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"Call None Father upon Earth": The Implications of Clerical Celibacy

This article was originally composed to be part of a three-part series on the dangers of clerical celibacy to the preservation of a Christian society. It will be clear from the structure of the argument that the author is not a confessing member of the Roman Catholic Church, and so it is necessary to clearly state here at the beginning that this is meant to be an analysis solely of the practice of clerical celibacy based on a biblical, historical, and sociological basis, and is in no way meant to be an anti-Catholic polemic. This article is the first part, being an apologia and discussion of priestly castes and the Levitical precedent of Christian priesthood. Part II deals with the practice of asceticism and the cœnobitic monk as a social type as distinct from the priesthood, and part III discusses the social importance of biological fatherhood and its relationship to the spiritual role of the priest as father. Finally, this is not a theological treatise; it is, rather, meant to show how both scripture and history reveal the wisdom of a married priesthood as the basis of a healthy Christian society.

Early in November of last year, a flurry of news stories in the international press declared that the controversial practice in the Roman Catholic church of clerical celibacy was under debate by Pope Francis. While exaggerated speculations gave many non-Catholic Christians hope that Rome was coming around on this issue, the Vatican has since clarified the reports to mean that Pope Francis is considering ordaining only viri probati—“proven men”—men who are married but meet strict guidelines, and only in the Amazon River basin. Causa finita est. Nevertheless, the discussion once again raises the debate, which also surfaced during the emergence of the sex-abuse scandals, of clerical celibacy as a practice and its scriptural foundations as well as risks and benefits to the health of individual clerics and the community at large. While the practice is profoundly rare—outside of Rome almost no Christian body requires its priests and ministers to be celibate (Orthodoxy requires this of its hierarchs only)—it is rarely discussed outside of the realm of anti-Catholic polemic, and likewise almost never accounts for non-scriptural arguments for or against the practice. Is it not worth, therefore, probing the subject from both a scriptural and historical basis, to assess the risks and ramifications—which are of no small number and no little significance—with reference to its human impact as well as its strictly theological impact?

Without a doubt, much debate around the practice turns towards the prevalence of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic church—many of the proponents of ending celibacy within Catholic circles base their argument in the idea that if priests were given a sexual outlet in an adult woman, they would stop molesting teenage boys. This popular Occam’s Razor argument, however, is too dull to cut, because it fails to account for three things: first, the timeline of abuse, which is centred among priests ordained during or after the Second Vatican Council, (most crimes were committed between the mid-1960s to mid-1980s); second, the nature of abuse, which has been largely paraphilic, and in particular homosexual (80 per cent. of all the victims were boys); and third, the relative prevalence of similar abuse in other religious communities, especially among Mainline Protestants and Orthodox Jews. To put the whole thing in very brief perspective, Roman Catholics have seen a 1.7 percent rate of paraphilic sex abusers among their clergy, while Evangelical Protestants see a 2-3 percent rate and Orthodox Christians have seen very little—what accusations have been made appear to be centered in the Greek community. The Jewish community, especially Haredi and Hasidic Jews, report much higher rates, but intimidation tactics make it impossible to get clear statistics. Little comment is needed on Mohammedanism, since many believers in that sect do not even recognise “sexual abuse” as a cognitive category. The upshot of all this is that no observable correlation at all exists between clerical sexual abuse or the growth of paraphilia among clerics and clerical celibacy, and no further discussion of the topic needs be had here.

