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Paul, Female Priests, and Priestly Marriage

Updated on August 14, 2013
The Apostle Paul
The Apostle Paul
Image of Phoebe, an ancient deacon of the Church
Image of Phoebe, an ancient deacon of the Church
Did Christ call women to be priests of His Church?
Did Christ call women to be priests of His Church?
Many denominations of Christianity today have female priests and bishops
Many denominations of Christianity today have female priests and bishops

Paul’s epistles have been interpreted in countless ways throughout time. This plastic quality of his writings is a testament to the multiform social situations in which Christianity can, and has, flourished. In the early Christian church both Gnostics and those who would later be termed orthodox quoted Paul as an authority. Likewise, during the Reformation, both the Catholic Church and the Reformers believed they were following the true teachings of Paul and the Christian Church. Today, a similar heated dialogue is taking place today within the Catholic Church between so-called “liberal” and “conservative” factions. Two of the most hotly contested issues within this quarrel involve the body, namely the introduction of women into the priesthood and allowing the sacrament of marriage to take place within the priesthood. In order to understand this debate, and how each side interprets Paul, one must first consider the American secular religious environment, for the modern individual inevitably brings certain prejudices to his/her reading of the Pauline corpus. Accepting our post-modern perspective, we can then understand how each group responds to modernity and the post-modern issues of contextualization and interpretation, which influence their conception of Paul’s life, mission, and purpose. Boyarin’s reading of Paul is very closely in line with the liberal’s, for both believe he was concerned with universalization and equality. Indeed, certain tendencies within Paul’s writings, especially concerning circumcision, dietary laws, and the life of Jesus bolster this claim. Conversely, conservatives view Paul, along with N. T. Wright, in a much different light. For them, Paul is defining what is right and what is wrong in this final, short period between the Resurrection and Judgment. Thus, Paul’s proclivities are irrelevant and attempts to divine and apply them to the modern world are unacceptable and fly in the face of what Paul actually said. Ultimately, the dilemma surrounds the difficulty religion faces in the modern context, both exegetically and ethically.

The modern, American Catholic finds him/herself is a historically unique position. Firstly, America is perhaps the most thoroughly secularized country in the world, and this has numerous ramifications for religion. First of all, America is a pluralistic religious landscape. Unlike early medieval Europe, there exists no “one Church,” whose influence extends over every area of life and saturates one’s very existence. Instead, religion is, in many senses, restricted to one’s private life, and only enters the public sphere through the medium of the individual. Additionally, because there are countless “competitors” for one’s religious or spiritual affiliation, religious traditions act in ways quite similar to businesses, appealing to popular attitudes and preferences in order to appease the client in hopes that he/she will continue to offer support to the greater religious body. This tendency can give rise to the expectation that religion must please the individual, and if some teaching or practice is unpalatable then it can be removed (which, in my opinion, is about as antithetical to true Christianity as a perspective can get!). It would follow then, that many religious teachings that are contrary to modern American sensibilities (such as predestination, corporeal mortification, etc.) are commonly eliminated or severely downplayed. This tendency is not universally true, and applies to a greater degree to larger religious bodies, for smaller, sectarian, oftentimes fundamentalist groups, sometimes knowingly oppose post-modernity and its “liberal tendencies.” The Catholic Church, however, is the biggest Christian “denomination” in the world, and it seems to at least some degree, these principles apply. Aside from the pluralization and commodification of religion, there exists a specifically Christian philosophical dilemma that relates to living in our contemporary world. In the West today, and especially in America, people value their bodies, their sensual (not merely sexual) experiences, and the secular world. All this to say that virtues such as absolute chastity (not to mention mere celibacy before marriage), poverty, and patriarchy are in deep, commonly unspoken, conflict with notions of the goodness of the natural order (likely a by-product of science and beneficial technology) and gender equality. This tension was first identified by Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols and found theological expression in Altizer’s “The Death of God Theology.” To summarize, if one holds to a very orthodox, strict, especially Catholic religious practice, one must forsake certain experiences (such as sexual intercourse, if one is a priest, and a degree of economic affluence, to use the examples from above) in this world in order to achieve benefits and reward in the life to come. The alternative, which both Nietzsche and Altizer certainly chose, is to live this life without forsaking anything (Nietzsche might say, “without dulling instinct”) and accept the consequences if a world beyond does, in fact, exist. This argument unveils considerable problems for the liberal American Catholic. He/she desires to be faithful to the teachings of the Church, but also desires to reconcile them with modern conceptions of the value of the body, more specifically sexuality, and gender equality. Contrarily, conservative Catholics oppose this reconciliation vehemently, believing both marriage and women should not be involved with the priesthood. While numerous theological arguments can contribute to this dialogue, an attempt will be made instead to focus on the role the writings of St. Paul play in this discourse. One will find that while the content of his writings are important, what one perceives to be the meaning and purpose of his life and ministry actually color the debate much more richly.

