Is Celibacy A New Testament Requirement For Spiritual Leadership?

Mar 14th, 2020 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

One of the most significant and contentious issues under discussion during the Catholic Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazonian Region, held in October 2019, was the question of whether to allow married men in that region to become priests. The reason for this consideration is the significant shortage of priests among indigenous people groups in the Amazon region.  “Due to the shortage, many indigenous Catholics in that region are unable to regularly celebrate the Mass and receive other forms of pastoral care.”   In February, Pope Francis, in a papal letter, rejected the landmark proposal by bishops to allow the ordination of married men in remote areas underserved by priests. [The letter, Querida Amazonía, took the form of a 94-page booklet and has the power of church teaching.]  The pope’s letter was in response to a recommendation, which was approved by more than two-thirds of the voting members who attended a church leaders’ summit on the Amazon region in October.  The proposal to ordain married men in the Amazon region, where the shortage of priests is dire, set off a polarizing debate.  “Progressives said it was high time the church recognized reality and the demands of the faithful; conservatives called the idea a threat to the priesthood, and warned that married priests would follow everywhere,” including in Europe and other Western regions of the church.

Journalists, Jason Horowitz and Elisabetta Povoledo, summarize the substance of Pope Francis’s letter:

  • Writing that “a specific and courageous response is required of the church,” Francis argued in his letter that access to the sacraments needs to be increased in “the remotest” places, but that a “priest alone” can celebrate communion or absolve sins.
  • Francis argued that the gap should be filled with a culturally sensitive effort to increase priestly vocations and by encouraging more of those already ordained to go to remote areas. Francis, who blames abuse of power by priests for many of the church’s ills, argued that the way forward rested in “the growth of a specific ecclesial culture that is distinctively lay.”  “It is not simply a question of facilitating a greater presence of ordained ministers who can celebrate the Eucharist,” he added, dismissing such a goal as “a very narrow aim.”
  • The bishops’ document of October 2019 urged the church to adapt to the religious customs of Indigenous people and to support them in their resistance to large economic and political interests exploiting the Amazon. The pope’s letter echoed those concerns, arguing for the protection of the environment, but stopped short of calling deforestation and stripping of resources a “sin,” as the bishops had.
  • But the section of the document that might have presented the greatest change — potentially a diversion from 1,000 years of church tradition — was on ordaining married men as priests. Married priests are already allowed in Eastern Catholic Churches loyal to the pope, and Anglican priests who convert to Catholicism can remain married after ordination. But the document wrestled with what many church historians consider a more significant change.  At the close of the October meeting, bishops from the Amazon region had proposed that the pope ordain as priests “suitable and respected men of the community” with families who had already had “fruitful” experiences as deacons and who would “receive an adequate formation for the priesthood.”  The Amazon bishops argued that the change was necessary because many of the faithful in the region had encountered “enormous difficulties” in receiving communion.  The bishops recognized how important women were in the church in the Amazon, where they often lead services and act as anchors for Indigenous congregations. But the meeting did not recommend elevating those women to the position of deacon, while noting that discussions on the subject had been “very present.”  Francis has talked a lot about elevating women. He said on Wednesday that women should have more formal roles in churches but again resisted moving them up in the hierarchy.  It would be reductionist, he wrote, “to believe that women would be granted a greater status and participation in the church only if they were admitted to holy orders.”  He added, “We must keep encouraging those simple and straightforward gifts that enabled women in the Amazon region to play so active a role in society.”

The issue of celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church is no small issue.  It reflects a nearly 1,000 year old tradition.  How had this tradition developed?  Is it rooted in Scripture?  Is celibacy a distinct mark of and requirement for spiritual leadership?

  • First of all, what does Scripture say? The Bible affirms the value of celibacy for both lay Christians and church leaders, most notably in 1 Corinthians 7. In this passage, Paul speaks of his own unmarried state (vv. 7–8) and commends celibacy as a way to focus on pleasing the Lord (vv. 32–35).  Celibate Christians do not face the challenge of divided loyalties—to Christ and to spouse and family.  Equally significant is that 1 Corinthians 7 also clearly and strongly affirms Christian marriage. Further, multiple passages of Scripture speak directly about married church leaders, including specific instructions about married bishops or overseers (1 Tim. 3:2), elders (Titus 1:6), and deacons (1 Tim. 3:12).
  • Second, how did celibacy develop in the history of the church? “Priestly celibacy was discussed and debated by Christian leaders during the earliest centuries of the church, including at the Council of Nicaea. While some at that time upheld celibacy as an ideal state for clergy, others opposed requiring it. Bishop Paphnutius (who was himself unmarried) opposed placing that expectation upon church leaders, saying ‘too heavy a yoke ought not to be laid upon the clergy,’ and that ‘marriage and married intercourse are of themselves honorable and undefiled.’ ” Within Eastern Orthodoxy, the Council in Trullo (A.D. 625) affirmed that men who were already married could be ordained to the priesthood, though unmarried priests could not marry after ordination. Within Catholicism, clerical celibacy continued to be viewed as ideal by many, and various ecclesial rulings in the early centuries of Christendom supported this view. The expectation that Catholic priests be celibate was clarified and more strictly enforced beginning in the 11th century under Pope Gregory VII.
  • “A primary reason Catholic priests are unmarried and celibate is the Catholic belief that a priest acts in persona Christi—that he acts ‘in the person of’ or as a representation of Christ. Because Jesus was unmarried, priests are to model themselves after Christ’s example.”  The Catechism of the Catholic Churchfurther expounds that priests are “called to consecrate themselves with undivided heart to the Lord and to ‘the affairs of the Lord,’ [1 Cor. 7:32]” in order that they can ‘give themselves entirely to God and to men.’ The Catechism emphasizes that this priestly celibacy ‘radiantly proclaims the Reign of God.’”
  • “Today, it is important to note that within Eastern Catholic rites married men are commonly ordained as priests; the emphasis on priestly singleness and celibacy is found primarily within the Latin (or Western) rite of the Catholic Church. In some rare cases, the Latin rite also allows married men to become priests if they previously served as ministers within specific Protestant denominations prior to their conversion to Catholicism.”

