Why can’t Roman Catholic priests get married? I’ve heard this question asked a number of times on Catholic Answers. Tim Staples recently commented on priestly celibacy here (mp3). Tim points out Roman Catholicism considers priestly celibacy a discipline, not a dogma. This means it’s something that could theoretically change, but probably will not because (as Tim says) “celibacy is a saint making machine.” He also argues it’s an apostolic tradition.
Tim Staples also used Biblical proof-texts to prove his case:
10 The disciples said to Him, “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.” 11 But He said to them, “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 “For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.”
First Tim says the context of these verses is the calling of the twelve apostles, then he says the context is the sending out of the twelve apostles. In Matthew though, the calling is in chapter four, and the sending is found in chapter ten. He then quotes Jesus saying, “He that can take this ought to,” concluding “so Jesus recommends celibacy.” He then infers the apostles chose celibacy: “And Peter then says ‘Lord we have left all and followed you,’ which seems to indicate that they did in fact just that, so Jesus recommends celibacy.” This statement from Peter does follow, after another 14 verses (including the account of the little children brought to Jesus, and the story of the rich young man). It was the response Jesus gave to the rich young man that provoked Peter’s immediate question, not Matthew 19:12.
After Jesus chastises the Pharisees for their understanding of divorce, the disciples themselves find that the teaching they just heard was too difficult, provoking the response,”If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.” Jesus then explains that there are only a few exceptions of those who do not marry: two types of literal eunuchs, and one type of spiritual eunuch. It is the spiritual eunuch- the person who chooses celibacy for the kingdom of heaven which serves as the key for Mr. Staples. Like the apostles, if one really is concerned about the kingdom of heaven, one could choose celibacy.
In his Commentary on Matthew 19, John Calvin points out a key statement from Jesus not mentioned by Mr. Staples: All are not capable of receiving this saying (v.11). Calvin comments, “By this he means, that the choice is not placed in our hands, as if we were to deliberate on a matter submitted to us.” “Christ proves that it is not free to all to make what choice they please, because the gift of continence is a special gift.” That is, the ability to lead an entirely celibate life is not within the power of choice:
When Papists urge the word castrate, as if at their own pleasure men might lay themselves under obligation to continence, it is too frivolous. For Christ has already declared, that God gives it to whom he chooses; and, a little afterwards, we shall find him maintaining, that it is folly in any man to choose to live unmarried, when he has not received this special gift. This castration, therefore, is not left to free will; but the plain meaning is, while some men are by nature fit to marry, though they abstain, they do not tempt God, because God grants them exemption.
Likewise, Luther knew a little bit about the vow of chastity. Commenting on Matthew 19:12 he stated,
The third category consists of those spiritually rich and exalted persons, bridled by the grace of God, who are equipped for marriage by nature and physical capacity and nevertheless voluntarily remain celibate. These put it this way, “I could marry if I wish, I am capable of it. But it does not attract me. I would rather work on the kingdom of heaven, i.e., the gospel, and beget spiritual children.” Such persons are rare, not one in a thousand, for they are a special miracle of God. No one should venture on such a life unless he be especially called by God, like Jeremiah [16:2], or unless he finds God’s grace to be so powerful within him that the divine injunction, “Be fruitful and multiply,” has no place in him. (LW 45:21).
When Staples quotes Jesus saying, “He that can take this ought to” his conclusion is that Jesus recommended celibacy. That is, if you really want to serve the kingdom of God and work towards sainthood, don’t get married, become a priest. Calvin explains that the words of Jesus are rather a warning,
He that can receive it, let him receive it. By this conclusion Christ warns them, that the use of marriage is not to be despised, unless we intend, with blind rashness, to rush headlong to destruction: for it became necessary to restrain the disciples, whom he saw acting inconsiderately and without judgment. But the warning is useful to all; for, in selecting a manner of life, few consider what has been given to them, but men rush forward, without discrimination, in whatever direction inconsiderate zeal prompts them. And I wish that the warning had been attended to in past times; but men’s ears are stopped by I know not what enchantments of Satan, so that, contrary to nature, and, at it were, in spite of God, those whom God called to marriage have bound themselves by the cord of perpetual virginity. Next came the deadly cord of a vow, by which wretched souls were bound, so that they never rose out of the ditch.
Likewise, Luther states:
“But virginity and celibacy is a counsel,” [they say]. Clearly Christ did not counsel it, but rather discouraged it. It was only when eunuchs had been mentioned that he referred to it and praised it by saying, “He who is able to receive this precept, let him receive it” [Matt. 19:12]. And again, “Not all can receive this precept” [Matt. 19:11]. Are these not the words of someone who prefers to advise against virginity and celibacy and discourage their application? (LW 44:261).
As to celibacy being apostolic, the question Mr. Staples should answer is why the magisterium treats priestly celibacy as a discipline and not a dogma. If the apostles taught it, why doesn’t the church simply dogmatize it? The Roman Catholic Church took her time with what they have now on this topic. The Western Church did not prohibit clerical marriage until the twelfth century. Roman Catholic writer Greg Dues states:
“Because Christians considered the priesthood of the New Testament to be greater than that of the Jews, the call to purity was considered greater, too. And since priests served at the altar all their life, shouldn’t their abstinence be permanent? Early heretics, such as Manichaeans and Montanists, added a negative influence by proclaiming that sexual expression – including that of the laity – was impure. Catholic leaders, such as St. Augustine, taught that Original Sin was transmitted through intercourse. Therefore, abstinence and virginity was the ideal life and only the weak should marry. However, most bishops and presbyters continued to marry. In fact, the only marriages that had to have any kind of blessing were those of deacons and priests.”
“The tradition of celibacy continued to evolve. In some places it was expected that priests not be sexually active after ordination. When monastic spirituality became popular in the fourth and fifth centuries, it promoted the ideal of celibacy as a model for all priests. However, the crisis in Europe following the barbarian invasions made it difficult for church leaders to enforce the discipline of clerical celibacy.
One way church authority enforced celibacy was by ordaining monks, who took the vow of chastity, to evangelize large areas of Europe. Church authority continued to mandate celibacy. The First Lateran Council (1123-1153) forbade those in orders to marry and ordered all those already married to renounce their wives and do penance. Later legislation declared the marriages of clerics not only illegal but also invalid. Widespread disregard of these laws continued until a reorganization of preparation for priesthood following the Protestant Reformation and the Council of Trent in the 1500s.
Source: Greg Dues, Catholic Customs and Traditions (New London: Twenty Third Publications, 2007), pp. 168-169.
As to celibacy being “a saint making machine,” in Romanism saints are those who have been perfected in holiness. Paul does call Christians to be holy (Romans 12:1), as does Peter (1 Peter 1: 13-25), but neither apostle mentions celibacy as a means to perfect holiness. Nowhere in Scripture do the apostles suggest holiness is enhanced by forsaking marriage. The real saint maker is Jesus Christ and his righteousness imputed to a sinner (justification). The Holy Spirit works to conform us the image of Christ, sanctifying each child of God this side of eternity (sanctification).