Boyarin’s interpretation of Paul is thoroughly progressive and is definitely in line with the liberal Catholic’s conception of Paul. Thus, in recognizing how Boyarin and the liberal Catholic view Paul, one can then correctly understand how they interpret him and use him to justify their claims. Boyarin opens A Radical Jew, claiming that “the argument of this book is that [the] tension between the same and the different, in both gender and ethnicity, indicates the precise quandaries in which our sociocultural formation is trapped through the present…” and that these “cultural dilemmas…were first seriously encountered in the first century” (Boyarin, 8-9). Thus, already one can see that Boyarin and the liberal Catholic perceive current, modern predicaments present in a text composed approximately 2000 years ago. The consequences of this kind of reading allow one to contextualize Paul in his specific historical context, extracting the perceived themes and impulses of his life and mission, and apply them to today’s world. Paul’s central thrust, for Boyarin and the liberal Catholic alike, “was a profound concern for the one-ness of humanity. This concern was motivated both by certain universalistic tendencies within biblical Israelite religion and even more by…Hellenistic notions of universalism” (52). Using this impetus to understand Paul influences what specific writings Boyarin and the liberal Catholic will privilege in regards their arguments for female priests and the allowance of marriage in the priesthood.

The paradigmatic, “hermeneutical key” for Boyarin, and, I would argue, the liberal Catholic, is Galatians 3:28, which is even emblazoned on the front of Boyarin’s book: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” This sentiment can also be noted in Paul’s discourse concerning the Body of Christ. “For in the Spirit,” Paul claims, “we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13). This emphasis on the unity in Christ seems, in the context of this reading, to erase sexual difference, and could be used to argue that the gender of the priest is irrelevant, for all is sameness in Christ Jesus. Moreover, in Romans, Paul “commend[s] to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the lord as is fitting for the saints…” (Rom 16:1-2). This passage, very clearly, seems to indicate that a female was not only present in the hierarchy of the early church, but indeed was liked by Paul. Although textual support for female ordination and religious leadership is scant, the concepts described above by Paul are some of the most profound in any of Paul’s writing, making them difficult to refute. Additionally, they relate very directly to the issue of women’s ordination. Legitimizing priestly marriage, and more generally sexuality, however, is much more difficult and convoluted.

