I carry on an ongoing dialogue with one of my best friends about the teachings of the Catholic Church and how those teachings can stand vis-à-vis Scriptural texts that seem to contradict the essence of the teaching.
Recently, the topic of our discussion turned to St. Paul's writing in his first letter to St. Timothy about the qualifications for a bishop (cf. 1 Tim. 3:1-7).
Specifically, my friend wanted to know my take on St. Paul's admonition that a bishop should be a "husband of one wife." Follows is my response.
1. Scriptural text
First, let's look at the Scripture in question in context:—
"1 A faithful saying: If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desires good work. 2 It behoves therefore a bishop to be blameless, the husband of one wife, sober, prudent, of good behavior, given to hospitality, a teacher, 3 not given to wine, no striker, but modest, not quarrelsome, not covetous, but 4 one that rules well his own house, having his children in subjection with all chastity." (Douay-Rheims Version).
Here is the Greek of the same passage:—
1 Πιστὸς ὁ λόγος: εἴ τις ἐπισκοπῆς ὀρέγεται, καλοῦ ἔργου ἐπιθυμεῖ. 2 δεῖ οὖν τὸν ἐπίσκοπον ἀνεπίλημπτον εἶναι, μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα, νηφάλιον, σώφρονα, κόσμιον, φιλόξενον, διδακτικόν, 3 μὴ πάροινον, μὴ πλήκτην, ἀλλὰ ἐπιεικῆ, ἄμαχον, ἀφιλάργυρον, 4 τοῦ ἰδίου οἴκου καλῶς προϊστάμενον, τέκνα ἔχοντα ἐν ὑποταγῇ μετὰ πάσης σεμνότητος:
To help us gain insight into the Greek, and to see how well our English versions (both the version you're using, which I would bet is the ESV and the Douay-Rheims which I chose) are rendering the Koine, let's refer to St. Jerome's Latin Vulgate of the New Testament. Now I know that the Bible wasn't written in Latin, but St. Jerome was writing in the 4th century A.D. (the 300s), when people were still speakingKoine as the language of everyday use.
The Latin that he translates into is very stable and has been largely unchanged since the time of Cicero and Caesar Augustus (early 1st century). In other words, by looking to the Vulgate, we can get an idea of what everyday Koine speakers would have thought St. Paul was trying to say only 200 years before.
1 Fidelis sermo : si quis episcopatum desiderat, bonum opus desiderat. 2 Oportet ergo episcopum irreprehensibilem esse, unius uxoris virum, sobrium, prudentem, ornatum, hospitalem, doctorem, 3 non vinolentum, non percussorem, sed modestum : non litigiosum, non cupidum, sed 4 suæ domui bene præpositum : filios habentem subditos cum omni castitate.
As we can see, there is a pretty direct parallel in all three textual sources with the original Greek. "Mias gunaikos andra" is literally, as you pointed out, a "one wife man." Similarly, St. Jerome renders that as "unius uxoris virum," or "one wife man" in the Latin.
Elsewhere in the text, we see the bishop required to live "meta pases semnotetos," which roughly correlates to "after all modesty" or "with all modesty." Interestingly, St. Jerome translates "semnotetos" with the Latin word "castitate," which means "chastity, virginity, ritual sexual purity" instead of either "modestia" (restraint/modesty) or "pudicum" (chastity/modesty). In the English, we see it rendered "with all chastity" in the Douay-Rheims.
In the ESV, it is interesting to see that the text is referred not to the bishop, but rather it is placed as a modifier adjective of the bishop's children, just mentioned, and rendered "submissive." There is no reference in the ESV text to modesty or chastity. It seems that "semnotetos" is translated as "dignity." Its prepositional phrase, which we can see in the Greek is located at the end of the sentence, is relocated to the beginning of the sentence. Finally, the preposition "meta," which means "with" or "after" (in the sense, "after their kind") is changed by the ESV to "in," which would translate the Greek word "en," as it is used, for example, in 1 Tim. 3:16b ("Os ephanerothe en sarki," "He was manifested in the flesh"). I think the choices made by the ESV translators in rendering these verses give me difficulty in relying on it.
Perhaps we could use the King James Version as an acceptable middle ground? It was translated by Protestants, but it relies heavily on the prior work of the Douay-Rheims translators and seems to me to be more faithful to the Greek text itself. The KJV renders our two texts of interest as "the husband of one wife" and "with all gravity" (cf. 1 Tim. 3:2, 4).
2. Discussion of the discipline of clerical celibacy
Next, I think it is important to take a brief detour from our discussion of the Biblical text to examine what the Church holds with respect to the discipline of clerical celibacy: who is supposed to be celibate and why.
It is important to emphasize from the beginning that celibacy for deacons and priests is a discipline of the Church. In other words, the Church does not teach that this is a doctrine -- something contained in the Deposit of the Faith handed down from Jesus to the apostles and to their successors the bishops. Instead, it is a prudential judgment of the Latin, or Western, Church, that has Biblical foundations and practical benefits.
As the Church teaches in her Catechism:—
All the ordained ministers of the Latin Church, with the exception of permanent deacons, are normally chosen from among men of faith who live a celibate life and who intend to remain celibate "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" (Mt. 19:12). Called to consecrate themselves with undivided heart to the Lord and to "the affairs of the Lord" (1 Cor. 7:32), they give themselves entirely to God and to men. Celibacy is a sign of this new life to the service of which the Church's minister is consecrated; accepted with a joyous heart celibacy radiantly proclaims the Reign of God (cf. Presbyterorum ordinis ("On the Ministry & Life of Priests") 16).
