Recently a lady approached me, “excellent homily” she said, but “very misleading, the apostles were married.”
Of course the lady is correct. Celibacy is a discipline, not a dogma. There is evidence to suggest that at least some of the apostles were married. Indeed my lady friend reminded me that Jesus had cured Peter’s mother in law, so Peter was married (Matthew 8:14). But there’s another possible interpretation open to us here. Peter’s mother in law, now enjoying full health, starts to wait on Jesus in Peter’s house. Doesn’t that seem odd? It’s Peter’s mother in law rather than his wife that waits on Jesus. Where is Peter’s wife? Perhaps she’s out somewhere. But there’s another possibility; Peter was widowed at the time of Jesus call. It’s another possibility.
It’s important too that we take note of the apostle John. We know he was celibate and that he seems to have held a special place in Christ’s heart, perhaps due to his celibacy. At any rate, we’re told repeatedly that he’s the one Jesus loved (John 13:23), and as Christ was dying it was to John that he entrusted his mother (John 19:26).
My lady friend’s argument follows the familiar logic; the apostles were married so therefore priests should be allowed to marry. For many people this historical fact is all the proof needed to abolish compulsory celibacy. But there is another perspective, that of the teaching of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. The teaching asks serious questions of married apostles and possibly even prevails over the practise.
In the Gospels we discover Christ’s call to a radical discipleship, Mark 10:21 “There is one thing you lack. Go and sell everything you own and give the money to the poor… then come follow me.” It’s a call the apostles heard and embraced, some of whom were married, others unmarried. The Gospels suggest that the first apostles were extremely challenged by Christ and if we accept the Gospel accounts of Christ’s teaching then there’s little doubt that the apostles themselves, both married and unmarried, must have understood that Christ’s call to self denial extended even to marriage, “… there are eunuchs who have made themselves that way for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:12)
In fact, based on the evidence of Christ’s own teaching in the Gospels the first married apostles must have felt challenged about their married status. I’d go so far as to say that they even felt disadvantaged! This is not conjecture. The evidence indicates that this is exactly what happened. In the teaching of Christ and consequently in the early Church the practise of celibacy and virginity was highly valued, “what about us? We have left everything to follow you… I tell you there is no one who has left house, wife, brothers, parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not be given repayment many times over…” (Luke 18:28, Matthew 19:29). No wonder it was valued! But something even more significant happened, married couples, responding to the teaching of Christ practised continence within marriage, among them there were surely some of the apostles.
So it’s much too simplistic and even misleading to argue that the apostles were married so priests should be allowed to marry. The historical reality is much more nuanced than that.
Life went on after Christ and the Church developed. There are major figures, none more so than St. Paul, a strong supporter of celibacy, 1 Cor 7:32-35. In fact, this is a feature of the first millennium. There is no proper law of celibacy. Instead, the significant figures in the Church tend to recommend celibacy. Generally, the important figures in the early Church together with the higher members of the clergy practised celibacy.
So the picture is one of married and celibate priests, in tension to some degree, but it’s necessary to concede that it’s Christ’s radical call heard in the Gospel that’s causing at least some of the tension, “If any man comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children… he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). It should go without saying – but I’ll be cautious – that there are other factors at work in shaping these developments, not least a rejection of the goodness of human sexuality, a certain disdain for the sexual that had pockets of support but usually ended in heresy.
Eventually celibacy became compulsory for priests in the West. It’s with glee that some people point out that this happened because the Church didn’t want to lose its property to priest’s families. This may be true but it’s certainly not the complete truth. It conveniently ignores how celibacy and virginity never disappeared, and how the practises were highly valued by Christ, and by the Church from the very beginning, and how they are rooted in the call of Jesus Christ to leave everything and follow him.
There’s one further nuance that’s necessary to note. In the 11th century the Church split between East and West – temporarily – but reconciliation would bring with it two different traditions regarding celibacy. The Eastern Orthodox Church kept their tradition of a married clergy. But even this is nuanced; a single man cannot marry after Ordination, and to this day bishops in the East are drawn only from the celibate priests. So the tension between the historical practise of married apostles and priests, and the radical call of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels remains evident.
In conclusion we can argue:
1. Celibacy is a rejection of the sexual and it’s goodness.
2. It’s a kind of ‘spiritual worldliness’ on behalf of the Church. It’s about the Church protecting its assets.
3. It’s a response to Christ’s call to leave everything.
Take your pick.
Then ask yourself why you’ve made that particular choice?
If you think there’s an element of all three, to which of the three should we give precedence?
Me? I go with the call to leave everything although I’m not particularly good at it!