Crossfunction: 1 Timothy 3: Why can't Catholic bishops marry?

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

1 Timothy 3: Why can't Catholic bishops marry?

Today the question was asked, "Paul clearly permitted married men to become bishops, but the Catholic Church doesn't let married men become bishops. Doesn't Catholic practice on this point contradict Scripture?" Excellent question.

It's important to recognize that scripture distinguishes between doctrine and church practice or "discipline". Doctrine -official teaching about matters of faith and morals- can't change because divine truth doesn't change. What's true is true. Church discipline, on the other hand, is a separate matter. It refers to how the Church maintains order and carries out its mission.

Without going into the history of why the Church later adopted the rule of celibacy for bishops, the fact remains that the Church regards this not as a doctrine but simply as a matter of discipline, and has kept the rule in place for many centuries because she judges it to be a worthy and wise practice, one which has yielded great blessings for the Church. You and I may agree or disagree with the wisdom of the rule, but that's hardly relevant. The point is the Church has the authority to govern itself in matters of practice for the sake of the good of its members, and it has this authority from Christ.

Now, as circumstances change, the best way to maintain order and promote the good can likewise change. Someday, the Pope conceivably could cancel the rule of celibacy for bishops. The New Testament shows numerous of examples of the Church developing disciplines, and we don't have to look far for one. In our meeting today, there was some disagreement over this simple fact.

Yet just a few verses earlier Paul wrote,

"women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire 10 but by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion. 11 Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. 12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent." 1 Timothy 2:9-12 RSV

If we are to maintain that sort of teaching in the New Testament is a matter of unchangeable doctrine, how are we to interpret this passage? One must conclude that today women are obliged to remove braids from their hair, gold jewelry from their bodies, and must learn in silence from their husbands -no matter how ignorant of the faith their husbands may be! What's more, nowhere in the New Testament are these rules cancelled.

The Catholic Church does not teach that these rules about women are matters of unchangeable doctrine, so I'm free to believe that they were temporary rules which Paul imposed for a unique set of circumstances in a local church, circumstances which do not apply everywhere today. But I'm deeply curious about how some of my Protestant brothers and sisters can justify setting aside Paul's restrictions on women if they do not acknowlege the Church's power to interpret Scripture, discern discipline from doctrine, and make temporary rules to address temporary situations.

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