The topic of priestly celibacy is one which is on the topical radar of a lot of people when it comes to the Catholic Church. Some view this as an important issue, while others view it as less serious, and concern themselves more with following Church doctrines and disciplines. Some ask whether allowing priests to marry would eliminate or reduce child sexual abuse among clergy, while others think a celibate clergy may be unncessary or at odds with the rest of society. Some even wonder if there is a Biblical basis for the practice of remaining celibate and unmarried. In this essay, I will address these concerns and see where the facts lie on the issue of priestly celibacy.
Priestly celibacy is considered a discipline of the church, as opposed to a dogma or doctrine. This means that it is something the teaching authority within the church has said is beneficial within the Church. Disciplines can and have in the past changed, and are not essential to our understanding of Christianity. Other disciplines include the previous ban on eating flesh meat on Fridays, or the Tridentine Mass, which was celebrated in Latin. Both of these disciplines were reviewed and changed during the Second Vatican Council. Therefore, it is possible that the rule of priestly celibacy could change, and the Pope would be fully within his role and rights to declare that it will no longer be necessary or may make it optional. It is important to note that any such decision would not affect current priests, who have already taken a vow of lifelong celibacy.
Where does the practice of priestly celibacy originate and what is its basis? The practice of celibacy is mentioned in the Bible by Jesus and Paul, who both describe it in favourable terms. Paul endorses celibacy when he says, "To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion" (1 Corinthians 7:8-9). So basically Paul says that if you CANNOT remain celibate, it is better to get married, but if you can, it is better to remain celibate.
Paul also says, "Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage. . . those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. . . . 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, 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" (1 Corinthians 7:27-34).
The most convincing argument for marriage is by Jesus himself. In Matthew chapter 19, verses 11 and 12, Jesus says: ""Not all can accept this word, but only those to whom it is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of God. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it". Jesus says that anyone who can accept celibacy ought to.
As we can see from the Bible, celibacy is not only acceptable, but quite desirable, according to Jesus and Paul. But would allowing priests do to reduce or eliminate child sexual abuse?
There is absolutely no evidence that celibacy has an effect on sexual abuse cases, or that getting rid of it would reduce abuses. The following information is from Post-Gazette.com, which quotes Philip Jenkins, Professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State University:
"My research of cases over the past 20 years indicates no evidence whatever that Catholic or other celibate clergy are any more likely to be involved in misconduct or abuse than clergy of any other denomination -- or indeed, than nonclergy. However determined news media may be to see this affair as a crisis of celibacy, the charge is just unsupported."
I will discuss the issue of clergy sexual abuse in a later blog.
Priestly celibacy has formed part of the Christian lifestyle for thousands of years. It allows priests to devote themselves fully to their spiritual tasks and spiritual fatherhood to billions of people worldwide. The Catholic Church has no intention of changing this practice, which is a powerful way of devoting one's life to Christ.