Peter’s Wife, James Swan, Celibacy, & Catholicism

Peter’s Wife, James Swan, Celibacy, & Catholicism March 15, 2024

The Perfectly Sensible and Explicit Biblical Rationale for Priestly Celibacy

Protestant anti-Catholic apologist James Swan wrote a ludicrous piece entitled, “Catholic Answers vs. Clement of Alexandria (and Eusebius) on Peter’s Marriage” (2-28-24). I’d like to examine it more closely. His words will be in blue.

First of all, I contend that the title of the article seeks to perpetuate the old tired and absurd myth that Catholics supposedly believe that St. Peter was not married. All Christians — including Catholics — believe that, since all serious Christians believe in an inspired Bible: which declares that Peter had a mother-in-law (Mk 1:29-31; Mt 8:14-15; Lk 4:38-39). So why this title? The issue is not whether Peter was married. No one denies that he was. Rather, the only issue is whether he was a widower by the time he traveled with Jesus, or whether his wife ever traveled with him on his missionary and pastoral journeys.  Swan continues to belittle and misrepresent Catholicism in his first sentence:

Here’s an interesting compare and contrast between Catholic Answers and Clement of Alexandria (and Eusebius) on whether or not Peter was married.

A person with no prior views would, I think, interpret this to mean that “Catholics — or at least this one Catholic group, that defends Catholicism — deny that Peter was married, over against [Church fathers] Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius.” Is that not the intended meaning? If a disagreement is framed as “whether or not Peter was married” the clear implication is that one side claims he wasn’t, and the other believes that he was. Thus, this sentence, like the title, perpetuates a falsehood and fable about Catholic teaching. Swan cites Karl Keating in his critique, and right in the quote, Keating says, “I think Peter was a widower at the time his mother-in-law was healed.” So why is Swan dichotomizing Keating (the founder of Catholic Answers) against the Church fathers and implying that he — or by extension, Catholics generally — denied that Peter was married?

The biblical text which fuels this comparison is 1 Corinthians 9:5. Paul says that the Apostles have particular “rights,” and one such right is taking a wife along when ministering… just as the Apostle Peter did! Here is the passage from the NAS:

3 My defense to those who examine me is this: 4 Do we not have a right to eat and drink? 5 Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? 6 Or do only Barnabas and I not have a right to refrain from working? 7 Who at any time serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat the fruit of it? Or who tends a flock and does not use the milk of the flock?

Yes, some of the apostles were married [insert obligatory exclamation point here: !]. This is some big revelation (pun intended)?

Out of curiosity, I consulted the North American magisterium, Catholic Answers, to find out what this verse really means (read: sarcasm). What intrigued me about their answer was that they included a quote from Clement of Alexandria to substantiate their answer. Here’s what Catholic Answers stated, 

…[T]he apostles [were] accompanied by ‘sister women’ who could assist them in ministering to women—for example, at full-immersion baptisms, where a question of modesty could arise, or in cases where it would be more appropriate for a woman to perform a charitable or catechetical function. Clement of Alexandria agreed, saying the women were not the wives of the apostles but were female assistants who could enter the homes of women and could teach them there (Stromata III, 6). In short, I think Peter was a widower at the time his mother-in-law was healed. [“Did Peter Have a Wife?,” Karl Keating, 5-1-07]

With as much dripping sarcasm as I can muster through the printed word: The Fathers! The Fathers! The Fathers! So… I then went off to see what Clement of Alexandria said in context, and well… he didn’t say what Catholic Answers asserts. In fact, he says the opposite, and none other than Eusebius backs Clement up on it! Here’s the text from Clement . . .:

Clement of Alexandria:

52. . . .  Peter and Philip had children, and Philip gave his daughters in marriage.

53. Even Paul did not hesitate in one letter to address his consort. The only reason why he did not take her about with him was that it would have been an inconvenience for his ministry. Accordingly he says in a letter: “Have we not a right to take about with us a wife that is a sister like the other apostles?”  But the latter, in accordance with their particular ministry, devoted themselves to preaching without any distraction, and took their wives with them not as women with whom they had marriage relations, but as sisters, that they might be their fellow-ministers in dealing with housewives. . . . [the above was all bolded by Swan, which I removed]

Swan then cites Eusebius, the father of Church history, in substantial agreement.

Granted, there is some ambiguity because the English word for wife being used is, “consort.” 

There is indeed at least some uncertainty here. Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, after all, states: “A sister, a wife – Margin, ‘or woman.’ This phrase has much perplexed [Protestant] commentators.” This means that equally reasonable and pious folks (both Protestants and Catholics) can and do disagree on the passage, so that there is not only one foregone conclusion, with which no honest person can disagree. Traditionally, two major competing interpretations have been set forth:

1) The text refers to accompanying women who are not literally wives, but helpers (along the lines of Lk 8:1-3; 23:55).

2) The text refers to literal wives and strongly implies that most of the apostles were married men.

We should note that Paul is referring primarily to the right to have a wife while being an apostle and a missionary, as opposed to stating a fact that many of the apostles were married. It’s two different things. Paul argues that they all had the “right” to be married, and to “food and drink” (9:4, 9-10, 13) and “material benefits” (9:11) and wages (9:7, 14). Paul himself, however, after passionately defending all of these rights on behalf of his fellow Christian workers, ends by writing, “I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing this to secure any such provision” (9:15) and “What then is my reward? Just this: that in my preaching I may make the gospel free of charge, not making full use of my right in the gospel” (9:18). Was Clement claiming that St. Paul was married? It seems so to me. But that would contradict inspired Holy Scripture: “it is well for them to remain single as I do” (1 Cor 7:8; cf. 9:15 above). So Clement was wrong and misinformed. No one disagrees that Paul was unmarried.

I submit that there is a third interpretation of 1 Corinthians 9:5 that avoids the arguable “either/or” nature of the two usual positions taken by commentators listed above. Those are not the only two feasible options. I shall argue that some of the disciples and apostles were married (Peter, with certainty), and that the Bible informs us that they left their wives and children, with Jesus’ blessing, at least in some cases (including Peter’s), for the sake of ministry. I have explicit biblical texts (three specific ones and one broad one) to substantiate this point of view:

Luke 18:28-30 (RSV) And Peter said, “Lo, we have left our homes and followed you.”  [29] And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, [30] who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”

Matthew 19:27 Then Peter said in reply, “Lo, we have left everything and followed you. What then shall we have?” (cf. Mk 10:28-30)

1 Corinthians 7:5 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. [4] For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does.[5] Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control.

Matthew 1:24-25 (NRSV) . . . Joseph . . . took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son . . .

Jesus commends the disciples who left their wives and families, including children, “for the sake of the kingdom of God”. Obviously, Jesus didn’t think these self-sacrificial acts were of the sort that Paul condemned in 1 Timothy 5:8 (“If any one does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever”) or 1 Timothy 4:2-3 (“pretensions of liars . . . who forbid marriage”). Besides, Peter is shown throughout the Gospels working as a fisherman. Thus, plausibly, he continued to support his wife and family by simply sending them money earned by plying his trade. They wouldn’t have been that far away, as Israel is a small country. After Jesus’ resurrection and appearances to the disciples, Peter and other disciples were still fishing on the Sea of Galilee (Jn 21:1-14). So up to that time, at least, Peter seems to have never ceased being a fisherman, just as Paul made tents to support himself (Acts 18:3).

The Greek word for “wife” in the first two passages above is gunee (Strong’s word #1135). Peter himself said “everything,” and Jesus clearly recognizes the propriety of leaving even family (“house or wife or brothers or parents or children”) in some instances of radical discipleship. But we do not rule out (in fact, we assume) the possibility of a mutual consent to separate, between Peter and his wife, in order for him to engage in ministry with Jesus. It doesn’t have to be a wicked separation, where the spouse resists it. Otherwise, Jesus could and would never sanction it. And Peter’s use of “we” means that at least one other disciple besides him also left his wife and family to follow Jesus (and Jesus’ reply supports this; there must be at least one disciple who has left his wife).

Many Protestants have done this, too. The late great Billy Graham (one of my two favorite Protestants; the other being John Wesley) often publicly regretted how he had to leave his wife and family for long periods of time, for his evangelistic crusades. But all eventually regarded it as a heroic sacrifice. I recently watched a TV special about the Scottish Olympic runner Eric Liddell, who was portrayed in the famous 1981 film, Chariots of Fire. His parents were missionaries who worked with the London Missionary Society, and he became a missionary to China after running in the Olympics and receiving a gold medal in 1924. It was noted in the documentary that, often, children of such parents in ministry were sometimes separated from them in boarding schools for as long as seven years at a time. No doubt, the above passages would have been cited as the rationale for these practices.

The wives of these married disciples — including Peter’s — could have joined them at certain times. One would expect that. After all, Jesus is thought to have lived for a time in Peter’s house in Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (implied by Mk 1:29; Mt 8:14, 16; Lk 4:38; cf. similar Jn 11:54), where Peter could fish and still make a living. Presumably his wife lived with him at that time, and his mother-in-law, it appears, lived in the house with them (Mt 8:14), which was common Jewish practice.

For the married disciples, it might have been a bit like musicians going out on tour. Often they leave their families, for months at a time. At other times (while touring), they are joined by their wife and maybe children. Our view incorporates all the relevant passages. Peter (along with one or more other disciples) left his family to serve (outside of Capernaum) with Jesus – or so it seems from his own statement, unless one illogically assumes that “everything” (Mt 19:27; Mk 10:28) and “nets” (Mt 4:20; Mk 1:18) are identical. But he seems to have been later accompanied by his wife on at least some missionary trips (1 Corinthians 9:5).

The Catholic Church (Latin or western rite; not all portions of the Church) has a celibacy requirement for priests. But in so doing it simply chooses for its priests men who have already been called by God to celibacy (and to the priesthood). In that sense it isn’t forcing them to do anything. By this reasoning, one would have to say that God “forced” them by calling them to that lifestyle in the first place. But they had the free will to follow that call or not, just as I did to follow my calling as an apologist. It wasn’t “mandatory” that I did so. I chose to follow and pursue what I believe God has called me to, and for which he gave me various gifts (“let every one lead the life which the Lord has assigned to him, and in which God has called him”: 1 Cor 7:17).

