St. Paul, by El Greco, 1614: Exhibit #1 of Clerical Celibacy
The frequent argument of Protestants on this score is that the Catholic Church makes a requirement out of something that Paul merely recommends. Catholics - so we are told - are guilty (once again) of smuggling in their "traditions of men" and (in this instance) their (alleged) "animus against sexuality and marriage, because virginity is so exalted in Catholicism," etc.
Catholics are being very biblical in this view. Where, I ask, in Protestantism is the calling of celibacy celebrated and honored, since it is strongly recommended by Paul and Jesus, and was the norm among the early apostles, not to mention the early priests and bishops? We honor both celibacy and marriage (both are sacraments -- means to obtain grace). Protestants, however, seem to honor only the latter. They are just as legalistic as they claim we are by enforcing the "unwritten rule" that pastors ought always to be married.
In Catholic ascetic spirituality, or what are called "the evangelical counsels," a person may voluntarily (sometimes heroically) renounce something for the kingdom of God. That principle is even found in Protestantism to some extent (e.g., giving monetary donations to the point of sacrifice). It is certainly biblical (the prophets, John the Baptist, the disciples, etc.).
There are many callings and roles to fill. Not everyone can be a Marine, or a Green Beret, or a Rhodes scholar, or an NBA all-star. Those are things that call for qualifications which not everyone can meet (if you're 5'1", chances are you’re not going to take up basketball; if you weigh 125 pounds, you won’t be a linebacker in football, etc.). The priesthood is no different.
It is not by any means clear to me that a married clergy is a preferable or superior state of affairs. Most pastors end up forsaking time with their families, and are workaholics (as are many men). Pastor's wives will quickly this! I used to observe this firsthand all the time when I was an evangelical (e.g., the "PK" – “preacher’s kid” -- phenomenon). I even had a phrase for it: "Busy Pastor Syndrome."
I can see in my own life (as a full-time Catholic apologist and writer) that I have to carefully balance my vocation, my family life, time alone with my wife, and pure leisure and relaxation for myself. I can't imagine having this family and shepherding a flock of so many hundred people. Being single in that situation makes all the sense in the world to me.
Let's proceed to now analyze how Protestant commentators approach the biblical texts that Catholics bring forth in support of their celibacy requirement for priests.
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."John Calvin comments:
[W]hat is their species of vows? They offer God a promise of perpetual virginity, as if they had previously made a compact with him to free them from the necessity of marriage. They cannot allege that they make this vow trusting entirely to the grace of God; for, seeing he declares this to be a special gift not given to all (Mt. 19:11[-12]), no man has a right to assume that the gift will be his. Let those who have it use it; and if at any time they feel the infirmity of the flesh, let them have recourse to the aid of him by whose power alone they can resist.This is rather odd "reasoning." Would anyone think this is a clear grappling with the biblical text? First, Calvin assumes that monks couldn't follow God’s call by "trusting entirely" His grace. How he knows this, we are not told. But in any event it is obviously no argument; rather, merely a subtle form of personal attack against an entire class of people.
(Institutes, IV, 13, 17)
Then he denies that the calling to celibacy can be known with certainty because the gift is not for everyone. This is a highly interesting assertion indeed: that no one can be sure of their gift or calling from God. From whence does Calvin derive such knowledge (certainly not from the Bible)? How does he then (assuming his desire to be logically consistent) possess certainty of his own calling? He has no problem, on the other hand, attributing inner certainty of a divine call for (Protestant) pastors. He casually assumes it:
I say nothing of that secret call of which every minister is conscious before God, but has not the Church as a witness of it; I mean, the good testimony of our heart, that we undertake the offered office neither from ambition nor avarice, nor any other selfish feeling, but a sincere fear of God and desire to edify the Church. This, as I have said, is indeed necessary for every one of us, if we would approve our ministry to God . . . those whom the Lord has destined for this great office he previously provides with the armour which is requisite for the discharge of it, that they may not come empty and unprepared.Yet when it comes to celibacy, all of a sudden Calvin arbitrarily changes his tune and concludes that "no man has a right to assume that the gift will be his." Jesus teaches us that it is possible. Why does Calvin doubt it? Then he switches back again and says, "Let those who have it use it." We may be thankful, I suppose, that Calvin graciously allows them (despite his personal derision for the concept) to follow their consciences and the clear biblical warrant for such an estate ("each has his own special gift from God" – 1 Corinthians 7:7, below).
