Hey, Father! Where in the Bible does it say that a priest cannot be married, or is this something that was decided by the church leaders?

Where in the Bible does it say that a priest cannot be married, or is this something that was decided by the church leaders? And, where in the Bible does it say that women cannot be priests, or is this something that was decided by the church leaders?

– Sue in Troy

Hey Sue! Both priestly celibacy and the male priesthood are well-attested to and rooted in Scripture, and moreover, in the life and ministry of Jesus Himself.

Let’s take the male priesthood first. It is clear from the testimony of the Old Testament that the Aaronic and Levitical priesthood was passed from father to son (cf. Leviticus 7:34 and Numbers 18, for example). This Old Testament priesthood is a type (a sort of prefigurement) of the priesthood established by Jesus Christ, and while Jesus clearly does some “new” things with those who He has called to the priesthood of Jesus Christ, in practice, He does not anywhere in Scripture abolish the Hebrew custom of an all-male priesthood. One would expect to see Christ overturn this praxis if He wished for women to participate in the ministerial priesthood, but He does not.

To our modern sensitivities, this might seem unfair or as though Jesus had left women out of His ministry, but that is certainly not the case. Jesus was not unfamiliar with the cultural norms of His day which tended to suppress the roles of women—and time and again, Jesus proved Himself above such limited human perspectives (cf. John 4:27 or Luke 7:36-50, for example). Yet His priests (the Apostles) were all men. Frankly, if Jesus were going to ordain any woman to the priesthood, it should have been His own mother, Mary; if we were abiding by human logic, she’s certainly the ideal candidate: sinless and perfectly obedient to the will of God!

Importantly, however, this does not mean that women are left out of the plan of Jesus; they are simply not ordained ministerial priests. All baptized Christians—men and women alike—participate in the common priesthood of the faithful, which is to say that we are called to offer to God the sacrifice of our lives. It may run contrary to our modern sensibilities that women are excluded from the ministerial priesthood, but this is the scandal of election that we see throughout the Scriptures: God consistently chooses one for the sake of all (He did it with Abel, Israel, David, to name a few; He deigned that Jesus become a Hebrew male and not a female Persian, for example). But when God chooses one (to the exclusion of something or someone else), He demonstrates over and again that it is always for the purpose that that “one” might exemplify His choice of all, to show forth His glory and invite all people to covenant with Him. Certainly, such is the case with the male priesthood.

As for the practice of priestly celibacy, that too is rooted in the witness of Christ Himself, to whom Scriptures never attribute a wife. But it is also demonstrated in Mt 19:12, wherein Christ instructs that there are those who choose to be eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Church has always seen this verse as a reference to those who choose celibacy (i.e. forgoing the good of sexual intimacy) for the sake of pointing to the greater fulfillment that will be ours in God alone. It is the practice of the Latin Church to choose such celibate men as her ordained ministers, precisely for their confirmation to the way of life that Jesus chose for Himself and for the sake of living as an eschatological sign (i.e. pointing to the fulfillment that comes in the Kingdom of God).

There are many arguments from fittingness and points of resonance in Scripture that point to why God may have chosen these disciplines for His Church, but unfortunately, it would be too much for our current discussion.

One last thought, though: the beauty of our Catholic faith is that we believe that God has chosen to reveal Himself not only through Scripture, but through Scripture and apostolic tradition. So while it’s good for us to look for the truths of God in Scripture, we find the apostolic tradition as revelatory of God and importance for the adherence of our faith as well. God, beautifully, allows these not to contradict each other, so we would do well not to pit them against each other, either!

Father Michael A. Friedel is pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Decatur, chaplain at Millikin University, and associate vocations director for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois