Were the Popes Really Celibate?
Although the Bible clearly does not support the doctrine of celibacy as a requisite to any office of the church (see Pinedo, 2008), the Catholic Church has established celibacy as a distinctive mark of the papacy and other Catholic offices. In fact, the current pope, Benedict XVI, affirmed that celibacy (imposed by Pope Gregory VII in the Council of Rome in 1074) “is really a special way of conforming oneself to Christ’s own way of life” (“Pope Pens…,” 2007). Therefore, whoever wants to serve as a priest, and finally as the Universal Bishop of the Catholic Church (the pope), must be celibate.
According to Catholic doctrine, Peter was the “first pope.” And, since popes are considered to be Peter’s successors and keepers of Petrine tradition, one would expect them to follow Peter’s example in every aspect—including the acceptance or rejection of celibacy. Matthew 8:14-15 records that Jesus healed one of Peter’s relatives. This relative was none other than his mother-in-law. The text states, “Now when Jesus had come into Peter’s house, He saw his wife’s mother lying sick with a fever” (emp. added). Some have tried to argue that this lady was the mother-in-law of another disciple—not Peter. However, the grammar of the text in Matthew (and in the parallel records of Mark and Luke) is very clear when it says that Jesus came to Peter’s house and saw his mother-in-law (cf. Mark 1:30; Luke 4:38). The only conclusion from a straightforward reading of the text is that if Jesus saw Peter’s mother-in-law, then Peter had a wife!
The apostle Paul also confirmed that Peter was married when he wrote, “Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas?” (1 Corinthians 9:5, emp. added). Paul identified Peter (also called Cephas; cf. John 1:42; 1 Corinthians 1:12) as someone who already had taken advantage of his right to be married. Additionally, in the first epistle that bears his name, the apostle Peter identified himself as an elder of the church (cf. 1 Peter 5:1). And, as the New Testament teaches, one of the qualifications of elders of the church is to be “the husband of one wife, having faithful children” (Titus 1:5-6). Every piece of biblical evidence on this subject points to the fact that Peter was a married man.
While Catholics appeal to Peter for support of the papacy, ironically, they will not appeal to Peter to argue in favor of papal celibacy for one important reason: Peter was not celibate! Here Catholics exalt Paul, who opted to be celibate. But if popes are the alleged successors of Peter (not Paul), should they not follow Peter’s example?
Like many other teachings of the Catholic Church, celibacy is a man-made doctrine. Though many consider it as a sign of purity, celibacy, imposed on those who aspire to ecclesiastical office, is simply a sign of apostasy (1 Timothy 4:1-3). Consider, for example, the immoral things many “celibate” popes did during their papacies.
Pope Sergius III served as pope from A.D. 904 to 911. History records that he began a “shameful succession” of immoral popes (Schaff, 1910, 4:285). He “owed his elevation [to the papacy—MP] to the influence of the shameless Theodora [a Roman noblewoman—MP] and her no less shameless daughters Marozia and Theodora…. He was grossly immoral, and lived in licentious relations with Marozia, who bore him several children, among them the future pope John XI” (McClintock and Strong, 1867-1880, 9:570).
Pope John XII served as pope from A.D. 955 to 963. He is considered “one of the most scandalous popes of history” (“John XII,” 1997). Philip Schaff noted that “[h]e was one of the most immoral and wicked popes, ranking with Benedict IX., John XXIII., and Alexander VI. He was charged by a Roman Synod, no one contradicting, with almost every crime of which…human nature is capable, and deposed as a monster of iniquity” (1910, 4:287). Writing around A.D. 1000, a Catholic monk recorded that “John XII loved hunting, had vain thoughts, liked women reunions more than liturgical and ecclesiastical assemblies, was pleased by tumultuous insolences of young people and, concerning lasciviousness and audacity, he surpassed even the pagans” (quoted in Hernández, n.d.). It is recorded that he died “of a stroke while in bed with a married woman” (Walsh, 2001, p. 663).
Pope John XXIII served as pope from A.D. 1410 to 1415. It is said that “he was destitute of every moral virtue, and capable of every vice” (Schaff, 1910, 6:145). He was accused “on seventy charges, which included almost every crime known to man. He had been unchaste from his youth,…committed adultery with his brother’s wife, violated nuns and other virgins, was guilty of sodomy and other nameless vices” (Schaff, 6:158). Finally, he was removed from office by the Council of Constance and erased from the official list of the papacy.
