Can Catholic Priests Marry?

History of Celibacy in Catholicism


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A common critique of theistic religion is the extent to which religious rules and doctrines created by human beings for the purpose of maintaining power and control over others are attributed to a divine source. Pretending that human rules are God's rules helps prevent them from changing or being questioned. A powerful example of this is the celibacy of priests in Catholic Christianity, as demonstrated by its historical development and lack of consistent adherence.

If there were any divine origin to religious rules, we shouldn't be able to trace their development in human history and how they were conditioned by historical, cultural circumstances. It's no surprise that churches say little about how today's doctrines did not always exist in the past and, in fact, aren't as absolute as they seem.

Again, clerical celibacy in Catholicism is a good example of this.

Real Reasons for Celibacy: Land, Purity, and Women

Celibacy has not always been required of priests. Defenders of celibacy rely heavily on Matthew 19:12, where Jesus is quoted as saying that "...they have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept this." Here, "eunuchs" is interpreted to be a reference renouncing marriage and being celibate, but if Jesus placed such a high value on celibacy, why were most if not all of his apostles married? It's implausible that unmarried followers could not be found, so it's implausible that celibacy was even preferred, much less required.

Over time, rules about sexual abstinence grew out of the belief that sexual intercourse makes a person "unclean," based largely on the belief that women are less pure than men and hence constitute a form of ritual contamination.

Attitudes about ritual cleanliness have played an important role in religious violence generally; attitudes about the inferiority of women have been important in violence towards them. In fact, the continued existence of an all-male, celibate priesthood cannot be divorced from an accompanying view of women as less moral and less worthy than men.

The denigration of both women and sex was accompanied by a denigration of marriage and family. The Council of Trent, called to combat the challenges posed by the Protestant Reformation, made an interesting statement about the church's position on family values:

If anyone says that it is not better and more godly to live in virginity or in the unmarried state than to marry, let him be anathema.

Another factor in the push for clerical celibacy was the problematic relationship the Catholic Church had with real estate and inherited land. Priests and bishops were not just religious leaders, they also had political power based on the land they controlled. When they died, the land might go to church or the man's heirs—and naturally, the church wanted to keep the land in order to retain political power.

The best way to keep the land was to ensure that no rivals could claim it; keeping the clergy celibate and unmarried was the easiest way to accomplish this. Making celibacy a religious obligation was also the best way to ensure that the clergy obeyed. Catholic apologists deny that such worldly concerns were part of the decision to impose celibacy on priests, but it can't be a coincidence that the final push towards celibacy occurred when conflict over land was increasing.

Evolution of Rules on Celibacy

Because of the doctrine that sexual intercourse with a woman makes a man unclean, married priests were prohibited from celebrating the Eucharist for a full day after sex with their wives. Because the trend was to celebrate the Eucharist more and more often, sometimes even daily, priests were pressured to be celibate just to fulfill their basic religious functions—and eventually, they were prohibited from ever having sex with their wives. Celibacy was thus somewhat common by 300 CE, when the Spanish Council of Elvira required married bishops, priests, and deacons to permanently abstain from sex with their wives. The pressure this put on marriages was not important and the consequences for the wives would only get worse.

In 1139, the Second Lateran Council officially imposed mandatory celibacy on all priests. Every priest's marriage was declared invalid and every married priest was required to separate from their wife—leaving them to whatever fate had in store for them, even if it meant leaving them destitute. Of course, this was an immoral thing to do to those spouses, and many clergies realized that there was little religious or traditional basis for it, so they defied that order and continued in their marriages.

The final blow against priests' ability to marry came through a technicality at the Council of Trent (1545-1563). The church asserted that a valid Christian marriage must be performed by a valid priest and in front of two witnesses. Previously, private marriages performed by priests or, indeed, just about anyone else, were common in some areas. Sometimes the only ones present were the officiant and the couple. Banning such clandestine marriages effectively eliminated marriage for the clergy.

Contrary to what many defenders might say, there is nothing whatsoever about the nature of the priesthood which makes celibacy necessary or essential, and the Vatican has admitted this. In the 1967 encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, written to reinforce the "Sacredness of Celibacy" in the face of growing calls to rethink it, Pope Paul VI explained that while celibacy is a "dazzling jewel," it is not:

...required by the nature of the priesthood itself. This is clear from the practice of the early church itself and the traditions of the Eastern churches.