(Institutes, IV, 3, 11)
In context it is clear that Calvin's objection is not biblically or rationally based, but simply an emotional hostility to the Catholic Church, which is expressed in disapproval of its distinctives such as clerical celibacy. This seems to be a common tendency of the harshest critics of the Church. He refers, for example, to monks who have forsaken their solemn vows for an "honest kind of livelihood," to those who "remained entangled in ignorance and error," and entangled in "extraneous chains, which are nothing but the wily nets of Satan" and "superstition" (Institutes, IV, 13, 21).
"When one is lacking a rational, cogent argument, then it is best to insult and rail and arouse people's suspicion and disgust," seems to be Calvin’s motto here, following the pathetic example of Luther's many absurd and outrageous statements about the Catholic clergy; for example:
. . . The sum of it all is that pope, devil, and his church hate the estate of matrimony, as Daniel says [17:37]; therefore he wants to bring it into such disgrace that a married man cannot fill a priest's office. That is as much as to say that marriage is harlotry, sin, impure, and rejected by God; and although they say, at the same time, that it is holy and a sacrament, that is a lie of their false hearts, for if they seriusly considered it holy, and a sacrament, they would not forbid the priests to marry. Because they do forbid them, they must consider it unclean, and a sin, as they plainly say . . . . .Elsewhere, however, when Luther is not in one of his notorious polemical, condemnatory moods, he acknowledges that, indeed, there is a category of men (albeit very small) called to celibacy (and he doesn’t qualify it by stating that this calling is merely temporary, as Calvin does):
. . . the noises made by monks and nuns and priests are not prayers or praises to God. They do not understand it and learn nothing from it; they do it like hard labor, for the belly's sake, and seek thereby no improvement of life, no progress in holiness, no doing of God's will.
(On the Councils and the Churches, 1539; in Jacobs, V, 284, 286)
. . . as it is not within my power not to be a man, so it is not my prerogative to be without a woman. Again, as it is not in your power not to be a woman, so it is not your prerogative to be without a man. For it is not a matter of free choice or decision but a natural and necessary thing, that whatever is a man must have a woman, and whatever is a woman must have a man.Calvin proceeds, in the same section - as is his wont – to state the obvious but to mistakenly think that Catholics believe something different than what Luther described: "how impossible the vow of continence is to those who have not received it by special gift, we have shown."
. . . it is just as necessary as the fact that I am a man, and more necessary than sleeping and waking, eating and drinking, and emptying the bowels and bladder. It is a nature and disposition just as innate as the organs involved in it . . . whenever men try to resist this, it remains irresistible nonetheless and goes its way through fornication, adultery, and secret sins, for this is a matter of nature and not of choice.
In the third place, from this ordinance of creation God has himself exempted three categories of men, saying in Matthew 19 [:12], "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." Apart from these three groups, let no man presume to be without a spouse. And whoever does not fall within one of these categories should not consider anything except the estate of marriage.
. . . you cannot promise that you will not produce seed or multiply, unless you belong to one of the three categories mentioned above . . . No vow of any youth or maiden is valid before God, except that of a person in one of the three categories which God alone has himself excepted . . .
The third category consists of those spiritually rich and exalted persons, bridled by the grace of God, who are equipped for marriage by nature and physical capacity and nevertheless voluntarily remain celibate. These put it this way, "I could marry if I wish, I am capable of it. But it does not attract me. I would rather work on the kingdom of heaven, i.e., the gospel, and beget spiritual children." Such persons are rare, not one in a thousand, for they are a special miracle of God. No one should venture on such a life unless he be especially called by God, like Jeremiah [16:2], or unless he finds God's grace to be so powerful within him that the divine injunction, "Be fruitful and multiply," has no place in him.
It is certainly a fact that he who refuses to marry must fall into immorality . . . For if a special grace does not exempt a person, his nature must and will compel him to produce seed and to multiply.
(The Estate of Marriage, 1522; LW, vol. 45, 18-19, 21, 45)
In another section he becomes presumptuous and unbiblical, in assuming that celibacy could not be a lifelong gift from God: "Virginity, I agree, is a virtue not to be despised. However, it is denied to some and granted to others only for a time" (in McNeill, Institutes, II, 8, 42). He gives no biblical rationale for this opinion; rather, he keeps prattling on in this section (he so often appears as if he is lecturing Catholics like small children in his Institutes) about the perfectly obvious: that celibacy is a gift from God and that no one can do it without His power.