Another angle that attacks clerical celibacy is the attack on celibacy itself—a frequent line taken in a modernity for which the libertine embrace of sexuality is considered a defining trait of social conformity and, indeed, sanity. Neither is this the only time or place in which Christians have faced persecution for our attitudes towards sex, celibacy, and virginity—the earliest great persecutions of the faith were also fuelled by hatred of Christians for their strict sexual ethic that denounced common pagan practices like sodomy, wife-sharing, and incest. The Epistle to Diognetes feels the need to defend the practice of Christians who refuse to practice infant exposure or communal sex. Celibacy was, in fact, illegal for anyone outside of very specific religious classes in Rome—the Vestal Virgins, for instance, and the Priests of Cybele. For a Christian, therefore, to live in celibacy as a monastic or hermit with no connexion to these specific cults was to risk severe legal punishments. It would be a severe turn indeed for Christians now to attack celibacy as such, when many of our earliest forefathers in the Faith were persecuted and martyred for the same. Rather, much as in non-Christian and pre-Christian societies, the Christian body of believers has always had a special group who remove themselves from society and, as part of this removal, also commit themselves to celibacy. However, it is important to note that historically celibate groups—be they the Priests of Cybele, the Vestal Virgins, Hindu sadhus, or Christian monastics—are always marked by their self-removal from the world, and their refusal to take on official secular duties. To participate in the world in a secular capacity as a formal celibate is an entirely novel development unique to Faustian Christianity, influenced by a unique understanding of inheritance as well as the important community role played by monasteries as the Western world came into being.

Part of the reason why this is such a novel practice is because of the role fatherhood has historically played in shaping both masculinity and society at large. Neoreactionary circles are very fond of the Männerbund as the basis of civilization, but in most cases the Männerbund is a largely horizontal arrangement—not necessarily egalitarian, but at least horizontal, consisting of men in of a similar place in society or state of mind. Chivalric orders, monastic communities, and military cadres are wonderful examples—and the theory certainly holds insofar as civilizations do tend to come from mutual decisions made by men. However, this model fails to account for what is perhaps the most important elements of manhood, a relationship that Confucius considered so important that without it civilized society was entirely impossible: the tie of father and son. Tribes and families, inheritances and traditions, to say nothing of estates and claims of rank, are all formed by a line passed from biological father to biological son, and perhaps one of the most jarring element of failed or incomplete cultures and ethnicities is the absence of this fundamental element of patriarchy. It goes without saying that any society, tribe, family, or caste which willingly blocks the formation of this relationship—especially by preserving it in only an adoptive form—wounds itself. It is further self-evident that the relationship is central to the Christian Faith, which is founded on and sustained by the mystical and metaphysical implications of the love of a father—the Father—and the obedience of a son—the Son—as archetypes. A celibate priesthood does not prevent any culture or society from preserving this most important of social phenomena, but it does make the priestly caste particularly fragile and brittle, needing artificial measures to sustain and grow itself, which we will find does have serious implications for the survival of a Christian society.

The Priestly Caste

Like the celibate hermit and monastic, almost all cultures and civilizations have a dedicated priestly caste—not merely priests, but a caste of priests who inherit their vocation and who form a distinct social stratum with a specific cultural role. In many cases, this caste is merged with the ruling caste, and kings and nobles are kings or nobles because of their perceived relationship to or their responsibilities to the Divine: why should it not be? The priest exists not only to serve as a guide and instructor but chiefly as a reminder to the people of the presence of God and of the existence of sanctity. The loss of respect for the priest and the minister of God in a society typically heralds the collapse of the very idea of the sacred—we can see this throughout history, in multiple civilizations; the collapse of the Priesthood of Amun-Ra, for example, or the abandonment of the title Pontifex Maximus by the Roman Emperors.

In modernity, it has taken on an especially violent form, as the priesthood of what Fr. Seraphim Rose called “the religion of the future” replace their predecessors. The sacred places were profaned and the ministers of the Faith have been murdered in a plethora of ways: by the guillotine in Revolutionary France, the mob in Risorgimento Italy, and the firing squad in Republican Spain and Bolshevik Russia. It is the sense of the sacred that the priest as a social institution preserves through his very existence that saturates a people’s world with belief, and promotes that very childlike faith and truth in God that is so important to Christianity. A people without a presbytery is truly a people without God—and this holds just as true for the pagans as it does for Christians, making the preservation and stability of a priestly caste of utmost importance for the preservation of a Godly and, therefore, stable society.

