How Do Catholics View Peter’s Marriage with Clerical Celibacy?

Last week I was talking to a customer and the subject turned to Catholicism. At one point he said, “You know, Catholics believe in the celibacy of the priesthood. I wonder what they do with the fact that Peter was married?” Well, I have enough Catholic resources in the store that I did a little digging.

First, every Catholic would acknowledge that Peter was married. Two passages are pretty clear about this (Matt. 8:14-15; 1 Cor. 9:5). As I browsed our Catholic section one book jumped off the shelf: The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy by Christian Cochini (Ignatius Press).

He acknowledges that Peter was married since the Matthew passage clearly refers to his “mother-in-law.” He continues, “Let us note, however, that nowhere in the texts of the New Testament is there any explicit mention of Peter’s wife, a silence that caused St. Jerome to suggest that she may already have been dead when Peter was called by the Lord. Nor is there mention of any children that Simon might have had before his conversion. A fact so clearly attested by Scripture was of course accepted and confirmed by the entire patristic tradition.” (66) He does note that some patristic testimonies talk about children that Peter might have had. Some apocryphal works “credit Peter with a daughter, whom some even call Petronilla.” (67)

The idea that Peter’s wife died before his conversion would seem to be problematic in light of 1 Cor. 9:5 which talks about the wives of the apostles accompanying them on missionary journeys.

I consulted The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible (Ignatius Prress) on 1 Cor. 9:5. The note says the passage has been understood in different ways. The first option is “Paul may be stressing his right to be married to a Christian wife.” A second reading according to some church Fathers sees this “not of marriage, but of his right to be helped by a traveling female assistant (the word ‘wife’ can also be translated ‘woman’).” George Montague in his commentary on 1 Corinthians (in the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture series, Baker Academic) says this interpretation “would make the word gynē(‘woman, wife’) redundant, and hence the NAB translation ‘wife,’ with the consensus of modern scholars, is correct.” (151)

Second, in some respects Peter’s marriage is not all that problematic to the Catholic practice of a celibate clergy. There are married priests! In an article from The New Catholic Answer Bible (Our Sunday Visitor) entitled “Why Does the Church Require Celibacy for Priests?” it says: “We should note that the Church holds celibacy as the disciplinary norm of practice for priests; she allows for some exceptions. . . . Today many Catholic priests of the Eastern rite are married. And even in the Roman rite, a handful of married men (usually clergy converts from a non-Catholic tradition) have been given a special dispensation by Rome to be ordained as priests. The Church doesn’t teach as a part of the Catholic faith, then, that celibacy is an inherent quality of priesthood–part of its essence. But as St. Paul observes, celibacy has distinct advantages for the man who must give himself wholly to God in ministry to his Church.” (T-3)

Montague adds, “Aside from the freedom it gives to be more available to the people, celibacy of priests is a witness to the transcendent goal of the Christian life, the heavenly glorified state (age), where there will be neither marriage nor giving in marriage (Matt 22:30; Mark 12:25) and where all will be the bride of the Lamb (Rev 21:2, 9-10). That indeed is the witness of all who profess celibacy for the sake of the kingdom.” (1 Corinthians, p. 152)

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