Celibacy - A Personal Choice or Requirement? 

Today the issue of celibacy is a popular topic with both the uninformed and the opinionated. In the United States as well as in many nations around the globe, the Catholic Church has had to face very serious issues of child sexual abuse allegations and convictions. Some connect the alleged crimes to the church’s practice of celibacy. The thinking is that somehow celibacy creates pent-up sexual frustration that is then released through criminal conduct.

However, while the child sexual abuse allegations are very serious and no child should be subjected to abuse, there is no evidence I have found that priests are more likely to abuse children than are other groups of men. The Center for Sex Offender Management (CSOM) has stated repeatedly that there is no profile of a typical sex offender. (32)  If that is true, then child sex offenders can be male or female, married, divorced, or single. Research indicates that the majority of the offenders are minors themselves, typically older boys preying on younger boys and girls. It follows, therefore, that only a very small percentage of these sex offenders would be frustrated because of celibacy.

The news reports of clergy sexual abuse, just like other stories of infidelity, theft, power struggles, or any kind of abuse within the church, have wounded the church and created a blemish on the desirability of a career or vocational calling to the priesthood. Many people believe that celibacy has contributed greatly to the decline in the number of priests.

In total the number of Catholic priests in the United States dropped from nearly 59,000 in 1975 to about 41,500 last year. (33) These issues, coupled with other demographic and macro trends in the Catholic Church, have led to a serious decline in the number of men going into the priesthood. The requirement of celibate priests in the church is ancient, meaning the advocacy of celibacy for both priests and monks dates back centuries. The picture at the beginning of this chapter is of Origen, who was born at the end of the second century in Alexandria, Egypt. The Alexandrian school was one of the first advocates of monastic living, including a very ascetic lifestyle that was void of all material comforts. Origen was famous for being a devoted Christian, an early theologian, a heretic, and an early advocate for celibacy (not all at the same time). So passionate was he about his own celibacy that he reportedly castrated himself.

The celibacy of the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church is a discipline, not a doctrine. This means it can be changed, though there doesn’t seem to be much movement at the top indicating it will change anytime soon. The defi nition of celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church is also slightly different in that it strictly refers to the requirement that their priests remain unmarried. This is not at all to indicate that the Roman Catholic Church is not interested in purity or chastity, as there are vows that all priests take regarding the sins of the fl esh. There has been much research into the origins of the celibate priest movement. Most of the apostles were married, Peter was married, and seven popes were married. Likely the teachings of Gnosticism that material things and sexual relations even in marriage were evil led to the teachings on celibacy.

The first recorded requirement of celibacy was issued at the Synod of Elvira (circa AD 305–306). This same synod also issued injunctions against the use of any pictures inside the church “so that they do not become objects of worship and adoration” and that “candles are not to be burned in a cemetery during the day.” (34) It was not unusual for many of the councils to have injunctions or proclamations that were later reversed or even considered heresy. For example, just a few years after Elvira, Constantine called the First Ecumenical Council of the church, with many bishops in attendance from both the East and the West. At this council in AD 325, officially called the Council of Nicaea, there was a discussion on clerical celibacy. The council disagreed with the requirements handed down by the Synod of Elvira. They agreed with the Egyptian bishop—St. Paphnutius, the confessor of Thebes—who argued successfully that celibacy should be only a matter of personal choice and not a requirement.

Church clergy remained married without any restrictions until Pope Pelagious II (AD 579–590) issued a series of proclamations regarding celibacy that were designed primarily to stop property from being transferred from clergy to children. However, this papal proclamation was often ignored. It was not until the Second Lateran Council in AD 1139 that the Latin (Western) Rite of the Catholic Church decided to accept people for ordination only after they had taken a promise of celibacy.

The Eastern Orthodox Church continues to follow the thinking of St. Paphnutius. To this day about 90 percent of all Orthodox clerics are married.

The text above is from pages 104-108 in Celibacy- A Personal Choice or Requirement?- Chapter 19 of "Roaming Catholics" Picture at top is of Rev. Alberto Cutié, former Roman Catholic Priest. 


Was Peter the first Pope? Should Christians pray the Rosary?  Should priests be married?  These are among the provocative topics addressed in Roaming Catholics: Ending the wandering to embrace the wonder" 

This thoroughly researched book presents the development of the Catholic Church in an engaging way to help Christians understand their common history shared by all.  The apostle Paul referred to the church as the "Body of Christ," not the "Body of Christians."   Rather than Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female he proclaimed we are to be one in Christ. 

Pastor and theologian Kenneth Behr shares his own religious evolution from a Catholic altar boy to an evangelical pastor and engages readers with a parallel story of the evolution of Catholicism. 

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