Why celibacy is a prerequisite for ordained priesthood



My wife and I recently came into communion with the Roman Catholic Church. I know that a hot-button topic in the Church is the question of whether there should be married priests. I have slowly come to the belief that unmarried priests make logical and biblical sense.

Seeing how hard our own parish priest works, it doesn’t seem that he would also have the time to care for a family, and I have read the biblical reasoning in Matthew 19:12 and Paul’s guidance in First Corinthians. But my question is this: How does the Catholic Church reconcile this teaching with the fact that the chief apostle and first pope, St. Peter, was married? (Camden, North Carolina)


In the Latin-rite (Roman) Catholic Church, celibacy is today a prerequisite for ordination to the priesthood. But that has not always been so; it is a discipline that developed over history. (Even today, clerics of Eastern-rite Catholic churches are permitted to marry before ordination.) For the first several centuries of the Christian era, it was common for Latin-rite priests to marry.

As you mention, St. Peter was obviously married, since Luke 4:38 tells the story of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law. And St. Paul says in his First Letter to Timothy 3:2 that “a bishop must be irreproachable, married only once, temperate, self-controlled.”

But over time, the Church came to the realization — as you yourself suggest — that a priest is most free to serve the people and his ministry by not having the responsibility of a family, and it was the First Lateran Council in 1123 that finally mandated celibacy for Western clergy.

That requirement, and the practical reason behind it, are reflected in the current Code of Canon Law: “Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and therefore are bound to celibacy which is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and are able to dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and humanity” (Canon 277).

Further evidence, though, of the fact that clerical celibacy is not a revealed truth but a matter of Church law can be found in the fact that, in the United States, several dozen Episcopal and Lutheran married clergy who became Catholic have been allowed to be ordained as Roman Catholic priests while still remaining married.


I recall some time ago a change in the language of the creed we say at Sunday Mass to make it more inclusive. The new phrases were things like “For us and for our salvation” and “was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became one of us.” I realized recently, though, that our parish no longer uses this newer language and has gone back to “for us men” and “became man.”

When was it decided to revert to the older language? Or perhaps the inclusive language was not universal — in my case, perhaps it started at the parish of the university I attended. (Lansdale, Pennsylvania)


The phrases that you quote — “for us and for our salvation” and “became one of us” — are “homemade versions” of the language of the Nicene Creed and have never enjoyed any official status. My guess is that the priest at the university parish you attended crafted that wording himself, so as not to offend any members of the congregation.

The actual text — as approved for use at Mass and as it appears in the Catechism of the Catholic Church — is the following: “For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”

Should it be of any comfort to you, as I have mentioned before in this column, the Latin word from which the English is translated — “homines” — is generic; it means “person” or “human being,” not “member of the male sex.”

But the average participant at Mass can’t be expected to know this, and so I look forward to the day when the Mass text in English will reflect more clearly that wider meaning. Meanwhile, I often choose to use instead the Apostles’ Creed, which is a permissible liturgical alternative and whose language cannot be misunderstood as exclusive.

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