Liberal Catholics will, like Boyarin, emphasize Paul’s tendency to allegorize, and to a certain degree, shun bodily practice in order to legitimize their claim that marriage within the priesthood is acceptable. For example, Paul berates the Galatians for regressing spiritually in wanting to be circumcised, stating, “Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” (Gal 3:3). In the modern context Boyarin and liberal Catholic alike might interpret this as saying, “having been made one and equal in Christ, are you now creating difference and inequality?” Indeed, if Paul is read in a Platonic sense, where “the invisible, inner reality is taken as more valuable or higher than the visible outer form of reality,” one can understand why Boyarin and liberal Catholics might believe Paul would side with them (Boyarin, 59). Countless times and in numerous letters Paul claims that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” (Gal 6:15). Moreover, in Galatians 5:1-6 Paul continues to attack the belief that one must become Jewish, and thus be circumcised, in order to be Christian. Indeed, no fleshly practice or Law is as important as loving one’s neighbor as one’s self (Gal 5:14). Paul also does away with the bodily practice of eating only ritually pure foods. For example, he abrogates the Torah’s dietary injunctions when he states that “everything is indeed clean…” (Rom 14:20). Moreover, “as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists,’ and that ‘there is no God but one’” (1 Cor 8:4). Thus, it doesn’t really matter what one eats because “‘food will not bring us close to God.’ We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do” (1 Cor 8:8). This, truly, was a radical statement in the context of first century Judaism. It is difficult for the modern individual to understand the weight and significance of completely disregarding the purity system, since our modern world sorely lacks an equivalent outside the circles of Jewish Orthodoxy. Likewise, liberal Catholics might point out that it was the pagans’ false worship of God that gave rise to their bodily indiscretions, and not the other way around (Rom 1:21-32). Thus, it is one’s relationship to the true God that is important, not whether or not one’s body is sexually pure throughout life. While certainly Paul stands vehemently against sexual immorality, and, to a degree, sex in general, as the conservative Catholics will claim, the liberals still believe that allowing marriage within the priesthood does not violate the teachings of Paul, for he states celibacy is simply a more blessed state than marriage, but not a requirement for ordination (1 Cor 7). Thus, they believe, by introducing women and marriage into the priesthood they are merely continuing the universalization begun by Paul. Indeed, they may claim to be more thoroughly Pauline than Paul himself. This view, however, contrasts sharply with that of the conservative.

First, let it be noted that conservative Catholics oppose the introduction of women and marriage into the priesthood on the grounds of certain Catholic theological tenets. Most fundamentally, they claim these innovations go against the Council of Trent, which upheld that priests were to remain celibate, and that women would remain in monastic setting if they desired a religious life. Moreover, the conservative would argue, regarding women as priests, Jesus not only chose to pass the authority of the church to a male disciple (Peter), and not a woman, but in the context of the ritual of the Eucharist, the priest is not considered himself, but Christ instead. Thus, it is Christ, who is male, who presents the Eucharist to the recipient. Therefore, if Christ is male, how can a woman perform this action in His stead? However, putting these debatable (indeed, they seem to be endlessly debatable) theological disputes aside, let us instead turn to the conservative’s conception of how Paul is to be read and what injunctions specifically prohibit such changes within the Church.

The conservative Catholic’s conception of Paul is largely informed by the Church’s hierarchy and is very similar to the view of N. T. Wright, which is understandable since he is an Anglican theologian and both the Episcopalian and Catholic Churches can be rightly considered “high church traditions” from a sociological perspective. N. T. Wright explains his conception of Jesus and Paul when he states “Jesus believed it was his vocation to bring Israel’s history to its climax. Paul believed that Jesus had succeeded in that aim. Paul believed, in consequence of that belief and as part of his own special vocation, that he was himself now called to announce to the whole world that Israel’s history had been brought to its climax in that way” (Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 181). This explains the absence of Jesus’s teachings in Paul’s writings, for in copying Jesus Paul would “[be] trying to be a Messiah” (180-1). Thus, Paul, in this scheme of things, is put in the position of clarifying exactly what behavior is proper, and what is inappropriate, in the final, short period between the resurrection of Jesus and the Final Judgment. Therefore, for both the conservative Catholic and Wright, Paul’s ethical injunctions are not polite suggestions to be historically contextualized and whose thematic thrusts can be analyzed and applied at a later date. Instead, they are commands to be taken seriously, whose consequences will very really affect one’s standing with God in these last of days. Clearly then, this worldview actively opposes the post-modern, believing in the truth of eternal revelation over reconciliation with post-modern, secular sensibilities. Recognizing this, one can then understand what aspects of Paul the conservative Catholic will stress and precisely how he/she understands them.