Pope Innocent VIII served as pope from A.D. 1484 to 1492. “His conduct was disgracefully irregular: he had seven illegitimate children by different women, and was, besides, married when he took orders” (McClintock and Strong, 1867-1880, 4:593). It is said that his children numbered “16, all of them children by married women” (Schaff, 1910, 6:438). It also is said that “the success of Innocent VIII in increasing the population of Rome was a favorite topic with the wits of the day” (McClintock and Strong, 4:594).
Pope Alexander VI served as pope from A.D. 1492 to 1503. In their Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, McClintock and Strong point out that Alexander is considered “the most depraved of all the popes” (1867-1880, 4:594). They explained: “His youth was a very dissolute one; and he early formed a criminal connection with a Roman lady living in Spain with her two daughters. He soon seduced the daughters also; and one of them, Rosa Vanozza, became his life-long mistress…. His pontificate of eleven years was a stormy one, as he made every thing subordinate to the purpose of raising his bastard children above the heads of the oldest princely houses of Italy” (1:145-146). A Roman Catholic historian says that he was “one of the greatest and most horrible monsters in nature that could scandalize the holy chair. His beastly morals, his immense ambition, his insatiable avarice, his detestable cruelty, his furious lusts, and monstrous incest with his daughter Lucretia, are, at large, described by Guicciardini Ciaconius, and other authentic papal historians” (as quoted in Barnes, 2005b, p. 82). The following words summarize Pope Alexander’s life: “To Alexander nothing was sacred,—office, virtue, marriage, or life” (Schaff, 1910, 6:462).
Pope Paul III served as pope from A.D. 1534 to 1549. Before his pontificate, he had four children—Pier Luigi, Paolo, Ranuccio, and Costanza—by a Roman mistress (see “Paul III,” 1997, 9:205). History summarizes his life as “largely given up to pleasure and frivolity. He kept low company, supported mistresses, became a father, and in many ways gained an unenviable notoriety” (McClintock and Strong, 1867-1880, 7:831).
More examples could be given, since papal history is characterized more by its sins than by its “holiness.” But the examples listed above clearly prove that many “celibate” popes were anything but celibate, and moreover, anything but chaste.
When men departed further from the truth of God’s Word, they deified themselves, choosing an earthly representative (the pope) to usurp the place of God. Many immoral men, thirsty for glory and power, desired the human office (i.e., the papacy) that apostasy promoted. These men fought for this office, hating each other and killing their fellow man. And, in their zeal, they pretended to fulfill the demand for celibacy imposed by human tradition, while giving free rein to their carnal passions.
What sacrifice did these “selfless” popes endure by being “celibate” (i.e., unmarried) if they had the lovers they desired? What altruism did these popes exhibit by disallowing themselves to have only one wife, yet diving into indescribable immoralities with many lovers, including relatives, nuns, prostitutes, and other men’s wives during nights of “celibate solitude”? The truth is, this kind of “celibacy” has produced many illegitimate children in the history of Catholic religion!
The Catholic who points to 1 Corinthians 7:7-8 in order to provide biblical support to papal celibacy, should read the advice of Paul in the following verse in order to see that celibacy is not demanded, nor should it be sought in order to institute a certain ecclesiastical order: “[B]ut if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:9, emp. added). Many popes, as well as many local bishops, priests, monks, nuns, etc., have burned with passion for centuries, and many are adding logs to the fire today. The Bible warns: “But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8, emp. added).
Barnes, Albert (2005), Notes on the New Testament: 1 Thessalonians to Philemon (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Hernández, Jesús (no date), “A Shameful Pontificate” [“Un Pontificado Vergonzoso”], [On-line], URL: http://www.luxdomini.com/JuanXII.htm.
“John XII” [“Juan XII”] (1997), Espasa Universal Chronology [Cronología Universal Espasa] (Espasa Calpe, S.A.: Microsoft Corporation).
McClintock, John and James Strong (1867-1880), Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker), 1968-1970 reprint.
“Pope Pens Exhortation on the Eucharist” (2007), Zenit, March 13, [On-line], URL: http://www.zenit.org/article-19138?l=english.
“Paul III” (1997), Encyclopaedia Britannica (London: Encyclopaedia Britannica).
Pinedo, Moisés (2008), “Should the Pope Be Celibate?,” [On-line], URL: https://apologeticspress.org/articles/3852.
Schaff, Philip (1910), History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Walsh, Michael, ed. (2001), Dictionary of Christian Biography (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press).
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