Jesus and Marriage? A Theological Response

The celibacy of Jesus, and the Christian response to it, is ultimately a question of love, an intimate relation that is hard to grasp for modern man looking in from the outside. 

 

Early papyrus fragment of “wife of Jesus;” Jesus Christ Pantokrator mosaic; early papyrus page of St. Matthew’s Gospel.

On September 18, 2012, Karen L. King introduced an alleged Coptic papyrus fragment, which speaks of a wife of Jesus. The Christian response to the discovery of this fragment has been overwhelmingly historical in nature, focusing on either the inauthenticity of the fragment or the lack of evidence in the Gospels to support the claim. This approach has been significant, raising doubts on its authenticity based on striking parallels with the Gospel of Thomas and certain grammatical irregularities. Only to respond on this level, however, seems to play into the comments that King herself made during her press conference in Rome: “Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was not married, even though no reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim.” 1 In order to respond fully and adequately to a position alleging a marriage for Jesus, it is necessary to complement the historical response from a theological perspective. Even if the fragment were authentically from the fourth century, Christians could still be able to affirm confidently the celibacy of Jesus, drawing on the Gospels’ portrayal of, and the Church’s unbroken teaching in, the divine identity of Christ and his mission as Savior of the world. The need for such a response is significant given the climate of contemporary culture in relation to sexuality and its questions about the identity of Jesus in relation to sexuality and marriage. The debate surrounding the papyrus fragment is only the most recent in a series of popular presentations of Jesus having a wife. In response to these claims, this article seeks to demonstrate the overwhelming theological evidence necessary to support the Church’s teaching on Jesus’ celibacy. It will draw upon Scripture, the Church’s magisterium, and the Catholic theological tradition, especially St. Thomas Aquinas and Bl. John Paul II, to demonstrate the incompatibility of marriage with the identity and mission of Christ. It will conclude by addressing the root of the question in contemporary culture, which uses the question of marriage precisely to question this identity and mission.

The Testimony of the Magisterium and Tradition
The first argument in favor of Jesus’ celibacy is the unanimous witness of the Church through the centuries. It is true that Scripture is silent on the topic of a wife of Jesus, at least directly, but the Church has not been silent. Unlike an historical document, or a fragment dug out of the past for that matter, the Church has a living and continuous voice and witness concerning Christ. While there are no major pronouncements from a Council or any great theological treatises concerning Jesus and marriage, Christians have always held to Jesus’ celibacy. One example of a treatment of the topic from the Fathers, however, can be found from writings of St. Ambrose: “Don’t you see that Christ is chastity, Christ is integrity?” 2 Even if the topic were not regularly addressed, the absence of official pronouncements and theological controversy is significant in its own right. The issue was simply not controversial, with Jesus’s celibacy being accepted by orthodox Christians unanimously.

The place where the celibacy of Jesus is explicit in Christian thought is in the Church’s pronouncements on priestly celibacy. One example can be found in Pope Paul VI’s Sacerdotalis caelibatus: “Wholly in accord with this mission, Christ remained throughout his whole life in the state of celibacy, which signified his total dedication to the service of God and men. 3 Priestly celibacy is seen as an embodiment of Jesus’ own celibacy, necessarily linked to his mission on earth. Pope John Paul II also insists that “the Latin Church has wished, and continues to wish, referring to the example of Christ the Lord himself, to the apostolic teaching and the whole tradition that it is proper to it, that all those who receive the sacrament of Orders should embrace this renunciation ‘for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.’” 4  The celibate priesthood is attested to throughout the Church’s history, as the priest embraces the kingdom of God in the footsteps of Christ, who is “the Kingdom of God in person.” 5

The Argument from Fittingness
The question of Jesus’ celibacy cannot be simply an historically neutral question. It is not sufficient for Christians to think that Jesus could just have easily been married or not married. One way was better, and it was more fitting for Jesus to have done what was better. Scripture itself reflects this idea: “He has done all things well” (Mark 7:37). The argument from fittingness, employed along these lines, has an ancient pedigree which can be seen in its importance in Athanasius’ treatise, On the Incarnation of the Word. It was fitting for the Word to become Incarnate, because a man needed to compensate for the sin of man, but on the other hand only God could do so: “For being Word of the Father…He alone of natural fitness was both able to recreate everything, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be ambassador for all with the Father.” 6

Following a similar logic, St. Anselm in his work, Why God Became Man, explains the importance of fittingness in God’s action as follows: “What you say of God’s liberty and choice … is true; but we ought so to interpret these things as that they may not seem to interfere with his dignity. For there is no liberty except as regards what is best or fitting.” 7 While God is certainly free in his action, Anselm recognizes a kind of internal restraint by which God acts only in a manner consistent with his perfection. For God to do something that is less fitting would entail an affront to his wisdom, which orders all things well. Anselm further states: “For if Divine wisdom were not to insist upon things, when wickedness tries to disturb the right appointment, there would be, in the very universe which God ought to control, an unseemliness springing from the violation of the beauty of arrangement, and God would appear to be deficient in his management. And these two things are not only unfitting, but consequently impossible.” 8 Aquinas also uses the argument from fittingness extensively in his treatise on Christ in his Summa Theologiae, where he clarifies the way fittingness is necessary: “A thing is said to be necessary for a certain end in two ways. First, when the end cannot be without it … Secondly, when the end is attained better and more fittingly.” 9 The second kind of necessity, which does not speak of God directly, but his action in the world, serves as Aquinas’ basis for explaining the rationale of Christ’s life.