Regarding celibacy there exist numerous passages of Paul’s writings the conservative might invoke. They might contest that Galatians 3:3 really supports their point of view, and not the liberal’s. “Having started in the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” In other words, having received God’s grace and his injunctions to remain pure are you now succumbing to carnal desire? Paul is most explicit regarding sexuality in First Corinthians. Sexual immorality, as Paul explains in the fifth chapter, is a serious offense. A good Christian, he states, should “not…associate with anyone who bears the name of a brother or sister who is sexually immoral…Do not even eat with such a one” (1 Cor 5:11). But this regards sexual depravity, not sexual relations within the context of marriage. Paul’s stance on sex and marriage is conciliatory in tone. He says, “But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband” (1 Cor 7:2). “This I say by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am” (1 Cor 7:7). One can clearly see, then, and the conservative Catholic will emphasize, that Paul allowed marriage only to create a context in which sexual relations would be permissible for those who lacked the self-control required to live a celibate life. Paul comes out even more strongly against sex when he proclaims, “The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (1 Cor 6:13). Indeed, his belief that the body is the temple of God would certainly imply that sexuality, even in the context of marriage, is undesirable, because one is polluting the spiritual with the fleshly. The conservative will indicate that Paul believes the Christian believer to be “God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in [him/her.] If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Cor 3:16-7). With all this stress laid on the blessedness of celibacy, the conservative will claim it is not folly to hold priests to a higher level of spiritual commitment and holiness than lay people. While the critic claims that celibacy is unrealistic in today’s post-modern, secular world, the conservative Catholic would reply, “If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (1 Cor 3: 18-9). Likewise, “what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want” (Gal. 5:17). As difficult as celibacy may be, Paul states that “if you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up” (Gal 6:7-9). Celibacy, conservatives would claim, is important, not only because it is an especially blessed state, but because it is difficult, even more so now than it was in the past, and it is this sacrifice that makes it meaningful; if one abolishes the requirement of celibacy because it is unreasonable or difficult, one robs it of its meaning.

In response to female ordination, conservative Catholics (without the help of Wright, since the Anglican Church ordains female priests) will emphasize the importance of physicality in Paul’s writing, and tie that to the importance of the physical composition of the person consecrating and distributing the Eucharist. Thus, conservatives will point out that the composition and particularities of the body are extremely important for Paul. They may stress, then, that Christ had to physically die and be physically raised in order for universal salvation to occur (1 Cor 15). Moreover, the resurrection to come is bodily in nature, thus, one’s physicality is intensely important, because the body will play an integral part in the things to come. For, “what is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown in a physical body, it is raised in a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:42-4). This passage clearly shows the relationship between bodily physicality and the spiritual life to come. Although the spiritual is more important in Paul’s thought, the conservative will point out that one’s body, both sexually and practically, will affect one’s ultimate spiritual condition. Moreover, Paul states Christians should “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:1-2). Therefore, the conservative could construe bodily composition and conduct as being especially important regarding one’s spiritual destiny. As a result, strict attention must be paid to how physicality and gender affect Church liturgy and dogma.

