Let’s consider the historical facts of the Catholic Church.
The earliest Christian leaders were largely married men. In Matthew 8:14-15: it states: “when Jesus was come into Peter’s house, he saw his wife’s mother laid, and sick of a fever.”) According to Clement of Alexandria (Stromata, III, vi, ed. Dindorf, II, 276), Peter was married and had children and his wife suffered martyrdom. Pope Clement I wrote: “For Peter and Philip begat children”.
However, there is a hint for celibacy in Luke 18:28-30. Jesus responds to Peter’s statement that he and the other disciples had left all and followed him by saying there is “no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not receive back an overabundant return in this present age and eternal life in the age to come.”
A strong argument for priests to marry is in Corinthians 7:5-8:
Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. This I say by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.
The Council of Elvira (306) is often seen as the first to issue a written regulation requiring clergy to abstain from sexual intercourse. Its canon 33 decreed: “Bishops, presbyters, deacons, and others with a position in the ministry are to abstain completely from sexual intercourse with their wives and from the procreation of children. If anyone disobeys, he shall be removed from the clerical office.” It is disputed whether this canon mandated permanent continence or only, as is the practice in the Eastern Orthodox Church even for the laity, periodical continence before partaking of the Eucharist and Maurice Meigne even interpreted it as meaning: “It was decided to forbid keeping back from one’s wife and not producing children”.
In 387 or 390, or according to others in 400, a Council of Carthage decreed that bishops, priests and deacons abstain from conjugal relations: “It is fitting that the holy bishops and priests of God as well as the Levites, i.e. those who are in the service of the divine sacraments, observe perfect continence, so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God; what the Apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us also endeavour to keep… It pleases us all that bishop, priest and deacon, guardians of purity, abstain from conjugal intercourse with their wives, so that those who serve at the altar may keep a perfect chastity.”
The reason for this was simple.
The Directa Decretal of Pope Siricius (10 February 385) states: “We have indeed discovered that many priests and deacons of Christ brought children into the world, either through union with their wives or through shameful intercourse. And they used as an excuse the fact that in the Old Testament—as we can read—priests and ministers were permitted to beget children.”
However, not all Popes followed this example.
The father of Pope Damasus I (366–84)
was a bishop. Pope Felix III (483–92), whose father was almost certainly a priest, was the great-great-grandfather of Pope Gregory I the Great (590–604).
Pope Hormisdas (514–23)
was the father of Pope Silverius (536–37).
No statement is given on whether, among these, the children in question were born when their fathers were still laymen.
In recent years, the number of priests have dwindled.In 2008, 49,631 parishes in the world had no resident priest pastor.While the number of Catholics in the world nearly doubled between 1970 and 2008, growing from 653 Million to 1.166 Billion, the total number of priests declined from 419,728 to 409,166.This means that the ratio of laity to priests has nearly doubled in the last 40 years.
In the USA, the total number of priests has declined from 58,534 in 1981 to 52,227 in 1991 and 45,713 in 2001 (a 22 percent loss between 1981 and 2001). In every other group, including denominations in which membership has declined (e.g., the Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran churches), the total number of clergy has increased.
The Catholic Church will have to modernise, or better still, return to its roots, and reconsider the decision for priests not to marry. It would take a brave Pope to do this as he would go against hundreds of years of accepted practice. Will the next Pope be so brave?
I hope he will.