Recently, Pope Francis reaffirmed priestly celibacy by rejecting proposals to allow the ordination of married men in the Amazon. Nevertheless, the debate continues about the centuries-old discipline that requires Roman Catholic priests to remain unmarried.
Opponents argue that allowing Catholic priests to marry would increase vocations and reduce sexual abuse in the Church because priests wouldn’t have to sacrifice the natural human desire to procreate. However, these arguments misunderstand the Church’s long-standing reasons for not permitting priests to marry.
What Does the Bible Say About Married Priests?
To understand the Church’s reasons for why priests can’t get married, it’s important to start with Jesus, who remained unmarried. At one point, Jesus’ disciples question whether it makes sense to marry, to which He responds:
“…there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it (Matthew 19:9-12).”
The term eunuch in this context refers to someone who gives up marriage. Thus, Jesus clearly shows great favor for men who sacrifice marriage “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”
Later, Paul the Apostle, who was celibate, writes the following regarding his celibacy:
“I say this by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another” (1 Cor. 7:1-7).
He explains further in a later verse:
“The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided” (1 Cor. 7:32-34).
Reading those three passages, you can understand the Bible’s clear preference for celibacy if it is geared toward serving God. Paul admits that not everyone is cut out to give up marriage, but those who can are in a unique position to serve God without any distractions.
Reasons for Celibacy
Besides Jesus’ and Paul’s clear preference for celibacy in the Bible, the following list summarizes the main reasons why priests can’t get married:
- Unmarried men can focus their time and effort on doing God’s work instead of having their hearts divided between God and family.
- An unmarried priest can be available for his flock at all hours of the day or night because he has no competing responsibilities. He can perform the Sacraments whenever and wherever they are needed.
- By following Christ’s example of celibacy, a priest stands out as a moral alternative to today’s secular, individualistic society. He becomes living proof that it’s possible to dedicate our lives solely to God rather than to our earthly interests.
- The unmarried priest shows us the path to the Kingdom of God, which requires us to love God above everything else, even our families. There is no marriage in heaven, only an eternally loving relationship with God.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes the above points in its section on priestly celibacy, writing:
“Called to consecrate themselves with undivided heart to the Lord and to ‘the affairs of the Lord,’ [ordained Roman Catholic priests] give themselves entirely to God and to men. Celibacy is a sign of this new life to the service of which the Church’s minister is consecrated; accepted with a joyous heart celibacy radiantly proclaims the Reign of God” (CCC: 1579).
Refuting Objections to Priestly Celibacy
The following are three common objections to priestly celibacy and how Catholics might respond:
- Allowing married priests would solve the vocations crisis: It’s true that giving up marriage is a huge sacrifice, but so is getting married. While vocations may be low today, the marriage rate in the U.S. has also declined by more than 20% over the past 50 years.This points to a general commitment problem in developed countries, which is also where the largest drop in vocations can be seen. In short, men reject priesthood not necessarily because they want to get married, but because they don’t want to commit to anything.
- Allowing married priests would reduce sexual abuse in the Church: Pedophilia results from disordered sexuality. Men who get married can just as easily be disordered and often are. Thus, the sexual abuse crisis cannot be confronted in such a simplistic way.
- Celibacy wasn’t always required by the Church: It’s true that priestly celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church wasn’t strictly enforced until the 11th century. But even before then, it was an ideal to be strived for. As discussed earlier, celibacy is praised both by Jesus and Paul in the Bible and early Christians promoted it whenever possible. There is evidence that early priests who were already married gave up sex in order to better meet the celibate ideal. The discipline may have been formalized in the 11th century, but it was nothing new.
Ultimately, the goal of the celibate priest is to imitate Christ and show us the path to the Kingdom of God. In essence, priests are bypassing earthly concerns and pleasures to fully conform themselves to God’s plan for us all. By doing so, they strive to fulfill their vocation to lead the rest of us to heaven.