The history of clerical celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church is thus one of contingency and political expediency. The doctrine of sexual abstinence, supposedly designed to increase priests' purity against the impurity of filthy women, is inseparable from the political and worldly concerns of Christianity at a particular time and place in history. That is also why there are still so many married Roman Catholic priests in the world.

Opposition to ending the requirement of celibacy for Catholic priests is strong—but isn't it strange that, despite this requirement, there are so many married Catholic priests who seem to be doing as good a job as unmarried priests? If celibacy is so vital, why do married Catholic priests exist at all? This isn't something that the Roman Catholic Church is anxious to advertise. They'd much rather keep the matter quiet in order not to "confuse" rank and file Catholics.

In this context, "confuse" seems to mean "let them know that when we say that celibacy is a requirement, we don't really mean that it is necessary." In effect, then, greater control over Catholic believers is maintained in part by ensuring that information which might cause them to question the decisions of the hierarchy is not publicized too widely.

Like any organization, the Catholic Church depends upon the ability to control followers in order to ensure its survival.

Who Are Married Catholic Priests?

Most married Catholic priests are part of the Eastern Catholic Churches, also known as the Eastern Rite, who can be found in places like the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Ukraine, and other nations along the border between Western and Eastern Christianity. These churches are under the jurisdiction of the Vatican and they recognize the authority of the pope; however, their practices and traditions are much closer to those of the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

One of those traditions is allowing priests to marry.

Some estimates place the number of married priests at around 20% of all Catholic priests in the world. This would mean that 20% of all Catholic priests are officially and legally married, even though celibacy continues to be a requirement.

But marriage is not limited to priests who are part of the Eastern Catholic Churches—we can also find about 100 Catholic priests in America who are married and who are part of the Western Catholicism that comes to mind when most think of Catholicism.

Why are they married? They got married while serving as priests in other Christian denominations, usually the Anglican or Lutheran churches. If such a priest decides that he would be better off within Catholicism, he can apply to a local bishop who then submits a special application to the pope, with decisions being made on a case-by-case basis. If accepted, he is certainly not expected to get divorced or otherwise separate from his spouse, so his wife comes right along as well. This exception to the celibacy rule was created on July 22, 1980.

Thus, a current Catholic priest who wants to get married must choose between marriage and the priesthood (even though celibacy isn't an essential feature of being a priest), while a married Lutheran priest can apply to become a Catholic priest and keep his wife—he doesn't have to choose. Naturally, this causes some hard feelings for those Catholic priests who leave the clergy in order to pursue marriage; yet others are hoping that the presence of such married priests will eventually allow priests who have left to marry to eventually return.

Former priests who marry are currently allowed to do some things for the Catholic Church, but not everything—and with the growing shortage of priests in the United States (the number of priests has declined by 17% since the 1960s, even as the Catholic population has increased 38%), the church may be forced to tap this resource. It's a natural conclusion, after all, because they are experienced and many are eager (and there are around 25,000 of them). That, however, will require dropping mandatory celibacy—it doesn't make any sense to require priests to be celibate if they can get around the rule by simply leaving, marrying, and then coming back.

Will Priests Ever Marry?

The rules about clerical celibacy will not change any time soon. helped ensure this by making great efforts to foster and encourage very conservative forces within the Catholic Church, perhaps with an eye towards preserving his legacy. Pope Benedict XVI certainly didn't shift into a more liberal direction. Then there is the fact that world Catholicism is not as liberal as many think.

We tend to hear the views of American and European Catholics who tend to be more liberal than conservative, but there are many more Catholics in Latin America, Africa, and Asia; their numbers are growing faster than in the northern hemisphere, while their religiosity tends to be much more conservative and charismatic. These Catholics aren't as likely to approve of changes like allowing married men or women to become priests.

If the Catholic hierarchy in the Vatican has to choose between maintaining the celibacy requirement and annoying northern Catholics or abandoning celibacy and annoying the much more numerous southern Catholics, which do you think they will end up going with? Just as the imposition of celibacy was done largely for reasons of political and religious power, the retention of celibacy will probably be decided on for similar reasons.

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Your Citation
Cline, Austin. "Can Catholic Priests Marry?" Learn Religions, Sep. 16, 2021, Cline, Austin. (2021, September 16). Can Catholic Priests Marry? Retrieved from Cline, Austin. "Can Catholic Priests Marry?" Learn Religions. (accessed September 19, 2021).