The logic of fittingness applies to Jesus and marriage, because if it had been better or more fitting for Jesus to be married, he would have done so. This marriage would have to have been in line with the perfection of his humanity, his identity as Son of God, and his mission on earth. If it did foster the reality and purpose of the Incarnation, this would have been made known in the Scripture, and accepted in the teaching of the Church. The absence of such witness simply cannot be neutral, since the matter is of great importance. The celibacy of Jesus must be fitting to him, and theology should be able to demonstrate this fittingness. Jesus would do only what was most in line with his identity and mission.

Turning to his mission, Jesus makes it clear that it focuses on two things.  The first one is total obedience to the Father: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me” (Jn 6:38). 10  The second is giving his life for the salvation of humanity: “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45). Jesus did not come to earth to contract a union with one particular person, but to manifest the Father through his complete and total obedience to him, and through this obedience, to save the world. This dual mission reflects the reality of the Incarnation: as Son of God, Jesus reflects his total union with the Father; as Son of Man, Jesus’s humanity exists precisely for the whole of humanity, to draw it into union with the Father. Archbishop Sepe addresses this issue as follows: “We can, therefore, affirm that chastity and virginity are not simply additional or secondary to Christ’s priestly existence, but belong to its very essence … In becoming priest by virtue of the hypostatic union, the Son of God committed himself to the Father, offering him his total and exclusive love, and consecrated himself entirely to performing the work of redemption.” This foundation of Jesus’ mission will be used in the arguments that follow. Is marriage fitting to Jesus based on his divine unity with the Father, and his availability for all humanity?

The Priority of Celibacy
The argument from fittingness points to the fact that Jesus would have done what was best in relation to marriage. What do Scripture and the Church teach on the priority of celibacy in relation to marriage? In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus himself pronounces on the issue:

The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry.” But he said to them: “Not all men can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it” (Mt 19: 10-12).

Paul also is very clear on the matter:  “It is well for a man not to touch a woman;” “I wish that all were as I myself am;” “The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided” (1 Cor 7: 1; 3; 32-34). In addition, the Church has affirmed the priority of celibacy in its own definitive teaching. The Council of Trent, in its 24th session, very clearly articulates the spiritual superiority of celibacy: “If anyone says that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity, or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony; let him be anathema.” 11

This clearly indicates that in relation to choosing what is better for the soul, celibacy should be seen as superior to marriage. This would strongly indicate the fittingness of Christ’s own celibacy.

While Trent’s forceful affirmation of the priority of celibacy over marriage may put off modern readers (the context of the Reformation’s rejection of clerical celibacy must be kept in mind), it is significant that the Catechism of the Catholic affirms the priority of celibacy within its opening section on marriage: “Christ is the center of all Christian life. The bond with him takes precedence over all other bonds, familial or social (Lk 14:26; Mk 10:28-31). From the very beginning of the Church, there have been men and women who have renounced the great good of marriage to follow the Lamb wherever he goes, to be intent on the things of the Lord, to seek to please him, and to go out to meet the Bridegroom who is coming (Rev 14:4; 1 Cor 7:32; Mt 2:56). Christ himself has invited certain persons to follow him in this way of life, of which he remains the model.” 12 John Paul II also demonstrates the spiritual importance of the role of celibacy: “The consecrated life proclaims, and in a certain way anticipates, the future age, when the fullness of the Kingdom of Heaven, already present in its first fruits and in mystery, will be achieved, and when the children of the resurrection will take neither wife nor husband, but will be like the angels of God (cf. Mt. 22:30).” 13  Priests and religious, by accepting celibacy, follow in Christ’s own path of prioritizing the Kingdom, both within and also in their ability to focus on a mission within the world. This priority of the Kingdom in celibacy, both in focusing on God above all else and also in the gift of self to serve others, follows logically from Christ’s identity and mission.

The Difficulty of the Nature of Marriage
Returning to the question of fittingness in the Summa, Aquinas saw the fittingness of the Incarnation from the perspective of God’s goodness: “But it belongs to the essence of goodness to communicate itself to others, as is plain from Dionysius (Div. Nom., iv). Hence it belongs to the essence of the highest good to communicate itself in the highest manner to the creature.” 14 Read from a certain perspective, could this not be seen to support the argument for a marriage for Christ? Would not marriage create the closest union with a creature in becoming one flesh? This logic may have truth to it (as will be seen below), though the answer to an earthly union with one human being, once again, must be addressed in relation to the nature of Christ’s identity and mission.

Marriage has its own mission, which unites two human beings in a lifelong and exclusive relationship, ordered toward their own holiness and the raising of children. Aquinas speaks of this as follows: “Now the form of matrimony consists in a certain inseparable union of souls, by which husband and wife are pledged by a bond of mutual affection that cannot be sundered. And the end of matrimony is the begetting and upbringing of children: the first of which is attained by conjugal intercourse; the second, by the other duties of husband and wife, by which they help one another in rearing their offspring.” 15 This is clearly a partnership of two human beings that need each other’s help to advance in holiness, and to build up the kingdom of God on earth through the good of procreation. It entails a mission focused primarily on one person (including the family as well) and linked to the realization of marital and family goods on earth. Both the exclusivity and focus on temporal goods of marriage would have contradicted Jesus’ mission, to be completely for the Father and for all of humanity, and would be a more limited communication of God’s goodness.

