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Priestly Celibacy: Unnatural? Or…Supernatural? The Biblical Foundations Of Celibacy

December 27, 2013 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


Part 1

Years ago in New Zealand I listened to a talk by Scott Hahn where he told the story of a conversation he had had with a young man from Steubenville University.
The youth has shared his desire to go to the seminary to become a priest. Some time later, the same young man found a lovely young lady on campus and realized that priesthood was no longer for him, since he now wanted to marry his newly found love. Scott’s reply was masterly: If you attend Steubenville where you find a large number of virtuous, Godly young ladies, and you do not fall in love with one of them, there’s definitely something wrong with you!
Scott then proceeded to explain to the young man the purpose and glory of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom. The youth went to the seminary.
And this is the reality: To be a priest one must be a man, a real man, who understands human nature and offers a sacrifice to Heaven for the sake of a higher good: the promotion of the glory of God and the salvation of souls, acting in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, in the imitation of Jesus Christ as perfectly as possible, including in Jesus’ celibacy.
Jesus affirmed that the holiest man born of woman was John the Baptist, the celibate forerunner who preceded Christ our celibate Redeemer. Since the early Church days, men have been called by Jesus to follow in His footsteps in every possible respect. The priest follows Jesus’ counsel to walk the extra mile of celibacy.
Luther abolished celibacy in the church he founded. True, in his day there was much corruption among the clergy — it seems that history has this funny habit of repeating itself — and many priests did not lead a celibate life. I remember one priest in particular, very fond of beer, who made a scandalous marriage, by living with a runaway nun in a convent — Martin Luther himself.
Over the centuries, Luther’s followers of every color and modality disagreed among themselves in many ways because of their individualistic and relativistic interpretations of Scripture, but they also had many things in common — among those stood the abolition of celibacy.
Several times I have come across people who claim to live by the Bible and quote the Bible against the Catholic discipline of celibacy. Their most common quotation is:
“In the last times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to spirits of error, and doctrines of devils, speaking lies in hypocrisy, and having their conscience seared, forbidding to marry, to abstain from meats, which God has created to be received with thanksgiving by the faithful, and by them that have known the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be rejected that is received with thanksgiving: For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:1-4).
When one quotes a text of Scripture out of context, one makes a pretext against the Church, as the saying goes. Those who oppose celibacy based on St. Paul’s teaching fail to appreciate the historical context in which the apostle was writing. As John Henry Newman wrote once, “to know history is to cease to be a Protestant.”
Citing only the Bible without the historical context leads many to ignore the fact that in the early days of the Church there were Gnostic sects attempting to poison the minds of the faithful with their weird doctrines. Among them were the Marcionites, the Encratites, the Manicheans, and other ancient heretics.
In simple terms, many of them believed that there were two principles in the universe: one good and one evil. The good principle created the spiritual beings, whereas the evil principle created the material beings. So, every matter was from the evil principle, whereas spirit was from the good one. Now, since in marriage children are begotten, and children are made of flesh and bones — matter, therefore — marriage was seen as bad because it propagated matter.
Therefore, they forbade their followers to marry and imposed fasts (and possibly even vegetarian practices) as they saw fit. I’ve met some misguided Protestants who saw in these things the origin of celibacy and of Friday fasting in the Catholic Church. They err, not knowing the Scriptures.
In order properly to understand celibacy, one must understand the nature of the Catholic priesthood. This is so because the Priesthood of Jesus Christ is part and parcel of the mystery of salvation.
The Catholic Encyclopaedic Dictionary defines the word priest as coming from the old English preost, from Greek presbyteros, elder. The priest is the minister of divine worship, especially in its highest act, sacrifice. Since a sacrifice is offered in the name of a whole religious society, its minister must be appointed by the competent authority. Thus, priest and sacrifice are correlative terms.
Here is the big difference between the Catholic priest and the Protestant minister: The priest is not a mere president, chairman, facilitator, minister, preacher, leader, elder, etc. No. He is the one who offers sacrifice.
In Scripture we can distinguish three kinds or three stages of priesthood: the natural priesthood, which was common to Adam, Abel, Noah, Abraham, etc; all males, especially the heads of families, were called to offer sacrifice.
Then came the Levitical priesthood, established by Moses and that lasted until the times of Jesus. The priests offered sacrifice in the tabernacle and later in the Temple.
Finally, the sacramental priesthood, instituted by Our Lord Jesus Christ at the Last Supper, when He transubstantiated bread and wine into His Body and Blood while He was alive — thus the Eucharist has also the presence of His Soul and Divinity. He commanded the apostles to “do this in memory of me.” The apostles had to do it precisely as He did, and not in any other way.

A Clean Oblation

In the Book of Genesis we learn that the first man to offer a sacrifice agreeable to God was Abel. According to a very picturesque Hebrew tradition (not Scripture) Adam and Eve had 32 sets of twins over their multi-secular existence. Each set was composed of a boy and a girl, who subsequently married and begot their own children. The only exception was Abel, who was born without a twin sister to marry, and who died a celibate man, whose sacrifice was agreeable to God. Could this be a first hint in Scripture that God our Lord wanted His priests to offer sacrifices agreeable to Him and die celibates?
A second hint about celibacy in the Old Testament is our friend Melchisedech. It is interesting to notice that the word priest (cohen in Hebrew) is mentioned for the first time in Sacred Scripture not in reference to Aaron, but to him, Melchisedech. He was that mysterious priest who did not offer a bloody animal sacrifice but instead offered a clean oblation of bread and wine — the first evident prefigure of the Holy Eucharist (Gen. 14:18).
In the Epistle to the Hebrews (7:1-3) we read: “For this Melchisedech was king of Salem, priest of the most high God, and who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings, and blessed him….Who first indeed by interpretation, is king of justice; and then also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but likened unto the son of God, continues a priest forever.”
Melchisedech was a “priest of the most high,” the first true Cohen in Salvation History, who imparted a priestly blessing in God’s name and who was a man with no recorded family — a celibate? Here is a second hint of how God the Father would be pleased with a celibate clergy in the future.
The messianic Psalm 109 prefigures the everlasting priesthood of Jesus: “Thou art a priest forever according to the order of Melchisedech”— not the order of Aaron, who was married and offered animal sacrifice, but the order of Melchisedech, who was probably celibate and offered bread and wine.
In the next article we’ll take as look at other hints about celibacy during the Levitical priesthood, which started on Mount Sinai.

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(Raymond de Souza is director of the Evangelization and Apologetics Office of the Winona Diocese, Minn.; an 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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