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?


4 Answers 4


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

  • 4
    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. Sep 2, 2011 at 20:14
  • 2
    Also, it's specifically the Roman Catholic church that has celibate priests; the eastern and orthodox traditions do not.
    – user32
    Sep 3, 2011 at 5:15
  • 2
    @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, 2011 at 2:02
  • @dancek It is for the sake of the Kingdom.
    – user13992
    Aug 9, 2014 at 6:28
  • Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7, right at the beginning, that because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. He also argues for celibacy for those that can be celibate, but the general rule of thumb he gives is that everyone should marry.
    – Andrew
    Jan 17, 2020 at 17:14

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. May 7, 2017 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! May 7, 2017 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.


Essence of priestly celibacy

Celibacy = unmarried, although in this context it can also mean perpetual continence, as priests can be married (and unmarried priests have never been permitted to marry).

Besides the practical reasons (which can apply to non-priests, too) of

  1. being freed from the solicitudes of married life, not being so tied to worldly matters, or having a heart divided between wife/husband/family and pastoral duties (1 Cor. 7:33-34*);

*"But he that is with a wife, is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife: and he is divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin thinketh on the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she that is married thinketh on the things of the world, how she may please her husband."


  1. the spiritual reasons of being able to attain a higher degree of charity/holiness/perfection (Trent sess. 24 can. 10; Mt. 19:29*; Apoc. 14:4) by following the evangelical counsels and not just the precepts;

*"And every one that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands for my name's sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall possess life everlasting."
†"These are they who were not defiled with women: for they are virgins. These follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth. These were purchased from among men, the firstfruits to God and to the Lamb"

ritual purity is probably the strongest argument for priestly celibacy because it pertains to the essence of the priesthood, which is to offer sacrifice (sacerdos = "giver of the sacred"; sacer = "sacred", dare = "to give").

Ritual purity

On ritual purity in the Old and New Testaments, see Priestly Celibacy: Theological Foundations by Fr. Gary Selin, pp. 139-144.

Ch. 3 goes over the threefold dimension of priestly celibacy: christological (conforming to Christ), ecclesiastical (under which he classes ritual purity), and eschatological (because celibacy points to the life to come, where "they shall neither marry nor be married", Mt. 22:30).

Separation/distinction honors the sacred.

Magisterial Teaching

Pope Pius XII, 1954 encyclical Sacra Virginitas §23:

  1. Consider again that sacred ministers do not renounce marriage solely on account of their apostolic ministry, but also by reason of their service at the altar. For, if even the priests of the Old Testament had to abstain from the use of marriage during the period of their service in the Temple, for fear of being declared impure by the Law just as other men,42 is it not much more fitting that the ministers of Jesus Christ, who offer every day the Eucharistic Sacrifice, possess perfect chastity? St. Peter Damian, exhorting priests to perfect continence, asks: "If Our Redeemer so loved the flower of unimpaired modesty that not only was He born from a virginal womb, but was also cared for by a virgin nurse even when He was still an infant crying in the cradle, by whom, I ask, does He wish His body to be handled now that He reigns, limitless, in heaven?"43

42. Cf. Lev. XV, 16-17 XXII, 4; I Sam. XXI, 5-7; cf. S. Siric. Papa, Ep. ad Himer. 7; PL LVI, 558-559.
43. S. Petrus Dam., De coelibatu sacerdotum, c. 3; PL CXLV, 384 [English transl.].

Old Testament

Ibid. ch. 3 §"Ritual Purity in the Judaic Law", pp. 139-141:

tahor (clean, pure) or tame (unclean, impure). […] Separation is the concrete, visible expression of the exalted holiness of God, and the ritual purity laws maintained this protective system of separation. […] To come into contact with blood was to come into contact with the divine and thus one contracted a ritual impurity, “a holy contamination,” rather than a moral impurity. […] In certain rabbinic texts, the liturgical objects themselves were understood to “pollute,” for example, the handling of a sacred scroll would soil the hands of the rabbi, and he was required to wash his hands after reading it. [fn. 103: "[…] Even today, the liturgical vessels used at Mass are said to be purified when elements of the sacred species are removed."]

New Testament

Ibid. ch. 3 §"Ritual Purity in the Patristic Tradition" p. 144 quotes Ambrosiaster's Questiones Veteris et Novi Testamenti, 127, in Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum 50, 415:

Compared to the stars, the light of a lamp is but fog; while compared to the sun, the stars are obscure; and compared to the radiance of God, the sun is but night. Thus are the things which, in relationship to us, are licit and pure, and are as if illicit and impure with respect to the dignity of God; indeed, no matter how good they are, they are not appropriate to the person of God.

This is the same reason for why women and other are sacred vessels are veiled in church.

Abstaining from conjugal relations

before sacrificing

So as not to confuse two different sacreds, similar reasons are given for abstaining from conjugal relations before offering sacrifice.

1 Samual 21:2-6:

And David said to Achimelech, the priest: The king hath commanded me a business, and said: Let no man know the thing for which thou art sent by me, and what manner of commands I have given thee: and I have appointed my servants to such and such a place. Now therefore if thou have any thing at hand, though it were but five loaves, give me, or whatsoever thou canst find. And the priest answered David, saying: I have no common bread at hand, but only holy bread [for sacrifice], if the young men be clean, especially from women? And David answered the priest, and said to him: Truly, as to what concerneth women, we have refrained ourselves from yesterday and the day before, when we came out, and the vessels of the young men were holy. Now this way is defiled, but it shall also be sanctified this day in the vessels. The priest therefore gave him hallowed bread: for there was no bread there, but only the loaves of proposition, which had been taken away from before the face of the Lord, that hot loaves might be set up.

This passage indicates two situations in which men and presumably their wives abstained from sexual relations during David's time. First, David's soldiers abstained in order to be consecrated at arms or prepared for battle. Second, the priests abstained when serving before the Lord in the Tabernacle and partaking of the holy shew-bread. On this exceptional instance in which non-priests partook of the holy bread, those non-priests could do so only upon affirming that they had abstained from sexual relations.

before receiving Holy Communion

Innocent XI's Cum ad aures (February 12, 1679) on frequent communion (DZ 1147):

In the case of married persons, however, let them seriously consider this, since the blessed Apostle does not wish them to "defraud one another, except perhaps by consent for a time, that they may give themselves to prayer" [cf. 1 Cor. 7:5], let them advise these seriously that they should give themselves more to continence, because of reverence for the most holy Eucharist, and that they should come together for communion in the heavenly banquet with a purer mind.

In coniugatis autem hoc amplius animadvertant, cum beatus Apostolus nolit eos ‘invicem fraudari, nisi forte ex consensu ad tempus, ut vacent orationi’ (cf. 1 cor 7, 5), eos serio admoneant, tanto magis ob sacratissimae Eucharistiae reverentiam continentiae vacandum purioreque mente ad caelestium epularum communionem esse conveniendum.

(Pope St. Pius X cited (but did not quote) this in his Sacra Tridentina on daily Communion.)

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