What’s the biblical basis for Roman Catholic priests not marrying?

Q. What passages in the Bible does the Roman Catholic church use to support its teaching that priests cannot marry?

I have to admit that I didn’t know the answer to this question when it was posed to my blog. But I did a bit of research online and came across what I thought was a very well articulated reply from Catholic Answers, “one of the nation’s largest lay-run apostolates of Catholic apologetics.” I’ll quote the part of the reply that speaks directly to this question and then offer some comments afterwards.

Theologically, it may be pointed out that priests serve in the place of Christ and therefore, their ministry specially configures them to Christ. As is clear from Scripture, Christ was not married (except in a mystical sense, to the Church). By remaining celibate and devoting themselves to the service of the Church, priests more closely model, configure themselves to, and consecrate themselves to Christ.

As Christ himself makes clear, none of us will be married in heaven. By remaining unmarried in this life, priests are more closely configured to the final, eschatological state that will be all of ours.

Paul makes it very clear that remaining single allows one’s attention to be undivided in serving the Lord. He recommends celibacy to all and especially to ministers, who, as soldiers of Christ, he urges to abstain from “civilian affairs.”

I think this appeal to the Scriptures actually makes the case very well that all of us, Catholic or Protestant, ordained or lay, should reflect seriously on whether God wants us to serve Him with the advantages that singleness provides, and in the process to proclaim the “eschatological state” that is even now breaking into our world. This is one side of the Bible’s teaching about marriage, and it’s one that I don’t think we consider often enough for ourselves.

However, there is another side to the Bible’s teaching as well. With no disrespect intended at all for the Catholic position on celibacy for priests, I’d like to describe what I believe were the benefits of marriage for me as a married Protestant minister for some 20 years.

The Bible also says, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord.” When God created the world, He proclaimed one created thing after another “good,” and in the end declared it all “very good.” But there was one thing that God then said was “not good.” It was not good for the man to be alone, so He made Eve as a “helper” for Adam. The Hebrew term actually refers to a strong ally who is at your side in time of need. (Most often in the Bible the term refers to God, as in, “Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”)

While, if I had been single as a minister, I would have had the advantages described by Catholic Answers above, I feel that because I was married, I had other advantages. My wife truly was my “ally” (“helper”), not only jumping in wherever needed to use her gifts to advance our shared ministry, but, I think even more importantly, always being by my side to encourage and advise me.

Many people told us that our strong, happy marriage, which was clearly life-giving for both of us, causing us each to flourish, gave great credibility to the Christian message I was preaching. Accodring to Paul, this models the love between Christ and the church.

At the same time, Martin Luther described marriage itself as “a little church,” meaning a place where husband and wife live a life of worship together under God. I’ve also often spoken of marriage as “the great school of character.” The lessons you learn by making one life out of two, if you really want to make that work, truly build the character of Christ in you, and that gets transferred into your ministry.

I hope this post helps my Protestant readers to understand the practice of their Catholic brothers and sisters a bit better, and for that matter, that it helps Catholics understand and appreciate why Protestants support marriage for their clergy.


Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

4 thoughts on “What’s the biblical basis for Roman Catholic priests not marrying?”

  1. Protestants and Catholics will never see eye to eye on this issue. As Catholic priests are mere mortals who are subjected to human failings and temptations; one really cannot equate it with Jesus who is purported to be divine. The biblical word of God “Go forth and bear fruits” should mean something and as Jesus didn’t abide by this instruction…he would be seen as being disobedient, but then, if he’s divine, the chapter closes as no human could marry a God. But to say that the Catholic Priests follow celibacy in the name of Jesus [comment deleted]. [Please speak respectfully of others.]
    “The Last Temptations of Jesus” and the “Da Vince Code” should be a good watch for a better understanding, if one could comprehend it.

    1. As I say in my post, often there is more than one side to the Bible’s teaching on an issue and we need to discern how God is leading us individually on that issue. Certainly an important part of the mandate for marriage is “be fruitful and multiply.” Otherwise there would be no more people on earth. But the Bible also makes clear that God calls some people to singleness, and that Jesus was one of those.

      I personally would not recommend either of the movies you mention to anyone who really wanted to understand Christianity or the Catholic church.

      1. Sorry, I must have over looked the bible on this issue. Which part of the bible quoted “singleness”or should it be that Jesus was “single” out to be single and the only divine person in Christianity?
        Rational thinking is that it shouldn’t be and that “singleness” is a preference of choice.

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