A fragment of a fourth-century papyrus, written in Coptic, makes some reference to Jesus’ wife. News about this fragment got front-page attention in The New York Times. The story seemed to have the imprimatur of a professor at Harvard Divinity School in an academic paper that she delivered recently in Rome.
Predictably, other newspapers and television and radio outlets were on their phones looking for comments from theologians and various religious spokesmen and spokeswomen.
Controversy about whether Jesus was married has reached a boiling point in various forms over the centuries, most recently with the discussion surrounding Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code (2003) and the subsequent film version (2006).
Catholics and a large number of non-Catholics assume that there is a single Catholic response to such allegations, and that it begins with some variation on the leading expression, “of course not.” They would be surprised if a Catholic began to answer in any other way. Sort of like a “man bites dog” response.
In an op-ed piece in The Times following news reports on the papyrus fragment, Father James Martin, a Jesuit editor at America magazine, noted that there wasn’t much evidence in the New Testament or church history for the hypothesis that Jesus had been married, but said he wouldn’t be troubled one way or the other. Whether Jesus was married would make no difference to his faith in Jesus or his vow of chastity, Father Martin wrote.
I would agree almost totally with Father Martin. But, unfortunately, many Catholics might assume that the vow of chastity and the promise of celibacy are one and the same. They are not.
Every human being is bound to practice the virtue of chastity, even if they might differ on its content and scope, whether vowed or not. On the other hand, the promise of celibacy is not in response to a divine command.
There are Catholic priests who are married (for example, priests of the various Eastern rites as well as ex-Anglicans and ex-Episcopalians who have become Roman Catholics), while thousands of Catholic priests of the Roman or Latin rite are indeed still bound by the man-made promise of celibacy.
If Jesus had a wife, however, the primary basis for obligatory clerical celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church would be out the window.
So the question is an important one after all. It affects thousands of priests in the Roman Catholic Church, including most of its pastors and associates, as well as priests who teach in our colleges, universities, and high schools, the many who are chaplains in the military, in hospitals, and in prisons, the dwindling few who serve as editors of their diocesan newspapers and other publications, and priests in various special ministries.
In a sharply worded editorial published in the official Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican subsequently said that ample evidence existed to dismiss the papyrus as an “inept forgery” and “a fake.”
Dr. Karen King, the Harvard scholar, did not imply in her paper that Jesus had been married, but she did suggest that the question of his celibacy and marital status was a matter of debate among early Christians.
According to The Times, Dr. King has arranged to have the chemical composition of the ink tested at Harvard in mid-October. She said in an interview that the center at Harvard could not schedule the testing before she had presented her paper.
Where does that leave us? Pretty much where we were at the beginning of the most recent controversy. However, the issue remains important, even to the Vatican. The future of clerical celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church remains in the balance.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.