Priestly celibacy, far from a godsend

Danail Hristov, author and researcher: “Celibacy: a godsend or a life-undermining practice?”

For many, it is no secret that the practice of celibacy lies at the root of clerical sexual crimes. However, few have come to realise that neither the early Fathers nor the later Church hierarchy invented this idea.

The starting point of the Christian concept of refraining from marriage actually precedes them.

What is the New Testament teaching on celibacy?

How does it harmonise, or not, with the principles of life and Old Testament tradition?

Have celibacy’s pretensions been proven by the centuries-old experience of its implementation?

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The natural law of the causal relationship between a specific behaviour and its resulting effect acts inexorably in time.

It was not until after the world was shaken by the revolution of Protestantism, the collapse of nationalism and communism, the disappointment with the consequences of scientific and technological progress, and the challenge of some ideas of democracy, that humanity would challenge some long-respected Christian values.

Today, the revelations of widespread clerical sexual abuse and the church’s cover-up culture have brought this issue to public knowledge.

The causes are complex, but the key factor for the rise of the problem within the Church is its historically-established tendency to enforce the practice of celibacy for clergymen.

For centuries, many have followed it through and many have directly suffered its consequences, which has been a long-lasting and bitter experience.

But, on the other hand, it is namely this implementation that could contribute to the objective consideration of the true essence of this discipline, if we learn from history.

In order to address the issue of sexual abuse by priests effectively, it is better not to put the cart before the horse.

The teaching of celibacy was created neither by the Church Fathers nor by the later Church leaders, as most people believe.

In fact, the subtle appeal for chastity preservation comes from two pillars of Christian doctrine.

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In his first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul the Apostle wrote that in order to serve the Lord without distraction, it is better for men and women not to enter into marital relations. For the sake of propriety, they must be holy in both body and spirit. “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God”, the apostle declares (1 Corinthians 7:7–9,32–40; NRSV).

It is not difficult to see that if everyone were to follow Paul’s personal example of celibacy, his idea of holiness, and his dream of celibate society, the human race would in no time be wiped off the face of the Earth.

Fascinated by his teacher’s idea of the heavenly kingdom – fully believing that it will take place within his lifetime, and passionate about preaching it – the apostle ignores the traditional Jewish views on creation, which, being a Pharisee, he must have been very familiar with.

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According to the Old Testament, God put everything in its natural place: “The heavens are heavens of the Lord, but the earth he has given to human beings” (Psalms 115:16).

It is not a mere coincidence that, after the flood, the Creator blesses Noah and his sons in the same way He blesses Adam and Eve in the beginning: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth!” (Genesis 1:28; 9:1).

It becomes obvious that the reproductive function of man has not been altered centuries after the so-called ancestral sin.

Looking at the big picture, the universal human mission of continuation of life has proven to be the most important and indispensable throughout our history.

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The message of the story of the creation of woman from the man’s rib reveals the divine origin of the immutable affinity between them. Since they were one whole before being created as two separate individuals, they would strive towards each other in order to be one flesh again, thus ensuring the continuation of the human race (Genesis 2:21–25).

This part of the Genesis creation narrative also shows that the ideal model of the man-woman unity has substantial, not formal-social character and has nothing to do with the institution of marriage. (Although when prohibiting divorce, Jesus equates the two; Matthew 19:3-10).

This union could only be related to marriages that have been accomplished as a result of complete intellectual/spiritual kinship and physical harmony between the partners.

Regardless of whether or not we like the religious concept of the origin of man, its fundamental idea is a fact that has been proven for millennia, and the reason we exist.

The human function to populate the Earth is recognised by both believers and unbelievers, although they may question its divine origin.

The phenomena of attraction and reproduction are so strongly embedded in the structure of the universe, all matter, nature, and the human being, that, in practice, they make the wide application of the celibacy model impossible.

The Christian form of eunuchism, in turn, does not have its inherent grounds in the structure of the natural world, but it has deep roots in theology and invariably accompanies the last two thousand years of the history of our civilisation.

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Meandering around the edges, observing and breaking celibacy has been a long and complex process. There have always been people who decide to circumvent it, but also, there has never been a lack of those who decide to castrate themselves, literally or symbolically.

They have done this for the sake of faithfulness to the recommendation that the protagonist of the New Testament has left to the generations:

“Not everyone can accept this teaching [celibacy], but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can” (Matthew 19:11–12).

Unfolding the Scripture texts on the subject, the open-minded person will note that God’s blessing from Genesis for man to multiply and fill the earth is converted into: Celibacy is God’s blessing.

In the name of God, the followers of Christian doctrine are encouraged to sacrifice their reproductive potential—which, according to the Old Testament, is divinely created and blessed—along with the joys of life that accompany it.

In this way, they will prepare themselves for the promised realm, where the resurrected people will be without gender and will not marry or give birth to children (Mark 12:25).

Jesus’ recommendation of refraining from marriage and intimacy is also in line with the requirement he puts to his followers: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).

The teaching of abstaining from marriage and sexual relations is also firmly supported by the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin and the idea of the only pure marriage, namely the one between Christ and his bride, the Church.

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The implications of the New Testament recommendations for celibacy have echoed through the ages in a creepy way: extramarital affairs and illegitimate children of clergy, including of highest rank; abandoned or sold wives and children; debauchery in monasteries, accompanied by abortions and murders of clerical children; and sexual abuse and even rape of minors and nuns by priests.

Contrary to the Apostle Paul’s conviction, celibacy undermines morals, distracts the mind, robs the soul, pollutes the spirit, perverts the body, and could negatively impact health.

As a result, instead of building further trust in the New Testament message and in the Church of Christ, celibacy ruins it by bringing heavy disappointments, thus placing God’s authority at stake.

The two-thousand-year-old fruits of wrestling with the practice of celibacy—which is recommended by the highest instance and with the most high-minded motives—are difficult to swallow.

Its impacts on society include:

  • Suffering or destruction of innumerable nameless individuals, including born and unborn infants. 
  • Violation of the dignity and lives of children even today, in the century of information and human rights.
  • A serious breach of our core values of trust resulting in moral and spiritual damage to believers and non-believers.

What more needs to happen in order for the Church to gather the courage to reconsider the discipline of celibacy and make the major changes that humanity has longed for centuries?

After an objective review of the Scriptures and taking into account the historical experience of practising celibacy, will the Church dare to admit that it is in a complete contradiction with the insight of Old Testament cosmology, and, in its essence, undermines life?

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Dealing in the field of popular religious culture, philosophy, and humanism, Danail Hristov’s writings investigate the merits and faults of the Biblical values and notions and their impact on the thinking of modern man.

Follow Danail on Twitter and on Facebook.

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