At the June 13-15 meeting of America's Roman Catholic bishops to discuss priestly sex-abuse scandals, one matter will be off the agenda: reconsideration of priestly celibacy.
The Vatican's April meeting on abuse with U.S. cardinals and bishops' officers "reaffirmed the value of priestly celibacy as a gift of God to the church." That was in line with Pope Paul VI's 1967 encyclical defending the unmarried priesthood and repeated statements from Pope John Paul II ruling out any change.
Catholic liberals have been renewing their criticisms of celibacy in the context of the continuing sexual scandals. But conservatives insist there's no connection between celibacy and abuse, noting that outside the priesthood most molesters are married.
Traditionally, Christianity (like Judaism and other religions) expects unmarried lay people to abstain from sexual relations, but concerning the clergy the Christian branches take different views:
* Orthodoxy: Married priests are common, though men cannot marry after they are ordained and married priests cannot become bishops.
* Catholicism: "Eastern Rite" Catholic dioceses in places such as Lebanon, Romania and Ukraine follow Orthodox practice. But elsewhere, priestly celibacy has been required since the First and Second Lateran Councils (1123, 1139) endorsed prior papal prohibitions. (Exceptions are allowed for married Protestant clergy who become Catholic priests.)
* Protestantism: Since Martin Luther broke with Catholic policy in 1522, clergy have been free to marry before or after ordination.
Luther's slogan was "sola Scriptura" (Scripture alone) -- meaning church practice is based only on the Bible, not tradition -- and mandatory celibacy did not originate until well after the biblical period.
As Paul VI acknowledged in 1967, the New Testament "does not openly demand celibacy" of clergy but makes it "a free act of obedience." The pope noted that Jesus did not make celibacy a prerequisite for the apostles, nor did the apostles require it when they led the first churches.
In the Jewish Old Testament, celibate groups were unknown, though they had existed from ancient times within Eastern religions (Hinduism, Buddhism).
Israel's Nazirites, men and women specially consecrated to God, served on a temporary basis rather than taking lifetime vows. They abstained from alcohol, haircutting and contact with dead bodies, but not sexual relations (Numbers 6:1-21).
The Christians' New Testament introduced the concept of religious celibacy, on a voluntary basis.
Jesus referred to choosing celibacy by saying that some "have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 19:12).
Paul said it was no sin to marry but he wished "that all were as I myself am," namely unwed, because singles can concentrate on "affairs of the Lord" rather than "worldly troubles." Modern Catholics use this argument in supporting mandatory celibacy.
On the Net: Text of Pope Paul VI's encyclical:
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