Until Christ came along (Mt 19:12), and then Paul (1 Cor. 7:32-35), the only state of
life known was marriage. The rabbis taught that a man was only half a man if he wasn't
married by 20. But even in the Old Testament some of the prophets, like Elijah and
Jeremiah, chose celibacy. By Jesus' time the great rabbis spoke of the possibility of
"marrying Torah," that is, dedicating their whole life to the study of the Word.
Paul was one who did, both before and after his conversion. Jesus is, of course, THE WORD,
and infinitely more deserving of total dedication than the written word.
It should not be surprising, therefore, that Jesus should speak of some who would
remain celibate ("eunuchs") for the sake of the Kingdom of God (Mt 19:12). St.
Paul not only continued his pre-conversion celibacy as a Christian but recommended it for
those who would be dedicated to serving God in this world (1 Cor. 7:7, 17, 32-35). He was
speaking to a general audience and so he does not oblige it. But observe what he says in
verse 17, "Only, everyone should live as the Lord has assigned, just as God called
each one. I give this order in all the churches." This coincides with the admonition
of Jesus to follow the vocation given by God, whether celibacy (Mt 19:12) or marriage
Now Jesus said that if one could accept celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom one should
and Paul says it is the best way for those dedicated to the Kingdom, and BOTH of them
lived this total dedication to the will of the Father for the salvation of souls. Given
the mentality of the world, both Jewish and Pagan, it was impossible at the beginning to
find mature candidates for the priesthood who were not already married. Only with the
arrival of a generally Christian milieu, where virginity and celibacy were honored into
adult life, would celibate candidates for Holy Orders be generally available. Not
surprisingly, then, the Church discerned with time that the gift of celibacy from God (who
alone can give such a gift), together with the desire to serve God and His people, was an
indication of a vocation to the priesthood. THIS has not always and everywhere been
imposed in the Church, but almost immediately in Church history we find it recommended and
even required in some places. Although Latin Rite Catholic priests for the last 1000 years
have had to be celibate, Eastern Rite Catholic priests and priests of the Orthodox
Churches (not in union with Rome) do not. However, ALL bishops in both the Catholic and
Orthodox Churches MUST be celibates. They represent Christ to the people in their dioceses
and Christ's bride is the Church (Eph 5:21-33) not someone else. So, it is entirely
fitting that bishops not marry EVER and that priests not marry either, though in some
traditions it is allowed PRIOR to ordination.
The fact that the apostles were married says nothing about the practice, since they
were Jewish and followed the practices of their day, until Christ came along. Tradition
affirms that they remained celibates after they followed Christ.
With the grace of Redemption came the possibility of celibacy and virginity for the
sake of the Kingdom of God for more than the privileged few. It is a total gift of self to
the Lord, fitting for those whose vocation is dedicated to love and service of God and
neighbor. Unfortunately, it is something the worldly who do not understand the power of
God have difficulty accepting, then as now.
Answered by Colin B. Donovan, STL