There exist many examples of a priestly or holy caste among human civilizations. Among the Mohammedans, the descendants of their prophet are referred to with the honorific “Sayyid” (“lord”) or “Sharif” and afforded special status in local communities. Indeed, all of the Imams of the Shi’ites are sayyids, and the Safavids imported sayyids en masse as Ulama and leaders to Persia, contributing to its later status as a stronghold of Twelver Shi’a. This, however, is nowhere near as pronounced a priestly caste as one finds among the various Indo-European peoples, especially among Hindu Indians. The Brahmins—not merely a caste but practically a race of people—have become a by-word for elite, and are held to have been specifically reincarnated to serve as the priestly and scholarly rulers directing the actions of the warrior and kingly caste. In the Bhagavad Gita, the Brahmin advisor is none other than the god Krishna himself. Whatever fantasies Julius Evola liked to indulge in about these priests usurping the rule of the warrior-kings he so admired, the pattern of priestly rulers finds an echo among the Indo-European peoples of Europe. No better example can be furnished than the Celtic Druids, so powerful that they would not die out until shortly before the time of Charlemagne, even though the Celts ceased to be a significant cultural force in Europe before the birth of Christ. Indeed, even Socrates places the scholar-priests as the guardian rulers of his perfect city; the guardian auxiliaries second to them, and the producers at the bottom.

Socrates, of course, was seeking the Philosopher-King, which Aristotle had hoped in vain to find in Alexander. This is a uniquely Classical articulation of a wider human archetype of the priest-king that we also find among the Assyrians, Hittites, and Sumerians (to say nothing of the God-kings of Egypt). The Bible, too, features one such prominently in the Book of Genesis, Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem and servant of the One True God. It is of the Order of Melchizedek the priest-king that the High Priest Christ Himself belongs, and subsequently all ordained priests of the Church.

This commonality of priest-rulers is more than mere coincidence; to make a purely Biblical argument, it seems consistent with Christian belief that God, who preserved Noah and sent forth his sons to populate the world conveyed the same, and therefore implanted in their descendants, this principal of priesthood that manifests itself around the world. The archetype is perfected in Christ, but not before God offers an imperfect manifestation in the person of Aaron as the High Priest of Israel. If we do not wish to trace the lineage of the archetype to Noah, it is at least undeniable that S. Paul hints at it in his encounter with Areopagus:

Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars' hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. (Acts xvii, 22-23)

Clearly, it was possible for pagan peoples to stumble upon a Truth that God had only chosen to reveal in its fullness to the Hebrews—and therefore where an archetype finds itself manifested even among people who are not of God, the archetype remains valid and truthful for Christians. Commenters from S. John Chrysostom to the Protestant John Gill have remarked on how the Greeks had already received God, but failed to know Him—likewise, in the case of the priestly caste, this social institution is without a doubt a Godly one which the pagans received but did not recognize as coming from God.

As already indicated, the fullest articulation of any Divine institution in the ancient world is to be found among the commands given by God to the Hebrews, which necessarily makes the kohanim—the priests among the tribe of Levi—the first Archetype of a priestly caste. God makes clear the necessity of a priesthood, however, before the emergence of the Levites: after Abraham’s success over the Elamites serving Chedorlaomer, Melchizedek—who had no involvement in the battles or the war with the Elamites, who were fighting with Sodom and Gemorrah, not Salem—meets Abraham at Shaveh, bringing bread and wine (!), and declares: “Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth: And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand.” (Gen. xiv, 19-20). Here Melchizedek is certainly an instructor of Abraham and of Bera, the King of Sodom, who was also present, but he is an instructor by the example of his offering and blessing, not by direct instruction as one might receive from a latter-day rabbi. Abraham receives the instruction because he is aware of the sacredness of the name of the Most High God; King Bera’s mind instead turns immediately to dividing the spoils of battle, demonstrating his ignorance of God long before we are even introduced to the evils of the city of Sodom.