Calvin, then, has offered us nothing in the Bible to overthrow the Catholic position on clerical celibacy. His criticisms have left our view completely unaffected (and Luther’s opinion has even strengthened it). Can the other classical Protestant commentators we have been examining produce a cogent, solid, biblical critique?
John Wesley sees in this verse the value of remaining single for the kingdom's sake, if one is called to it. Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown accept the obvious spiritual utility in the practice also, and add, "such was Paul." Adam Clarke thinks that the Lord was referring to the Essenes, who were celibate, and shows no particular opposition to the idea. Albert Barnes thinks this is a possibility also. Matthew Henry understands the underlying principle, but then gets in his obligatory dig at the "papists," as if Catholics were grossly ignorant of the principle he had just correctly expounded upon (a shortcoming we have seen throughout this study):
Continence is a special gift of God to some, and not to others; and when a man, in the single state, finds by experience that he has this gift, he may determine with himself, and (as the apostle speaks, 1 Cor. vii. 37), stand steadfast in his heart, having no necessity, but having power over his own will, that he will keep himself so. . . . The single state must be chosen for the kingdom of heaven's sake; in those who resolve never to marry, only that they may save charges, or may gratify a morose selfish humour, or have a greater liberty to serve other lusts and pleasures, it is so far from being a virtue, that it is an ill-natured vice; but when it is for religion's sake, not as in itself a meritorious act (which papists make it), but only as a means to keep our minds more entire for, and more intent upon, the services of religion, and that, having no families to provide for, we may do the more works of charity, then it is approved and accepted of God.So it looks as though Protestants cannot come up with any compelling or persuasive biblical argument against clerical celibacy, or any "un-Catholic" re-interpretation of Matthew 19:12. Many of the criticisms of the Protestant opponents of the practice today are of the same non-biblical (and usually emotionally-based) nature.
1 Corinthians 7:7-9: "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."John Calvin keeps up his tirade against celibacy in his Commentary:
1 Corinthians 7:32-38: "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. 36 If any one thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry-it is no sin. 37 But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. 38 So that he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better."
If this passage had been duly weighed, that perverse superstition connected with the desire of celibacy, which is the root and cause of great evils, would never have gained a footing in the world. Paul here expressly declares, that every one has not a free choice in this matter, because virginity is a special gift, that is not conferred upon all indiscriminately. Nor does he teach any other doctrine than what Christ himself does, when he says, that "all men are not capable of receiving this saying." (Matthew 19:11) . . . What, in the meantime, has been done? Every one, without having any regard to his power, has, according to his liking, vowed perpetual continency . . . Virginity, I acknowledge, is an excellent gift; but keep it in view, that it is a gift. Learn, besides, from the mouth of Christ and of Paul, that it is not common to all, but is given only to a few . . . As for those who, despising marriage, rashly vowed perpetual continency, God punished their presumption, first, by the secret flames of lust; and then afterwards, by horrible acts of filthiness . . . no house was safe from the impurities of the priests. Even that was reckoned a small matter; for there sprung up monstrous enormities, . . . We must also notice carefully the word continue; for it is possible for a person to live chastely in a state of celibacy for a time, but there must be in this matter no determination made for tomorrow.Granted, this was not the most spiritually upright time in Church history, and Calvin was rightly responding to the scandals of sexual corruption in the priesthood, but that doesn’t give him a warrant to disparage the biblical teaching and act as if celibacy is the root of all kinds of evil. He again states his belief that lifelong celibacy is well-nigh impossible.
That's not what St. Paul teaches; that isn’t how the disciples lived their lives. Calvin would have it that Jesus would require His closest companions and associates to live in a state that was almost certain to produce "the secret flames of lust" and "monstrous enormities," etc. This is clearly absurd.
As with so many doctrines, here again is the early Protestant propensity for "throwing out the baby with the bathwater." If there was corruption or human failings, the Protestant solution was -- too often -- to throw out the institution rather than reform it. They claimed to be following the Bible in a special way that the "papists" were not; yet on this issue they couldn’t produce any compelling proof that celibacy of priests ought to be abandoned.
They simply didn’t like the celibacy requirement, and so they got rid of it. But Christian tradition doesn’t work that way. The Church is not at liberty to pick and choose or to discard received traditions at whim. Celibacy was not dogma but it was a very entrenched and successful practice in the Church.
