And now for a progressive perspective...
Reflections on Priestly Celibacy
by José María Castillo, SJ
Santiago de Chile
November 28, 2006
This article was originally published in Spanish and is available here. English translation courtesy of Rebel Girl.
According to the gospels, Jesus did not impose the obligation of bachelor living on any of his apostles. St. Paul says that some apostles lived with Christian wives and adds that they had the right to do so (1 Cor 9:5).
In the letters to Timothy (1 Tim 3: 2-5) and Titus (Titus 1:6), in explaining the qualities a bishop should have, it says that he should be faithful to his wife and know how to rule his household and his children well, because "if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of the church of God?" (1 Tim 3:5)
That is how things were until the 4th century. It is known that at the Council of Nicea (325 AD) some bishops wanted to "introduce a new law" that "ordained" men (bishops, priests, deacons) "not sleep with their wives."
Faced with this petition, Bishop Pafnucio yelled that one should not impose this heavy yoke on consecrated men, adding that the matrimonial act is worthy of honor and that matrimony itself is immaculate. (Socrates, Hist. Ecl. I:9). And the Council of Gangres (345 AD) condemned those who said that one should not receive communion from the hands of a married priest.
Nonetheless, at the beginning of the 4th century, right here in Granada, at the Council of Elvira, the law of continence -- not the law of celibacy -- was imposed on the clergy, that is to say, they couldn't avail themselves of their marriage from the moment of their ordination. This discipline continued for centuries.
This caused serious complications. For example, the First Council of Toledo (397-400 AD) ruled that the wives of clergy who sinned with someone else should be severely punished by their husbands in such a way as not to cause their death. And the Third Council of Toledo (589 AD) decided that the wives of clergy who sinned with another should be sold as slaves and the proceeds given to the poor.
In Eastern rite Christianity, the discipline was different: the Trullan Council (692 AD) set the law that remains in force in those churches and permits clergy to marry. "The nuptials are honorable and matrimony is immaculate." Therefore it is not true that the celibacy law is a law of the universal Church. It is a law of the Latin rite Church.
How long can we say that the celibacy law has existed? It was Pope Innocent II who at the Second Lateran Council (1139 AD) officially declared that marriage for priests was not only prohibited, but also invalid. From then on, priests (in the Latin rite Church) remained unable to marry. How was that decision reached? In the case of the bishops, economic criteria were decisive: There was the danger that a married priest would leave the properties of the Church as an inheritance to his children. But the determining factor was the principle of "ritual purity."
That was demonstrated in the best historical study made about this specific point (R. Gryson, Les origines du célibat ecclésiastique, Duculot, Gembloux, 1970). According to this principle, "only those who are pure can have access to the sphere of the sacred." But the conviction that sexual relationships contaminate and stain has been held since time immemorial.
The Greeks (Pythagoras, Empedocles) taught this way before Christianity. And the Jewish priests lived this way, who were married, but when they had to serve in the Temple, they had to stay in the Temple, without consorting with their wives. This was one of the arguments that was used in Rome when the daily celebration of the Eucharist was imposed in the 4th century. This is why the continence requirement was also imposed on clergy at that time.
This way of viewing sexuality as something that renders one impure is not accepted in current culture. This is why other arguments are usually used to justify keeping the celibacy law.
These are arguments that should be qualified. Because if you say that one who does not marry loves God more, you are really saying that God can be the jealous rival of a human love. But God is not (nor can He be) this way. What God most wants is for the love between humans to be as intense and authentic as possible.
Another reason that is usually provided is that someone who marries cannot devote himself as completely to the apostolate, which is true in some cases.
But it is not true that we priests devote more time and will to our task than the time and will other professionals put into their work -- business people or artists, for example.
So why is this church law still in effect? Experience teaches us, and psychologists endorse it, that whoever controls the emotional and sexual life of a person, secures that person's obedience. Probably this reason is stronger than we might imagine, even though many are not aware of it.
Aside from that, I don't think that if the Church allowed priests to marry, more people would enter the seminaries and novitiate programs. The crisis in vocations has deeper roots that now is not the moment to explain. Many Protestant churches have the same crisis in pastors.
And we know that Protestant pastors can marry. We have to remember as well that the sexual instinct only has three possible outlets: satisfaction, repression, or sublimation. But repression brings serious problems for the person who is forced to live that way. And sublimation for religious reasons is, of course, an admirable gift.
But it is not easy to understand how such a sublime experience could be lived by hundreds of thousands of people as those who want to devote themselves to apostolic ministry in the Church must live. Out of this come the "double lives", the scandals. Therefore I think that it would be better to eliminate this law that is more and more difficult to uphold each day.