Beyond the question of mission, marriage would also contradict the divine identity of Christ. Marriage draws two human beings into a profound personal unity. John Paul makes this clear in Familiaris consortio: “Conjugal love involves a totality, in which all the elements of the person enter—appeal of the body and instinct, power of feeling and affectivity, aspiration of the spirit, and of will. It aims at a deeply personal unity, a unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul; it demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive mutual giving; and it is open to fertility.” 16 Furthermore, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “the love of the spouses requires, of its very nature, the unity and indissolubility of the spouses’ community of persons, which embraces their entire life: ‘so they are no longer two, but one flesh.’” 17 Entering into a marital union would have meant that Christ’s body and soul would have been given to a human person so as to be one with that person.

This is a problem, however, because the total focus on the Father is not simply a question of mission. Jesus’s exclusive focus on the Father above earthly relations reflects his identity as the Son of God. As the Second Person of the Trinity, he is completely from and for the Father. His humanity taken on at the Incarnation is meant to serve as a conjoined instrument to manifest this divine reality and to draw others into it. 18 We could ask, therefore, whether Jesus as the Son of God could actually have entered into a marriage with a human person. His humanity was not his own to give to another human being. It is at once both a humanity for the Father as well as for all of God’s children, the Church.  To have entered into a human marriage, a complete gift of self that creates a unity of human persons, would contradict the total and complete unity of divine persons in the Trinity; to have entered into marriage would have been to prefer one other human person over and against all for whom the Son became human.

Furthermore, the unity of persons in marriage, which is based upon the equality of the persons entering into it, results in a mutual exchange of responsibilities and goods.  Could a marriage of Jesus and a human person really accomplish the goal of marriage to unite two human beings in marital goods such as the raising of children, mutual support, and increase in holiness? No human being would be equal to an earthly marriage with a divine person, and could not communicate and cooperate with this person with commensurability and mutual exchange. A human person could render no adequate service to Christ, except maybe in the production of offspring, though Christ certainly would be able to render assistance to a human person. The question is, given his mission, would marriage be the best way to assist humanity. Given the lack of commensurability on both the ontological level and in relation to mutual service, marriage would not be appropriate between Christ and a human person.

The Nature of Adoption
The only true equal cooperation in marriage between a human person and Christ would be in relation to children. Christ cannot enter into an earthly union of marriage, because he is a divine person, namely the Son of God, who entered into the Incarnation in order to save the world. It is still important, nevertheless, to address the issue of children in its own right, since it poses its own set of difficulties. Theologically speaking, possibly the best way to approach the issue of children in relation to Christ is through the notion of adoption. 19 Christ’s identity as Son of the Father is a crucial aspect of his mission. Because he is Son, through our union with him, we also can become sons of God. Paul proclaims this reality: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:14-17). This is the reality of Christ’s children, drawing humanity into his own sonship so as to share in his life with the Father.

Thus, Christ does not seek to create an earthly line of descent. Rather, the very purpose of the Incarnation, drawing on Athanasius once again, is that “He was made man that we might be made God.” 20 Further, John Paul, commenting on Romans 8, affirms the centrality of sonship in the Christian life: “Here, we are touching on the culminating point of the mystery of our Christian life. In fact, the name ‘Christian’ indicates a new way of being, to be in the likeness of the Son of God. As sons in the Son, we share in salvation, which is not only the deliverance from evil, but is, first of all, the fullness of good: of the supreme good of the son-ship of God.” 21 Due to the primacy of spiritual adoption in Christ’s mission, to have entered into marriage, an essential part of which entails offspring, would have obscured Jesus’ identity and mission. Not only would this be a sign of a narrower focus for Jesus’ mission (the attention needed to raise children), and contradict the spiritual superiority of celibacy, it would also create an ambiguous and dangerous position for the children. Physical sonship would obscure this mission and create descendants who could claim a pseudo-divine status, which could easily be used for improper purposes, based on their physical descent from Jesus. Rather than placing the focus on his otherworldly mission (“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jn 18:36), physical descendants would place emphasis on the material continuation of an earthly bloodline.

The Argument for Jesus’ True Marriage
The irony of this whole discussion of Jesus’ marriage is that while I have been rejecting the possibility of an earthly marriage for him, Jesus was actually married. Jesus’ true bride is not a singular earthly woman, but the Church as his mystical bride. This is fundamentally important to understanding Jesus’ mission. John the Baptist, while proclaiming the entrance of Christ in his mission, speaks in marital terms: “He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore, this joy of mine is now full” (Jn 3:29). We see the same at the very culmination of Scripture at the consummation of Jesus’ mission: “‘Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready…. And the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb’” (Rev 19:7-9). Jesus came precisely to marry, though his bride is a spiritual one, his Church, which is meant to encompass not one individual, but all of humanity.

