Everyone who studies Catholic theology knows the difference between Sacred Tradition and tradition (commonly referred to as “traditions of men”). Sacred Tradition is on a par with Sacred Scripture, since both come directly from Christ and His Apostles. Sacred Tradition deals with matters of faith and morals. It deals with truth. Hence, anything a part of Sacred Tradition is unchangeable.
The so-called “traditions of men” are different. Such deal with matters of church discipline, rites, ceremonies, etc. These things can and do change over time. They are not necessarily matters of truth. The traditions don’t really deal with faith or morals, so they can be altered. In fact, many have been altered.
Priestly celibacy is one such matter. Priestly celibacy was not enforced by Christ. Although there is some evidence of its practice during Apostolic times, it was not required. This is because priestly celibacy is a discipline, and therefore, a disciplinary issue. This being the case, I am not generally concerned with discussing whether or not priestly celibacy should remain. It isn’t essential to the Catholic Faith, hence I usually am not interested in debating the matter.
As time has gone on, however, the issue becomes more frequently discussed. A few years ago, Christoph Cardinal Schönborn suggested that the Church should reexamine the celibacy rule for priests. Since then, numerous prelates have mentioned this. Pope Francis has said he will consider the matter. In light of all this, I give you my view. (This is not necessarily the view of all members of American Catholic Solidarity.)
During the Apostolic Age, celibacy was not enforced among the clergy. We know, for example, that St. Peter himself was married. (Mt. 8:14) There are many references throughout the New Testament and the Church Fathers which indicate that prelates were often married. In fact, to this day, the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church still allow married priests. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church (Latin Church), actually does make some exceptions, but such must come from the Roman Pontiff.
The rule for celibacy was not strictly enforced until the 16th century. The rule predates that time by centuries, but it was not enforced very effectively until the Counter Reformation. Although there are arguments made to the effect that Scripture does not order celibacy (see 1 Cor. 9:5), there are scriptural arguments in favor of the practice.
First of all, as a Catholic, I do not adhere to sola scriptura. Authority was given to the Church, and the Church itself predates the New Testament. Believing the Church is subject solely to Scripture is like subjecting a parent to its child’s authority. The Church is free to regulate discipline, as long as it does not contradict Scripture. After all, Scripture is the Word of God.
So the fact that Scripture does not explicitly give celibacy as a practice that is to be enforced does not mean anything. Scripture does not explicitly forbid the practice, either. In fact, Scripture praises the practice of celibacy.
In Matthew 19:12 Jesus praises celibacy. He says that some were “eunuchs from birth”. Others were “made eunuchs by men”. Yet, still others have made themselves eunuchs for God’s kingdom. Jesus is clear, however, that such is a gift, not given to everyone.
There are those who argue Jesus was not referring to priestly celibacy in Matthew 19:12. It might be so, if it weren’t for the words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:7-38. Here, Paul is clear that celibacy is preferable clerics to being married. The only difference is that the Church opted not to enforce celibacy during Paul’s time. That decision changed over time, and with good reason. If you would like to know the reason, read 1 Corinthians 7:7-38.
People use all types of arguments against priestly celibacy. We have dismantled the argument that the rule is unscriptural. Let us turn to a couple other arguments.
There are those who say if the Catholic Church would allow married priests, the priest shortage would be greatly lessened. This is simply not so. Virtually every other Christian denomination allows married ministers, and virtually every one of them is also experiencing a shortage. Let us not also forget that the number of seminarians began to slowly rise during the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II. The increase of priestly vocations looks to continue. In any case, the Protestant denominations are proof that allowing married clerics would not dramatically increase the number of vocations to the priesthood.
Another argument against priestly celibacy is that it attracts sex offenders. First of all, such a comment ignores that the sex abuse crisis was primarily a problem of homosexuality, not of pedophilia. Second of all, the Church acquired such a problem because it did not properly screen or prepare prospective candidates to the priesthood. This problem was remedied about ten years ago, so it is now a non-factor.
Another argument people make is that celibacy is just “too cruel a rule”. Man was made for sex. It is inreasonable to expect any human being to abstain from sex for life. Besides, hardly anyone has ever truly followed the rule anyway.
I find that people who make this argument are often those who not only have a problem with abstinence, but they generally seem to have a problem with monogamy, as well. They seem to believe that, since they couldn’t live a celibate lifestyle, no one could.
How such people actually know most religious sworn to celibacy have broken their vow is beyond me. They say a celibate life is impossible, but there are numerous saints and other religious who we know faithfully lived their vow of celibacy. If one could do it it stands to reason that maybe others can, as well.
Let us not also not forget that those who make the argument that celibacy is too difficult a rule to follow are also forgetting that celibacy is a gift. It is not simply a rule. Jesus Christ and St. Paul are clear that celibacy is a gift not given to everyone. Those who say they couldn’t live a celibate life have probably not been given that gift.
One last point to make. Celibacy is, technically, not forced on anyone. No one makes you become a religious, and take the vow of celibacy. God gives you the gift of living a celibate life. You can choose to accept that gift, or you can reject that gift. The only thing the Church enforces on this point is that those who wish to become consecrated or ordained religious (with a few exceptions) must take a vow of celibacy. This ensures they can give their whole lives to God, without the worries and cares which naturally come with being married and having a family.
If you wish to leave the religious life, one can ask the Church for permission. Once the vow of celibacy is taken, however, the Church can demand fidelity to that vow, or It can dispense from it. That is left to the Ordinary’s discretion. If the Church refuses such a dispensation, and the individual chooses to ignore the Church’s decision, the individual commits mortal sin. This is not cruelty, but the inevitable consequence of taking vows to God, and choosing not to faithfully live those vows. One may not morally disobey the Church’s refusal to dispense from a vow.
In summary, there are good reasons as to why the Church began requiring religious to take a vow of celibacy. The decision can be reversed, but there must be sufficient reason to do so. Some believe that such a reason exists. Such is their right, but I respectfully disagree. I believe, as Paul states, that celibacy is a gift from God. Some may not like that the Church requires it for religious, but, until the Pope decides otherwise, the practice stands. Instead of fighting this gift from God, we should be encouraging those who seek to learn if they have been given this gift to enter the religious life.
Peace in Christ,
David J. Pollard
American Catholic Solidarity