The general thrust of Calvin's long comment on 1 Corinthians 7 is to downplay every instance of St. Paul praising celibacy and to emphasize (to the greatest degree) lust and the supposed universal requirement for marriage. He is, therefore, eisegeting, because his concern is precisely the opposite of St. Paul's: to disparage celibacy or virginity in practice as impossible and too easily overcome by the lusts of the flesh.
The Catholic Encyclopedia, in its article on celibacy, gives the counter-argument to this way of thinking:
The anti-clerical animus which prompts a certain type of mind to rake these scandals together, and to revel in and exaggerate their prurient details, is at least as marked as the tendency on the part of the Church's apologists to ignore these uncomfortable pages of history altogether. In any case, it may be said in reply, that the observance of continence with substantial fidelity by a numerous clergy, even for centuries together, is assuredly not beyond the strength of human nature when elevated by prayer and strengthened by Divine grace . . .John Henry Newman (in words that are just as relevant to the situation of today’s tragic sexual scandals) compared celibate and married clergy in terms of virtue, and contended that neither state is the cause of sinful behavior:
Our argument is that the observance of celibacy is not only possible for the few called to be monks and enjoying the safeguards of the monastic life, but that it is not beyond the strength of a great body of men numbered by tens of thousands, . . . 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 periods of the world's history, and in different countries calling themselves Christian, the Catholic priesthood has occasionally sunk, but such scandals are no more the effect of compulsory celibacy than prostitution, which is everywhere rampant in our great cities, is the effect of our marriage laws.
We do not abolish Christian marriage because so large a proportion of mankind are not faithful to the restraints which it imposes on human concupiscence. No one in his heart believes that civilized nations would be cleaner or purer if polygamy were substituted for monogamy. Neither is there any reason to suppose that scandals would be fewer and the clergy more respected if Catholic priests were permitted to marry.
(Herbermann, III, 483)
When, then, we come to the matter of fact, whether celibacy has been and is, in comparison of the marriage vow, so dangerous to a clerical body, I answer that I am very sceptical indeed that in matter of fact a married clergy is adorned, in any special and singular way, with the grace of purity; and this is just the very thing which Protestants take for granted. What is the use of speaking against our discipline, till they have proved their own to be better?But back to 1 Corinthians 7: Adam Clarke somehow manages to completely flip the Apostle Paul’s meaning, with an astonishing contempt for the actual text he is supposedly expounding. St. Paul writes in 7:32-33: "The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife." But by some unknown, inexplicable process of reasoning from that text, Clarke can make this comment:
Now I deny that they succeed with their rule of matrimony, better than we do with our rule of celibacy; . . . . a Protestant rector or a dissenting preacher is not necessarily kept from the sins I am speaking of, because he happens to be married: and when he offends, whether in a grave way or less seriously, still in all cases he has by matrimony but exchanged a bad sin for a worse, and has become an adulterer instead of being a seducer.
Matrimony only does this for him, that his purity is at once less protected and less suspected. I am very sceptical, then, of the universal correctness of Protestant ministers, whether in the Establishment or in Dissent. I repeat, I know perfectly well, that there are a great number of high-minded men among the married Anglican clergy who would as soon think of murder, as of trespassing by the faintest act of indecorum upon the reverence which is due from them to others; nor am I denying, what, though of course I cannot assert it on any knowledge of mine, yet I wish to assert with all my heart, that the majority of Wesleyan and dissenting ministers lead lives beyond all reproach; but still allowing all this, the terrible instances of human frailty of which one reads and hears in the Protestant clergy, are quite enough to show that the married state is no sort of testimonial for moral correctness, no safeguard whether against scandalous offences, or (much less) against minor forms of the same general sin.
Purity is not a virtue which comes merely as a matter of course to the married any more than to the single, though of course there is a great difference between man and man; and though it is impossible to bring the matter fairly to an issue, yet for that very reason I have as much right to my opinion as another to his, when I state my deliberate conviction that there are, to say the least, as many offences against the marriage vow among Protestant ministers, as there are against the vow of celibacy among Catholic priests . . .
