Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Calvin's and Luther's Irrational Antipathy Towards Clerical Celibacy

[Excerpts from my book, The Catholic Verses: 95 Bible Passages That Confound Protestants, published by Sophia Institute Press in 2004]

Matthew 19:12 (RSV): 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.

John Calvin comments:

[W]hat is their species of vows? They offer God a promise of perpetual virginity, as if they had previously made a compact with him to free them from the necessity of marriage. They cannot allege that they make this vow trusting entirely to the grace of God; for, seeing he declares this to be a special gift not given to all (Mt. 19:11[-12]), no man has a right to assume that the gift will be his. Let those who have it use it; and if at any time they feel the infirmity of the flesh, let them have recourse to the aid of him by whose power alone they can resist.

(Institutes, IV, 13, 17)

This is rather odd reasoning. Would anyone think this is a clear grappling with the biblical text? First, Calvin assumes that monks couldn’t follow God’s call by “trusting entirely” His grace. How he knows this, we are not told. But in any event it is obviously no argument; rather, merely a subtle form of personal attack against an entire class of people.

Then he denies that the calling to celibacy can be known with certainty because the gift is not for everyone. This is a highly interesting assertion indeed: that no one can be sure of his gift or calling from God. Whence does Calvin derive such knowledge (certainly not from the Bible)? How does he then (assuming his desire to be logically consistent) possess certainty of his own calling? He has no problem, on the other hand, attributing inner certainty of a divine call for (Protestant) pastors. He casually assumes this, referring to:

. . . that secret call of which every minister is conscious before God, but has not the Church as a witness of it; I mean, the good testimony of our heart . . . This, as I have said, is indeed necessary for every one of us, if we would approve our ministry to God.

(Institutes, IV, 3, 11)

Yet when it comes to celibacy, all of a sudden Calvin arbitrarily changes his tune and concludes that “no man has a right to assume that the gift will be his.” Jesus teaches us that it is possible; why does Calvin (and why do so many Protestants today) doubt it? Then he switches back again and says, “Let those who have it use it.” We may be thankful, I suppose, that Calvin graciously allows them (despite his personal derision for the concept) to follow their consciences and the clear biblical warrant for such an estate (“each has his own special gift from God” – 1 Corinthians 7:7, below).

In context it is clear that Calvin’s objection is not biblically or rationally based, but stems from his hostility to the Catholic Church, expressed in strident disapproval of its distinctives (such as clerical celibacy). (This seems to be a common tendency of the harshest critics of the Church.) He refers, for example, to monks who have forsaken their solemn vows for an “honest kind of livelihood,” contrasted with those who “remained entangled in ignorance and error,” and bound by “extraneous chains, which are nothing but the wily nets of Satan” and “superstition” (Institutes, IV, 13, 21).


Elsewhere, Calvin follows the pathetic example of Luther’s many absurd and outrageous statements about the Catholic clergy:

. . . The sum of it all is that pope, devil, and his church hate the estate of matrimony, as Daniel says [17:37]; therefore he wants to bring it into such disgrace that a married man cannot fill a priest's office. That is as much as to say that marriage is harlotry, sin, impure, and rejected by God; and although they say, at the same time, that it is holy and a sacrament, that is a lie of their false hearts, for if they seriously considered it holy, and a sacrament, they would not forbid the priests to marry. Because they do forbid them, they must consider it unclean, and a sin, as they plainly say . . .

. . . the noises made by monks and nuns and priests are not prayers or praises to God. They do not understand it and learn nothing from it; they do it like hard labor, for the belly's sake, and seek thereby no improvement of life, no progress in holiness, no doing of God's will.

(On the Councils and the Churches, 1539; in Jacobs, V, 284, 286)

Calvin, in other places, seems to admit the possibility of a divine calling to celibacy, but on a temporary basis only: “Virginity, I agree, is a virtue not to be despised. However, it is denied to some and granted to others only for a time” (in McNeill, Institutes, II, 8, 42). He gives no biblical rationale for this opinion; rather, he keeps prattling on in this section (he so often appears as if he is lecturing Catholics like small children in his Institutes) about the perfectly obvious: that celibacy is a gift from God and that no one can do it without his power.

Calvin, then, has offered us nothing in the Bible to overthrow the Catholic position on clerical celibacy. His criticisms have left our view completely unaffected (and Luther’s opinion has even strengthened it).

1 Corinthians 7:7-9: I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.

1 Corinthians 7:32-38: I want you to be free from anxieties. 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. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. If any one thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry-it is no sin. But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. So that he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.

