its purposes. In this case, the Catholic Church is simply trying to follow the clear recommendations of its Lord and one of the premier Apostles, St. Paul, and to go against the grain of today's decadent culture, where unrestrained sex has often replaced the quest for God and righteousness, and become an idol.

Furthermore, today there seems to be a lack of understanding (or downright denigration) of the validity and seriousness of vows and oaths, from the biblical and Christian perspective. We see how lightly the marital vows are taken by many in our time ("for better or worse" and "till death do us part" are almost forgotten by thousands, it seems). The Law of Moses made vows and oaths sacredly and solemnly binding (Exodus 20:7, Leviticus 19:12, Deuteronomy 5:11, 23:21-23). Ezekiel says that perjury is punishable by death (Ezekiel 17:16-18). Jesus taught that oaths were binding (Matthew 5:33). St. Paul once had his hair cut off as the result of a vow of some sort (Acts 18:18). Even God bound Himself by an oath (Hebrews 6:13-18). The notion of covenant is closely related to oath-taking. A deceptive vow is an affront to God, and brings about His curse (Malachi 1:14, Ecclesiastes 5:4-5). Vowing is completely voluntary and optional in biblical thought, but once made, the vow must be performed and is a very serious matter indeed.

Sadly, many "former" priests, rather than face honestly their own inadequacies, choose instead to cast doubt on the Church's teaching on celibacy in general, which causes them ultimately to deny the affirmations of both Jesus and St. Paul on this subject. No amount of admitted difficulty (no one maintains the easiness of abstention) or self-serving rationalization can undo the plain teaching of Holy Scripture in this regard. There is an old proverb to the effect that "all heresy begins below the belt." This is certainly not the reason for all priestly defections, but it is undoubtedly true far more often than is admitted. Priests, (even "good" ones) - like all of us - are fallen and fallible human beings, subject to temptations and moral lapses, and are special targets of Satan due to their lofty office. They need our prayers continually.


Catholic apologist Paul Seberras sent me the following interesting biblical analysis from his book, The Perpetual Holocaust, which, I think, nicely complements the above material:

Isaiah 56:3-7 And let not the son of the stranger, that adhereth to the Lord, speak saying: The Lord will divide and separate me from his people. And let not the eunuch say: Behold I am a dry tree. For thus saith the Lord to the eunuchs: They that shall keep my sabbaths, and shall choose the things that please me, and shall hold fast my covenant: I will give to them in my house, and within my walls, a place, and a name better than sons and daughters: I will give them an everlasting name which shall never perish. And the children of the stranger that adhere to the Lord, to worship him, and to love his name, to be his servants: every one that keepeth the sabbath from profaning it, and that holdeth fast my covenant: I will bring them into my holy mount and will make them joyful in my house of prayer; their holocausts, and their victims shall please me upon my altar; for my house shall be called the house of prayer, for all nations.

The 'eunuch,' is not to be considered a "dry tree,." i.e. barren. In fact, the eunuch will be blessed with children. What Isaiah is implying in this regard, is that the eunuch will be blessed with a spiritual fecundity, a harvest of souls. Through his progeny, the eunuch will have an 'everlasting name'. The 'everlasting name' pertains to the graces conferred upon the eunuch by God. He is rewarded by God for his work in bringing spiritual children into God's Eternal Kingdom. The eunuch, therefore, will be greatly honored and revered in heaven by his spiritual offspring.

The eunuch is to keep God's sabbaths and hold fast to his covenant. God's sabbath in the new creation is Sunday. Sunday is a holy day of obligation which is binding upon all Catholics. Lying at the core of the Catholic sabbath is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It is not by accident that Isaiah combines sabbaths with covenant. In the New Covenant dispensation the Mass, i.e. the Eternal Sacrifice is a mandatory part of the Eternal Covenant trilogy. The Eternal Sacrifice is the visible bond, affirming that the people celebrating this rite, are in an Eternal Covenant relationship with God. As you are aware we continually underline the important significance of this covenant trilogy, Eternal Sacrifice, Gospel and its people (Israel), the Church.

The eunuch in maintaining the sabbaths and holding fast to the covenant is in effect therefore, the celebrant at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Henceforth, we can cease calling this man a eunuch, since Isaiah's prophecy, finds its fulfillment in the celibate priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church.

This house of prayer for all nations is the Church, where pleasing sacrifices acceptable to God, through Jesus Christ, (I. Pet. 2:5) are offered by all nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun, as prophesied by Malachi, (Mal. 1:11). Isaiah had clearly foreseen the universal dimensions of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. An account was recently given of the manner in which these pleasing sacrifices are offered, in our outline of that section of the Eucharistic Liturgy called the Offertory.


George Sikien ak Sunow said...

I would like to thank the writer. This is a very complete explanation of catholic priestly celibacy with biblical reference and tradition. So no argument about it. Jesus said to St Peter " Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven". So God the Father recognises the holy vows taken by a man when he is ordained a catholic priest namely the vows of Poverty, Chastity/celibacy & obedience.

Dave Armstrong said...

Thank you. I'm delighted that you like it.