There is an oft misunderstood passage in St. Paul which many believe indicates that Celibacy among the επίσκοπος was neither the norm, nor prescribed, and that, furthermore, it was actually proscribed. Let’s take a look:
The saying is sure: whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task. Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way— for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace and the snare of the devil.
~ 1 Timothy 3:1-7 (NRSV)
Now, the problem is that in the second verse there is an ambiguity in the Greek, as languages always admit of, and so it can plausibly be translated as such: “the bishop must be… the husband of one wife” (NIV). This leads many protestants to argue that St. Paul directly proscribes the tradition of a celibate clergy. There are a number of points I’d like to make by way of refutation of this naive objection to Catholic celibacy in the priesthood.
First, Catholics interpret the Scripture ‘with the mind of the Church’ which is the mind of Christ, and thus it makes no more sense from a Catholic perspective to suggest any actual contradiction here (at least for orthodox Catholics) than it would make to a protestant to suggest a contradiction between two passages of scripture (at least, if they are orthodox protestants). For, as St. Thomas Aquinas says: “it would be blasphemy to say that the Church does anything in vain.” (Summa Theologiae Supplementum Tertiae Partis, Q. 25, Article 1). Granted that there is no article of faith at stake here for the Catholic (if the Priesthood were no longer celibate it would not overturn even an iota of Catholic doctrine), still the instinct of the Catholic is to recognize wisdom in the Church’s longstanding practice in this respect, and at least Catholics cannot believe that Scripture prohibits clerical celibacy.
However, that is not likely to convince somebody who is not already a Catholic. So it is necessary to adduce arguments against the objections to dispel them even in the mind of the objectors.
I’d like to raise six points. 1) the tradition of tending towards a celibate priesthood is rooted in the Scriptures, 2) The Greek Fathers of the Church always read Paul as here indicating a proscription of cereal marriage 3)this standard would be absurd insofar as it would imply that even Jesus could not be a bishop according to St. Paul, 4) moreover even St. Paul couldn’t be a bishop according to this standard, 5) St. Paul and Jesus both prescribe celibacy especially for those in leadership, 6) read literally (proscriptively rather than prescriptively) even Timothy could not be a bishop.
1) the tradition of tending towards a celibate priesthood is rooted in the Scriptures
Taking these points in turn, let’s look at what our emeritus Pope Benedict XVI said in an interview once concerning the issue of clerical celibacy:
It arises from a saying of Christ. There are, Christ says, those who give up marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and bear testimony to the kingdom of heaven with their whole existence. Very early on, the church came to the conviction that to be a priest means to give this testimony to the kingdom of heaven. In this regard, the practice could go back analogously to an Old Testament parallel of another nature. Israel marches into the land. Each of the eleven tribes gets its land, its territory. Only the tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe, gets an inheritance; its inheritance is God alone. This means in practical terms that its members live on the cult offerings and not, like the other tribes, from the cultivation of the land. The essential point is that they have no property. In Psalm 16 we read: “you are my assigned portion; I have drawn you as my lot; God is my land.” This figure – that is, the fact that in the Old Testament the priestly tribe is landless and, as it were, lives on God and thereby also really bears witness to him – was later translated, on the basis of Jesus’ words, to this: The land where the priest lives is God.
We have such difficulty understanding this renunciation today because the relationship of marriage and children has clearly shifted. To have to die without children was once synonymous with a useless life: the echoes of my own life die away, and I am completely dead. If I have children then I continue to live in them; it’s a sort of immortality through posterity. For this reason the ultimate condition of life is to have posterity and thereby to remain in the land of the living.
The renunciation of marriage and family is thus to be understood in terms of this vision: I renounce what, humanly speaking, is not only the most normal but also the most important thing. I forgo bringing forth further life on the tree of life, and I live in the faith and my land is really God – and so I make it easier for others, also, to believe that there is a kingdom of heaven. I bear witness to Jesus Christ, to the gospel, not only with words, but also with this specific mode of existence, and I place my life in this form at his disposal.
In this sense, Celibacy has a Christological and an apostolic meaning at the same time. The point is not simply to save time – so I then have a little bit more time at my disposal because I am not a father of a family. That would be too primitive and pragmatic a way to see things. The point is really an existence that stakes everything on God and leaves out precisely the one thing that normally fulfills a human existence with a promising future.”
~ Pope Benedict XVI
This establishes that the tendency to prefer a celibate priesthood is profoundly scriptural, drawing its allusion from the Old Testament picture of the priesthood, and focusing the ideal of the priesthood on Christology.
