Clerical Celibacy: Hostile Protestant Commentary & Catholic Replies

Clerical Celibacy: Hostile Protestant Commentary & Catholic Replies September 11, 2017


Photograph by Ally Aubrey (4-26-08) [Flickr / CC BY 2.0 license]

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The frequent argument of Protestants on this score is that the Catholic Church makes a requirement out of something that Paul merely recommends. Catholics — so we are told — are guilty (once again) of smuggling in their “traditions of men” and (in this instance) their (alleged) “animus against sexuality and marriage, because virginity is so exalted in Catholicism,” etc.

Catholics are being very biblical in this view. Where, I ask, in Protestantism is the calling of celibacy celebrated and honored, since it is strongly recommended by Paul and Jesus, and was the norm among the early apostles, not to mention the early priests and bishops? We honor both celibacy and marriage (both are sacraments — means to obtain grace). Protestants, however, seem to honor only the latter. They are just as legalistic as they claim we are by enforcing the “unwritten rule” that pastors ought always to be married.

It is not by any means clear to me that a married clergy is a preferable or superior state of affairs. Most pastors end up forsaking time with their families, and are workaholics (as are many men). Pastor’s wives will quickly this! I used to observe this firsthand all the time when I was an evangelical (e.g., the “PK” – “preacher’s kid” — phenomenon). I even had a phrase for it: “Busy Pastor Syndrome.”

I can see in my own life (as a full-time Catholic apologist and writer) that I have to carefully balance my vocation, my family life, time alone with my wife, and pure leisure and relaxation for myself. I can’t imagine having this family and shepherding a flock of so many hundred people. Being single in that situation makes all the sense in the world to me.

Matthew 19:12 (RSV) For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.

1 Corinthians 7:7-9 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. 8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. 9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.

1 Corinthians 7:32-38 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; 33 but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. 36 If any one thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry-it is no sin. 37 But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. 38 So that he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.

As with so many doctrines, we observe here the Protestant propensity for “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.” If there was corruption or human failings, the Protestant solution was — too often — to throw out the institution rather than reform it. They claimed to be following the Bible in a special way that the “papists” were not; yet on this issue they couldn’t produce any compelling proof that celibacy of priests ought to be abandoned.

They simply didn’t like the celibacy requirement, and so they got rid of it. But Christian tradition doesn’t work that way. The Church is not at liberty to pick and choose or to discard received traditions at whim. Celibacy was not dogma but it was a very entrenched and successful practice in the Church.

Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman (in words that are just as relevant to the situation of today’s tragic sexual scandals) compared celibate and married clergy in terms of virtue, and contended that neither state is the cause of sinful behavior:

When, then, we come to the matter of fact, whether celibacy has been and is, in comparison of the marriage vow, so dangerous to a clerical body, I answer that I am very sceptical indeed that in matter of fact a married clergy is adorned, in any special and singular way, with the grace of purity; and this is just the very thing which Protestants take for granted. What is the use of speaking against our discipline, till they have proved their own to be better?Now I deny that they succeed with their rule of matrimony, better than we do with our rule of celibacy; . . . . a Protestant rector or a dissenting preacher is not necessarily kept from the sins I am speaking of, because he happens to be married: and when he offends, whether in a grave way or less seriously, still in all cases he has by matrimony but exchanged a bad sin for a worse, and has become an adulterer instead of being a seducer.

Matrimony only does this for him, that his purity is at once less protected and less suspected. I am very sceptical, then, of the universal correctness of Protestant ministers, whether in the Establishment or in Dissent. I repeat, I know perfectly well, that there are a great number of high-minded men among the married Anglican clergy who would as soon think of murder, as of trespassing by the faintest act of indecorum upon the reverence which is due from them to others; nor am I denying, what, though of course I cannot assert it on any knowledge of mine, yet I wish to assert with all my heart, that the majority of Wesleyan and dissenting ministers lead lives beyond all reproach; but still allowing all this, the terrible instances of human frailty of which one reads and hears in the Protestant clergy, are quite enough to show that the married state is no sort of testimonial for moral correctness, no safeguard whether against scandalous offences, or (much less) against minor forms of the same general sin.

Purity is not a virtue which comes merely as a matter of course to the married any more than to the single, though of course there is a great difference between man and man; and though it is impossible to bring the matter fairly to an issue, yet for that very reason I have as much right to my opinion as another to his, when I state my deliberate conviction that there are, to say the least, as many offences against the marriage vow among Protestant ministers, as there are against the vow of celibacy among Catholic priests . . .

But if matrimony does not prevent cases of immorality among Protestant ministers, it is not celibacy which causes them among Catholic priests. It is not what the Catholic Church imposes, but what human nature prompts, which leads any portion of her ecclesiastics into sin. Human nature will break out, like some wild and raging element, under any system; it bursts out under the Protestant system; it bursts out under the Catholic; passion will carry away the married clergyman as well as the unmarried priest. On the other hand, there are numbers to whom there would be, not greater, but less, trial in the vow of celibacy than in the vow of marriage, as so many persons prefer Teetotalism to the engagement to observe Temperance.

