One of the most significant and contentious issues under discussion during the Catholic Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazonian Region, held in October 2019, was the question of whether to allow married men in that region to become priests. The reason for this consideration is the significant shortage of priests among indigenous people groups in the Amazon region. Due to the shortage, many indigenous Catholics in that region are unable to regularly celebrate the Mass and receive other forms of pastoral care. After months of reflection, Pope Francis responded to the synod in Querida Amazonía without directly addressing the issue of allowing married men to become priests, thus leaving the current expectation of clerical celibacy unchanged.
What Scripture Says
The Bible affirms the value of celibacy for both lay Christians and church leaders, most notably in 1 Corinthians 7. In this passage, Paul speaks of his own unmarried state (vv. 7–8) and commends celibacy as a way to focus on pleasing the Lord (vv. 32–35). Paul emphasizes the liberty unmarried Christians have in contrast to the obligations married Christians have to their families. Paul’s reference to avoiding entanglement in “civilian affairs” in 2 Timothy 2:4 is also thought to refer, at least in part, to singleness and celibacy. It is important to note that, alongside its discussion of celibacy, 1 Corinthians 7 also clearly affirms Christian marriage. Further, multiple passages of Scripture speak directly about married church leaders, including specific instructions about married bishops or overseers (1 Tim. 3:2), elders (Titus 1:6), and deacons (1 Tim. 3:12).
Celibacy in Church History
Priestly celibacy was discussed and debated by Christian leaders during the earliest centuries of the church, including at the Council of Nicaea. While some at that time upheld celibacy as an ideal state for clergy, others opposed requiring it. Bishop Paphnutius (who was himself unmarried) opposed placing that expectation upon church leaders, saying “too heavy a yoke ought not to be laid upon the clergy,” and that “marriage and married intercourse are of themselves honorable and undefiled.” Within Eastern Orthodoxy, the Council in Trullo (A.D. 625) affirmed that men who were already married could be ordained to the priesthood, though unmarried priests could not marry after ordination. Within Catholicism, clerical celibacy continued to be viewed as ideal by many, and various ecclesial rulings in the early centuries of Christendom supported this view. The expectation that Catholic priests be celibate was clarified and more strictly enforced beginning in the 11th century under Pope Gregory VII. After the Reformation, many Protestant leaders (notably Martin Luther) affirmed marriage and family life for clergy.
Why Catholic Priests are Celibate
A primary reason Catholic priests are unmarried and celibate is the Catholic belief that a priest acts in persona Christi—that he acts “in the person of” or as a representation of Christ. Because Jesus was unmarried, priests are to model themselves after Christ’s example. The Catechism of the Catholic Church further expounds that priests are “called to consecrate themselves with undivided heart to the Lord and to ‘the affairs of the Lord,’ [1 Cor. 7:32]” in order that they can “give themselves entirely to God and to men.” The Catechism emphasizes that this priestly celibacy “radiantly proclaims the Reign of God.”
Not All Priests are Celibate
Today, it is important to note that within Eastern Catholic rites married men are commonly ordained as priests; the emphasis on priestly singleness and celibacy is found primarily within the Latin (or Western) rite of the Catholic church. In some rare cases, the Latin rite also allows married men to become priests if they previously served as ministers within specific Protestant denominations prior to their conversion to Catholicism.
CT on Priestly Celibacy
Christianity Today has examined the topic of clerical celibacy in a variety of ways throughout the years. Here are some of our most important articles on this topic:
In this 1969 editorial, CT reflected upon Paul’s teachings about celibacy and marriage in 1 Corinthians 7, posing important questions for both Protestants and Catholics. The topic of priestly celibacy was covered many times in CT during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, in part due to a 1971 Catholic synod that discussed the possibility of ordaining married men in Latin America. You can read some of CT’s coverage of priests speaking out against celibacy here, as well as our coverage of the 1971 synod here and here.
While the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 primarily focused on discussing Christ’s divine nature and confronting the heresy of Arianism, church leaders also discussed a variety of other issues, including clerical celibacy. This article explains why the council decided not to require it.
Here, historian Bruce L. Shelley explores various visions of pastoral leadership throughout church history, including a discussion of clerical celibacy and monastacism in the fourth century and beyond.
This 1983 article describes Martin Luther’s transition from celibate monk to married man and father, detailing some of his teachings regarding marriage.
In 2002, CT published two editorials related to this topic. “A Preventable Tragedy” comments on child sexual abuse in both Catholic and Protestant settings, refuting the idea of directly linking celibacy to abuse. “Two Cheers for Celibacy” further addresses the sexual abuse of minors, as well as the problem of noncelibate homosexual clergy within the U.S. Catholic church. It makes the case for allowing marriage within the priesthood while continuing to affirm the value of clerical celibacy.
CT’s fall 2019 Quick to Listen podcast featured an episode discussing the Amazonian Synod, including the Pope’s consideration of allowing married priests among the Amazon’s indigeonous people groups.
Here, Protestant pastor Kenneth Tanner shares his own reflections on the unique nature of Pope Francis’ approach to ministry, including his views on celibacy, his vision for active ministry, and his dedication to the poor.
In this piece, Terri Williams discusses 1 Corinthians 7 as she reflects on the value of celibacy for single Christians and advocates that celibacy be honored in the church.
While celibacy is required for Latin-rite Catholic priests, many Protestant churches have an unspoken opposite expectation: that their pastors be married. In this two-part series, Mark Almie provides a Protestant case for valuing and honoring the ministry of unmarried, celibate pastors. Almie notes that “For the first 1,500 years of church history, singleness, not marriage, was lauded as next to godliness. Let me say that again—for the first fifteen hundred years.”