Catholics Are Debating the Celibate Priesthood Again … and We Should, Too

By Jules Gomes Published on April 3, 2024

What’s the difference between the Catholic Church and a used car salesman?

“Putting it bluntly, the Catholic Church does the opposite of a used car dealer,” remarks Dr. Michael Seewald, a professor of dogmatic theology at the University of Münster. While the used car dealer “wants to sell an old car by advertising it as much as possible as new, the Catholic Church constantly sells new cars, but passes them off for old cars.”

In the Latin rite of the Roman Church, compulsory clerical celibacy is the shiny Cadillac its salespeople advertise as the world’s first automobile.

But it isn’t.

Prelates Provoke Celibacy Debate

Since Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta sparked the argy-bargy in a January interview with the Times of Malta, tub-thumpers on both sides have been trading the same tired arguments for and against clerical celibacy.

“It was optional for the first millennium of the Church’s existence, and it should become optional again,” Scicluna said, adding that “there are priests around the world” and in Malta who “also have children.” Universal obligatory celibacy was imposed only in 1139 AD by the Second Lateran Council in the face of opposition (see my March 13 article in The Stream).

Is Scicluna responding to the news that for the first time in four decades his seminary in Malta, a bastion of Catholicism, has no new recruits willing to train for the priesthood?

Or has he stumbled on the peer-reviewed paper by Prof. Godfrey Wettinger on the contagion of clerical concubinage in the tiny island of Malta and its even tinier daughter island of Gozo, exposing the failed experiment of clerical celibacy?

Diving deep into ecclesiastical archives, the Maltese historian quotes a 1429 provincial synod in Paris warning that “concubinage is so common among clergy that it has given rise to the view that simple fornication is not a mortal sin.”

From paternity records of priests and their children, Wettinger concludes that “concubinate clergymen abounded in Malta and Gozo during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries at all levels of the hierarchy.” Concubinage clearly was no bar to high office.

Priests’ Secret Children

Vincent Doyle, himself the “secret” son of a priest, welcomes Scicluna’s reference to priests’ children. On Easter Sunday, Doyle, who has been indefatigably pleading with Rome to listen to the cries of thousands of children fathered by priests, urged bishops to hold an international conference on the Church’s best-kept secret.

Doyle asked prelates to “begin with a sincere apology” to priests children for wrongs dating back to 633 AD, when the fourth Council of Toledo ordered that: “Children of clerics should become the slaves of the Catholic Church to which the cleric-father belonged.”

Just before Holy Week, Gozo’s bishop, Anton Teuma, challenged Scicluna, complaining that if the Church ditches celibacy “it would be losing a lot” because married men would find it difficult to juggle family life with the priesthood.

By this line of reasoning, Catholic men who are chief executives, physicians and surgeons, financial analysts, hot-shot lawyers, engineers on offshore oil rigs, crew members on cruise liners, long-haul truck drivers, miners, and firefighters should be banned from having a wife and kids.

As a married Anglican priest for 25 years I almost never had to rush to hospital in the middle of the night to administer extreme unction. And when it happened, my wife woke up and prayed fervently for the sick person. Ironically, I was woken up more often during the nights during my four years as a secular journalist!

Many of these professionals work 120 hours a week. Some are away from home for months. Others are woken up at odd hours of the night to answer emergency calls — just like priests.

Married Priests More Committed?

Has Teuma conducted empirical studies to find out if married priests from Eastern Catholic rites churches and the Anglican Ordinariate need a shrink because they find balancing family life with the priesthood so stressful?

In his book Keeping the Vow: The Untold Story of Married Catholic Priests, sociologist Fr. D. Paul Sullins compares the weekly working hours of married and celibate priests, and discovers that “a sizable proportion of the celibate priests worked far fewer hours than did the married priests.”

Further, “married priests reported greater (job) satisfaction than did celibate priests on almost every measure.” In matters of orthodoxy, “married priests exceeded celibate priests in their support of the truth claims of the Catholic faith.”

The priest-sociologist concludes:

The standard measures of ministerial commitment — workload, satisfaction, devotion, and dogmatism — fail to reveal any advantage of celibacy for commitment to the priestly role or ministry. On the contrary, on almost every measure, married priests are more active and committed to their ministry than are celibate priests.

