The Continuity of the Catholic Church
It may occur to the reader, inasmuch as the celibacy of Catholic priests is an ecclesiastical practice, being disciplinary in character rather than doctrinal, that it does not belong in a discussion of the continuity and constancy of Catholic teachings. Unfortunately, the opponents of the Church have elevated it to the status of a doctrine, and a wholly false one at that; they have thus made a reply necessary. As a matter of fact, in no other respect has the misunderstanding of the Church been more pronounced than with the subject of celibacy. Inasmuch, therefore, as it is offered as proof of the corruption of the Gospel and a departure from the intentions of our Lord, I am consistent with my declared purpose in defending it.
Before being ordained, the aspirants to the priesthood, assembled before the ordaining bishop, are warned that they must forsake the ordinary interests and pursuits of the world, including marriage and family, in order to give themselves wholly to the service of God and His Church. They may step back if they wish. But if they step forward and make the promise, they know that it will bind them in conscience for life. Although not a doctrine in the strictest sense, the practice of celibacy stems from the teachings of our Lord and His Apostles. It is the logical expression of New Testament ideals.
The condemnation of celibacy proceeds from two assumptions, first, that it is contrary to nature and, second, that it is contrary to divine revelation. Concerning nature, it is pointed out that the perpetuation of the human family depends upon the co-operation of men and women in their response to sex attractions. It is alleged that failure so to respond is an offence against nature.
Let me call attention to the difference between contrary to nature and rising above it. The direct taking of life, of one's own or that of another, is contrary to nature; so, likewise is the direct mutilation of the body; so is adultery, theft, falsehood. All these acts are rightly condemned. On the other hand, rising above nature is a commendable part of the daily lives of most of us. When you are tired and weary, nature beckons us to sleep. But because you have work which must be completed at the moment you refuse to retire. When you are hungry, the natural response is to satisfy yourself with food. But you may refuse to eat in order to feed a neighbor who is likely to starve. You deny yourself food on certain days as designated by your religion as a matter of unselfishness and penance. The soldier in battle, knowing that he may be killed at any moment, is tempted to run away. Yet he risks and gives his life because of patriotism and military obedience. A noteworthy illustration of what I mean was that of Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian political leader who went on hunger strike in order to attract publicity and sympathy for the political cause to which he was devoted. All such conduct is rising above nature.
It is similar with the aspirant to the priesthood. He wishes to serve God and the Church with all his energies and resources. This can best be done by his remaining unmarried. He is not acting contrary to nature; he is rising above it.
Concerning divine revelation, it is pointed out that God spoke to the first parents of the human family and told them to increase and multiply. The inference is drawn that God imposed a duty binding the conscience of every adult to marry and procreate. Need I remind the critics that God said the same to the birds and fishes who, obviously, have no consciences? Furthermore, if all adults were bound by a divine command to procreate, as alleged, every unmarried student in our colleges and universities is now living in sin. It is to such absurdities that the argument against celibacy is reduced.
The natural impulses and desires moving men and women to seek each other for procreation are so strong that no encouragement or command from God is needed. Precisely to the contrary, what is needed is constant restraint in the opposite direction. Men and women need all the protection which civilised society can build around them in order to remain chaste and pure; they need the daily help of God's grace. And yet, even in the best communities, note how often raw nature breaks through!
A second text of the Scriptures was quoted publicly a few years ago by a distinguished spokesman of a non-Catholic religious group. Although it was an isolated and wholly unprecedented reference it may have been taken seriously by some of the hearers. The words of St. Paul were quoted: "let the bishop be of one wife." The amazing interpretation was that St. Paul passed onto every priest and bishop a divine command to marry. The reply is simplicity itself. St. Paul, a bishop, was unmarried; not only that, but he advised others not to marry.
Is there any question about St. Paul's meaning? During the Apostolic generation many of the Christians were adult converts. Most of them were married. It was from these, as a matter of necessity, that the Church drew her bishops and priests. If and when a bishop's wife died and he was left a widower, he was instructed by St. Paul not to remarry. This is the only possible interpretation of the text; it has been so understood by Scripture scholars from the beginning. Far from being an argument in favor of compulsory marriage, it shows Apostolic approval of celibacy.
One more observation is called for. At least two of the Apostles of our Lord were unmarried, St. John and St. Paul. I am well aware that recently an official of a non-Catholic religious group made the incredible statement that St. Paul was married. He seems not to have read St. Paul's own words: "For I would that all men were as I myself...I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them to abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry" (1 Cor. 7:7- 9). The meaning surely is obvious. Our blessed Lord even talked about men who became eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven (Matt. 19:12) and he also promised followers who gave up wife and family for his sake, a one hundred fold reward.
That most or all the other Apostles were married is no argument against celibacy. It proves that there was no law, natural or divine, requiring them to be celibates. The only argument can be based on the Apostles' record is precisely in the opposite direction. That two Apostles did not marry is proof that there was no natural or divine law compelling marriage. It follows from their example, therefore, that the Catholic Church is free to require celibacy of her priests.
Come back now to my statement that celibacy for ministers of the Gospel is the logical expression of the New Testament ideals. Adding textual proof to that already given, I quote again from St. Paul: "He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife" (1 Cor. 7:32-33). Is there any other possible interpretation other than that St. Paul approved and encouraged the celibate life?
This advice is paralleled for women, for those who would serve God in a special manner. Again from St. Paul, writing about a father and daughter: "So then he that giveth her in marriage doeth well; but he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better" (1 Cor. 7:38). And once more from the same Apostle: "There is a difference between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit; but she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband" (1 Cor. 7:34).
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