Priestly Celibacy

Priestly Celibacy

by Gary B. Selin


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ISBN-13: 9780813228419
Publisher: Catholic University of America Press
Publication date: 03/11/2016
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Gary B. Selin, STD, is assistant professor and formation advisor, St. John Vianney Seminar, Denver

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Priestly Celibacy

Theological Foundations

By Gary Selin

The Catholic University of America Press

Copyright © 2016 The Catholic University of America Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8132-2841-9


The Development of Clerical Continence and Celibacy in the Latin Church

This chapter provides a brief historical survey of the development of clerical continence and celibacy in order to prepare the way for a more systematic account in subsequent chapters. Although its focus is primarily on the discipline of celibacy, a more fundamental reality of celibacy in Catholic understanding appears along the way. That is, celibacy is a charism, or gift, given by the Holy Spirit to those men called to exercise the ministry of deacon, priest, or bishop in the Church. By giving proper attention to the charismatic quality of priestly celibacy, one will avoid the error of understanding it as merely a practice enforced by a disciplinary law; rather, it is a spiritual gift that offers the ordained minister a greater detachment from earthly ties that would prevent him from achieving a more intimate union with Christ. Among the benefits of enjoying this close union with Christ, the priest is freer to serve the faithful entrusted to him and he becomes a prophetic sign of future life in heaven.

The Biblical Foundations of Clerical Continence and Celibacy

CELIBACY IN THE OLD TESTAMENT was not prized as a noble calling and therefore was not a permanent or instituted state of life in Jewish culture. Because of the promise that God made to Abraham — that he would become the father of many nations — the Israelites looked on celibacy in a negative light, with marriage as the true source of fruitfulness and blessing. To remain unmarried and childless was to be the object of shame, while bearing many children was a sign of divine blessing (see Gen 22:17; Ps 127:3–4). Virginity in a bride, however, was the object of high praise (see Dt 22:14–29), and conversely, loss of virginity entailed a loss of honor (see 2 Sam 13:2–18; Lam 5:11). All priests were obliged to marry a virgin (see Lev 21:13f; Ezek 44:22).

The prophet Jeremiah was an exception to the divine mandate to marry (see Jer 1:4–10; 16:2–4). His celibacy symbolized the Lord God's withdrawal of the covenantal blessing: peace, love, and the virtues of an ideal married life that were forbidden to Jeremiah. God commanded Jeremiah to remain celibate so as to prophesy the imminence of Israel's chastisement. Under the influence of his predecessor Hosea, Jeremiah had a keen appreciation of the covenant between the Lord God and his people. When he saw that Israel did not listen to the warnings of God and that catastrophe was inevitable and the old covenant would come to an end, Jeremiah prophesied a new covenant (see Jer 31:31–34).

Temporary continence was nonetheless practiced for specific purposes. Levites and priests were required to practice ritual continence during their time of service in the temple (see 1 Sam 21:4–5), and all Jewish adult men were admonished to avoid sexual intercourse before worship (see Ex 19:15). Some men and women took the Nazarite vow (see Nm 6), which originally seems to have required some form of temporary continence.

In the Hebrew tradition, the notion of ritual, or cultic, uncleanness was prevalent, and it excluded those affected, particularly a priest, from participating in communal worship. The purity laws were those laws in the Pentateuch that qualified certain actions, states of being, persons, or things as pure or impure. Ritual purity refers primarily to one's ability to participate in the cultic acts in the Temple, whereas ritual impurity signified a condition, usually temporary, that resulted from the normal cycle of human life: birth, disease, sexual activity, and death. The married priest regulated his sexual activity by means of temporary continence for the sake of safeguarding ritual purity.

Later Judaism showed indications that the unmarried state was more highly regarded than before, as in the cases of Judith (see Jud 16:22) and Anna (see Lk 2:37), and celibacy became an instituted way of life with the appearance of the Essene community in the second century. Yet despite this later development, there is no evidence of an institutionalized celibacy among the Israelites.

Within the New Covenant, however, there was a fundamental precedent for celibacy as a permanent state: the life of Jesus Christ. His celibacy is assumed in the traditions about him rather than being explicitly mentioned in the New Testament. Some scriptural passages, however, do imply the celibacy of Jesus. The New Testament portrays Jesus as having no earthly ties. For example, no family member was present at his death except for his mother (see Jn 19:25). If Jesus had had a wife, presumably she would have been present or at least mentioned in this event and others in his life.

Furthermore, the manner of life that Jesus lived was compatible with his mission of evangelization but not with marriage. Jesus's chosen lifestyle expressed his mission, for he left his home and family in Nazareth in order to live as an itinerant preacher, consciously renouncing a permanent dwelling: "The Son of man has nowhere to lay his head" (Mt 8:20). Jean Galot argued that Jesus lived as an unmarried man for at least two reasons. First, it was appropriate that he whose mission was the spiritual engendering of a new humanity should abstain from bodily engendering; his fruitfulness and offspring belonged to the order of grace. Second, Jesus came to reveal God's love for all people. If Jesus had chosen to marry, he would have been bound to a particular love that would have concealed his universal love. His love for one woman would have distanced himself from all other women.

