Take the 2-minute tour ×
Christianity Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for committed Christians, experts in Christianity and those interested in learning more. It's 100% free, no registration required.

In it's context in the NRSVCE (including section title):

False Asceticism

4 Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, 2 through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron. 3 They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; 5 for it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1-5 NRSVCE, emphasis added)

This passage appears to list forbidding marriage and demanding abstinence from foods as examples of 'teachings of demons'.

It seems that to enter the priesthood in the Latin rite either a promise (for diocesan priests) or a vow (for religious priests) of celibacy is required. The best argument I've seen so far on this issue, argues that this isn't a 'requirement' but only something entered into voluntarily. But on the surface, this argument seems somewhat at odds with language used in some of the sections of the ordination ceremony of the Latin rite subdiaconate:

You ought anxiously to consider again and again what sort of a burden this is which you are taking upon you of your own accord. Up to this you are free. You may still, if you choose, turn to the aims and desires of the world (licet vobis pro artitrio ad caecularia vota transire). But if you receive this order (of the subdiaconate) it will no longer be lawful to turn back from your purpose. You will be required to continue in the service of God, and with His assistance to observe chastity and to be bound for ever in the ministrations of the Altar, to serve who is to reign. (Source, emphasis added)*

Even if the initial decision was voluntary, the process seems to admit no possibility for a later change. A priest (in the Latin rite) is certainly forbidden from resiling from an earlier intention to remain celibate and to instead pursue marriage.

In regard to 'demanding abstinence from foods', I note that there has been a change since Vatican II, but we still have:

On Ash Wednesday and all of the Fridays of Lent, Catholics over the age of 14 are required to abstain from meat and from foods made with meat. (Source, emphasis added)

Now that doesn't sound particularly voluntary does it?

So what is the Catholic understanding of this verse and why isn't it referring to their practices in these areas?

edit: *I accept Matt Gutting's assurance that the order of the sub-diaconate has been dissolved and the particular text quoted is now only of historical interest and not necessarily a corresponding match to the instructions currently given to modern candidates for the Catholic priesthood. While I'm not sure that this has a significant effect on the underlying issue my question stems from (I'm not aware of a substantial change in the character of, or the requirements for the priesthood post-Vatican II), I'm certainly willing to update this reference to current intructions (or the recommended promissory/avowed responses) if someone is kind enough to provide the text for them.

share|improve this question
It is well known that to enter the priesthood in the Latin rite a vow of celibacy is required. Inaccurate. Those aspiring to be diocesan priests promise obedience (to Bishop) and promise celibacy. The religious take vows. –  FMS Aug 7 at 8:51
@FMShyanguya fascinating - would you be able to describe the distinction between the two a little more in that particular context? From my perspective, a vow is a solemn promise - if a priest only 'promises' celibacy could he break his promise and still remain a priest. If a religious breaks a vow of celibacy can they remain in their order or are they automatically expelled? –  bruised reed Aug 7 at 8:57
Please see: Vows..promise...oaths but I say caution always with this forum. Also Do Catholic priests take vows and if so, what specifically are they?. –  FMS Aug 7 at 9:06
PS You other questions may be just the type for this site. –  FMS Aug 7 at 9:09
@FMShyanguya Thank you for those links, I will attempt an edit to the question according to the information you've provided. –  bruised reed Aug 7 at 10:47

4 Answers 4

up vote 5 down vote accepted

I don't see this particular passage referred to in, for example, the Summa Theologica (where I might expect to see it in an Objection to a discussion of whether priests should be celibate). In fact, I don't see in the Summa (though surely it must be somewhere) any discussion of the question of priestly celibacy.

In the (standard Catholic) New American Bible, Revised Edition, the words are slightly different than in the translation you quote (highlighting the differences):

Now the Spirit explicitly says that in the last times some will turn away from the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and demonic instructions through the hypocrisy of liars with branded consciences. They forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected when received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the invocation of God in prayer.

Note the perhaps significant omission of the comma after the word "foods".

This appears to point the meaning of the passage to things that will happen in "the end times", not now; and perhaps things that are wrong when enjoined generally, not in particular.

There is no note in the text about the third verse in particular, though a note on the passage as a whole reads:

Doctrinal deviations from the true Christian message within the church have been prophesied, though the origin of the prophecy is not specified (1 Tm 4:1–2); cf. Acts 20:29–30. The letter warns against a false asceticism that prohibits marriage and regards certain foods as forbidden, though they are part of God’s good creation (1 Tm 4:3).

In addition, consider Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 7:8:

Now to the unmarried and to widows, I say: it is a good thing for them to remain as they are, as I do

which appears to endorse celibacy for those not currently married (though the rest of the chapter accepts marriage as a godly state, under the principle of "everyone should accept the life to which he was called").

