Should the Pope Be Celibate?
One of the Catholic doctrines that is considered demonstrative of papal dedication to holiness is that of celibacy. For most professed Catholics, the idea of a married pope is blasphemous. In fact, from a Catholic perspective, the idea of a “papa pope” with a wife is unthinkable. But it is important to analyze the doctrine of papal celibacy to determine if it is biblical.
When we speak of “celibacy” in a religious sense, we are referring to the unmarried state of a person for ecclesiastical purposes. Addressing the subject of celibacy, a Catholic apologist states:
[T]he “sacerdotal celibacy” is not a “law” of obligatory character for all of the Church, but is better understood as an “ecclesiastical discipline” that emerged to fulfill the advice of the Apostle Paul and, above all, our Lord Jesus Christ (see Zavala, 2000, emp. added).
Through this declaration, we understand that celibacy is not considered a mandatory law but a “submission” to the advice of the apostle Paul and Jesus. But to what advice is this statement referring? The same apologist clarifies that it is referring to the apostle’s statement in 1 Corinthians 7:7 (“For I wish that all men were even as I myself”), and Jesus’ statement made in Matthew 19:11-12 (“There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it”).
Do these declarations provide any biblical authority for papal celibacy? Even celibacy supporters, when confronted with the biblical evidence, are forced to admit that celibacy is not a “law of obligatory character.” The truth is that Paul, stating optional advice due to the “present distress” (vs. 26), mentioned that it was better to remain single in order to give more attention to the “things of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:32-34). However, Paul mentioned that not everybody has the same gift from God. In fact, some had a gift “in this manner” (i.e., remaining unmarried; cf. 1 Corinthians 7:7), and others had a gift “in that manner” (i.e., to be married; cf. 1 Corinthians 7:7). Therefore, Paul, having declared, “But even if you do marry, you have not sinned” (1 Corinthians 7:28), concluded that whoever marries “does well,” and he that does not, during a time of distress, “does better” (1 Corinthians 7:38).
Jesus’ statement in Matthew 19:12 (“He who is able to accept it, let him accept it”) did not imply that the “incapacity” to accept celibacy was a sin. Paul agreed (1 Corinthians 7:28). Rather, Jesus implied that many lacked the “gift of abstinence,” so it would be better for them to marry and avoid fornication (1 Corinthians 7:9). The Bible does not obligate anyone to marry nor to remain single.
But if the choice is between “what is good” and “what is better” (in a time of distress; 1 Corinthians 7:38), Catholics may argue: “Why question the practice of celibacy in our religion?” The truth is that the problem is rooted, not in the personal choice of staying unmarried, but in God’s requirements for those who fill specific ecclesiastical roles. The Bible tells us that God constituted different ministries in the church (Ephesians 4:11). Every one of those ministries had (and has) its specific qualification requirements. For example, in the case of apostleship, the requirements included learning directly from Jesus and seeing Him after His resurrection (Acts 1:21-22). Even Paul saw the resurrected Lord while on his way to Damascus (Acts 9:3-5; 22:6-8). He learned the Gospel directly from the Lord (Galatians 1:11-12).
There are also biblical requirements concerning bishops. Since the pope is considered the “Universal Bishop,” it is expected that he “universally” fulfills the requisites for bishops. Let us, then, go to the Bible and see whether or not celibacy is a requirement for bishops.
The title “bishop” is equivalent to the title “elder” or “pastor.” These three terms refer to the same person in the same office (e.g., Acts 20:17,28; Titus 1:5,7; 1 Peter 5:1-2). In 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, we find the biblical requirements for bishops. Paul began his statement about the requirements for bishops with the following expression: “A bishop then must be...” (1 Timothy 3:2, emp. added). With these words, the apostle Paul implied that a bishop did not have the option to fulfill the following requirements, but rather that every one was mandatory.
Generally, the requirements focus on the morality of the prospective bishop. Among these is the following: “the husband of one wife...one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence” (1 Timothy 3:2,4, emp. added). If we connect these requirements with Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 3:2, we learn that for the bishop it was (and is) necessary to be a husband, and to have his home and children in subjection to the Lord. Does this conclusion contradict the idea that the Bible obligates no one to marry? No. The Bible obligates no one to marry, just as it obligates no one to be a bishop of a congregation. Paul himself indicated, “If a man desires [desire is optional] the position of a bishop, he desires a good work” (1 Timothy 3:1, emp. added).
Although the Bible obligates no one to marry or to be a bishop, it requires that he who “desires” the office of a bishop must be a person who is already married and already has children who are under God’s subjection. This simply means that the unmarried (good and faithful as they may be) cannot be bishops, since they fail to meet the divine qualifications for this office. It is important to notice here that being unmarried impedes no one from serving God, since there are many other ministries in which to serve Him. The bishop’s office, though, is reserved for faithful, married men who have children.
Why is this the case? Paul said that it is better to remain unmarried (1 Corinthians 7:38). Does that imply that the unmarried one could “serve better” in the office of a bishop? Remaining unmarried is a good decision that allows more freedom (from obligations inherent in marriage) to serve God and spread the Gospel (particularly in a time of oppression and persecutions; see Lyons, 2004). The Bible does not require preachers, evangelists, and teachers to be married. But, bishops keep watch over the internal affairs of the congregational family and should be married. Paul stated in 1 Timothy 3:5: “[F]or if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?” It is necessary for the bishop to demonstrate that he can govern his own physical family (wife and children). In doing so, he shows his ability to be a bishop over a spiritual family (a local congregation of the church). The wisdom in this requirement becomes evident when we consider that the church is formed by many families, and, therefore, needs leaders who have shown faithfulness and wisdom in leading their own families. A man who has never been married has no family subjected to him. Because of this, he does not fit all qualifications of a bishop.
Still, some may argue, “Paul was a great apostle who was unmarried. Did he not do a great work for the church?” Absolutely! Paul was a great apostle and evangelist, but he was not a bishop. He knew the requisites for a bishop and, therefore, did not dare to take this title. When teaching the young man Titus, he told him who could be a bishop: “A man [who] is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination” (Titus 1:6, emp. added).
Considering once more the papal order, we should ask if the “Universal Bishop” of the Catholic Church—the pope—fulfills God’s episcopal requirements of being married and having children. What many Catholics consider to be blasphemous (a married bishop with children) is, in fact, a biblical requirement for bishops. And, what many Catholics consider a symbol of purity and selfless sacrifice (papal celibacy) is disobedience to the Word of God.
Today, although the Catholic Church allows marriage for its members, it does prohibit marriage among those who participate in the role of bishop (as well as many priests, monks, and nuns). The apostle Paul (to whom many Catholic defenders appeal for argumentation in favor of celibacy) wrote: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron, forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (1 Timothy 4:1-3, emp. added). The Catholic Church prohibits marriage when it forbids a bishop to marry. It falls away from the faith when it rejects the divine requirements for bishops and instead requires the opposite. Prohibition of marriage is a false doctrine about which the Holy Spirit warned us.
Lyons, Eric (2004), “Is Marriage a ‘Good’ Thing?,” [On-line], URL: http://apologeticspress.org/articles/576.
Zavala, Martín (2000), “Celibacy, Why Do Priests Not Marry?” [“El Celibato, ¿Por qué No se Casan los Sacerdotes?”], [On-line], URL: http://www.defiendetufe.org/por_que_no_se_casan_los_sacerdotes.htm.