In the Catholic Church, priests are required to stay celibate. (As far as I know, protestant priests that convert to Catholicism are allowed an exception -- they can become Catholic priests even if they already have family.)

I cannot understand how this fits with the Bible, as

  1. Peter was married (Matthew 8:14), and he still was (according to Catholics) the first Pope.
  2. According to Paul, overseers and elders must be "the husband of one wife" (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:5-6)
  3. Paul even seems to consider the ability to raise children as a criterion of overseers (1 Timothy 3:4-5)

What, then, is the biblical (or other) basis for clerical celibacy? How are the passages I mention consistent with this?


One good biblical argument for celibacy (for those called):

Matthew 19:9-12

I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery."

[His] disciples said to him, "If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry."

He answered, "Not all can accept [this] word, but only those to whom that is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it."

The teaching of the Catholic Church would take a bit to unpack, but as I understand it:

  1. Priestly Celibacy is a teaching or instruction, not a doctrine or dogma.

  2. Deacons may be married, but are not allowed to remarry after their wives die.

  3. You're right that ministers of other Christian denominations can continue in their vocation as a priest, while married.

But that's not an argument for anything. For one thing, priests need to be chaste in order to perform their duties at Mass. They need to be free to perform their duties completely selflessly without needing to care for their families. The top down structure of the Church means that a parish community will be assigned a priest, not a parish community will raise up a priest, like they might in another tradition.

In short, for diocesan priests it wouldn't be fair to the wife to be subject to the Bishop with her husband. It wouldn't be fair to the parishoners to come second to the wife and children. For priests in various religious orders, they mostly take vows which include Chastity (which is not exactly the same as celibacy, but in this sense it is). Those vows come out of monastic traditions reaching back to the 5th-6th Century.

More info from Catholic Encyclopedia

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    A good answer, but frankly I still don't understand. I do see the benefits of celibacy. But it's hard to accept a system built so that celibacy is required. – dancek Sep 2 '11 at 20:14
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    Also, it's specifically the Roman Catholic church that has celibate priests; the eastern and orthodox traditions do not. – user32 Sep 3 '11 at 5:15
  • @Software, the norm for the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church (aka Roman Catholic Church) is for a celibate priesthood. This is a discipline, not a dogma, therefore exceptions are made (typically already-married priests and pastors who convert from the Anglican or Lutheran Churches). Eastern Rite Catholics do not have this discipline. Additional information, including scriptural references, can be found in this tract – Firstrock Sep 29 '11 at 2:02
  • @dancek It is for the sake of the Kingdom. – user13992 Aug 9 '14 at 6:28

As an evangelical convert to Catholicism, I understand your question is from the perspective of scriptural justification. The simple answer is that you cannot justify celibate priesthood from scripture.

The issue is one of authority. Evangelicals believe authority comes from scripture. Scripture itself does not make this claim. The only claim scripture makes as to the pillar and foundation of truth is 1 Tim 3:15 - The Church.

Catholics believe the church is the ultimate authority, was established before the New Testament was even written, and indeed, it was the church who determined the canon of scripture. I.e., the church formed the scripture, not the other way around.

The church, as the rightful authority, decided it was best if clergy were not married and made the decision to mandate a celibate priesthood. The church could change this at any time. Indeed, I think it is almost certain this will happen in our lifetime.

Understand, this is not a debate about the scriptural justification for the celibate priesthood. As the only justification—scripturally—is that Jesus determined to build his church upon the rock of Peter and in the process granted the church wide authority.

  • Welcome to Christianity.SE. For a quick overview, please take the Site Tour. For more on what this site is all about, see: How we are different than other sites. Thanks for offering an answer here. Some of the regulars here might want to say that this doesn't answer the question, but I think it does, in that it states that part of the Catholic view is that scripture gives the Catholic Church the authority to make decisions such as whether priests may marry. – Lee Woofenden May 7 '17 at 0:58
  • I recommend that you revise/edit your answer to address when the discipline of the church (it's in the Catechism) on priests not marrying was formally adopted. If I may second Lee's greeting: Welcome! – KorvinStarmast May 7 '17 at 23:02

According to a book on this topic I have recently read, The Case for Clerical Celibacy: Its Historical Development and Theological Foundations by Alphonso Maria Stickler, there were two forms of celibacy up to 16th century and the Tridentine council: one is the "modern" as we know it now - priest can't be married. The second, older form was for married men who became priests: they were not allowed to have sex with their wife any more (with her agreement, off course). Some church fathers wrote that the wife became a "sister" of her husband. This older form of celibacy is recorded from several sources from fourth century on, mostly in "it was like this always since the apostles" manner. Such a rule have been explicitly written in fourth century AD, but wide agreement between bishops throughout the world (as was known then) shows it wasn't something new, just a reminder of sanctions emphasizing a part of spoken tradition.