2) The Greek Fathers of the Church always read Paul as here indicating a proscription of cereal marriage
Second, concerning the Church Fathers, Roman Cholij, who was (may still be) the secretary of the Apostolic Exarch for Ukrainian Catholics in Great Britain has published an excellent and impressive study of the practice of celibacy in the early Church and the testimony of the Greek Church Fathers in this respect. One can find his work published on the Vatican’s website here. He explains that, although it was the norm that priests were married in the early Church, the early Church also enforced the practice of clerical celibacy.
In the patristic era, clerical celibacy, strictly speaking meant the inability to enter marriage once a higher Order had been received. The first legislative expression of this is found in the eastern councils of Ancyra (314), c. 10, and Neocaesarea (ca. 314-325), c. 1, for deacons and priests respectively. An Armenian collection of canons, probably from 365, includes this prohibition of marriage2 and it is clearly expressed in the Apostolic Constitutions and Apostolic Canons of the late fourth century.3Canon 14 of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451) likewise endorses this discipline (albeit indirectly), and it is found in other documents of the fifth and subsequent centuries which consider the practice to be an ancient and timeless tradition.
Moreover, he explains, surprisingly, that the Church practiced a Lex Continentiae (law of continence) according to which once a person was ordained to the priesthood, even if married, they could no longer have marital relations, which is why ordination used to require the permission/consent/dedication of the wife. In fact, as early as 235 A.D. Pope Callistus was being accused by Hippolytus of Rome of committing unforgivable ecclesiastical errors by permitting those who were remarried to be ordained.
This all indicates that the Greek speaking world received and understood this passage of St. Paul to indicate that a Bishop could be the husband of ‘no more than one’ wife, either at the same time, or throughout his life. St. Paul does not intend to say that a Bishop must have at least one wife, but rather at most one wife.
3) Jesus could not have been a Bishop
Jesus was unmarried, and therefore could not have been a bishop if, in order to be a bishop in the Church, one necessary (though not sufficient) condition would have involved being married. Can we really imagine St. Paul preaching that kind of radical standard for holy orders?
4) Paul could not have been a Bishop either
Paul obviously recognizes himself as an overseer in the Church, calling himself an Apostle (2 Corinthians 1:1, etc) and a Diakonos (2 Cor. 3:6, 6:4, 11:23; Eph. 3:7 – link). Peter, obviously also an Apostle, is found in scripture calling himself a bishop (1 Peter 5:1), and there is no reason to suppose that Paul thought differently of his rank in the Church in this respect. However, St. Paul clearly practiced celibacy. For instance, in one passage St. Paul exclaims:
“Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?”
~ 1 Corinthians 9:4-6″
Notice that Paul contrasts himself and Barnabas with others like Peter (Cephas) in part because Paul and Barnabas have not taken a believing wife. The issue of whether Peter had a wife is one for another time (it is unclear, though Catholics have no problem in principle with thinking he did), but the seminal point here is that Paul indicates that he is not married. Moreover, he makes this even more clear elsewhere when he says:
“I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do.”
~1 Corinthians 7:7-8
Yet, clearly, St. Paul did not think that this disqualified him from being a bishop/elder/overseer. As St. Paul says “He who marries does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better” (1 Corinthians 7:38). There is just no reason to imagine that St. Paul either did not think celibacy laudable for Church leaders such as himself, or to suppose that he thought the contrary.
5) Jesus and Paul both promoted Celibacy
Jesus and Paul both promoted Celibacy, especially for those in leadership positions. Consider first a saying of Jesus to his Apostles:
Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning “made them male and female”, and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’ They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?’ He said to them, ‘It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but at the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.’
His disciples said to him, ‘If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.’ But he said to them, ‘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.’
Moreover, consider the saying of St. Paul:
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. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord.
~1 Corinthians 7:32-35
6) Timothy could not have been a Bishop either if the passage is read proscriptively rather than prescriptively
The passage, we will recall, reads “the Bishop… must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way.” Notice that this same prescription/proscription is echoed again in Paul’s letter to Titus:
“… [the Bishop should be] a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient.”
~Titus 1:6 (read Titus 1:5-6)
However, if it is read as a proscription, meaning that nobody who doesn’t satisfy this test can be a Bishop then (aside from the fact, again, that neither Paul nor Barnabas, to say nothing of Jesus, could be bishops), Timothy couldn’t be either. We know from 1 Timothy 4:12 that Timothy was very young, and we can infer from this that he was too young to have had any children, or at least any children old enough to demonstrate that he had raised them such that they were not open to the charge of being wild or disobedient.
There are six points here which I have suggested militate against reading St. Paul proscriptively rather than prescriptively, and I think they are all good points. However, even if anybody would want to take issue with any one of them, I think collectively, offered as a cumulative case, they furnish the Catholic Apologist with a pretty air-tight knock-down response to the objection too often casually offered by Protestants.