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Where in the Bible Does It Say Anything About Priestly Celibacy?

Father Lawrence Lew, OP-cc
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Apologetics 101: Answering Your Questions About the Faith

Question: Where in the Bible does it say anything about priestly celibacy? I have a friend who says that the Catholic Church is going contrary to the Bible by requiring celibacy for its priests.

Answer: There are two main Scripture passages that I turn to for support of the Church’s teaching on priestly celibacy. The first of these is Matthew 19:12, “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.”

When Jesus says that there are those who have “made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven,” He is speaking figuratively, not literally. He is referring to those who live a celibate life in order to better serve the kingdom of heaven. Who do we know who fulfills these words of Christ? Who do we know that has taken a vow of celibacy — who has made themselves eunuchs — for the sake of the kingdom of heaven? Baptist ministers? Evangelical pastors? Episcopal priests? No, no, and no. No slight intended to the aforementioned ministers, but Catholic priests are the only ones I know of who fulfill these particular words of Jesus.

Here in Matthew 19:12, we see Jesus Christ saying something that applies most directly to Catholic priests. So, the discipline of priestly celibacy — and it is a discipline, not a doctrine — is indeed biblical. Now, the other Scripture passage I mentioned in support of priestly celibacy is 1 Corinthians 7:32-34, “I want you to be free from anxieties. 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.”

Paul is telling us that one can best serve the Lord, and His people, by remaining unmarried. Not to say that you cannot serve the Lord while married, but rather to say that you can be more single-minded in serving the Lord if unmarried. It is simply a matter of common sense that when a person is single, they have more time to be about the affairs of the Lord then they do when they are married, and certainly when they are married and have children. The married man is indeed anxious, as Paul says, about worldly affairs and his interests are indeed divided.

So, in 1 Corinthians 7, we have another passage from the Bible that supports the practice of priestly celibacy. For those who argue against the Catholic Church’s practice in this regard by saying it is unbiblical, what they are actually doing is showing their lack of knowledge in regard to what Scripture really says. 

It is also worth noting that a life of celibacy — priestly or otherwise — is a sign pointing to the hereafter. As it says in Matthew 22:30, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” So the example of celibacy given to us by our priests is a foreshadowing of our life to come.

John Martignoni is a nationally-known Catholic apologist and Bible scholar. He is the Founder and President of the Bible Christian Society, where you can find lots of free apologetics materials — CD’s, mp3 downloads, e-newsletters, and more, and host of EWTN’s “Open Line” airing on Mondays at 3 p.m. EST. 

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