THE BLOG
06/20/2013 06:12 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2013

The Married Apostles and What They Mean Today

Think of the Apostles and what images come to mind? Chances are it is of some gray-bearded men, advanced in years -- in their fifties perhaps, or even substantially older. If it is St. Paul you are conjuring up, he probably looks intense, thin, wide-eyed. And if it is St. Peter you have in mind, no doubt his hair has gone all silver, as has his beard, older in appearance but not frail. And the other Apostles? What images come to mind? Again, older men, single, unattached from family and loved ones, men who have renounced all earthly pleasure in service to an other-worldly ideal.

Now, try to picture the wives of the Apostles. Can you bring any images to mind? I wager that task is more difficult. In all those old sword-and-sandal films from the 1950s and 1960s, I do not recall a single depiction of an Apostle's wife. So it comes as a shock to realize that these men were not single celibates, traversing the Mediterranean in lonely solitude, but married men who for the most part likely traveled in retinues that included their wives.

What evidence do we have that allows, even demands, that we rethink our old understanding, the sanctified, sanitized version passed down to us by Hollywood and a thousand holy cards? None other than the testimony of St. Paul, the witness of the Gospel writers, the Acts of the Apostles, and the traditions of the early Church.

The oldest evidence we have for the way life was led in the early Church are the letters of St. Paul, which predate the Gospels, at least in the form they come down to us today. The Church at Corinth, which Paul founded and shepherded from a distance through his correspondence, was an unruly and demanding one, as befits, perhaps a raucous and thriving port city that was a crossroads of East and West.

In his First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul laid claim to the title Apostle, and informed his readers of the apostolic rights he chose not to exert: "Do we not have the right to our food and drink? Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as the other Apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living?" (I. Cor. 9: 4-6).

The words "believing wife" leap out. The Greek words Paul uses are "adelphen gunaika" -- literally "sister wife," but more conventionally translated "believing wife." Think about what Paul is saying. The other Apostles traveled with their wives. So did Peter (Cephas). So did the brothers of the Lord. Did they travel with their children also? Perhaps. And it is likely that they had other traveling companions, just as Paul had Barnabas, John Mark, Silas, and others.

Other biblical texts lend deeper, richer perspective on the phenomenon of the married Apostles. There is, of course, the famous Gospel passage in which Jesus cures Peter's mother-in-law (Matthew 8: 14-15). We are not told how Peter's wife reacted, but she surely must have been pleased. After all, contrary to much later legend, we know that Peter was not a widower or otherwise separated from her since both he and his wife traversed the Mediterranean together (I Corinthians 9: 5).

And then there is the mysterious passage in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 21: 8), which speaks of Philip the Evangelist and his four daughters. Was this Philip the Apostle? The text is ambiguous. It describes Philip both as an "evangelist" and as one of the seven called to service. What is certain, however, is that the early Church numbered him among the Apostles. So the great fourth-century Church historian Eusebius understood him. And the early-second-century Christian writer Papias, born possibly as early as the year 70, reported that he was converted to the faith after being instructed by Philip's daughters.

The early Church was prepared, furthermore, to elaborate on these Scriptural accounts. And few early writers were more eager to do so than Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215). This Clement was likely born in Athens, into a pagan family, although he abandoned paganism as a young man for the life of a Christian. Steeped in Greek mythology and philosophy, Clement nevertheless mounted a robust defense of Christianity against its critics.

One group he was particularly concerned to refute were the Encratites, a sect that insisted that all true followers of Christ must renounce sexual expression. Clement responded by holding up the married Apostles as examples of authentic Christianity. Consider, Clement said, the marriage of St. Peter. Like Philip, St. Peter experienced the joys of child-rearing in his marriage. Reporting a legend found nowhere else in the Christian sources, Clement told the story of the martyrdom of Peter's wife. She was arrested and led away with Peter helplessly looking on. This sturdy old couple did not weep, however, or bewail their fate, but encouraged one another, knowing the end was near.

To be sure, Clement was not free of the sexual asceticism that came to shape and color Christianity. But his vision of marriage remained a positive one and it was grounded on the pattern he understood the Apostles themselves to have laid down.

Christians even assigned a feminine traveling companion to St. Paul. This was St. Thecla, holy Thecla, a chaste young virgin from a wealthy family in Iconium, in modern-day Turkey, who heard Paul preach on his sojourn there. Smitten with Paul's message, she converted to Christianity over her parents' objections and became his disciple. She traveled with Paul for a while, but also branched off on her own, encountering in her life of missionary zeal a whole variety of threats and challenges. She tamed wild beasts in the arena, she staved off the advances of men who threatened her virginity, and she even converted the pagan Queen of Thrace.

The Acts of Paul and Thecla, which contain these fabulous tales, do not depict her as married to Paul in any conventional sense of that word, but she surely can be seen as the feminine side of that peripatetic Apostle to the Gentiles.

And she was venerated by the Church as such. Indeed, quite possibly no early Christian woman enjoyed wider veneration. She was reverently depicted in early Christian art, invoked as a guardian on Christian tombstones, and celebrated for her virtues by Christian orators like St. John Chrysostom. That paragon of austere Latin orthodoxy, St. Ambrose, preached about St. Thecla and governed Milan from the Cathedral of Holy Thecla. The Catholic Church still commemorates her feast day as September 23.

So what does this paradigm-shifting change of perspective mean for today's Catholic Church? Consider the plight of the priesthood. Among the issues that must keep Pope Francis awake at night is the precipitous decline in priestly vocations. Worldwide, in 1970, Catholics numbered 653 million and were served by 419,728 priests. The Catholic population has now nearly doubled, to 1.2 billion, but the number of priests has shrunk in numerical terms to 412,236. Statistics for the United States are even grimmer -- the number of priests has declined from 58,632 in 1965 to 38,964 in 2012, even while the Catholic population has increased from 48 million to 78 million.

The Catholic Church is a religion that looks to tradition for guidance. History, the past words and deeds of generations of holy men and women, holds strong instructive, sometimes even obligatory force, for Catholics. And the Apostolic Age, that time when the disciples of the Lord lived and worked and preached, must count foremost as a source of inspiration.

Is it time to change the rules on priestly celibacy? To return to the practices of the earliest Christian Church, that time in the life of the Church when the Apostles enjoyed the company of their wives as evangelized the world?

Claudio Hummes, a Brazilian Cardinal and close confidante of the new Pope, has made this point: "'Celibacy is a discipline, not a dogma of the Church,' Hummes was quoted as saying by the Folha de. S. Paolo newspaper. 'Certainly, the majority of the Apostles were married. In this modern age, the Church must observe these things. It has to advance with history.'" Indeed, while Archbishop of Buenos Aires, the future Pope Francis acknowledged that "the celibacy rule is simply one of tradition and is flexible."

Will we see the rules on celibacy changed? If Pope Francis makes this choice, he would merely be returning the Church to one of its oldest, deepest practices.