Of course, Fr. Sullins is fallible, but St. Paul’s writings in Sacred Scripture are inspired, inerrant, and infallible, right? So why don’t we listen to what St. Paul is saying about married priests? After all, if Paul is wrong on celibacy, he can be wrong on homosexuality, too, no?

Cancelling St. Paul on Celibacy

Bizarrely, very few advocates of clerical celibacy mention St. Paul’s explicit instructions in his pastoral epistles requiring bishops, priests, and deacons, to be the “husband of one wife” (1 Timothy 3: 2-5, Titus 1: 5-6).

Turning Teuma’s logic on its head, Paul explains to Timothy why married bishop-presbyters are vital: “Because if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” Like Jesus, Paul is using rabbinic Qal va-homer reasoning — “the argument from the minor to the major” (often called the “how much more” argument).

St. Jerome agreed with St. Paul. In the context of parties pushing polygamy (permitted in the Old Testament), Jerome writes: “In both epistles commandment is given that only monogamists should be chosen for the clerical office whether as bishops or as presbyters.

“And indeed, it is under our control that a bishop or priest be without fault and have one wife,” Jerome notes in his commentary on Titus.

Choosing Pope Paul Over Saint Paul?

Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on priestly celibacy Sacerdotalis Caelibatus unleashes a torrent of pontifical waffle (12,340 words), but not once does the pope even allude to the apostle explicitly endorsing married clergy.

Are we to conclude that St. Paul got it wrong, but Pope Paul got it right? Or that Pope Paul’s encyclical is infallible, but St. Paul’s pastoral epistles are pious piffle?

Can the Church so brazenly overrule what God has expressly permitted? In that case, Pope Francis is right to outlaw the death penalty and to issue Fiducia supplicans authorizing the blessing of gay couples.

But celibacy advocates, like Fr. Gary B. Selin in his book Priestly Celibacy: Theological Foundations, interpret St. Paul’s “man of one wife” to mean “that a married cleric be bound to practice perfect sexual continence, that is, to live with his wife as though he had none.”

Why Is the Church Ignoring Natural Law?

Hardly any New Testament scholar would support Selin’s rather bizarre eisegesis. Jews reading the Song of Songs didn’t think like Catholics about sex. “Paul’s prescription here does not extend to celibacy,” notes Catholic biblical scholar Fr. George T. Montague in his commentary on Timothy and Titus.

While the magisterium belabors natural law ad nauseam, does it not recognize how God’s first institution in creation was marriage and not a celibate priesthood? For God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”

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The Church prohibits divorce because Jesus expressly commands: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Who gave the Church the authority to overrule Jesus and cruelly tear away wives from their clergy husbands and declare them to be concubines after celibacy was imposed by local councils, as happened multiple times in history?

Selin has given away the game. The priesthood is about continence, i.e., ritual purity. For centuries, church fathers, popes, and confession manuals disparaged marital sex as dirty.

Catholicism’s Sexual Pathology

Much of the medieval sexual pathology of Catholicism can be traced to Gnosticism, Montanism, Stoicism, and Manichaeanism, explains Robert Obach in his book The Catholic Church on Marital Intercourse.

“Whenever a spouse engaged in intercourse for the sake of experiencing sexual pleasure, he or she committed a mortal sin,” writes Obach. Not surprising, once this edict was adopted, priests could no longer engage in this act with their wives in God-ordained marriage.

Sure, there are texts in the New Testament that exhort Christians to celibacy. But this exhortation is directed towards all disciples of Jesus — not only clergy. More specifically, it is directed to those who have been graced with the wonderful gift of celibacy!

The call to discipleship is so radical and the cost of discipleship so demanding that Jesus calls all of us (not just a priestly caste) to give Him everything (not just conjugal sex) and follow Him to the very end — even martyrdom.

But since we are saved by grace and we live by grace, Jesus reminds us that His yoke is easy and His burden is light. And St. Paul reminds us that “it is better to marry than to burn with lust.”


Dr. Jules Gomes, (BA, BD, MTh, PhD), has a doctorate in biblical studies from the University of Cambridge. Currently a Vatican-accredited journalist based in Rome, he is the author of five books and several academic articles. Gomes lectured at Catholic and Protestant seminaries and universities and was canon theologian and artistic director at Liverpool Cathedral.

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