Moreover, in the context of reaffirming the biblical teaching of the indissolubility of marriage (see Gen 1:27, 2:24), Jesus was asked by his disciples: "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry" (Mt 19:10). He answered them by describing three ways in which a person can be a eunuch: "Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can."

The noun eunuch occurs nowhere else in the New Testament with the exception of the story of the Ethiopian eunuch (see Acts 8:27–39). Of the three manners in which one is incapable of sexual activity, the third alone is voluntary: "eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs." These people do so "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven," that is, for the Kingdom that Jesus was proclaiming and initiating (see Mt 4:17).

It is possible that Jesus was describing himself as such a voluntary eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven. Eunuchs were treated as outcasts in the Jewish community and were forced to live away from the Jewish people because it was considered improper for a man who had been deprived of his power to transmit life to come close to the God of life. Jesus, in using the word eunuch, may have been referring to himself as one considered as a eunuch and an outcast by his enemies, who also labeled him a glutton, a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners (see Mt 11:19), and a Samaritan with a demon (see Jn 8:48). In speaking this way, Jesus was also stating that an unmarried person was no longer to be considered automatically as an outcast and separated from God. Jesus can be seen as implicitly inviting his disciples to follow him in the state of being a "eunuch" for the Kingdom of heaven. He taught that there is a resurrection into a heavenly life in which there is no marriage (see Mt 22:30–32). It follows that celibacy, both his own and that of his disciples, was a prophetic lifestyle that bears witness both to the resurrection and to the Kingdom.

Noteworthy is that in Mt 19:11–12, Jesus spoke of one's choice to be a "eunuch for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" in terms of gift, rather than of an obligation or discipline: "Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given" (Mt 19:11). This "teaching" is offered as a gift for those disciples whom Jesus calls to follow him. These words of Jesus form a foundation for the Catholic Church's perennial understanding of continence and celibacy as a gift (or charism) that is ordered to spiritual and ministerial fruitfulness.

It is in this Kingdom that Jesus would promise eternal life (see Jn 3:5, 17:3; Rom 6:23). In this context, a clear difference between Jewish and Christian notions of eternal life should be noted. In the Old Testament, it was imperative for the Jew to marry because there was no clear understanding of the resurrection of the body; Jews believed that they in some sense would survive death and live on through their offspring. But with the Resurrection of Jesus, Christians can hope for an individual resurrection. Because Jesus rose from the dead and would bring to life those who died believing in him (see Jn 6:40 and 1 Thess 4:16–18), a Christian could in good conscience forego marriage for the sake of eternal life in the Kingdom of heaven. Jesus's own celibacy can thus be seen as a prophetic lifestyle, linked to his Resurrection.

As for the apostles, it is evident that Simon Peter was married because Jesus cured his mother-in-law at Capernaum (see Mt 8:14–15; Mk 1:29–31; Lk 4:38–39). Paul, on his part, wrote that he was celibate (see 1 Cor 7:7–8). The majority of fathers believed that he either had never been married or at least was a widower. As for John, who was particularly beloved of Jesus (see Jn 13:23; 19:26; 21:7), several Church fathers attributed the special love of Jesus to John's state of perpetual virginity. Other than Peter, Paul, and John, nothing substantial is known about the matrimonial status of the remaining apostles. The fathers believed that those apostles who were married on meeting with Jesus gave up their conjugal lives and practiced perfect and perpetual continence thereafter. This apostolic continence or celibacy enabled them, among other things, to lead lives as itinerant preachers. Jesus promised great rewards to his disciples, including the Twelve, who had left their wives in order to follow him: "Peter said: 'Lo, we have left our homes and followed you.' And [Jesus] said to them, 'Truly, I say to you, there is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life."

The previously mentioned biblical sources, however, tell little concerning the lives of the apostles. What, then, did the apostles teach about marriage and the vocation to continence and celibacy? Paul provided the scriptural passages that justify celibacy for the lay, single Christian. In his first letter to the Corinthians (see 1 Cor 7:25–40), Paul counseled the unmarried faithful of Corinth to remain celibate, as he himself was (see 1 Cor 7:7–8), so that they might dedicate their time and energy more fully to serving Christ in his Church: "I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided" (1 Cor 7:32–34a). Celibacy gives the freedom to be concerned about the "affairs of the Lord" and thus "to please the Lord" with the whole heart (1 Cor 7:32). Paul nevertheless clearly emphasized that the call to celibacy is a counsel and not a precept.

