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Re:In defence of celibacy: ‘He who refrains from marriage ‘ll do better’

By Prof. Michael Ogunu
Writing under the caption ‘Is Celibacy Still Necessary for Catholic Priests?,’ published in the Saturday Vanguard of July 25, 2009, Chioma Gabriel, Deputy Editor of the paper argues that the vow of celibacy taken by Catholic priests has no concrete basis within the scripture and should therefore be made “a choice, not a rule….”

This suggestion seems strange as the writer (Chioma Gabriel) had earlier acknowledged in the article that “there is no obligation on anyone to become a priest, even after successfully completing all the required studies”. In other words, no one is forced to become a celibate priest.

Cardinal-Okogie
Cardinal-Okogie

Celibacy is not popular _ it never has been. In our modern world, so overrun with pre_marital and extra_marital promiscuity, homosexuality and other sexual vices, the gift of consecrated celibacy is even more misunderstood and scorned than ever before.

Consecrated celibacy is described by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a giving of oneself entirely to God and to the Church, a “sign of this new life to the service of which the Church’s minister is consecrated; accepted with a joyous heart, celibacy radiantly proclaims the Reign of God” (CCC 1579). This means that celibacy is something that is _ a) freely chosen,( b) a sign to others about the Kingdom of God, and ( c) a way of better serving the Church.

Chioma argues that celibacy seems to have “no concrete basis in scripture”. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Fundamentalists and others who have axe to grind with the Church will tell you that celibacy has no basis in the Bible , saying that Christians are called to “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). This mandate speaks for humanity in general, however, and does not necessarily contradict the numerous passages in the Bible that support the celibacy.

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul endorses celibacy for those capable of it: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self_control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (7:8_9).

It is only because of this “temptation to immorality” (7:2) that Paul gives the teaching about each man and woman having a spouse and giving each other their “conjugal rights” (7:3); he specifically clarifies, “I say this by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another” (7:6_7, emphasis added).

Paul even goes on to make a case for preferring celibacy to marriage: “Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage. . . those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. . . . The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.

And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband” (7:27_34).
Paul’s conclusion: He who marries “does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better” (7:38).

Paul was not the first apostle to conclude that celibacy is, in some sense, “better” than marriage. After Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19 on divorce and remarriage, the disciples exclaimed, “If such is the case between a man and his wife, it is better not to marry” (Matt 19:10). This remark prompted Jesus’ teaching on the value of celibacy “for the sake of the kingdom”:

“Not all can accept this word, but only those to whom it is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of God. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it” (Matt. 19:11_12).

Notice that this sort of celibacy “for the sake of the kingdom” is a gift, a call that is not granted to all. Other people are called to marriage. It is true that too often individuals in both vocations fall short of the requirements of their state, but this does not diminish either vocation, nor does it mean that the individuals in question were “not really called” to that vocation.

The sin of a priest doesn’t necessarily prove that he never should have taken a vow of celibacy, any more than the sin of a married man or woman proves that he or she never should have gotten married. It is possible for us to fall short of our own true calling.

Celibacy is neither unnatural nor unbiblical. “Be fruitful and multiply” is not binding upon every individual; rather, it is a general precept for the human race. Otherwise, every unmarried man and woman of marrying age would be in a state of sin by remaining single, and Jesus and Paul would be guilty of advocating sin as well as committing it.

Perhaps the best evidence for the scriptural support of celibacy is that Jesus Himself practiced it.

Chioma Gabriel, like most people, assumes that the celibate priesthood is a convention introduced by the Church fairly late in history. On the contrary, there is evidence that even the earliest Church fathers, such as St. Augustine, St. Cyril, and St. Jerome, fully supported the celibate priesthood.

The Spanish Council of Elvira (between 295 and 302) and the First Council of Aries (314), a kind of general council of the West, both enacted legislation forbidding all bishops, priests, and deacons to have conjugal relations with their wives on penalty of exclusion from the clergy.

Even the wording of these documents suggests that the councils were not introducing a new rule but rather maintaining a previously established tradition. In 385, Pope Siricius issued the first papal decree on the subject, saying that “clerical continence” was a tradition reaching as far back asChioma argues that celibacy somehow causes, or at least correlates with higher incidence of illicit sexual behaviour or perversion and that allowing priests to marry would end alleged sexual immorality by priests.

It is completely untrue that celibate priests are more likely to be guilty of sexual immorality than any other groups of men, married or not. Take for example the case of pedophilia. In the United States which he cited so often in her article, pedophilia affects only 0.3 percent of the population of the Catholic clergy, and sexual abusers in general account for less than 2 percent of Catholic priests.

These figures are comparable to rates among married men, as non_Catholic scholar Philip Jerkins points out in his book, Pedophiles and Priests. Protestant denominations have admitted to having similar problems among their own married clergy; the problem, therefore, is not with celibacy.

The idea that it is unnatural for men to be celibate as . Chioma’ argument reduces men to animals, creatures who can’t live without their sexual urges being gratified. But human beings are not animals. Men make choices about the gratification of their appetites. We can control and channel our desires in a way that sets us apart from the rest of the animal world.

And again, most sexual abusers are not celibate. It’s sexual license that breeds sexual abuse, not celibacy!
The Catholic Church forbids no one to marry. No one is required to take a vow of celibacy; those who do, do so voluntarily.

They “renounce marriage” (Matt. 19:12); no one forbids it to them. Any Catholic who doesn’t wish to take such a vow doesn’t have to. The Church simply elects candidates for the priesthood (or, in the Eastern rites, for the episcopacy) from among those who voluntarily renounce marriage.

Finally, celibacy is an eschatological sign to the Church, a living_out in the present of the universal celibacy of heaven: “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30).
*Professor Michael Ogunu is of the Faculty of Education, University of Benin. He is a Catholic writer and a Knight of St. Mulumba.


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