This spiritual marriage required an earthly and physical celibacy so that Christ’s gift would be complete to his bride. Jesus’ marriage to the Church is definitive and exclusive; he is not polygamous, (though of course his monogamous marriage includes many souls). 22 Though a spiritual marriage, the Church is called “the Body of Christ,” because she is one flesh and spirit with him. “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? …. But he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (1 Cor 6:15, 17). The union of persons that we saw above in the nature of marriage has come to pass with Christ’s union with the Church. This is a complete union of mind (in faith) and body (the Eucharist), which is meant to produce offspring (baptism) as the Church grows in number. Paul shows us that this marriage was contracted, not in the normal human fashion, but through Christ’s giving “himself up for her, that he might sanctify her” (Eph 5:25-26). In this passage, Paul makes clear that the sanctity and sacramental nature of Christian marriage flows precisely from Jesus’ marriage to his bride, the Church. John Paul draws the two unions together as follows: “With an act of redemptive love, Christ loved the Church, and gave himself up for her. By the same act, he is united with the Church in a spousal manner, as the husband and wife are reciprocally united in marriage instituted by the Creator.” 23 Thus, Christian marriage can be seen as a participation in the marriage of Christ and the Church. In his Summa contra Gentiles, Aquinas makes this clear:

And, as in the other sacraments by the thing done outwardly, a sign is made of a spiritual thing, so, too, in this sacrament by the union of husband and wife a sign of the union of Christ and the Church is made; in the Apostle’s words: “This is a great sacrament, but I speak in Christ and in the church” (Eph 5:32). And because the sacraments effect that of which they are made signs, one must believe that in this sacrament, a grace is conferred on those marrying, and that by this grace, they are included in the union of Christ and the Church, which is most especially necessary to them, that in this way, in fleshly and earthly things, they may purpose not to be disunited from Christ and the Church. Since, then, the union of husband and wife gives a sign of the union of Christ and the Church, that which makes the sign must correspond to that whose sign it is. Now, the union of Christ and the Church is a union of one to one, to be held forever. For there is one Church, as the Canticle (6:8) says: “One is My dove, My perfect one.” And Christ will never be separated from his Church, for he himself says: “Behold I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world” (Mt 28:20); and, further: “we shall be always with the Lord” (1 Thes 4:16), as the Apostle says. Necessarily, then, matrimony as a sacrament of the Church, is a union of one man to one woman to be held indivisibly, and this is included in the faithfulness by which the man and wife are bound to one another. 24

This beautiful passage shows the height of Christian marriage, as the couple is drawn into the spiritual efficacy of Christ’s mission through this sacrament. The denial of an earthly bride for Christ, therefore, does not demean marriage. It affirms the importance of marriage by rooting it in the nuptial love of Christ for every human soul. Christ’s celibacy is necessary to preserve the reality of his true marriage to the Church, which is not confined to this world, but will be binding for eternity.

Conclusion: The Role of Culture in the Debate
The popularity of the fragment’s presentation is due not so much to its historical significance, but to its connections with popularly conceived ideas of Jesus in contemporary culture. The resonation with a simply human Jesus abounds, and was brought to prominence in Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code. Brown himself relied on the speculations of the book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which asserts not only a marriage of Christ to Mary Magdalene, but also an historical bloodline of Christ’s descendants. Once again, it is a mistake only to judge this claim historically (though this can and should be done), but rather it is necessary to engage its theological roots. The authors, Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln, assert:

The symbolic significance of Jesus is that he is God exposed to the spectrum of human experience—exposed to the first-hand knowledge of what being a man entails. But could God, incarnate as Jesus, truly claim to be a man, to encompass the spectrum of human experience, without coming to know two of the most basic, most elemental facets of the human condition? Could God claim to know the totality of human existence without confronting two such essential aspects of humanity as sexuality and paternity? We do not think so. In fact, we do not think the Incarnation truly symbolizes what it is intended to symbolize unless Jesus were married and sired children. The Jesus of the Gospels, and of established Christianity, is ultimately incomplete—a God whose incarnation as man is only partial. 25

Modern culture has placed sexuality at the heart of the human experience, though this experience itself is a fallen one. Pope John Paul pinpoints this difficulty in his Theology of the Body: “The modern mentality is accustomed to thinking and speaking about the sexual instinct, transferring onto the level of human reality what is proper to the world of living beings, of animals.” 26 In this context, it is not a surprise that Jesus’ celibacy would not be understood. Celibacy itself confronts the distorted notion of sexuality today, and challenges it to see beyond itself. John Paul, therefore, sees celibacy in general as the response of the soul to the chaste, and yet nuptial, love of Christ:

In this way, continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, the choice of virginity or celibacy for one’s whole life, has become in the experience of Christ’s disciples and followers, the act of a particular response of love for the divine Spouse. Therefore, it has acquired the significance of an act of nuptial love, that is, a nuptial giving of oneself for the purpose of reciprocating in a particular way the nuptial love of the Redeemer. It is a giving of oneself understood as renunciation, but made above all out of love. 27

The celibacy of Jesus, and the Christian response to it, is ultimately a question of love, an intimate relation that is hard to grasp for modern man looking in from the outside. A better understanding of marital love and sexuality is needed, and also a better grasp of Jesus himself.