The Catechism references two important Scriptural texts regarding optional celibacy: Matthew 19:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 7:32-33, 38. Though the Church does not rely upon "proof texts," she does see in these Scriptures important bases for the apostolic discipline of clerical, and indeed monastic, celibacy.
In the first text from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Jesus says:
"Not all can accept [this] word, but only those to whom that is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it."
The King James Version renders the same text in this way:
"All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it."
Both texts render the Greek "εὐνοῦχοι" ("eunuchs") in terminology that emphasizes that the man in question is either not available for the marital act or has made himself unavailable for it for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus also emphasizes, as St. Paul later does, that this is both a choice and a difficult choice (cf. 1 Cor. 7).
Most Protestants are surprised to learn that not all Catholic priests are celibate. Indeed, the long-standing tradition of the Eastern Churches is that deacons and priests receive the Sacrament of Matrimony before they are given the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
There are also converts from the Lutheran and the Anglican communions who were ministers in those faiths before becoming Catholic -- then, once they had been accepted, confirmed, and given first holy communion, they received a fast-track priestly education followed by the Sacrament of Holy Orders. In all these cases, these men exercise valid Catholic priesthood -- but they do so in a tradition outside the discipline of the Latin or Western Church.
The Catechism describes the situation of married clergy within the Church:—
"In the Eastern Churches a different discipline has been in force for many centuries: while bishops are chosen solely from among celibates, married men can be ordained as deacons and priests. This practice has long been considered legitimate; these priests exercise a fruitful ministry within their communities (cf. Presbyterorum ordinis ("On the Ministry & Life of Priests") 16). Moreover, priestly celibacy is held in great honor in the Eastern Churches and many priests have freely chosen it for the sake of the Kingdom of God. In the East as in the West a man who has already received the sacrament of Holy Orders can no longer marry." [Emphasis added].
It is also important to understand that celibacy did arise overnight. Though the seed of the discipline was planted by Jesus in Matthew 19 and by St. Paul in his first letter to the Church in Corinth, the initial posture of St. Peter and the apostles was that of continence: the mutually voluntary "abstinence from even the licit gratifications of marriage" ("Continence." The Catholic Encyclopedia (1908)). As Tertullian wrote in the Second Century: "Peter alone do I find — through the mention of his 'mother-in-law' — to have been married. ... The rest [of the apostles], ... I understand them to have been either eunuchs or continent" (Tertullian, On Monogamy, ch. VIII).
Writing in 1967, Pope Paul VI wrote, "In Christian antiquity, the Fathers and ecclesiastical writers testify to the spread through the East and West of the voluntary practice of celibacy by sacred ministers because of its profound suitability for their total dedication to the service of Christ and his Church. The Church of the West, from the beginning of the Fourth Century [300s], strengthened, spread, and approved this practice by means of various provincial councils and through the [Popes]" (Paul VI, Sacerdotalis caelibatus ("On the Celibate Priesthood"), 35-36).
To sum up:
• The Catholic Church is made up of two broad traditions, Eastern and Western;
• In the Western tradition, it has been the discipline of the Church beginning in the Second Century (late 100s) that bishops must be continent (refraining from all sexual relations, even if they are married);
• By the Fourth Century (300s), bishops and priests must be celibate and continent (neither married nor engaging in sexual relations)
• A man who has received the Sacrament of Matrimony may validly receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders to become a deacon or a priest;
• Once a man has received the Sacrament of Holy Orders, he may not validly receive the Sacrament of Matrimony (i.e., if a married priest's wife dies, he may not remarry; an unmarried man who is a priest may not later marry); and
• In the Eastern tradition, and in special cases with Protestant converts, married men exercise Catholic diaconate and Catholic priesthood even today.
3. Application of the Scriptural text to the discipline
Returning to the text of St. Paul's first letter to St. Timothy, we can see, as we have described above, that St. Paul requires that a bishop have only one wife. This is consistent with several principles we have already seen in our discussion of the discipline of clerical celibacy:—
First, we have seen that continence within marriage was the initial posture of both some of the apostles (including St. Peter) and some of the early bishops of the Church.
Second, St. Paul's injunction in 1 Timothy 3, when considered in light of Jesus' statements in Matthew 19 and St. Paul's opinions in 1 Corinthians 7, seems to be a concession rather than a normative assertion. In other words, Paul is requiring that a Bishop have only one wife and that he cannot remarry if his wife should die.
Finally, this is by no means (again, when viewed in light of the whole witness of Scripture and Tradition) a requirement that a bishop be married, as some have argued. Indeed, the rest of Scripture and the history of the early Church demonstrate that this was completely outside the experience or understanding of the Church and her ministers.
We may also point out that while some may argue that the "with all chastity" component of verse 4 refers to the children of the bishop, it would make more sense in light of the historical record and the witness of Scripture that St. Paul is again referencing his preference for a man's choosing to become a "eunuch" for the kingdom of heaven (cf. Mt. 19).
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The Catholic Church asks her priests "to be ... united with the Lord Jesus and ... closely conformed to him, denying [them]selves ... willingly and joyfully" ("Thursday of Holy Week: Chrism Mass." The Roman Missal. 3d ed., 2011. "Renewal of Priestly Promises"). For men of the West and for the past 1,700 years, that has meant a willing, joyful discernment of and embrace of a complete renunciation of the beautiful gift and sacrament of holy matrimony for the love of God and the sake of His People.