The debate between liberal and conservative Catholics is complex and is, for many reasons, difficult to fully appreciate. First, one must understand the modern context in which the dispute is taking place. The American religious environment can be characterized as having two important components pertaining to this topic – one sociological and one philosophical. On the societal level, there exists a plurality of religions; no one religious tradition has such a pervasive influence that it explicitly and externally shapes our communal reality. Instead, numerous religious groups vie for attendance in much the same way that different companies compete for capital in a given market. This unconsciously construes religion as a preference to public consciousness, which should, in some way, suit the individual’s needs and desires. This plasticity allows the “spiritual client” to personally and privately “take or leave” aspects of a religion he/she likes or finds distasteful. On the other side of the equation, religious traditions are subtly compelled to present themselves in ways that will appeal to their “clientele,” because they know people have the agency to change religious affiliation and join other groups or denominations that may not have beliefs and practices the individual finds unpalatable. Thus, the introduction of women and marriage into the priesthood is an issue that very really threatens challenges the unity and loyalty of the Catholic Church’s adherents. Secondly, on the philosophical level, there exists a tension between this world and the world to come. If one desires a pleasant life in the hereafter, and this applies especially to Christianity, one must forsake certain aspects of, and choices within, this bodily life and maintain certain beliefs that go against post-modern sensibilities. Conversely, one can choose to experience this life fully, appreciating it and living in such a way that one believes it to be the only world that exists. Modern society and scientism certainly persuade the modern Catholic to want both, leading the liberal Catholic to desire to slightly alter Church tradition so that it resonates more harmoniously with the secular world and its beliefs in gender equality and the goodness of physicality. The conservative Catholic stands in opposition to these alterations, believing them to be un-Catholic concessions to a godless world and society. These initial perspectives on post-modernity inform each group’s view of Paul’s life, mission, and letters. The liberal Catholic, along with Boyarin, will choose to stress parts of Galatians as the most central axis of Paul’s thought. They will claim he believed all were made equal and unified in Christ – racial, ethnic, gender, and societal differences were erased. Likewise, they will claim that it is the spiritual that is most important, and bodily, fleshly activity is secondary, if important at all. Paul’s allegorization of circumcision and dietary laws are good examples of such a tendency. Thus, one’s body (male or female) is unimportant to Paul’s Spirit, and sexual relations within the context of marriage are likewise acceptable. The conservatives, along with N. T. Wright, view Paul much differently. Instead of recognizing what Paul did in his time and place and attempt to draw corollaries to current society, they view Paul as spreading the good news and ethical injunctions of the final stage in history, which begun with Christ’s Resurrection and will soon end in the Final Judgment. Thus, Paul’s teachings are not influenced by the tides of history; instead, they are eternal commands to be taken seriously until the Second Coming. Paul, they will emphasize, thought celibacy was a particularly blessed state, and shunned sexual immorality and fornication altogether. In First Corinthians he permits marriage only because he knows many are too weak to live a celibate existence. Furthermore, Paul himself recognized that celibacy was not easy, but eradicating it lowers the expectations for priestly election and completely undermines the sacrifice that is entailed in adhering to an abstinent lifestyle. Likewise, in response to female ordination, conservatives will stress the intimate connection between the body, which is itself a holy object, and the spiritual life to come. Thus, they may argue, that bodily specifics are absolutely vital, and connect this to the belief that only men can embody the physical Christ in the context of the sacrament of the Eucharist. Clearly then, much is at stake in this debate, and the role of Paul and his thinking is central. Each group views Paul in a different way, allowing them to claim him as a sympathetic authority. Ultimately, the debate hinges upon the relationship between personal exegesis and external authority within the Catholic Church, the very issue at stake in the Reformation. Without the ability to challenge the Church’s orthodox, imposed dogma, the laity is forever subject to the injunctions and interpretations of an elite group of male priests, a group who is often far-removed from the post-modern, secular world in which the laity is constantly a part. On the other hand, without the authority of the Church, and the laity’s obedience to it, the Catholic Church begins to look like just another Protestant denomination. This tension, I presume, will be one for the history books, and I am glad my task is only to show the role of Paul in this debate, and not attempt to discern a satisfactory solution.

Women in the Priesthood

Should the Catholic Church allow female ordination?

See results

Marriage in the Priesthood

Should the Catholic Church allow members of the priesthood to get married?

See results

Some liberal Catholics split off from the Church and ordain women

The recent Pope Benedict's point of view on these topics

A Nietzchean kind of philosophy in a Christian context


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    • Nicholas Fiorito profile imageAUTHOR

      Nicholas Fiorito 

      5 years ago from Northern NJ

      Thanks so much DDE!

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      5 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Great hub on Paul, Female Priests, and Priestly Marriages another one of your informative hubs.

    • Nicholas Fiorito profile imageAUTHOR

      Nicholas Fiorito 

      5 years ago from Northern NJ

      Yes Jesus is said to have been involved with Mary Magdalene in a number of wary writings, and you are right about most religions allowing, or even encouraging, marriage for their leaders.

      In fact, the Catholic Church allowed priests to get married until the 10th or 11th century (the exact date and council is slipping my mind) because issues of land and inheritance started to get much too complicated and intertwined with politics so the Catholic Church ended it. It is curious to see that things like Priestly Marriage and Papal Infallibility, which many Catholics tend to assume we're always Church teaching, were actually developments later in Church history.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Women were priests and bishops in the early church. The church did not want to financially support families, so it opposed marriage. Recently they found a document where it was stated that Jesus had a wife, not suprising considering rabbis usually married. Hindu priests have married for centuries and we also have many female priests and teachers.


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