Doesn’t St. Paul Condemn Celibacy, Fasting and Abstaining From Meat?

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Dear Catholic Exchange:

In 1 Timothy 4:1-5 St. Paul says, “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron. They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God's word and by prayer.”

After reading this passage, I am very confused as to why we as Catholics abstain from meat on Friday and why we forbid marriage when it states in black and white in the Bible that the ones who do these things are misled by deceitful spirits and teachings of demons. This passage is very, very anti-Catholic.

Thanks for your insights.


Dear Patrick,

Greetings in Christ. The passage you cite needs to be interpreted properly. Let’s consider each issue in turn. Regarding marriage, the Catholic Church has always been a great promoter of marriage. Whereas most Protestants teach that divorce and remarriage is okay, the Church has consistently upheld Biblical teaching that a valid marriage is indissoluble.

What about Timothy’s condemnation of those who forbid marriage? There appear to be two problems here. The first is the typical misunderstanding or lack of understanding people commonly have about the Church’s discipline of clerical celibacy. The second involves a lack of knowledge about the background of this passage and, thus, a misunderstanding of the warning about those who forbid marriage. We will show how the Church’s discipline of celibacy for priests in the West and this passage of Scripture are not in conflict.

1 Timothy 4:1-5 needs to be read in context. There were those in Paul’s time that forbade marriage on heretical presuppositions that marriage was intrinsically evil, a teaching based in turn on the false belief that the body or all matter was evil, and only the Spirit was good. This Gnostic heresy became prevalent again in the second century. The heresy became manifest in later centuries as well, with groups like the Albigensians, who also fell away from the Catholic Faith.

The Church has always defended the good of marriage in contrast to heretics who taught that it was evil. St. Paul elsewhere encourages not to marry (1 Corinthians 7 is the best example), but would not forbid it as an evil. The Church’s discipline of celibacy is not being forbidden in 1 Timothy; Paul is dealing with a very different subject.

The Church’s discipline on celibacy for priests and men and women religious is based not only on Paul’s words, but Christ’s exhortation to be single for the Kingdom of God (cf. Mt. 19:10-12). Christ also provided the Church with the power to bind and loose regarding disciplinary matters (cf. Mt. 16:18-19; 18:15-18), including clerical celibacy.

The difference between the Church’s celibacy discipline and St. Paul’s condemnation of those who forbid marriage can be summed up simply. St. Paul addressed those who forbade marriage because they considered the body and all matter intrinsically evil. Marriage is not a good in their minds. In contrast, regarding the Church’s discipline of celibacy, men and women freely abstain from the high and holy good of marriage so that they can more fully give themselves to God and His work. Marriage is not “forbidden.” Neither is it considered evil. See the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Catechism), numbers 1618-20, especially the quote from St. John Chrysostom. It would also be good to obtain Chrysostom’s homiles on marriage and family as well as his treatise on consecrated virginity.

For further reading, please contact us at 1-800-693-2484 to obtain our FAITH FACT on celibacy, which includes a reading section.

With regard to foods, none are forbidden to Catholics. Unlike vegetarians, we may eat meat; unlike Jews and Muslims, we may eat pork, shellfish, and other non-kosher foods. Fasting—a practice actively promoted in Scripture—and abstinence from certain foods at particular times are good spiritual disciplines, but there is no food from which Catholics must abstain at all times.

From the earliest days of the Church, Christians fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays:

But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and fifth day [Monday and Thursday] of the week; but do ye fast on the fourth day [Wednesday] and the Preparation [Friday] (Didache, known in English as The Teaching of the [Twelve] Apostles, chapter 8).

In ancient times, fasting meant abstaining from all foods, as we see from Jesus’ example in the desert (Lk. 4:1-4). In addition, Paul was not opposed to fasting for good spiritual purposes (1 Cor. 9:27). Over time, the Church relaxed this discipline somewhat, allowing abstinence from luxurious foods like meat in place of total abstinence. As you know, Catholics still abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent. There are many benefits to such abstinence. It disciplines us in self-mastery or self-control, reminds us that the Lord provides true nourishment, and allows us to participate in Jesus’ own self-denial, especially His passion on Good Friday. But again, there is no food from which Catholics must abstain at all times.

So who is Paul condemning regarding abstinence? He is referring to Gnostics and their spiritual descendants. In ascetic Gnosticism, we find both practices Paul condemned in his First Letter to Timothy. Ascetic Gnostics categorically forbade marriage (which libertine Gnostics also did) and abstained from sexual intercourse and meat all the time. In addition to St. Paul, many ancient Christian writers commented on these Gnostic problems and condemned them, including St. Irenaeus’ and St. Clement of Alexandria:

St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies I.24.2 (late first century) “[Followers of Saturninus of Antioch (circa 120) believe] marriage and generation are from Satan. Many of Saturninus’ disciples also abstain from animal flesh and lead many astray because of their pretended continence.”

St. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata III.4.25 (early second century) “By way of opposition to the Demiurge, Marcion rejects the use of the things of this world. . . . Not wishing to help replenish the world made by the Demiurge, the Marcionites decreed abstention from matrimony [i.e., marriage], defying their creator and hastening to the ‘Good One’ who has called them and who, they say, is God in a different sense: wherefore, wishing to leave nothing of their own down here, they turn abstemious not from a moral principle but from hostility to their maker and unwillingness to use his creation.”

There was no question, among ancient Christians, whose doctrines were the “doctrines of demons.” Those wayward doctrines belonged to the Gnostics.

For your further reading on fasting and abstinence, please refer to our FAITH FACT on this subject, Life in the “Fast” Lane: Why Catholics Abstain. I hope this answers your question. If you have further questions on this or would like more information about Catholics United for the Faith, please contact us at 1-800-MY-FAITH (693-2484). Please keep us in your prayers as we endeavor to “support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.”

United in the Faith,

Thomas J. Nash

Senior Information Specialist

Catholics United for the Faith

827 North Fourth Street

Steubenville, OH 43952

800-MY-FAITH (800-693-2484)

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