Why Celibate Priests


Catholic priests do not marry because, in doing so, they are following the example of Christ Himself. He praised the Apostles for giving up "all" to follow Him (Matt 19:27-29). And in Matt 19:11-12 He singles out those who do not marry for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven and also teaches that this special grace of priestly celibacy is a gift that is only for a few (currently approx. 0.01% of the population). St Paul taught that celibacy is preferable to marriage for those giving themselves completely to God 1 Cor 7: 7, 17 and 32-35. In addition to the celibacy of Christ, St Paul, St John the Baptist and St John (and the Old Testament prophets Elijah and Jeremiah), the constant tradition of the Church has always affirmed that the other Apostles remained celibate after they followed Christ. In the early Church, most married clerics observed celibacy after ordination.

An objection is often raised concerning St Paul's teaching in 1 Tim 3: 2 and 12 and Tit 1:6 that a deacon, priest or bishop must be the husband of one wife. But St Paul does not say that a bishop must be the husband of a wife. Had he meant that it was necessary to have a wife he would have been violating the law himself. In the early Church, owing to the scarcity of single men eligible for the priesthood, married men who wished to be ordained could be accepted provided they had not been married twice. The reason for this rule was that a second marriage after widowhood was a sign that a man could not live in the dedication demanded of a cleric. A law forbidding a man to have had more than one wife does not order him to have one; nor is it violated by a man who has never had a wife at all. However, as will be shown, as Christianity grew and vocations became more plentiful, single men only were accepted, and had to remain celibates, according to the advice of St Paul (1Cor 7). In the Early Church, priests were never allowed to marry after ordination, and perpetual continence of married priests was the norm, both East and West.


During the first 3 centuries of the Church there was no universal law or common consensus governing celibacy for bishops, priests and deacons. All were permitted to be married before ordination, and most were. Given the mentality of the world at the time of the early Church (both Jews and Pagans generally discouraged the male unmarried state) it was very difficult at the beginning to find mature candidates for the priesthood who were not already married. Only with the later development of a generally Christian culture (where virginity and celibacy were honoured into adult life) would celibate candidates for Holy Orders become more available. Not surprisingly then, the Church discerned with time that the calling of celibacy from God, together with the desire to serve God and His people, was an indication of a vocation to the priesthood.

Almost immediately in Church history we find celibacy recommended and even required in some places. For example, the Apostolic Constitutions (written in the 2nd century AD) declared: 'If a Priest or Deacon is not already married, he can never contract marriage.' The requirement of celibacy for clergy in the West was effected by a series of local councils, as well as by a growing body of papal teachings. Following the Council of Elvira's decree (300 AD) requiring celibate clergy, various popes from Damasus I (366 " 384) to Leo I (440 " 461), as well as European and African councils, issued similar directives. Despite what developed as a fairly consistent body of teaching, the contemporary practice of the clergy was less than uniform. The first Pope (Peter) was a married man when God called him but he left his wife, with her consent of course, to follow Christ. Two or three other Popes in the 6th century were married but, apart from them, there appears to have been no other married Popes. Clerical celibacy was imposed in the Latin Rite around 600 AD but following the decline of Charlemagne's empire in the 10th century, Church discipline, and with it celibacy, became disordered. However, it was Pope Gregory VII (1073-85) who enforced the already existing law of celibacy to such an extent that a more consistent observation of the obligation was achieved. By the 13th century the Western Church had generally ceased ordaining married men. After the Protestant Revolution, the Council of Trent (1546-63) affirmed the value of celibacy and the Church Law of clerical celibacy has remained to this day.

- Priestly celibacy most closely imitates the celibate life of Jesus and so it is entirely appropriate that the priests of His Church imitate Him most closely by being celibate

- If married, priests could not be as devoted to their parishioners and to prayer

- The celibate priesthood is an awesome witness that keeps before people that God and Heaven are more important than earthly pleasures

- Celibacy gives credibility to priests who ask their flock to live up to Gospel demands

- The vast majority of newly ordained young priests want to maintain the celibate rule

- Letting priests marry is not the answer to the clergy shortage because churches that allow married priests are not registering an increase in vocations

- Priestly celibacy is a foreshadowing of Heaven where there will be no marriage

- Celibacy is not forced on any priest. It is freely chosen after years of training, reflection and prayer

- Celibacy is no more responsible for unfaithful priests than marriage is responsible for unfaithful spouses

- The majority of priests all over the world are today living inspiring lives of voluntary and consecrated celibacy

Whilst it is true to say that celibacy is a Church discipline (exceptions include: already-married Anglican priest-converts; and the Eastern Churches in union with Rome - they allow married clergy but their bishops are chosen solely from among celibates, and, once ordained, their priests can no longer marry), the consistent teaching of the Roman Catholic Church today is that celibacy will remain the general rule for its priests. Two recent Popes (Paul VI: On Priestly Celibacy, June 24, 1967 ; and John Paul II: Pastores Dabo Vobis March 25, 1992, and in his letter to the priests of the world, April 6, 1979) have clearly stated that the matter is closed. Unfortunately, clerical celibacy (regarded by Pope Paul VI as "a brilliant jewel") is something the worldly who do not understand the power of God or the reality of eternal life have difficulty accepting.

McBrien, R. Encyclopedia of Catholicism, p. 290 Radio Replies, Vol. 3, p. 284 Carroll, W. ewtn.com Q+A, 3/27/2002 Carroll, W. ewtn.com Q+A, 3/26/2002 and 4/7/2002 Sheehan, M. Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine, p. 580 Drummey, Catholic Replies, p. 212

* Please note that this text should be read in the context of the whole work and in recognition of the appropriate paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic Church highlighted in the index.