In order to respond to the question of Jesus and marriage today, therefore, there must be an evangelization of the culture within the context of the New Evangelization. 28 The mentality toward Jesus embodied in the quote from Holy Blood, Holy Grail indicates that the really pressing need in our culture is to re-proclaim Jesus’ true identity as the Son of God, and the nature of his mission as the Savior of the world. John Paul affirms this need: “The Church cannot fail to proclaim that Jesus came to reveal the face of God, and to merit salvation for all humanity by his cross and resurrection.” 29 Faith in these realities, as attested by Scripture and Tradition, leads us not only to reject false notions of Christ, such as his marriage, but also clearly points to the spiritual relationship of the soul to Christ, sharing in his sonship and ultimately entering into his wedding feast. Responding to this invitation from Christ is the only true answer for our culture, which seeks to bring Christ down to the level of an ordinary human person. When he is accepted as the Son of God, then the soul can share in his divinity. Rejecting Jesus in his fullness is ultimately a rejection of the true vocation of the human soul. The question of Jesus’ marriage is a new opportunity to address the crisis of faith today, and to proclaim the truth about the Son of God Incarnate.

  1. B. D. Colen, “HDS Scholar Announces Existence of a New Early Christian Gospel from Egypt,” Harvard Divinity School, (September 18, 2012), http://www.hds.harvard.edu/news-events/articles/2012/09/16/hds-scholar-announces-existence-of-new-early-christian-gospel-from-egypt, (accessed October 22, 2012). King continues: “This new gospel doesn’t prove that Jesus was married, but it tells us that the whole question only came up as part of vociferous debates about sexuality and marriage. From the very beginning, Christians disagreed about whether it was better not to marry, but it was over a century after Jesus’ death before they began appealing to Jesus’ marital status to support their positions.”
  2. St. Ambrose, De Virginitate, 18, quoted in Archbishop Crescenzio Sepe, “The Relevance of Priestly Celibacy Today” (January 1, 1993), The Holy See, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cclergy/documents/rc_con_cclergy_doc_01011993_revel_en.html, (accessed October 22, 2012).
  3. Pope Paul VI, Sacerdotalis caelibatus (June 24, 1967), §21.
  4. Pope John Paul II, Letter to All the Priests of the Church on the Occasion of Holy Thursday (April 8, 1979), §8. Emphasis added. Archbishop Sepe affirms the continuing connection between priestly celibacy and Christ’s own: “The first assertion we still make is that priestly celibacy is relevant because our Lord Jesus Christ is relevant who, consecrated Supreme and Eternal Priest by the Father, chose to live his priesthood in chastity and celibacy…. Christ willed, harmoniously and intimately, to combine the virginal state with his mission as eternal priest and mediator between heaven and earth.”
  5. Josef Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 1, From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, trans. Adrian J. Walker (New York: Doubleday, 2007), p. 146. Dives Barsotti summarizes the connection of the priest to Christ’s mission as follows: “Thus we may sum up the spirituality of the priest: he ought to live in intimate union with Christ, with him to be one act of praise to the Father and to be together too in serving others. He will live his union with Christ in self-giving to the brethren. Holiness and mission will thus be inseparable and their union will be the fruit of a chaste love. Celibacy, which might seem to isolate him, becomes the sign of a love which, by uniting him to Christ, also makes him a man for all” (Divo Barsotti, “The Spirituality of Priestly Celibacy,” (January 1, 1993), The Holy See, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cclergy/documents/rc_con_cclergy_doc_01011993_spiri_en.htm, (accessed October 22, 2012).
  6. St. Athanasius, “On the Incarnation of the Word,” trans. Archibald Robertson, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. 4, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1892), §7.
  7. St. Anselm, “Why God Became Man,” in Proslogium; Monologium: An Appendix in Behalf of The Fool by Gaunilo; And Cur Deus Homo, trans. Sidney Norton Deane (Chicago, The Open Court Publishing Company, 1903), 1.12.
  8. Ibid., 1.15.
  9. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae (ST), trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benzinger Brothers, 1948),  III, q. 1, a. 2. For more on the role of the fittingness in Thomas’ account of the Incarnation, see John F. Boyle, “Is the Tertia Pars of the Summa Theologiae Misplaced?” in Proceedings of the PMR Conference 18 (1993-1994), pp. 105-108.
  10. All scriptural citations are taken from the RSV.
  11. The Canons and Decrees of the Sacred and Oecumenical Council of Trent, ed. and trans. J. Waterworth (London: Dolman, 1848), canon x.
  12. Catechism of the Catholic Church (Citta del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993), §1618.
  13. Pope John Paul II, Vita Consecrata (March 25, 1996), §32.
  14. ST III, q. 1, a. 1.
  15. ST III, q. 29, a. 2.
  16. Pope John Paul II, Familiaris consortio (November 22, 1981), §13.
  17. Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1644.
  18. Aquinas describes the instrumentality of the humanity of Christ in relation to Christ’s operation as follows: “The instrument is said to act through being moved by the principal agent; and yet, besides this, it can have its proper operation through its own form, as stated above of fire. And hence the action of the instrument as instrument is not distinct from the action of the principal agent; yet it may have another operation, inasmuch as it is a thing. Hence the operation of Christ’shumannature, as the instrument of the Godhead, is not distinct from the operation of the Godhead; for the salvation wherewith the manhood of Christ saves us and that wherewith His Godhead saves us are not distinct; nevertheless, the humannature in Christ, inasmuch as it is a certain nature, has a proper operation distinct from the Divine, as stated above” (ST III, q. 19, a. 1, ad 2).