The Tribe of Levi

The Levites, also, were meant to be an example of obedience and faith—a microcosm of the nation of Israel within itself, serving as a light for the Hebrews, just as they were meant to serve as the “light of the Gentiles” (Isa. xlii, 6). This is clear from the behaviour of High Priest Aaron, himself the archetype of the Levitical priesthood. Aaron precedes Moses in the earliest confrontations with Pharaoh, confrontations widely regarded by early Christians as both literal and allegorical in their meaning—the Pharaoh being the sinful heart of man, which Jeremiah calls “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer. xvii, 9). After the first three encounters, when Aaron has acted as exemplar, Moses comes into the fuller, more active role as prophet that he would occupy for the rest of the Exodus until his repose. Aaron then becomes the support of the prophet—the ancillary role to the chosen vessel of God’s Word to His people. Perhaps his most important, and most symbolic, task in this regard is the support of Moses’ staff arm at the Battle of Amalek, forming a representation of the Trinity in the persons of Moses (the voice of the Father), Aaron (the prefiguring of the Son), and Hur (the prefiguring of the Holy Ghost). Likewise, Aaron and Hur become supports for the greatest Law-giver of the Old Testament, and therefore also upholders of the Law itself—yet another very significant role of the Levitical priesthood.

The first solid example of this role as upholders of the law comes immediately after Aaron’s first personal failure when the loyal Levites are tasked by Moses to take and kill the instigators of idolatry among the Hebrews. This is significant in two ways: first, in that the Levites are given the task of enforcing the Law and, second, it implies disloyal Levites, and Aaron himself, the High Priest of the Levitical priesthood, himself was weak and failed. This is a clear indication that the Levites, though exemplars, are permitted to be, and indeed are intended to be, a decidedly human priesthood, to be distinguished from the High Priesthood of Christ.

What, therefore, does the scripture tell us about the marriage practises among the Levites? First of all, they are required to marry, and under specific circumstances.

And he that is the high priest among his brethren, upon whose head the anointing oil was poured, and that is consecrated to put on the garments, shall not uncover his head, nor rend his clothes; Neither shall he go in to any dead body, nor defile himself for his father, or for his mother; Neither shall he go out of the sanctuary, nor profane the sanctuary of his God; for the crown of the anointing oil of his God is upon him: I am the LORD. And he shall take a wife in her virginity. A widow, or a divorced woman, or profane, or a harlot, these shall he not take: but he shall take a virgin of his own people to wife. Neither shall he profane his seed among his people: for I the LORD do sanctify him. (Lev. xxi, 10-15 – my emphasis)

These women are chosen because of their purity, but in addition to this inborn purity likewise they are sanctified by their marriage to a priest and became the only class of widow a priest could marry, as the Prophet Ezekiel tells us:

But the priests the Levites, the sons of Zadok, that kept the charge of my sanctuary when the children of Israel went astray from me, they shall come near to me to minister unto me, and they shall stand before me to offer unto me the fat and the blood, saith the Lord GOD… Neither shall they take for their wives a widow, nor her that is put away: but they shall take maidens of the seed of the house of Israel, or a widow that had a priest before. And they shall teach my people the difference between the holy and profane, and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean. (Ez. xliv, 15, 22-23 – my emphasis)

The Levites in their teaching role are meant above all to be exemplars—perhaps the most important teaching Christ offers (and the most damning of the Pharisees) is to instruct the people “Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.” The Pharisees are a degraded form of leader for the Hebrews—they offer no example to the people and cannot, therefore, be sufficient to teach the people. It is for this purpose that a new priesthood must be instituted among the people, a priesthood which, like the Levites, teaches by example, and, like the Levites, upholds the Law, and, like the Levites, is separate from the High Priesthood of Christ—for Christ, says the Apostle, is an eternal High Priest, and no other High Priest of the Church is needed (Heb. viii, 1-6).

A Royal Priesthood

There is much written in the early Church writings of the parallel between Christ and Adam, and likewise between Mary, His Mother, and Eve, the mother of mankind—just as Christ is meant to be the new birth of Mankind as God intended His crown of Creation to be, Mary is the New Eve whose obedience and virginity is contrasted with Eve’s disobedience and concupiscence. It is clear that, to the earliest Christians, the coming of God in flesh was meant to bring about a New Israel that would prepare the world for the New World that will be established upon Christ’s Second Coming. Part of this New Israel is without a doubt a priesthood—a priesthood that is, in imitation of the Levitical archetype, a paternal priesthood and a human priesthood. This new priesthood will be upholders and enforcers of the Law and they will be preachers and teachers through example. Who fits this description better than the Apostles themselves? Christ sends them forth with the words, “He that receiveth whomsoever I send receiveth me; and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me” (Jn. xiii, 20), indicating the way in which the priesthood precedes Christ as His servants. Again, the Evangelist Matthew relates the Apostles receiving authority, both in Mt. xvi, in which He gives them the “keys to the Kingdom” and in Mt. xviii, in which He repeats his promise that “Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”. Likewise, the Apostles are imperfect and human—they bicker and fight among each other, and their leader, S. Peter, not only denies Christ but potentially abuses his authority in Antioch when he enters a conflict with S. Paul over the Mosaic Law. The priesthood, however, can tolerate these imperfections—it is, after all, an institution of human beings.