Part of the Reformation of the 16th century was a revolution in how Christians viewed marriage and celibacy for spiritual leadership.  As a young man, Martin Luther’s views had been shaped by a medieval formulation much different from the one he developed later in life. He had, of course, begun his career as an Augustinian monk, sworn to a life of celibacy, free from the cares and worldly concerns of family life.  In ultimately rejecting celibacy for the clergy he not only set in motion a revolution in his own life but one for the Western world as well.  Luther changed traditional views of marriage.  “His exaltation of married life and rejection of celibacy are at the heart of what he saw as the most intimate of human relationships, those between husbands and wives, and parents and children.”  What did Luther argue?

  • Historian Thomas M. Miller captures the change Luther brought: “Luther also concluded that sexual desire is natural and, in the proper context, a positive good. He argues that sexual desire is of divine origin and that human sexual needs can be fulfilled in marriage. A man has a wife and a woman a husband to satisfy the innate yearnings of the flesh and to carry out the divine plan. Because God planted in spouses sexual love and desire for each other, sexual desire and sexual intercourse within marriage are natural and good. Indeed, part of the divine plan is for a husband and wife to love each other ardently. A comparison of this view with those expressed on the subject in the manuals for confessors of the late Middle Ages shows how far Luther had evolved.  Marriage is a great sanctifier. It makes good what would otherwise be evil. Luther shared the common belief of his time that God established marriage to help people avoid sexual sin. God calls men and women from all impure desires and acts. He established marriage as the divine institution that avoids, moderates, or sanctifies such otherwise evil lusts and desires. Since the fall of Adam, carnal desire has been mixed with evil lust, and marriage has been necessary to sanctify this passion.”
  • Luther also rejected the exaltation of clerical celibacy. “The adherents of Rome perverted the true order established by God when they set up celibacy as a higher state than matrimony. The false doctrine of the Roman church not only exalts those who are unmarried and celibate, but even worse, denigrates those who are married. For example, the papists termed the celibate religious orders “spiritual” and marriage “temporal.” In fact, marriage should be considered a spiritual condition and celibacy anything but that. Adam’s marriage predates any papal impositions and shows the standing of marriage according to God’s Word. Procreation in marriage is a divine command with which people should not interfere. Anyone who forbids marriage contradicts God’s law and God himself. Luther told any cleric who was considering marriage to examine Genesis. He would conclude that a man and a woman “should and must” be joined together in order to fulfill God’s plan. Individuals must be free to choose whether they want to live a celibate or married life. No vows made contrary to God’s law should prevent a person from marrying. Even if he had made a thousand vows and even if a hundred thousand angels told him not to marry, what is any of that when placed against the Word of God?”
  • “Celibacy is also contrary to nature and denies the natural laws God established. Sexual desire is not only irresistible; in the proper place it is natural, God-given, and good. Those who demand celibacy are wrong in denying the sexual urge. They insist that “a man should not feel his masculine body, nor should a woman feel her feminine body.” But that is not only irrational, it is impossible. No one can deny a basic bodily function. The desires connected with a person’s gender are not a matter of free choice or decision, but are necessary and natural. Common sense, in fact, demonstrates to anyone that celibacy is contrary to natural laws . . . By prescribing celibacy as a higher order than sexual release in marriage, the Roman church had seriously erred, for it tried to improve on God’s pattern for proper human relations. Such error, because it denies God’s natural order, is akin to blasphemy.”

In his own life, Luther had evolved from being a cloistered, celibate monk to a husband and father able to feel and appreciate those sentiments that have been ever since associated with marriage and family.


See Jason Horowitz and Elisabetta Povoledo, “Pope Francis Sets Aside Proposal on Married Priests” in the New York Times (12 February 2020); “Celibate Priests: What You Need to Know

After the Amazonian Synod, the Catholic stance on clerical celibacy remains unchanged,” Christianity Today editorial (12 February 2020); and Thomas F. Miller, “Luther: Father of the Christian Home” in Christianity Today (21 October 1983).

Comments Closed