  19. Cf. ST, III, q. 23.
  20. St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, §54.
  21. Pope John Paul II, “Homily for World Day of Peace” (January 1, 1997), §3. Italics original.
  22. The argument for the monogamy of the priest in a marriage with the Church based on Christ’s monogamous marriage to the Church is ancient. It is based upon the passages in the pastoral epistles, which speak of a bishop having only one wife. Ignace de la Potterie masterfully summarizes the way the Fathers understood these passages in relation to Christ and the priesthood. First he lays out the passages: “For, according to the Pastoral Letters, the bishop ought to be unius uxoris vir (1 Tim 3:2), so ought the priest (Tit 1:6) and so ought the deacon (I Tim 3:12), whereas that formula (a technical one, it would seem) is never used for other Christians. So, here we have a special requirement for the exercise of the ministerial priesthood as such” (Emphasis original). Further down he links this to celibacy: “But what is the connection between monogamous marriage on the one hand, and continence on the other? Tertullian does not say, but here invokes the example set by Christ who, according to the flesh, was not married and lived in celibacy (he was not, therefore, ‘a husband of one wife’); yet, in the spirit, ‘he had one bride the Church’ (unam habens ecclesiam sponsam) {De monog., 5,7}.This doctrine of Christ’s spiritual marriage to the Church, here inspired by the Pauline text of Ephesians 5:25-32, was common in early Christianity; Tertullian saw this spiritual marriage as one of the main theological bases for the law of monogamous marriage: ‘because Christ is one and his Church is one’ (unus enim Christus et una eius ecclesia) {De exhort, cast., 5, 3}.” Finally, Augustine makes this teaching of Tertullian explicit in its connection to the episcopal/priestly office: “In this text {De bono conjugali}, where we find the formula unius uxoris vir being applied to the bishop, the whole accent falls on the fact that he, ‘the man,’ in his relations with his ‘wife,’ symbolizes the relationship between Christ and the Church. An analogous use of the phrase ‘man and wife’ occurs in a passage of De continentia: ‘The Apostle invites us to observe so to speak three pairs (copulas): Christ and the Church, husband and wife, the spirit and the flesh’{De continentia, 9, 23}. The suggestion these texts offer us for interpreting the stipulation unius uxoris vir applied to the (married) minister of the sacrament is that he, as minister, not only represents the second pair (husband and wife) but also the first: henceforth he personifies Christ in his married relationship with the Church. Here we have the basis for the doctrine which was later to become a classic one: Sacerdos alter Christus. Like Christ, the priest is the Church’s bridegroom” (Ignace de Potterie, “The Biblical Foundation of Priestly Celibacy,” {January 1, 1993}), http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cclergy/documents/rc_con_cclergy_doc_01011993_bfoun_en.html, {accessed October 22, 2012}. As one further note in relation to the Church’s thought on the priesthood and monogamy, de la Potterie states: “One further word on the canonical legislation of the Middle Ages. On various occasions, in penitential books, it is said that for a married priest to go on having sexual relations with his wife after ordination would be an act of unfaithfulness to the promise made to God. It would be an adulterium since, the minister now being married to the Church, his relationship with his own wife ‘is like a violation of the marriage bond’ {Stickler, L’évolution… (ut supra), p. 381}. This weighty accusation against a lawfully wedded, decent man only makes sense if something is left unexpressed because it is well-known, i.e., that the sacred minister, from the moment of his ordination, now lives in another relationship, also of a matrimonial type — that which unites Christ and the Church in which he, the minister, the man (vir), represents Christ the bridegroom; with his own wife (uxor) therefore ‘the carnal union should from now on be a spiritual one,’ as St Leo the Great said {Ep. ad Rusticum Narbonensem episc. Inquis. III: Resp.}” (ibid.).
  23. Pope John Paul II, “Christ’s Redemptive Love Has Spousal Nature” (General Audience, September 8, 1982), §6.
  24. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles, vol. 5, trans. Charles J. O’Neill (New York: Hanover House, 1957), IV, ch. 78, nos. 3-5.
  25. Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, Holy Blood, Holy Grail: The Secret History of Jesus, the Shocking Legacy of the Grail (New York: Delacorte Press, 2005), p. 409. Even Christian theologians will make arguments along these lines, arguing that Christ must be like us in every way without exception. This, of course, is true in relation to his sharing in our nature, but it does not mean sharing in identical experiences. Christ does not share in our experience of sin, and we do not share in his experience as a divine person. While Hebrews 2:17 says that Christ is “like his brethren in every respect,” it also clarifies the nature of this likeness in that “partook of the same nature” (Heb 2:14).
  26. Pope John Paul II, “Celibacy Is a Particular Response to the Love of the Divine Spouse” (General Audience, April 28, 1982) §3.
  27. Ibid., §1.
  28. Archbishop Sepe sees the issue of priestly celibacy, so closely linked to Christ’s own, as a crucial aspect of the New Evangelization: “As we see, the problem of the relevance of priestly celibacy is only one aspect, though a very important and sensitive one, of that more general and fundamental challenge that the Church is facing today and countering with ‘the new evangelization.’”
  29. Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris missio (December 7, 1990), §11.
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avatar About R. Jared Staudt, Ph.D.

R. Jared Staudt, Ph.D., is assistant professor of theology and catechesis at the Augustine Institute in Denver, Colorado, and the managing editor of the theological journal, "Nova et Vetera." His interests include systematic theology, especially in St. Thomas Aquinas, Catholic education, and the relationship of religion and culture.

