1 Corinthians 7:25-31
Paul makes an interesting assertion in his first letter to the Corinthians. After advising people not to marry if they are currently single, he says, "If you marry, however, you do not sin, nor does an unmarried woman sin if she marries; but such people will experience affliction in their earthly life, and I would like to spare you that." When I read that passage, I almost laughed out loud.
Having been married for decades, I can attest to the fact that marriage brings affliction! Despite the incredible joys, growth, and blessings that accompany a good marriage, it is extremely challenging and soul-stretching to live out the most intimate relationship possible on this earth, and to do so with another human being who is just as imperfect as I am.
With Paul absolutely convinced that the world was imminently coming to an end, he knew a marriage relationship would not have time to evolve and grow. More importantly, he could see the struggle of married people to balance their devotion to spouse and family with the crucial work of preaching the Gospel. Especially since his single-hearted focus was spreading the good news of Jesus Christ, he didn’t understand why anyone would want to split their devotion instead of wholeheartedly pouring out their lives in preaching and converting, saving as many souls as possible in the precious little time left.
I hear echoes of Paul in discussions about whether to make the discipline of priestly celibacy optional and allow a married priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church. Opponents assert that married priests would be divided in their loyalties rather than singularly devoted to ministering to the flock. That is necessarily true, and thus there will always be a need in the Church for celibate ministers, whether priesthood requires mandatory celibacy or not. Proponents say that the difficult task of deeply loving another in a committed relationship is in itself a way of preaching the Gospel, and provides the growth and experience necessary to better serve the flock. They also point out that if married priests were allowed, we’d have a lot more priests to share the work, therefore allowing for family time as well. The arguments offered on each side have valid points to make.
Paul is careful to clarify that his teaching on staying single is strictly his own opinion, as he has no "word" from God about it, and he readily allows for his followers to be married if they feel called to that life. In fact, Saint Peter was married, as were many disciples, priests, bishops, deacons, and ministers up through the first millennium of the Church.
Perhaps in the same way as Paul, we need to be open as a Church to seriously discussing the issue of priestly celibacy, prayerfully opening our hearts and minds to see where the Spirit is leading. We need to listen to the experience of singles and marrieds, religious brothers and sisters, deacons, priests and monks, lay ministers, and anyone whose life experience can contribute wisdom to the discussion. It would be interesting, for instance, to discover how the experiences of intentional community in orders like the Congregation of the Passion, who consciously become brothers and live a deeply communal lifestyle, distract from and/or feed their ministry.
That kind of broad-ranging exploration could go a long way in helping the Church discern the best discipline (or combination of disciplines) for priests. The goal is to find a resolution that, though it may be extremely difficult, will best witness to the Gospel, embody the God of love, and effectively draw people to faith. I don’t know what that resolution will be, but I do believe the hour has come to have the discussion. Regardless of the time we have left on this earth, we want to follow the Spirit and live in ways that help us wholeheartedly preach the good news of Jesus Christ.
Amy Florian is a teacher and consultant working in Chicago. For many years she has partnered with the Passionists. Visit Amy’s website: http://www.amyflorian.com/.