At least since the fourth century, there were always some criticisms of this practice, often based on Bible. Some of the responses should be clear from my first paragraph: Peter had a wife, but he abandoned everything and she was no exception. Later, Paul in 1Corinthians 9:5 references Peter's wife, but Stickler says that the original Greek word there means "sister" rather than "wife" (I didn't check it, but I asked the more competent to approve or disapprove this claim on Bible hermeneutics) - this would fit that "no sex after ordination" model.

The "husband of one wife" part was interpreted in following way: if a man have remarried after death of his first wife, he proved he wouldn't be able to live in celibacy, so he's not a good candidate for priestly ordination.

Ability to raise children is essential, but in a way completely different from how we usually understand it. The meaning of celibacy has more layers, but spritual fatherhood is one of the most important. It's the priest's job to "bear" new Christians through preaching gospel (both to Christians and to others, who may convert through it), baptism and guiding others so that they became "spiritually adult". Like Paul sometimes addressed some of those who converted after his preaching "my son" (e.g. 1Timothy 1:2) and John called them "my dear children" (e.g. 1 John 2:1), every priest should guide others as a father guides his children (title "father" for addressing priests doesn't aim to decrease the importance of our heavenly Father, but should remind the priest his responsibility).
Having some children before ordination might help in this role (though it's not necessary - apostle Paul wasn't a father in worldly sense of this word, but he had more spiritual children than anyone except for Jesus), but knowing that I won't have any more children except for the spiritual ones is a strong motivation to try hard to do my evangelisation and pastoration well.
Also, having few tens or even hundreds of potential spiritual children, it's hard to take care of the biological children well too. Or, better: raising biological children takes significant amount of time, and the spiritual familly (usually a parish) needs another lots of time, which might take more than 24 hours a day together.

Imitating Christ, who didn't have a wife, at least according to mainstream Christianity beliefs, is another important aspect. The service of the priest is derived of the Last Supper - the priest have the power to act on Christ sake ("in persona Christi" - literally "in Christ's person"), especially during Eucharistic celebration. No man can merit such a grace, but the priest should try to be as close to the ideal of "a second Christ" ("alter Christus"). Priestly orders by itself won't change anyone from a weak sinner to a saint, and even though God's grace can make it, human collaboration is needed too.
As Paul wrote in 1Corinthians 7:32-34, having no wife can save a lot of time and energy for prayer and service. It also means a great motivation: I can either come to Jesus and find source of love in Him, or suffer and eventually burn out; I can't rely on my wife. Having no one except of Jesus helps to rely on Him a lot, and this is something a good priest needs.

A married man is a sign of Christ loving His Church (see Ephesians 5:21-33), but a priest living in celibacy can make this even clearer: a priest should imitate Christ especially in his love for Church, in His love that gives oneself, in His love of a good shepherd ready to lay down His life for His sheep. A married man should love God above all, but his wife is number two. For a priest, number two should be the Church - not through just one woman, but through every sheep of Lord's flock.

In Antiquity, the main argument against celibacy of priests was that Old Testament Levite priests had to be married, and they abstained from sex only for the days they actually served in the Temple. But a priest of the New Covenant serves eight pardon seven days a week, 24 hours a day (by prayer, mostly, though Eucharist is his primary duty) - so the priestly celibacy has no breaks allowing sexual life. The Eastern Christians (the Orthodox) first returned to the Old Testament style and stated that the priest should abstain from sex only on Sunday, but then they started celebrating Holy Liturgy on other days without requiring sexual abstination on these days.
Roman Catholic Church tolerates this practice for priests of Eastern rite, both Catholic and Orthodox, and this precedent is applied to other preachers who enter Catholic Church from traditions that abandoned celibacy (though bishops must live in celibacy, with no exceptions AFAIK).

Just a note in the end, celibacy of priests was never pronounced a dogma, but the reason is mostly that it belongs more to discipline than to doctrine, not that celibacy is not important.
In general, most strict and "harsh" practices of Catholic discipline are based on assumption that if we do what God ordered us to do (and we believe celibacy of priests is a part of this), Holy Spirit will help us to make what might be impossible without His help. There always are those who can't obey the rules, but the right solution is not to loose the rules but to pray harder to empower our faith in God's help.

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