Comments

  1. avatar MARTIN MALLON says:

    If Jesus got married and had children they would be Sons and Daughters of God; what about the Trinity? Jesus’ celibacy was necessary because He was God. Mr Staudt’s article would have been much shorter and more practical if he had started from this perspective instead of ignoring the elephant in the room.

  2. avatar Dr Andrew Beards says:

    I would like to congratulate Dr R. Jared Staudt on this fine piece. I am glad to see someone drawing attention to the magisterium on this question. To enhance further one’s appreciation of the fact of the celibacy of Our Lord as a doctrine taught repeatedly by the magisterium I have listed some further instances below.

    It is important also to grasp that in such instances, as Pius XII’s encyclical and the teaching of Lumen Gentium , the Church is explicit that this is passed down by the Apostles. The debate on the text at Vatican II is interesting in this regard. About 160 council Fathers insisted, and were heeded, that virginity for the kingdom is of Divine origin because it is founded on the example and teaching of the Lord. As Pius XII makes clear to us, it is in light of this tradition that Trent could define as de fide the evangelical superiority of the virgin state. (Turning the thing around, the Church could not and would not define such a dogma did it not hold definitely the virginity of Christ).

    With thanks,

    Dr Andrew Beards,
    Maryvale Institute

    The Perpetual virginity of Christ in the magisterium

    Vatican II Lumen Gentium, Chapter VI

    43. The evangelical counsels of chastity dedicated to God, poverty and obedience are based upon the words and examples of the Lord. They were further commanded by the apostles and Fathers of the Church, as well as by the doctors and pastors of souls. The counsels are a divine gift, which the Church received from its Lord and which it always safeguards with the help of His grace.
    44. …….Christ proposed to His disciples this form of life, which He, as the Son of God, accepted in entering this world to do the will of the Father. This same state of life is accurately exemplified and perpetually made present in the Church…….
    46. But especially they [the evangelical counsels] are able to more fully mold the Christian man to that type of chaste and detached life, which Christ the Lord chose for Himself and which His Mother also embraced.

    Vatican II Decree On Renewal of Religous Life, Perfectae Caritatis

    1. The sacred synod has already shown in the constitution on the Church that the pursuit of perfect charity through the evangelical counsels draws its origin from the doctrine and example of the Divine Master and reveals itself as a splendid sign of the heavenly kingdom. Now it intends to treat of the life and discipline of those institutes whose members make profession of chastity, poverty and obedience and to provide for their needs in our time.
    Indeed from the very beginning of the Church men and women have set about following Christ with greater freedom and imitating Him more closely through the practice of the evangelical counsels,

    Vatican II Decree On the Life and Ministry of Priests,

    16………….This sacred synod also exhorts all priests who, in following the example of Christ, freely receive sacred celibacy as a grace of God,

    Catechism of the Catholic Church

    915. Christ proposes the evangelical counsels…….entails for those who freely follow the call to consecrated life the obligation of practicing chastity in celibacy ….. 916 ….In the consecrated life, Christ’s faithful, moved by the Holy Spirit, propose to follow Christ more nearly,

    1618. …..From the very beginning of the Church there have been men and women who have renounced the great good of marriage to follow the Lamb wherever he goes, to be intent on the things of the Lord, to seek to please him, and to go out to meet the Bridegroom who is coming.114 Christ himself has invited certain persons to follow him in this way of life, of which he remains the model:

    Pius XII, Sacra Virginitas (encyclical 1954) (referred to in Optatam totius of Vatican II)

    19. If priests, religious men and women, and others who in any way have vowed themselves to the divine service, cultivate perfect chastity, it is certainly for the reason that their Divine Master remained all His life a virgin.

    32. This doctrine of the excellence of virginity and of celibacy and of their superiority over the married state was, as We have already said, revealed by our Divine Redeemer and by the Apostle of the Gentiles; so too, it was solemnly defined as a dogma of divine faith by the holy council of Trent,[57] and explained in the same way by all the holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church.

    Paul VI, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (encyclical 1967)

    21. Christ, the only Son of the Father, by the power of the Incarnation itself was made Mediator between heaven and earth, between the Father and the human race. Wholly in accord with this mission, Christ remained throughout His whole life in the state of celibacy, which signified His total dedication to the service of God and men.

    John Paul II, Vita Consecrate (Apostolic Exhortation 1996)

    The teaching on the evangelical counsels as an imitation of Christ, of which virginity is the first (it says) is passim in the document. See for example:

    Art 22. In this attitude of submissiveness to the Father, Christ lives his life as a virgin, even while affirming and defending the dignity and sanctity of married life. He thus reveals the sublime excellence and mysterious spiritual fruitfulness of virginity.

    Decree on the Life and Ministry of Priests 1994

    59. The example is Christ, who in going against what could be considered the dominant culture of his time, freely chose to live celibacy. In following him the disciples left “everything” to fulfil the mission entrusted to them (Lk 18:28-30).
    For this reason the Church, from apostolic times, has wished to conserve the gift of perpetual continence of the clergy and choose the candidates for Holy Orders from among the celibate faithful (cf 2 Thes 2:15; 1 Cor 7:5; 9:5; 1 Tim 3:2-12; 5:9; Tit 1:6-8).(188)

  3. avatar Jonah says:

    This was excellent. Thank you for your work on it–it brought together and summarized many beautiful sources on the issue in a clearer way for me.