It seems, then, that to the extent that the Catholic Church has a particular interpretation of this verse, it interprets it to mean that celibacy and fasting are wrong when enjoined on everyone at all times, but not if enjoined on particular groups or at particular times.

With respect to the words of the ordination to the subdiaconate: Keep in mind that the Order of the Subdiaconate was dissolved over 40 years ago; it's not surprising that you're looking at words (probably dating back to the time of the Council of Trent) that take a very strict view of celibacy. There are two Orders in the Church now: deacons and priests. The Order of Deacons is no longer simply a "first step" to the priesthood; deacons are ordained as permanent deacons. They are under no immediate obligation of celibacy, and indeed I've known very few unmarried permanent deacons. They are, however, obliged not to marry after their ordination.

Priests are, of course, obliged to be celibate at as well as after their ordination; but even there the requirement can be dispensed from. I've known a couple of married Latin-rite priests. They were ordained Anglican priests who converted to Catholicism and petitioned Pope Paul VI to allow them to become priests. He dispensed them from the requirement of celibacy. I don't believe such a dispensation is in the cards again; but it is possible (the Code of Canon Law, canon 1042 note 1, lists marriage as an impediment to ordination, but canon 1047, section 2, note 3 allows the Pope to dispense from this requirement).

As far as abstinence from meat: This is a traditional Catholic observation; however, it's not strictly necessary. Canon 1253 states:

The conference of bishops can determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast.

So it's not an absolute requirement; in addition, if an individual has (for example) a medical condition which would be worsened by abstinence from meat, he or she is excused from that requirement. The USCCB's website states:

A. Those that are excused from fast and abstinence outside the age limits include the physically or mentally ill including individuals suffering from chronic illnesses such as diabetes. Also excluded are pregnant or nursing women. In all cases, common sense should prevail, and ill persons should not further jeopardize their health by fasting.

(emphasis added)

share|improve this answer
Good catch on the comma! But check out the old Catholic translation it's got even MORE commas! –  Peter Turner Jul 7 at 17:29
Matt and @PeterTurner the comma is not at all significant - sheesh, what nitpicking! In the commaed version, the normal interpration would be to apply the subsequent phrase to foods - there is no hard and fast rule in english grammar that would mandate it to be applied to both marriage and foods (an interpretation that would tend to enforce marriage as a rule, which interpretation would clearly contradict endorsement of celibacy elsewhere in scripture). –  bruised reed Jul 21 at 10:16
Although I think that your response is far from adequate in addressing the underlying problem (and the response of the Catholic Church in general from what I've seen - including the linked article which imo does the job a little better than yourself), I'm happy to mark this accepted as being representative of a Catholic response to the issue. However, feel free to keep improving the answer if you're able. –  bruised reed Jul 21 at 10:33
I didn't think the comma was necessarily significant; but I did see that it could change the meaning slightly, so I thought it was worth pointing out. –  Matt Gutting Jul 21 at 10:39
Given that you feel this is a less than adequate answer, and I'm very willing to accept that it is, perhaps you could point out a couple of inadequacies that I could address. –  Matt Gutting Jul 21 at 10:45

Don't trust a Catholic layman's interpretation of the Bible because if you get one, you're getting it from a heretic!

Nevertheless, you can probably figure out that the word abstain is not the same as anathematize. The message, that I get from reading GK Chesterton in a louder fashion than 1 Timothy I think is essentially the same. Don't mix piety with diet.

The word abstain here in greek is ἀπέχεσθαι and I'm not a Greek scholar man, so my diggings will always fit my assumptions, but my assumption here is that abstain doesn't mean "never" it only means "don't". Unfortunately, that was the opposite of what I wanted to find out because my brain was all twisted around your question when researching.

What I really wanted to find out was that Abstain in 1 Timothy means "fast forever religiously like a Muslim", what I think I found out was that it means "refrain from for a time" you can see for yourself by intra-texting the Greek.

So, I might as well not answer this question, but I will if only to illustrate how dangerous personal interpretation of the Bible can be. And why Catholics, I believe are logical and not spiritual about their vegetarianism. We believe what the Church asks us to do is for our own good, if we can't see the rationale then that's all the better because obedience is a virtue that needs more practice in our times.

But maybe the biggest point is that the entire church abstains from meat on certain days of penance, not just one Christian guru and his sect. If you view the Catholic Church as a denomination, then yeah, you've got a point, but if you believe that the Church is One; and a living, unified teaching unit that can create new disciplines (not new doctrines) then you don't have a contradiction.