The scriptural passages cited earlier, particularly 1 Corinthians 7:25–40 and Matthew 19:12, describe, as a Christian ideal, the theological and spiritual value of celibacy in general, which can be equally valid for any Christian who wishes to live a consecrated life. But these biblical citations do not seem to show any particular connection between celibacy and the ministries of the early Church.

The Pastoral Letters, however, include a discussion of marriage and ecclesial ministry; that is, a candidate for the offices of bishop (epískopos), priest (presbúteros) and deacon (diákonos) must have been married only once. He must be a "man of one wife" (mías gunaíkos ándra; 1 Tm 3:2, 3:12; Ti 1:6). Exegetes have usually given one of two interpretations of "man of one wife": it prohibits either remarriage or polygamy. The first interpretation holds that a candidate had been and could be married only once. Therefore, by implication, if his wife died, he could not marry again. The second view posits that the minister was forbidden to have more than one wife at the same time; this would simply be an exhortation to observe marital chastity. It is doubtful that this latter meaning is intended here, because polygamy was completely unacceptable in any case for Christians and such a man would have been excluded a priori from ministerial office. The first interpretation is therefore the more likely of the two.

According to Ignace de la Potterie, the juridical quality of the formula "man of one wife" indicates a specific criterion that Timothy and his assistants would keep in mind as they scrutinized candidates for office. The ceremonious and formal sound of the formula implies a precise, concrete legal demand of a fixed, technical, and stereotyped nature — screening out candidates for office who had been married more than once. Perhaps the reason underlying this rule is that remarriage was not particularly esteemed in late antiquity, and many early Church fathers considered second marriages as veiled adultery and disreputable. This Pauline injunction, therefore, may have been a prudent measure of eliminating doubtful ministerial candidates.

In addition to these two common understandings of "man of one wife," some Church fathers posited a third reading, one that would enjoin sexual continence for married men on assuming ministry. In order to explain this third patristic interpretation, de la Potterie gave the following argument: from the strictly biblical viewpoint, "man of one wife" is the only passage in the New Testament where an identical norm is laid down for the three groups of ministers and only for them. The phrase "man of one wife" is used to specify a requirement for epískopos(see 1 Tim 3:2), presbúteros (see Ti 1:6), and diákonos (see 1 Tim 3:12). It is never said of other Christians but is a requirement for these ministers in the exercise of their ecclesial ministry.

De la Potterie related these three passages to a fourth, 1 Timothy 5:9, which includes a complementary formula "woman of one husband" (hénos andrós guné). It refers to widows, at least sixty years old, who could become enrolled in an order of widows, provided that, among other things, they had been married only once. The formula "woman of one husband" does not simply apply to any Christian woman but only to an elderly widow who would exercise a ministry in the community, perhaps similar to that of a deaconess. This prohibition against second marriages highlights the fidelity of a wife exclusively to her first and only husband, even beyond his death. As mentioned earlier, in antiquity remarriage bore the stigma of incontinence and this is clear in 1 Timothy 5:9–12 in Paul's words about widows. Younger widows frequently married again because they could not live continently. A widow who had been married only once should by this fact have already been tested with respect to continence. Marrying a second time is, for 1 Timothy 5:9, equivalent to being unable to live continently.

The validity of this argument depends upon the parallelism between the injunction for widows and that for the epískopos, presbúteros, and diákonos (see 1 Tm 3:2, 3:12; Ti 1:6) when the juridical sense of both phrases is compared. Because both phrases ("man of one wife" and "woman of one husband") are used in the context of ecclesial ministry, and because the latter phrase refers to the discipline of continence, by inference "man of one wife" would then require that a married cleric be bound to practice perfect sexual continence, that is, to live with his wife as though he had none (see 1 Cor 7:29), as well as forbidding a second marriage (digamy) on the death of his wife. A widowed minister could not then remarry because he could not consummate his new marriage, on account of his commitment to continence. Moreover, as noted previously, second marriages were frowned on in the early Church, being seen by Christians as a sign of the inability to live in perfect continence. As will be shown in the following, this third interpretation of "man of one wife" was used by Pope Saint Siricius and several fathers and subsequently became part of Catholic theological and canonical tradition.


Excerpted from Priestly Celibacy by Gary Selin. Copyright © 2016 The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of The Catholic University of America Press.
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Table of Contents

Foreword J. Francis Cardinal Stafford ix

Introduction 1

1 The Development of Clerical Continence and Celibacy in the Latin Church 7

2 The Renewed Magisterial Teaching on Priestly Celibacy 57

3 The Threefold Dimension as a Source of Renewal of the Theology of Priestly Celibacy 105

4 The Eucharist and Priestly Celibacy 167

Conclusion 179

Bibliography 185

Index of Biblical Citations 197

General Index 201

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