Protestant objections to this requirement presuppose something that is — upon reflection — not true at all: the impermissibility of an institution or organization to draw up rules for its members, for whatever reason it sees fit and helpful. If someone wants to play in the NBA, they will have to have the ability to shoot baskets or play good defense (and being tall will sure help, too). This rules out many people from the outset. A baseball umpire or a bus driver can’t be blind. A major league pitcher has to be able to throw fast (much faster than the average person). A person in the military (on the battlefield) has to be healthy and physically fit. A kindergarten teacher has to like small children. A gardener can’t have severe allergies. A talk show host has to like to talk. Etc., etc., ad infinitum. To puruse the NBA analogy further:

We [the NBA] aren’t forcing individual x, who objects to good basket-shooting ability, but wants to be an athlete in the NBA, to be what he isn’t suited for. We’re simply choosing our players from among the group of people who have already been gifted by God (supplemented by their own serious practice) with good basket-shooting ability.

Likewise, the Catholic Church has its perfectly biblical and sensible, practical reasons (particularly from 1 Corinthians 9:28-35) for having a celibacy requirement for her Latin rite, western priests. The Catholic Church thinks the principle that Paul brilliantly, succinctly explains in that passage is a very good one in the case of priests. The logic would be: “if Paul’s reasoning is wise across the board, for anyone, then it’s also wise for the smaller category of priests.” No one can say that it has no such right. Every group of human beings has requirements for various positions within the group. The Catholic Church says:

We’re not forcing individual x, who objects to celibacy, but wants to be a priest, to be what he isn’t called to. We’re simply choosing our priests from among the group of people who have already been appointed and called by God (1 Cor 7:17) to be both celibate and priests.

Is heroic self-deprivation taught in the Bible? It sure is. We need go no further than St. Paul, again (2 Cor 11:24-27). Why was St. Paul willing to endure all of this voluntary suffering and sacrifice? He tells us why (“for your comfort and salvation”: 2 Cor 1:6; “that they also may obtain salvation”: 2 Tim 2:10). Likewise, Catholic priests are willing to undergo personal sacrifice (including celibacy) in order to more fruitfully serve God (due to the practical advantages) and to help save as many people as possible. We think that is ideal, and, as I have shown, there are plenty of biblical rationales for it. Jesus taught the same: “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” (Mt 19:12).

One who wants to be a priest ponders whether he is truly called to this life by God or not. He understands the Catholic position (western rite). Upon lengthy reflection and advice and the informed corroborating opinions of others, at length he determines that he is indeed called to be a celibate priest: that God Himself has called him to that sort of heroically self-sacrificing life. He then voluntarily goes to the Catholic Church (i.e., to a seminary where he will be trained) with all of that already determined and decided upon. No one “forced” him to do anything against his will at any point of the process. He freely decided to go along with God’s will for his life. He decided to “become a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” and willingly self-sacrifice for the kingdom and the sake of souls.

Lastly, I Timothy 3:2 states: “Now a bishop must be . . . the husband of one wife . . .” Paul goes on to say in verse 4: “He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive . . .” Does that mean (if we are interpreting hyper-literally and disallowing any exceptions) that every bishop must be married, and also must have children? What about widowers who became bishops (they must marry again?), or who couldn’t have children (low sperm count), or whose wives couldn’t, or were post-menopausal? Obviously, then, qualifications have to be made. I think the passage is generalized language, meaning, “if a bishop is married, it should only be once [no divorce or deceased wife followed by remarriage], and to one wife [no polygamy], and if he has children, he must have the ability to manage them well.”

Frankly, I appreciate the writings of the church fathers, but I do not hold them to be that which is the final voice that determines what a Biblical passage means.

Neither do Catholics. We’re not bound to their opinions. They’re not granted the charism of infallibility or authority over the Church. We’re bound to what the Catholic magisterium declares. The fathers are not the magisterium. Even those as great as St. Augustine or St. Thomas or St. Francis are not, though they are regarded very highly. The Church — despite rumors and mythology to the contrary for 500 years — has required Catholics to interpret specific Bible verses in only one way in about 7-9 cases.

On the other hand, Rome’s defenders do claim the church fathers are of key importance to establish the validity of Roman Catholicism.

Yes, we do do that, because their views, broadly speaking, are far closer to ours than to Protestantism.

This text from Clement and its use by Catholic Answers demonstrates a severe disconnect. When they cite something… look it up!  

It doesn’t at all. Clement partially supported Keating’s reasons for citing him, and partially did not. No biggie. But Swan — not an impartial observer or researcher, to be as charitable as I can — tried to make a mountain out of a molehill. He failed, and if he wants to seriously discuss why Catholics believe in priestly celibacy, he needs to grapple with the relevant Bible passages that I brought to bear.

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Photo credit: GDJ (2-15-17) [Pixabay / Pixabay Content License]

Summary: Protestant apologist James Swan critiqued Karl Keating and Catholic Answers regarding the question of Peter’s marriage, but miserably failed, as I demonstrate.

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