In the same epistle in which the High Priesthood of Christ is established, the Apostle clearly says: “Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge” (Heb. xiii, 4). If we may accept that the priest, being human, can have human faults, and can be forgiven this sinfulness, as Aaron was, in what way can we deny him a human virtue, that which “is honourable in all”? It is for this reason that Biblical strictures are placed on the priesthood in First Epistle to Timothy:

If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (for if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?) Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. Likewise, must the deacons be grave, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre; holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless. Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things. Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus. (I Tim. iii, 1-13 – my emphasis)

The first and most important point to be made is that the word ἐπίσκοπος, which is rendered correctly as “bishop” here better corresponds to the words “pastor” or even “priest” (usually designated by the word πρεσβύτερος in later texts) – at this time in the Early Church, the Apostles yet lived and appointed leaders for the local churches but did not see fit to appoint anyone to succeed them directly, as the office of Bishop would eventually become—elders for the elders (presbyters, those who performed sacraments) of individual parishes. Therefore, it has been the received interpretation of the Apostle here that a priest “must be the husband of one wife”: in either case, this is definitive proof that mandated clerical celibacy was unknown in the Apostolic Age. The physical example set by Christ and S. John the Baptist of not taking a wife was kept by hermits and the kind of men who would eventually become the monastics of the Church during the persecutions and the Councils—not by ordinary priests and pastors of the flock. This also demonstrates a clear consistency in the discipline of the Christian and the Levitical priesthood, even though the Christian priesthood was taken to supersede and exceed the Levitical priesthood in authority and significance to the People of God.

Also significant here is the claim that no man who cannot rule over his house can rule over the Church—but then a man must have a house to rule. This is impossible without the aforementioned bond between father and child, especially father and son. The man who oversees ordinary believers—that is, not the head of a monastic gathering or order—must have mastered the most elementary responsibilities of his flock, the most important of which is the duty of fatherhood itself. If a man has no experience, knowledge, or success in guiding and mastering his physical children, of what use shall he be to his spiritual children? More importantly, being unable to pass on the role of priesthood and elder to his sons, what success will he have in training up spiritual sons who can guide others to Christ and Salvation?

S. Peter calls the Christian Church “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people” (I Pet. ii, 9)—or, more properly, using the Greek γένος, “a chosen race, kindred, or tribe”. Tribes, ethnic kindreds, and peoples are both horizontal and vertical social entities: they extend outward, such that people of the same stock feel a kindred bond, but only because they extend backward and forward from common ancestors to common descendants. If the Church as a whole is envisioned by S. Peter as a race, a nation, a people, it would follow that the elders of the same part of this broader horizontal and vertical relationship. Certainly, the Church does not and was never intended to supersede blood bonds of physical nations and tribes, but likewise, when the Apostle speaks in analogy this does not offer us the freedom to deny the literal meaning of his words. An elder clearly is meant to have both physical and spiritual sons, some of whom will succeed him in his presbytery. The most reliable line is the physical, for it guarantees a line of succession that grants stability to a community because, in a healthy society, at least, there is always a line of descendants such that a community will never be without leadership and only rarely need struggle with the anxiety of newly chosen leadership. Just as the pre-Christian and non-Christian peoples had a priestly caste in their society, so too the young Church clearly designates a structure of leadership with all of the fixtures of an inherited caste, with priesthood passed from father to son just as among the Levitical archetype, guaranteeing the survival of God’s people through the preservation of their physical and their ecclesiastic racial community. This is not to the exclusion of new members, as among the heathen, but it preserves a familial and tribal core to priesthood consistent with the original people of Israel.

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