St. Paul was talking about false teachers and not validly ordained Bishops. He provided a useful way to tell Gnostics from Catholics, if you don't have a Diocesan newspaper. I think that, to a Catholic, the Magesterium Catholic Church shouldn't be on peoples minds when St. Paul brings up false teachers.

share|improve this answer
"Don't trust a Catholic layman's interpretation of the Bible because if you get one, you're getting it from a heretic!" So from your perspective, is using "How do Roman Catholics interpret..." as short hand for "What is the (Catholic) Church's interpretation...", unacceptable, misleading or just un-necessarily ambiguous? –  bruised reed Jul 21 at 10:21
"I think that, to a Catholic, the Magesterium Catholic Church shouldn't be on peoples minds when St. Paul brings up false teachers." - perhaps, but I can tell you, it is certainly an issue to Protestants, it is unlikely there would have been a Reformation otherwise! –  bruised reed Jul 21 at 10:22
@bruised that's a good point about the reformation. It's one of the reasons I think it shouldn't have happened in the first place. –  Peter Turner Jul 21 at 11:11
Yeah, I was told by a priest who I asked whether it was a good idea to answer questions here that I should always treat my answers as my own opinions, not what the Church says. None of us have the faculty for concrete interpretation. Asking questions in relation to doctrines or disciplines is good though, mainly because it's usually provable from citations from magesterial or councilar documents –  Peter Turner Jul 21 at 11:15

Treating on the issue of celibacy: there is evidence that the Gnostics (a group claiming the title Christian but were far from (I do not have my copy of Pagels's The Gnostic Gospels to give a more specific example at this time)) denounced sex, sexuality, as well as the consumption of meat as "of this world" and forbade it to all members for all time.

That cannot be stressed enough. Certain Gnostics believed that this world was created by the demiurge, a semi-deity which is responsible for the creation of matter, but also its infestation with sin. This lead to two camps among the Gnostics: those who taught that all things material, no matter how much the body needed them and no matter how beneficial to the individual and the community, were intrinsically cursed; and those who taught that the material was completely irrelevant, and so eat, drink, and sleep with who you will.

Given those cults as a context, it becomes fairly clear that the passage in Timothy is not talking about people who voluntarily give themselves to celibate life. A voluntary celibacy, even if it is codified, does not apply to the faithful as a whole (as do the teachings of the Gnostics). Similarly, a limited fast or abstinence from food (clearly declared good multiple places throughout the Bible), does not meet the conditions of 1 Tim.

Now, before we start discussing whether or not the Church has the authority to increase the time and conditions of fasting, it should be noted that there are no less than three separate standards issued by the Church evidenced in the New Testament (the original dietary laws, "refrain from strangled animals", and "so long as you do not scandalize your brother"). Surely this is binding the faithful to refrain from certain meats, yet the Church is not of the devil.

It should also be mentioned that St. Paul's discussion of widows in 1 Tim. has several markings of what we would now call a religious order. Specifically, 1 Tim. 5:11 teaches, "But refuse to enroll younger widows, for when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry". Why does it matter if a widow desires another husband except if she is supposed to refrain? And if she is supposed to refrain, then would it not be appropriate to say that she is under obligation, just as the unmarried deacon is in the Catholic Church?

share|improve this answer
I'm tempted to upvote based on your earlier paras - the characteristics of that Gnostic teaching are certainly relevant. However I've refrained at this time as it lacks supporting refs & because your last para is overly speculative and "Why does it matter if a widow desires another husband except if she is supposed to refrain?" should be fairly clear from the context - Paul is instructing Timothy that the focus of the Church's charitable support for widows should be towards those who have no prospect of support from future husbands. This is re the Church's obligation to a widow, not vice-versa –  bruised reed Aug 7 at 9:33

I don't think St Paul in this passage is referring to priests. He is writing about the Gnostics who at the time forbade certain foods, marriage under certain conditions, etc. The Gnostics were a heretical and ideological threat to the early Christian church, and many ancient manuscripts by the church fathers exists today as a demonstration of this fact. It seems like you're trying to draw a connection between the Catholic church and this heresey, but that's wrong, because Paul was forewarning Timothy about specific group within his immediate context, not about the rules the Catholic Church would impose hundreds of years down the track. (Priests even in the Orthodox church can be ordained as married men, and they broke off from the Catholics nearly 1000 years ago.)

Although Catholics are called to fast, this is only for a temporary period, as a sacrifice to the Lord. Abstinence seems to imply an indefinite fast, which Catholics don't do.

share|improve this answer
Welcome to C.SE. When you get the chance, please check out our help center and How we are different than other sites. Specifically, this answer is a good start, but could really use a shade more referencing. –  Affable Geek Jul 7 at 16:04
The context of the passage is the foretelling of future events - note verse 1 in particular. If I'd quoted the verse out of context, the particular spin you put on your answer might have been unremarkable, but it seems you've wilfully ignored the text quoted in the question when you've said "Paul was forewarning Timothy about specific group within his immediate context, not about the rules the Catholic Church would impose hundreds of years down the track." –  bruised reed Aug 7 at 9:41

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.