How did celibacy become mandatory for priests?

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tags: religion, celibacy



Kim Haines-Eitzen,Professor of Early Christianity, Cornell University

Priestly celibacy, or rather the lack of it, is in the news. There have been allegations of sex orgies, prostitution and pornography against Catholic clerics in Italy. On March 8, Pope Francis suggested, in an interview with a German newspaper, Die Zeit, that the Catholic Church should discuss the tradition of celibacy in light of an increasing scarcity of priests in rural areas, especially in South America.

Although some headlines have suggested that the pope’s latest comments signal a new openness to priestly marriage, neither of these recent developments – the allegations of sex scandals nor the debate about the tradition of priestly celibacy – should be surprising.

Celibate Christians, both monks and clergy, have a long history with scandal. As a scholar of early Christianity, I think it’s important to highlight the fact that Catholic priestly celibacy has never been practiced uniformly and is, in fact, a late development in church practice. 

One of the surprising and distinctive features of early Christianity is the praise of celibacy – the practice of abstaining from all sexual relations – as an exemplary way to demonstrate one’s faith. 

Given Christianity’s origins within first-century Palestinian Judaism, it was hardly a given that the new religion would develop a high regard for celibacy. Judaism valued family life, and many ritual observances were centered on the family.

But the early Christian Gospels, which told the story of the life of Jesus in the early first century A.D., never mentioned a possible wife – a fact that has given rise to wild speculation in novels, films and recent sensational news stories. And Paul, a Jewish convert whose letters are the earliest books contained in the New Testament, implies that he himself was unmarried when he writes to the earliest Christian communities.

The stories of these founder figures, however, do not explain the course of Christian teaching about asceticism – a wide range of practices of self-discipline that include fasting, giving up personal possessions, solitude and eventually priestly celibacy. 

By the third and fourth centuries A.D., Christian writers had begun elevating the practice of celibacy and asceticism. They did so by pointing to both Jesus and Paul as models of the ascetic life as well as by carefully interpreting scripture in support of the practice of celibacy. ...




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