By Prof. Michael Ogunu
Writing under the caption â€˜Is Celibacy Still Necessary for Catholic Priests?,â€™ 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 â€œa choice, not a ruleâ€¦.â€
This suggestion seems strange as the writer (Chioma Gabriel) had earlier acknowledged in the article that â€œthere is no obligation on anyone to become a priest, even after successfully completing all the required studiesâ€. In other words, no one is forced to become a celibate priest.
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 â€œsign of this new life to the service of which the Churchâ€™s minister is consecrated; accepted with a joyous heart, celibacy radiantly proclaims the Reign of Godâ€ (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 â€œno concrete basis in scriptureâ€. 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 â€œBe fruitful and multiplyâ€ (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: â€œTo 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 passionâ€ (7:8_9).
It is only because of this â€œtemptation to immoralityâ€ (7:2) that Paul gives the teaching about each man and woman having a spouse and giving each other their â€œconjugal rightsâ€ (7:3); he specifically clarifies, â€œI 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 anotherâ€ (7:6_7, emphasis added).
Paul even goes on to make a case for preferring celibacy to marriage: â€œAre 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 husbandâ€ (7:27_34).
Paulâ€™s conclusion: He who marries â€œdoes well; and he who refrains from marriage will do betterâ€ (7:38).
Paul was not the first apostle to conclude that celibacy is, in some sense, â€œbetterâ€ than marriage. After Jesusâ€™ teaching in Matthew 19 on divorce and remarriage, the disciples exclaimed, â€œIf such is the case between a man and his wife, it is better not to marryâ€ (Matt 19:10). This remark prompted Jesusâ€™ teaching on the value of celibacy â€œfor the sake of the kingdomâ€:
â€œNot 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 itâ€ (Matt. 19:11_12).
Notice that this sort of celibacy â€œfor the sake of the kingdomâ€ 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 â€œnot really calledâ€ to that vocation.
The sin of a priest doesnâ€™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. â€œBe fruitful and multiplyâ€ 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 â€œclerical continenceâ€ 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 . Chiomaâ€™ argument reduces men to animals, creatures who canâ€™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. Itâ€™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 â€œrenounce marriageâ€ (Matt. 19:12); no one forbids it to them. Any Catholic who doesnâ€™t wish to take such a vow doesnâ€™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: â€œFor in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heavenâ€ (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.