Married Bishops (1 Tim 3) & Catholic Celibacy: Contradiction?

Married Bishops (1 Tim 3) & Catholic Celibacy: Contradiction? June 20, 2018

This was an exchange (presently expanded) with a critic of my article at National Catholic Register: “Priestly Celibacy: Ancient, Biblical and Pauline” (9-18-17).


“Paul & Timothy” posted:

Celibacy is a beautiful gift, and properly exhorted by St. Paul.

However, there is 1 Timothy 3, 2-5 also pertaining to holy orders that makes me question the requirement that only those who make a promise of celibacy can be ordained to the priesthood and episcopacy:

A bishop must be… married only once… He must manage his own household well, keeping his children under control with perfect dignity; for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of the Church of God.

I find it interesting how few Catholics know 1 Timothy 3 … and are shocked when they read it, and how we seem to be “selective” interpreting or “advocating” celibacy as the only norm. Does not understanding Sacred Scripture properly requires reading all of Scripture to interpret it fully?

I replied:

I’m quite familiar with it. It’s no more of a problem for the Catholic position than Peter’s marriage was. Celibacy was not mandated as required in the apostolic Church, but it soon came to be very widely. The Church at first followed Paul’s position expressed in 1 Timothy 3, then (in the West) opted for preferring his position on celibacy for the purpose of singlehearted devotion to the Lord without divided loyalties, as expressed in 1 Corinthians 7 (as part of your recommended “reading all of Scripture”), and his wish that all men would be as he is (celibate).

The latter is a higher, more heroic calling (involving the evangelical counsels), and the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church decided that’s what she wanted for her priests and bishops.

Navarre Bible Commentary states concerning this passage:

“The husband of one wife”: this is also a requirement of”elders” (cf. Tit 1:6) and “deacons” (1 Tim 3:12); it does not mean that the person is under an obligation to marry, but he must not have married more than once. From the context it clearly does not mean that candidates are forbidden to be polygamous (polygamy is forbidden to everyone); the condition that one be married only once ensures that candidates will be very respectable, exemplary people; in the culture of the time second marriages, except in special circumstances, were looked at askance, among Gentiles as well as Jews.

In the apostolic age celibacy was not a requirement for those who presided over the early Christian communities. However, it very soon became customary to require celibacy. “In Christian antiquity the Fathers and ecclesiastical writers testify to the ‘spread through the East and the West of the voluntary practice of celibacy by sacred ministers because of its profound suitability for their total dedication to the service of Christ and his Church. The Church of the West, from the beginning of the fourth century, strengthened, spread, and approved this practice by means of various provincial councils and through the Supreme Pontiffs” (Paul VI, Sacerdotalis caelibatus, 35–36).

From then on all priests of the Latin rite were required to be celibate. Celibacy is appropriate to the priesthood for many reasons: “By preserving virginity or celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven priests are consecrated in a new and excellent way to Christ. They more readily cling to him with undivided heart and dedicate themselves more freely in him and through him to the service of God and of men. They are less encumbered in their service of his kingdom and of the task of heavenly regeneration. In this way they become better fitted for a broader acceptance of fatherhood in Christ” (Vatican II, Presbyterorum ordinis, 16).

Catholic apologist Tim Staples commented upon the same passage as follows:

Even the Evangelical scripture scholar Dr. Ralph Earle, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, says that St. Paul in 1 Timothy 3 is not requiring bishops to be married. In stating his reasons, he first offers the most ancient position—which we know as Catholics to be apostolic in origin and found in written form in the late second century—that would say this text is placing a limitation on the number of marriages a bishop could have in his lifetime. He could only have been married once. This is the position of the Catholic Church today. If a man has been married more than once, even if licitly, he cannot be admitted to the episcopacy. . . .

In that same Bible commentary, this time commenting on Titus 1:6, which makes to both elders and bishops the same prohibition against multiple marriages, another Evangelical scholar, Dr. D. Edmond Hiebert, adds, “If Paul had meant that the elder must be married, the reading would have been ‘a’ not ‘one’ wife.” I would go further and say it would most likely simply say, “The bishop must be married.” The term one indicates that he is limiting the number, not mandating marriage.

Of course, you must know that celibacy is a discipline, not a dogma, and thus can change and has changed in history. And you must know that Eastern Catholics are fully as Catholic as Western ones, and that they allow married priests. And you may or may not know that even in the Latin Rite exceptions are made for some priests, such as those received from Anglicanism. Hence, the late Fr. Ray Ryland and Fr. Dwight Longenecker (still with us) were both ordained in the Latin Rite as married men.

That’s why this supposed “zinger” or “gotcha” comment of yours is much ado about nothing; proves nothing whatever of what you seem to think it proves.

Related reading:

Clerical Celibacy: Hostile Protestant Commentary & Catholic Replies [2-21-04]

Clerical Celibacy: Dialogue with John Calvin [9-17-09]

Mandatory Celibacy of Catholic Priests in the Western / Latin Rite: A New (?) Argument [11-16-12]

Forbidding Marriage? Consecrated Virginity & the Catholic “Both / And” [9-13-17]


(9-18-17; expanded on 6-20-18)

Photo credit: St. Athanasius (296-373): icon from Sozopol, Bulgaria, end of 17 century [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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