But if matrimony does not prevent cases of immorality among Protestant ministers, it is not celibacy which causes them among Catholic priests. It is not what the Catholic Church imposes, but what human nature prompts, which leads any portion of her ecclesiastics into sin. Human nature will break out, like some wild and raging element, under any system; it bursts out under the Protestant system; it bursts out under the Catholic; passion will carry away the married clergyman as well as the unmarried priest. On the other hand, there are numbers to whom there would be, not greater, but less, trial in the vow of celibacy than in the vow of marriage, as so many persons prefer Teetotalism to the engagement to observe Temperance.
Till, then, you can prove that celibacy causes what matrimony certainly does not prevent, you do nothing at all. This is the language of common sense. It is the world, the flesh, and the devil, not celibacy, which is the ruin of those who fall.
(Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England, Lecture 4, 1851, 134-136)
The single man is an atom in society; the married man is a small community in himself. The former is the centre of his own existence, and lives for himself alone; the latter is diffused abroad, makes a much more important part of the body social, and provides both for its support and continuance. The single man lives for and does good to himself only; the married man lives both for himself and the public. Both the state and the Church of Christ are dependent on the married man, as from him under God the one has subjects, the other members; while the single man is but an individual in either, and by and by will cease from both, and having no posterity is lost to the public for ever. The married man, therefore, far from being in a state of inferiority to the single man, is beyond him out of the limits of comparison. He can do all the good the other can do, though perhaps sometimes in a different way; and he can do ten thousand goods that the other cannot possibly do. And therefore both himself and his state are to be preferred infinitely before those of the other.All this flows from Clarke's assumption that Paul is only talking this way because of the "present distress"; otherwise he would prefer marriage to singleness. When he comments on verse 35, where Paul makes his strongest endorsement of the practical and spiritual benefits of celibacy over against marriage, he again utilizes the method of "limited application" in order to evade the clear, straightforward meaning of the text: "Nothing spoken here was ever designed to be of general application; it concerned the Church at Corinth alone, or Churches in similar circumstances." Matthew Henry can’t refrain from the temptation to bash Catholic priestly vows in an irrational fashion:
Marrying is not in itself a sin, but marrying at that time was likely to bring inconvenience upon them, and add to the calamities of the times; and therefore he thought it advisable and expedient that such as could contain should refrain from it; but adds that he would not lay celibacy on them as a yoke, nor, by seeming to urge it too far, draw them into any snare; and therefore says, But I spare you. Note, How opposite in this are the papist casuists to the apostle Paul! They forbid many to marry, and entangle them with vows of celibacy, whether they can bear the yoke or no.This is an utterly ridiculous remark. It’s as if one envisions an imaginary Catholic Church (one which seems to be lodged in every anti-Catholic's mind) where potential priests are dragged screaming and kicking (perhaps drugged up, too, and pulled from the arms of hysterical, grieving girlfriends) and forced to take their vows under gunpoint "whether they can bear the yoke or no."
Henry speaks nothing of spiritual gifts, vocation, the voluntary nature of a discernment of the calling to the priesthood, or the graces of holy orders. Rather than show how Catholic teaching is wrong from biblical teaching, he takes the opportunity to irrationally rave and present an entirely jaded picture of Catholic belief and practice. What does that have to do, however, with exegesis?
In conclusion, I would like to cite the wise words of G.K. Chesterton, written 14 years before he became a Catholic. The paradox he notes is a marvelously ironic one: the Catholic Church is simultaneously attacked for being too "pro-family" and too "pro-children" but also for supposedly being against marriage and sexuality (as the Church, we are told, stifles marital and sexual happiness in its puritanical views on divorce and contraception), due to its high regard for the celibate life devoted to the Lord in a total giving of self. Chesterton's point is that one need not choose; it’s a false dilemma from the start:
Thus, the double charges of the secularists, though throwing nothing but darkness and confusion on themselves, throw a real light on the faith. It is true that the historic Church has at once emphasized celibacy and emphasized the family; has at once (if one may put it so) been fiercely for having children and fiercely for not having children. It has kept them side by side like two strong colors, red and white, like the red and white upon the shield of St. George. It has always had a healthy hatred of pink. It hates that combination of two colors which is the feeble expedient of the philosophers. It hates that evolution of black into white which is tantamount to a dirty gray. In fact, the whole theory of the Church on virginity might be symbolized in the statement that white is a color: not merely the absence of a color. All that I am urging here can be expressed by saying that Christianity sought in most of these cases to keep two colors coexistent but pure. It is not a mixture like russet or purple; it is rather like a shot silk, for a shot silk is always at right angles, and is in the pattern of the cross.
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