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Priestly Celibacy: Unnatural? Or . . . Supernatural? Celibacy In The Teachings Of St. Paul

January 18, 2014 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


Part 4

St. Paul was not one of the twelve, but he is known as “the Apostle,” certainly because of the richness of his apostolic zeal in teaching, possibly more than all the other apostles put together. He was educated in the faith by Jesus Himself, and after that intense training, he became as zealous as the fiery prophet Elias — who wouldn’t, after spending years alone with Jesus in a monastic atmosphere receiving His teachings?
St. Paul understood very well the distinction between commandment and counsel, taking from Jesus’ exhortation to the rich young man to leave everything and follow Him. Jesus said: “if” you will be perfect. It was a counsel, not a commandment.
Some people in Corinth had asked him about various things, including on chastity and celibacy. St. Paul replied:
“Now concerning the things you wrote to me about: It is good for a man not to touch a woman” (1 Cor. 7:1).
Stop right here, St. Paul! What on earth are you talking about? Weren’t you the same man who wrote to the Ephesians praising marriage to the skies? Didn’t you compare marriage with the union between Christ and the Church, “a great sacrament,” etc., etc? How can you now turn around and say that it is good for a man not to touch a woman? Do you want to make all of us celibates? The Church will die out in a couple of generations for lack of children!
St. Paul ignores my objection and continues; “But for fear of fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. . . . Defraud not one another, except, perhaps, by consent, for a time, that you may give yourselves to prayer. And return together again, lest Satan tempt you for your incontinency [periodic abstinence]. But I speak this by indulgence, not by commandment.”
Okay, that makes things clear: celibacy is a state of perfection for some, not a commandment for all. And even within marriage, St. Paul recommends periodic continence.
But he returns with his exhortation to celibacy: “For I would that all men were even as myself: but everyone has his proper gift from God; one after this manner, and another after that.”
See how he insists on telling people to follow on his footsteps of celibacy? Does he by any chance wish that all men were as celibates as he was? He’s really pushing it too far, isn’t he?
In 1 Cor. 11:1 he openly says, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Come on, St. Paul: Do be reasonable! Christ was celibate! And He praised marriage!
The former Zealot goes on to exhort the unmarried to remain celibate and the widows not to remarry: “But I say to the unmarried, and to the widows: It is good for them if they so continue, even as I.”
But in the end he admits that they can marry if they so wish: “But if they do not contain themselves, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to be burnt” (1 Cor. 7:1-9).
The reader will forgive me if this article contains mainly quotations from St. Paul, but what else can I do but cite in full the Apostle of celibacy par excellence?
He goes on to emphasize the distinction between the commandment and the counsel:
“Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God. Now concerning virgins, I have no commandment of the Lord; but I give counsel, as having obtained mercy from the Lord, to be faithful. I think therefore that it is good for the present necessity, that it is good for a man so to be. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you take a wife, you have not sinned. And if a virgin marry, she has not sinned” (1 Cor 7:24-27).
The Corinthians certainly receive a great teaching from St. Paul on celibacy. He goes to describe the situation of a man who is unmarried and exclusively dedicated to the service of God, as a priest is expected to be, without any solicitude or concerns outside of his mission:
“But I would have you to be without solicitude. He that is without a wife, is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God. But he that is with a wife, is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife: and he is divided.”
Here we see how the discipline of celibacy is most suitable for the priesthood of Jesus Christ. He then refers to young women who are considering their vocation, either to be consecrated to God or to marry: “And the unmarried woman and the virgin think of the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit. But she that is married thinks of the things of the world, how she may please her husband. And this I speak for your profit: not to cast a snare upon you; but for that which is decent, and which may give you power to attend upon the Lord, without impediment.”
He concludes his teaching by giving to widows a counsel, not a commandment, to remain unmarried:
“A woman is bound by the law as long as her husband lives; but if her husband dies, she is at liberty: let her marry whom she will; only in the Lord. But more blessed shall she be, if she so remain, according to my counsel; and I think that I also have the spirit of God” (1 Cor. 7:32-40).
This last sentence does suggest — and strongly so — that St. Paul’s very precise teaching on virginity, chastity, and celibacy are inspired by the Holy Spirit, the very Soul of the Mystical Body of Christ.
An interesting question to deal with here is the discipline about digamy: A married priest becomes a widower: Should he be allowed to marry again and still remain a priest?
Tertullian defended the monogamist view, that is, that a priest or a bishop of the early church who becomes a widower must remain celibate:
“Peter alone [among the apostles] do I find married, and though mention of his mother-in-law. I presume he was a monogamist. For the Church, built upon him, would for the future appoint to every degree of orders none but monogamists” (On Monogamy, post AD 213).
Where did he get this discipline from? None other than St. Paul: “It behooves a bishop to be blameless, the husband of one wife, sober, prudent, of good behavior, chaste, given to hospitality, a teacher, not given to wine, no striker, but modest, not quarrelsome, not covetous, but one that rules well his own house, having his children in subjection with all chastity. But if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?” (1 Tim. 3:1-5).
The same discipline applied to deacons: “Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, who rule well their children, and their own houses” (1 Tim. 3:12).
Next article: The faith of the Early Christians.

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(Raymond de Souza is director of the Evangelization and Apologetics Office of the Winona Diocese, Minn.; EWTN program host; regional coordinator for Portuguese-speaking countries for Human Life International [HLI], president of the Sacred Heart Institute and a member of the Sovereign, Military, and Hospitaller Order of the Knights of Malta. His web site is:

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