  4. avatar Frances says:

    Thank you for this excellent article. I brought to mind a passage from Teach Us To Prayer (Paulist Press 1975), by the late Dom Andre Louf; it reads in part:

    “”Jesus not only became a human being, but also a man, a person of the male sex. That is not something either accidental or arbitrary. The possibility that God could become a human being was latent only in the male sex. The man, after all, is a symbol of God’s mighty Love, the Love that redeems and saves. Whereas woman represents the humanity that God has chosen for redemption and bliss [the Church]. That is why Jesus was bound to become a man. In the male sex the profound mystery of His being was prefigured: Jesus is the very image of the Father, His Love, faithful and strong, for human beings.

    “But there the symbolic value of Jesus’ masculinity stops. Or rather, it is already as complete as it could be. To take one step further and enter upon marriage here on earth with a concrete woman, that for Jesus would have been a nonsense. In the mystery of His proper nature, He, The God-Man, has received more than marriage with just one woman could give. For it is He Himself who give purpose and meaning to every marriege between human beings.

    “On the one hand the fulness of God’s Love was in Him, God’s tenderness as well as His toughness, for He was Himself God. On the other hand in His twofold nature, as God and man, He was the peerless marriage, the perfect conjunction, in His own person, between the redeeming God and redeemed humanity. In His divine nature He is the gift beyond measure, and in His humanity He is receptiveness par excellence. Thus in His emotional and sexual life as a man all tension was resolved. For His love was already satisfied and sated, was deeper and wider than He could have experience in a marriage. His physical status as man-and-celibate is the token of this. “

  5. avatar MARTIN MALLON says:

    The nature of any children Jesus would father is being ignored. Why?
    Celibacy is a church discipline, yet arguments are put forward attempting to make celibacy more than a discipline. One such argument for celibacy in the priesthood is that Jesus did not get married. The logic is that if Jesus did not get married, then his priests should not get married. However, we must remember that this argument for celibacy, based on the imitation of Jesus Christ as a model for priests, ignores the fact that Jesus Christ is the Second Person of the Trinity, God and man. How could he marry? If He and his wife had children what would they be? The reason for Jesus being celibate was because He was God; not to suggest that priests should be celibate, otherwise he would not have called eleven Apostles, most of whom were married.
    Hence, when priests emulate Jesus they should concentrate on everything else he taught and did; there is no reason to waste time and energy trying not to do something which was never a viable option for Jesus.
    Some would argue that because of the two natures of Jesus Christ, human and divine, he could have chosen, as a true human being, to get married. The argument asserts that Jesus did not marry because he was concentrating on his mission from his Father and that this mission and love of his Father consumed him and, therefore, he did not get married.
    This is reasonable, as far as it goes. Of course, Jesus could, physically, produce human kids. However, the point this argument misses is that these children would also be the children of God. The problem with Jesus marrying is that while He had two natures, God and man, He was only one person, the Second Person of the Trinity.
    Jesus could have married and it would be the Second Person of the Trinity who got married and fathered any children.
    Hence, the dilemma; what would the children of the Second Person of the Trinity and His wife be? Clearly, like both their parents, they would have a human nature, but the Second Person of the Trinity is also Divine.
    Jesus had a human mother and a Divine father; and He had a human nature and a Divine nature. What would the children be like of one human parent, say Mary Magdalene, and a parent who has a Divine nature as well as a human nature, say Jesus? It would be foolish to speculate here as to the exact outcome, but the children would be the children of the Second Person of the Trinity and, therefore, the children of God; the actual offspring of the Second Person of the Trinity. What would their nature consist of? There is really no need to speculate as Jesus remained celibate so that this situation would not arise.
    If this analysis is correct we can understand why Jesus “had” to be celibate. It also explains why he picked mostly married men to be the Apostles; if He valued celibacy highly for those of only one, human, nature He could have picked single men. He did not.
    Celibacy, as a requirement of the priesthood, is a church discipline and no more. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council made this explicit when stating that “Celibacy is not required by the priesthood itself, as is evident in the practices of the early Church, and in the tradition of the Eastern Churches” (No. 16 of the Decree Concerning the Ministry and Life of the Priest).
    Our vocations are a means to an end, a path to holiness, but they are not the end in themselves. For example, priests may leave the priesthood, people divorce and remarry, and this does not mean that they are not called to holiness. Celibacy, within the priesthood, is not the key issue. The call to holiness is the key issue, so whether we abandon or change our vocations, God never abandons His children and constantly calls us back to Him, to this holiness.

  6. avatar John Fisher says:

    The papyrus fragment mentioned had been proven to be a modern forgery. It seems to have been copied by a modern hand using a text from a modern book.

  7. avatar Rick says:

    I guess one biblical account, to me, seems to be proof by omission. On the Cross, Jesus takes great effort to ensure the continued protection of His Mother, but mentions no wife. By all accounts of His nature in the Bible and by His actions on th Cross, this seems very unlikely if He had a wife. He surely would have made provision for her care as well.

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  2. [...] The celibacy of Jesus, and the Christian response to it, is ultimately a question of love, an intimate relation that is hard to grasp for modern man looking in from the outside.    Early papyrus fragment of “wife of Jesus;” Jesus Christ Pantokrator mosaic; early papyrus page of St. Matthew’s Gospel. On …read more [...]

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