Till, then, you can prove that celibacy causes what matrimony certainly does not prevent, you do nothing at all. This is the language of common sense. It is the world, the flesh, and the devil, not celibacy, which is the ruin of those who fall. (Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England, Lecture 4, 1851, 134-136)

With regard to 1 Corinthians 7, Methodist commentator Adam Clarke (1760-1832) somehow manages to completely flip the Apostle Paul’s meaning, with an astonishing contempt for the actual text he is supposedly expounding. St. Paul writes in 7:32-33: “The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife.” But by some unknown, inexplicable process of reasoning from that text, Clarke can make this comment:

The single man is an atom in society; the married man is a small community in himself. The former is the centre of his own existence, and lives for himself alone; the latter is diffused abroad, makes a much more important part of the body social, and provides both for its support and continuance. The single man lives for and does good to himself only; the married man lives both for himself and the public. Both the state and the Church of Christ are dependent on the married man, as from him under God the one has subjects, the other members; while the single man is but an individual in either, and by and by will cease from both, and having no posterity is lost to the public for ever. The married man, therefore, far from being in a state of inferiority to the single man, is beyond him out of the limits of comparison. He can do all the good the other can do, though perhaps sometimes in a different way; and he can do ten thousand goods that the other cannot possibly do. And therefore both himself and his state are to be preferred infinitely before those of the other. (Commentary on the Bible, 1825, six volumes, available online)

All this flows from Clarke’s assumption that Paul is only talking this way because of the “present distress”; otherwise he would prefer marriage to singleness. When he comments on verse 35, where Paul makes his strongest endorsement of the practical and spiritual benefits of celibacy over against marriage, he again utilizes the method of “limited application” in order to evade the clear, straightforward meaning of the text: “Nothing spoken here was ever designed to be of general application; it concerned the Church at Corinth alone, or Churches in similar circumstances.” The famous Presbyterian commentator Matthew Henry (1662-1714) couldn’t refrain from the temptation to bash Catholic priestly vows in an irrational fashion:

Marrying is not in itself a sin, but marrying at that time was likely to bring inconvenience upon them, and add to the calamities of the times; and therefore he thought it advisable and expedient that such as could contain should refrain from it; but adds that he would not lay celibacy on them as a yoke, nor, by seeming to urge it too far, draw them into any snare; and therefore says, But I spare you. Note, How opposite in this are the papist casuists to the apostle Paul! They forbid many to marry, and entangle them with vows of celibacy, whether they can bear the yoke or no.  (Commentary available online)

This is an utterly ridiculous remark. It’s as if one envisions an imaginary Catholic Church (one which seems to be lodged in every anti-Catholic’s mind) where potential priests are dragged screaming and kicking (perhaps drugged up, too, and pulled from the arms of hysterical, grieving girlfriends) and forced to take their vows under gunpoint “whether they can bear the yoke or no.”

Henry speaks nothing of spiritual gifts, vocation, the voluntary nature of a discernment of the calling to the priesthood, or the graces of holy orders. Rather than show how Catholic teaching is wrong from biblical teaching, he takes the opportunity to irrationally rave and present an entirely jaded picture of Catholic belief and practice. What does that have to do, however, with exegesis?

In conclusion, I would like to cite the wise words of G. K. Chesterton, written 14 years before he became a Catholic. The paradox he notes is a marvelously ironic one: the Catholic Church is simultaneously attacked for being too “pro-family” and too “pro-children” but also for supposedly being against marriage and sexuality (as the Church, we are told, stifles marital and sexual happiness in its puritanical views on divorce and contraception), due to its high regard for the celibate life devoted to the Lord in a total giving of self. Chesterton’s point is that one need not choose; it’s a false dilemma from the start:

Thus, the double charges of the secularists, though throwing nothing but darkness and confusion on themselves, throw a real light on the faith. It is true that the historic Church has at once emphasized celibacy and emphasized the family; has at once (if one may put it so) been fiercely for having children and fiercely for not having children. It has kept them side by side like two strong colors, red and white, like the red and white upon the shield of St. George. It has always had a healthy hatred of pink. It hates that combination of two colors which is the feeble expedient of the philosophers. It hates that evolution of black into white which is tantamount to a dirty gray. In fact, the whole theory of the Church on virginity might be symbolized in the statement that white is a color: not merely the absence of a color. All that I am urging here can be expressed by saying that Christianity sought in most of these cases to keep two colors coexistent but pure. It is not a mixture like russet or purple; it is rather like a shot silk, for a shot silk is always at right angles, and is in the pattern of the cross. (Orthodoxy, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1959; originally 1908, 97)

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