The evils of priestly celibacy
MAN has the ability to think and to turn what he thinks into systems and institutions to benefit himself. This puts him above all other creatures. The great civilisations, inventions, and institutions in history have all resulted from the ability to think and to put thought into action.
But this ability is a double-edged sword — it helps as well as destroys, as evidenced by the devices man has made to annihilate himself, along with the institutions and systems to preserve himself. We live with the fear of being wiped off the earth in minutes by some weapon of mass destruction, in this day when we say we are at our best.
No sphere of life is immune to this productive/destructive potential of man. Religion, which is to ennoble man and bring out his more salutary instincts, has been almost as destructive as the most pagan forces; it has inquisitions, crusades and other examples of brutality to man. Now we in the West live in the fear that Islam, which claims to be the only true religion, will destroy our civilisation in obedience to Allah. But Christianity which is the true religion, having been founded by the Creator himself, can't escape blame.
The question is: what impels man to persist in doing what is evidently destructive and to insist that it is good? I am thinking of the Roman Catholic church and its institution of mandatory clerical celibacy which is producing so much evil in the church and in the world, in ravaging the lives of innocent children. Of course only a minority of priests are sexual predators; the rest are good men. But one sexual predator is too many. I believe it is because the Catholic church, out of zeal or theological bankruptcy, insists on maintaining an institution that denies the God-given propensity of man. Now the depravity of some priests is threatening to tarnish the great social and religious work that the Roman Catholic church has done over so many centuries.
Catholic priests are no more sexually depraved than other men; it is the system that forces them to seek forbidden outlets for their God-given passion, having forbidden them to marry.
There is no celibate priesthood in the Bible which the church insists supports priestly celibacy. To go further, there is no special priesthood in the New Testament: we have only one High Priest, Jesus Christ; all believers are priests (Heb. 4: 14-15; 1st Pet. 9). Be that as it may, the Old Testament priesthood which has been abolished, having in its place now the High Priesthood of Christ and the common priesthood of all believers, was a married priesthood. Aaron, the first High Priest, was married: "Aaron took to himself Elisheaba, daughter of Amminadab, sister of Nashon as wife; and she bore him Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar and Itamar (Exodus 6: 23).
God expected all the priests in the Old Testament to be married. He gave Moses detailed instructions about the types of women from Israel that they were to marry: "They shall not take a wife who is a harlot or a defiled woman, nor shall they take a woman divorced from her husband; for the priest is holy unto the Lord (Lev 21: 7-8).
How did the Roman Catholic celibate priesthood arise, with the church enjoining on all aspirants to the priesthood a vow of celibacy? What are the reasons and justification for it? Among the reasons given are that priests serve in the place of Christ, especially when they administer the Eucharist, and since Christ was unmarried they should be unmarried also; a curious conclusion, since Christ never told this to the 12 men he chose and personally ordained to succeed him in preaching the gospel. Apparently people can read Christ's mind!
Another reason given is that Mary, the mother of Jesus, had no sexual relations with her husband, Joseph, after giving birth to Christ; and that priests emulate this holy couple by abstaining from sexual indulgence. This would be laughable if it weren't so tragic; for the Bible teaches that Joseph and Mary had regular conjugal relations after the the birth of Jesus resulting in other children. We must dismiss this piece of falsehood.
Still another reason is what Christ told his disciples in Matthew 19 in response to their question as to whether it is good for a man not to marry: "But he said unto them, all cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it is given: For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother's womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it" ( Matt 19:11-12). Some in the church insist that Jesus here is saying, celibacy is a higher state than marriage. Jesus is saying no such thing. The context is Jesus defending the holiness and permanence of marriage against the sinfulness of easy divorce that many of the Pharisees practised and taught. The disciples understand Jesus to be defending the sacredness of marriage, not exalting celibacy.
All Jesus says in this passage is that there are reasons men do not marry: birth defects rendering them unable to consummate a marriage; emasculation by kings to keep their court; and choice by men to be free to serve the Kingdom. Jesus doesn't say that celibacy is superior to marriage; and he gives no hint that what he says should be the basis for mandatory celibacy.
Another reason is from St Paul, who himself wasn't married. He says in 1st Cor 7: "But I want you to be without care. He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord. But he who is married cares about the things of the world -- how he may please his wife (v 32-33). Some contend that St Paul is saying celibacy is higher than marriage. He is saying nothing of the sort. All he is saying is that there are difficulties in life that a married person faces that normally a single person doesn't; and certainly he didn't even imagine that anyone had a right to compel those who serve as ministers to be celibate.
St Peter, whom the Roman Catholic church, against scripture, insists was the first Pope, was married; and so were most if not all the Apostles. For marriage is the normal state; God made man male and woman female; and when the natural desire for marriage is forbidden, evil results.
In the Middle Ages, one of the reasons for mandating clerical celibacy was greed. The married priests in Europe had substantial property that was passed to their wives and children upon their death and not to the church. The church wanted the property. Will Durant in his work The Age of Faith, said: "The church had long since opposed clerical marriage on the ground that a married priest, consciously or not, would put his loyalty to his wife and children above devotion to the church; that for their sake he would be tempted to accumulate money or property; that he would try to transmit his see or benefice to one of his offspring; that an hereditary ecclesiastical caste might in this way develop in Europe as in India; and that the combined power of such a propertied priesthood would be too great for the papacy to control" (The Age of Faith, p 542.). To prevent this, Durant said that several councils had demanded celibacy of the clergy "one- Pavia in 1018- had decreed a status of perpetual slavery, and disbarment from inheritance, for all children of priests" (p 542).
Then the evils arose. In the 8th century in Europe concubinage -- cohabitation with an unmarried woman -- among priests was common. Public opinion sometimes condoned it and the faithful looked discreetly the other way. Some deacons were reputed to keep as many as five concubines and to father children by them. One monk had to be dismissed after it was found that he had fathered 18 children by concubinage. Adulteries multiplied as some priests used their access and the privacy of confession to seduce the wives of their parishioners, to deadly hatred from some husbands.
Now some perverse priests have gone to the extreme, debauching young boys, which if left as it is will in future unfairly define the Roman church instead of the great religious and social work it has done. The time is overdue for the church to abolish mandatory celibacy, leaving it up to priests whether or not to marry. Hope for this is growing, especially with the coming of Pope Francis, said to be a 'man of the people'.
Will he? Can he? Tradition, especially of the religious kind, dies hard.
Ewin James is a freelance journalist and pastor. He lives in Florida.