Little-Known Bible Verses VIII: Priestly Celibacy

Today’s edition of “Little-Known Bible Verses” is specific to the Roman Catholic denomination of Christianity. This is because, of all major Western denominations, Roman Catholicism is the only church that still requires that its clergy members remain celibate. The Catholic church to this day believes that this is a biblically supportable doctrine. But in fact, the opposite is true, as we can see from two little-known Bible verses.

Both the verses in question come from the epistle of 1 Timothy, which is accepted by the Catholic church as canonical and appears in the Revised Standard Version translation of the Bible. First, 1 Timothy 3:2:

Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher…

This verse does more than just say that marriage is compatible with being a bishop; it actually says that a bishop must be “the husband of one wife”. (Note also the sexist language – the text clearly assumes that only men are suitable candidates for bishophood – but I’ve discussed that elsewhere and won’t belabor the point.)

The Catholic church, in keeping with their practice of reinterpreting the Bible to match what they’ve decided, has issued a statement, The Biblical Foundation of Priestly Celibacy, which claims that this verse is actually meant to indicate some sort of allegorical “marriage” between the priest and the church:

Yet the symbolic and spiritual meaning of the expression unius uxoris vir remains ever the same. Indeed, since it contains a direct reference to the covenant, that is to say, to the marriage relationship between Christ and the Church, it invites us to attach much greater importance today than in the past to the fact that the minister of the Church represents Christ the bridegroom to the Church his bride. In this sense, the priest must be «the husband of one wife»; but that one wife, his bride, is the Church who, like Mary, is the bride of Christ.

No doubt, this mystical nonsense shows the interpretive genius of apologists. Faced with the unchangeable text of a biblical commandment, they get around it by inventing new meanings for words in that text and substituting them for the commonly understood meanings. (It’s almost as clever as the stroke of genius by which the church evaded the biblical prohibition on divorce – that is, dissolving an existing marriage – by inventing the concept of annulment, retroactively declaring that a marriage had never existed in the first place.)

But there’s another verse which that document never discusses or even mentions:

“Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, through the pretensions of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.”

—1 Timothy 4:1-3 (RSV)

This verse is a direct attack on Catholic notions of celibacy, explicitly claiming that such doctrines are invented by demons and are departures from the faith. It’s not surprising that this verse is little-known among Catholic believers, although it’s often (correctly) cited by Protestant polemics.

UPDATE: A Roman Catholic commenter helpfully points out that according to the Bible, Peter the apostle, considered by Catholics to be the first pope, was married (Matthew 8:14).

Other posts in this series:

Ireland Says Yes to Equality
The Hypocrisy of Tolerance at the Touro Synagogue
Atlas Shrugged: The Social Atom
Atlas Shrugged: Fiat Motors
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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