St. Paul reiterates Jesus’ teaching that it is good to be single, with the greater possibility for undistracted devotion to the Lord, if a person is called to it. “Each has his own special gift from God,” says Paul. If one is “aflame with passion” (one might take this as a synonym for pronounced sexual desire), then they are clearly called to marry. Marriage is good; singleness and celibacy is better (if one is called to it). Marriage brings different responsibilities and “problems.” Paul is not anti-marriage; he is simply offering some fairly evident practical wisdom.

John Calvin keeps up his tirade against celibacy in his Commentaries (for 1 Corinthians 7). He assumes that many Catholic clergy and religious have vowed celibacy without having the gift, assumes that many who do so despised marriage, that the very requirement produces all sorts of hideous and clandestine sexual sins, and that it is virtually impossible to live in a state of celibacy for very long:

What, in the meantime, has been done? Every one, without having any regard to his power, has, according to his liking, vowed perpetual continency . . . Virginity, I acknowledge, is an excellent gift; but keep it in view, that it is a gift . . . As for those who, despising marriage, rashly vowed perpetual continency, God punished their presumption, first, by the secret flames of lust; and then afterwards, by horrible acts of filthiness . . . no house was safe from the impurities of the priests. Even that was reckoned a small matter; for there sprung up monstrous enormities,

. . . We must also notice carefully the word continue; for it is possible for a person to live chastely in a state of celibacy for a time, but there must be in this matter no determination made for tomorrow.

Granted, Calvin wasn’t writing during the most spiritually upright time in Church history, and it was right to respond to the scandals of sexual corruption in the priesthood, but that doesn’t give him a warrant to disparage the biblical teaching and act as if celibacy is the root of all kinds of evil.

That’s not what St. Paul teaches; that isn’t how the disciples lived their lives. Calvin would have it that Jesus require his closest companions and associates to live in a state that was almost certain to produce “the secret flames of lust” and “monstrous enormities,” etc. This is clearly absurd.

As with so many doctrines, here again is the early Protestant propensity for throwing out the baby with the bathwater. If there was corruption or human failings, the Protestant solution was -- too often -- to throw out the institution rather than reform it. They claimed to be following the Bible in a special way that the “papists” were not; yet on this issue they couldn’t produce any compelling proof that celibacy of priests ought to be abandoned.

They simply didn’t like the celibacy requirement, and so they got rid of it. But Christian tradition doesn’t work that way. The Church is not at liberty to pick and choose or to discard received traditions at whim. Celibacy was not dogma but it was a very entrenched and successful practice in the Church. It is a disciplinary requirement, which can change, and has changed in Church history. We believe that it allows Catholic priests and religious to be closer to St. Paul’s ideal for “undistracted devotion to the Lord.”

The general thrust of Calvin’s long comment on 1 Corinthians 7 is to downplay every instance of St. Paul praising celibacy and to emphasize (to the greatest degree) lust and the supposed universal requirement for marriage. He is, therefore, eisegeting, because his concern is precisely the opposite of St. Paul’s: to disparage celibacy or virginity in practice as impossible and too easily overcome by the lusts of the flesh.

In conclusion, I would like to cite the wise words of G.K. Chesterton, written fourteen years before he became a Catholic. The paradox he notes is a marvelously ironic one: the Catholic Church is simultaneously attacked for being too “pro-family” and too “pro-children” but also for supposedly being against marriage and sexuality (see the last two chapters, as the Church, we are told, stifles marital and sexual happiness in its puritanical views on divorce and contraception), due to its high regard for the celibate life devoted to the Lord in a total giving of self. Chesterton’s point is that one need not choose; it’s a false dilemma from the start:

It is true that the historic Church has at once emphasized celibacy and emphasized the family; has at once (if one may put it so) been fiercely for having children and fiercely for not having children. It has kept them side by side like two strong colors, red and white, . . . the whole theory of the Church on virginity might be symbolized in the statement that white is a color: not merely the absence of a color. All that I am urging here can be expressed by saying that Christianity sought in most of these cases to keep two colors coexistent but pure. It is not a mixture like russet or purple; it is rather like a shot silk, for a shot silk is always at right angles, and is in the pattern of the cross.

(Chesterton, 97)


Calvin, John, Calvin's Commentaries, 22 volumes, translated and edited by John Owen; originally printed for the Calvin Translation Society, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1853; reprinted by Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI: 1979. Available online.

Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Henry Beveridge for the Calvin Translation Society, 1845 from the 1559 edition in Latin; reprinted by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (Grand Rapids, MI), 1995. Available online.

Chesterton, G.K., Orthodoxy, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image, 1959; originally 1908. Available online.

Jacobs, C.M., translator, Works of Martin Luther, Philadelphia: A.J. Holman Co. and the Castle Press, 1930; reprinted by Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1982 , six volumes.

McNeill, John T., editor and Ford Lewis Battles, translator, John Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960 (from 1559 edition).

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