Good afternoon, Catholic Girls!
I am a moderate Christian woman with Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish family. I love getting to know more about other faith traditions and find religious culture fascinating! So of course, I am a fan of AskMormonGirl, AskCatholicGirl, and now AskJewish Girl!
I’ve always wondered why the Catholic Church requires their priests to be non-married? Is there a Biblical passage that the Catholic Church bases this decision upon?
It just seems to me that in our post-modern world, having a leader who understands the joys, sorrows, needs, and demands of a family might be better equipped to understand the lives of his parishioners. Not to mention having a partner who can be a support, sounding board, and partner in ministry.
Just thought I would ask since the reverends and rabbis in my life are all married and have families… and this has always been a curious question of mine!
With this one, you’ve hit upon something that every Catholic has considered many times in the course of his or her life, but probably no one more than priests themselves. The insistence on unmarried priests by the Roman Catholic Church is curious in our contemporary lives, and to the common person, celibacy can seem antiquated and restrictive, especially at a time when the Church is finding fewer and fewer young men willing to forego the pleasures of a wife and family in favor of heeding a call to shepherd the faithful, as a Catholic might say.
And as you rightly point out, sometimes it seems like priests would be more accessible to their congregations, and their congregations would be more accessible to the priests, if they had more common life experiences. Yet in the 12th century, after many centuries of pondering the question, the Roman Catholic Church rendered clerical marriages invalid at First Lateran Council, and of all the things decided there, this one really stuck.
You ask if there is a Biblical support for this, and there is. Probably the most often cited is 1 Corinthians 7:32-34, where Paul writes, “An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided.” Growing up, this is what I was told about why priests couldn’t marry. The demands of shepherding a congregation and tending to their spiritual needs would be too much to balance with the demands of a family. One or the other would always be getting the short end of the stick.
But another reason cited for priestly celibacy is the accepted narrative (for the majority of Christians) is that Jesus was celibate, therefore it is a way for the leaders of the Church to emulate him. Many argue that this is most appropriate given the fact that consecrating and administering the Eucharist, which Catholics believe is the Body and Blood of Christ, is the priests’ most sacred responsibility. Even in strains of Catholicism where priests can marry—Eastern and Russian Orthodox, for example—the priests are supposed to abstain from sex with their wives for a certain period of time before they participate in these rituals.
This fits with the idea of celibacy as a means of purification and a discipline, which is not only part of the Catholic tradition but also appears in Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, among others. Celibacy is one form of denying the body in favor of the spirit, one means through which the individual transcends the baser human instincts in an attempt to reach the divine.
All of this is not to say that there were not contradictory motives for the prohibition in the Catholic Church. There are probably many layers of political and power struggles underneath the polished veneer, and it’s possible that Pope Calixtus II (and many popes, cardinals, and bishops that have followed) didn’t want to worry about the heirs of priests attempting to claim Church property or funds as inheritance.
With that in mind, it’s important to point out that the prohibition on married priests in the Catholic Church is Canon Law, which is a complex set of guidelines that functions the same way as laws drawn up by our legislators. It is not dogma. And while dogma is unalterable, Canon Law is not, so it may be that someday, Catholic priests will be allowed to marry. Based on recent statements by the current Pope, it doesn’t seem that will happen anytime soon. For now, Canon 247 will remain, and seminarians are to be taught “to hold celibacy in honor as a special gift of God.” This seems to reinforce that the practice is a discipline, but not integral to faith itself.
The fact that celibacy is not integral to the faith is also reflected in the fact that the church does allow exceptions to the rule, also following from Paul. Protestant clergy who convert and desire to become priests can receive dispensations from the Pope to be ordained as Catholic priests, even if they are married, even if they have children. There aren’t many—I’ve heard anecdotally that there are about 80 in the United States, though I’ve never seen that confirmed—but one of them is the priest in the tiny parish where I grew up. A convert from the Episcopalian faith, Fr. Martin arrived when I was 16, and he remains to this day, almost a decade and a half later.
So speaking from experience, it is a little different to have the priest’s wife sitting in the front pew or reading the scriptures during mass or administering communion (as a layperson, of course). I do think his “marriedness” and the fact that he is a father does give him some credibility when a parishioner looks to him for advice about what to do in a marriage or with worries about a child.
On the other hand, I’ve known the sons and daughters of Protestant pastors who speak of the pressure of being a pastor’s kid—how you’re expected to be well-behaved and perfect, how it feels as if the ministry is always the priority and that you are the secondary concern. And I’m ghost-writing the memoir of a retired minister of an Evangelical megachurch who says that it was all just too much.
I’m not advocating one or the other here. I truly believe that celibacy has a place and that it can be a true vocation, but I also see the point that imposed celibacy and be a lonely and alienating practice. I also think that rabbis and Protestant ministers and Orthodox priests probably do find a lot of comfort in their families. But they also might feel stretched pretty thin.
But if we’re talking about Catholicism, I don’t see the Church changing because priests aren’t connecting with their parishioners. (We’ve never been that democratic.) More likely it would be that young men are not hearing or responding to the call to priesthood, and that the shortage of available priests becomes more than the Church can withstand.
Which could bring us to the topic of women priests. But that’s a whole different question.
Peace and light,