Monday, March 11, 2013

Will New Pope End Chastity Requirement?

Celibacy is one of those religion-tinged issues that won’t die down.  The Roman Catholic Church has been earnestly trying to make priests into eunuchs for centuries, but every now and then, someone questions the concept.  They never got very far.  The Church has remained adamant that its clergy should pretend sex does not exist.

The need for a new pope has encouraged opponents of celibacy to raise the issue again.  They have some strong points.

For starters, the Church didn’t always require celibacy.  St. Peter, Jesus’ lead disciple, was married.  So were many of the early fathers of the faith.  They had to be.  They were Jewish, and that religion believes in the “be fruitful and multiply” directive in Genesis.

In fact, the folks who devised Catholicism would have been ignored if they weren’t married.  That’s one of the concepts behind the novel, The Da Vinci Code, which proposes that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.

Historically, a late 4th century council finally decreed that "Bishops, presbyters, deacons, and others with a position in the ministry are to abstain completely from sexual intercourse with their wives and from the procreation of children. If anyone disobeys, he shall be removed from the clerical office.”

Clergy could be married, just not sexually active. 

That decision was, naturally, ignored.  In the 11th and 12 centuries, Church officials were constantly complaining about priests with families.  Finally, in 1123, the First Lateran Council issued the following laws: 

Canon 3: We absolutely forbid priests, deacons, and subdeacons to associate with concubines and women, or to live with women other than such as the Nicene Council (canon 3) for reasons of necessity permitted, namely, the mother, sister, or aunt, or any such person concerning whom no suspicion could arise.

Canon 21: We absolutely forbid priests, deacons, subdeacons, and monks to have concubines or to contract marriage. We decree in accordance with the definitions of the sacred canons, that marriages already contracted by such persons must be dissolved, and that the persons be condemned to do penance.

Despite that, marriage only became a complete block to priesthood starting with the 1917 Code of Canon Law.

Katharine von Bora, Luther's wife
The Church may want celibate priests, but human nature continually trumped religious intentions.  Sex has long been a great inducement for anything.  For example, Martin Luther almost immediately married a former nun (right) after leaving the Church and founding the Protestant movement.

He wrote later: "There is no more lovely, friendly, and charming relationship, communion, or company than a good marriage."

Then, too, the Church is coping with fewer priests.  Young men simply aren’t giving up the opportunity to have a family and children in the same numbers as before in order to distribute Communion.  From 1976 to 2010, according to the Vatican’s own statistics, the number of priests increased by just 1.8 percent while the religion added 59 percent more followers.

As a result, thousands of churches are missing priests to officiate over the sacramental duties.  To make matters worse, a large percentage of existing priests are in Europe, but most Catholics live elsewhere.

The Vatican is also coping with the reality that a large percentage of the remaining Catholic clergy are gay.  That’s only natural, considering that the men in a profession that doesn’t allow marriage are more likely not to be interested in marriage.   There are no statistics – few gay priests are likely to emerge from a closet any time soon – but the issue has been the subject of an internal Vatican report.

Married Anglican priest John Fleming
As a final note, the Church does allow married clergy. Mergers with the Anglican Church, among others, have meant the Church has added married clergy.  Those priests were allowed to stay with their wives.  In addition, in South America, where an unmarried man is not considered fit to counsel anyone, the Church permits clergy to marry. A bishop in Argentina left his position, married and founded the Movement of Married Priests and their Families in the 1960s.  The group now has links throughout the continent.

Under the circumstances, the Church finds itself in the awkward position of maintaining a rule that is not applied equally and is often ignored.  Nevertheless, it continues to argue for celibacy, quoting the New Testament texts that seem apropos, ironically using the same technique that opponents used in the early church while arguing on behalf of married priests.

A solution may be to make chastity a voluntary option.  After all, the ban on eating meat on Fridays was changed from compulsory to optional.  Allowing priests to marry is a vastly more significant issue, but at least there’s precedent to change a time-honored mandate.

The new pope will have the chance to introduce the change, culminating long years of effort to change an outdated priestly requirement.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

No comments:

Post a Comment