The History Behind Celibacy and the Priesthood
Before this year many American Catholics probably had never heard of, surely had never used the word celibacy. But in the wake of the sex-abuse scandals it has appeared so often in newspapers and journals and been heard so often on radio and television that it no longer can be classified as an unusual term. Yet despite its current popularity, the word still seems a little mysterious. Even more mysterious is why and how the celibate state became a requirement for ordination to the diaconate, priesthood and episcopacy in the Western church. With sound-bite explanations and dips into church history, the media have tried to deal with it, but often with confusing results.
What I hope to do is provide the most basic information required to speak intelligently about celibacy. Much will be familiar to readers of this journal. I make no claim to originality or new insight, which in the present agitated context is probably a virtue, and I will use traditional categories of Catholic theology and asceticism. I divide what I have to say into two unequal parts. I will first provide six points of clarification. That way there will be less danger of confusion concerning what we are talking about. I will then review, all too briefly, the history of the issue in the Western church, so that we have a better idea of how we got to where we are. That is the extent of my agenda; expect nothing more.
We need to begin by being clear about the meaning of the word. Celibate means unmarried. It signifies that state of life. In Romance languages the equivalent term, when applied to men (e.g., celebe in Italian), means bachelor. Sometimes in North America people use celibacy, however, as if it were a synonym for chastity or to indicate abstention from sexual activity—“I’ve been celibate for two months.” That is incorrect and confusing usage.
Chastity is a virtue required of all men and women according to their state of life; it is opposed to the vice of lust. When we speak of priestly celibacy, the virtue of chastity is of course implied, but in this instance the virtue is assumed to give shape and spiritual meaning to that state in an especially enhancing way. Nonetheless, the virtue of chastity is distinct from the state of being unmarried. As will become clear below, celibacy must also be carefully distinguished from continence.
Second, the requirement of the celibate state for ordination is an ecclesiastical discipline, a ruling by the church for the church. To put it negatively, the requirement of celibacy is not a doctrine or dogma. It is not, as such, a “teaching.” The media have in fact been fairly clear on this aspect of the issue, but it still needs to be mentioned. As a discipline the requirement of celibacy is something that can change, has changed and might in the future change. A few scholars argue, however, that while the discipline concerning celibacy may be subject to change, the tradition of continence for married deacons, priests and bishops is of apostolic origin. If that is true, the church would feel less free to change. Nonetheless, the Second Vatican Council introduced the order of “permanent deacons,” who might be married and, if so, are permitted to continue to have conjugal relations with their wives. It specifically determined, however, that these deacons could not go on to priestly ordination.
Third, while this is a discipline or law, the official approach today, as indicated in the new Code of Canon Law, promulgated in 1983, recognizes chaste celibacy as a charism, a special gift from God. The church ordains only those who have received this charism. It thus does not so much impose celibacy as invite to ordination those who have the gift.
Fourth, as a requirement for ordination celibacy is peculiar to the Western church (or Latin rite). Other churches in union with Rome (Ukranian, Melkite and others) have in this regard different disciplines whose origins reach far back into their traditions. They allow married clergy, but with certain restrictions, especially for ordination to the episcopate.
This means—and this is my fifth point—that even today there are priests from churches in full communion with Rome, hence fully Catholic, who are married. There are therefore legitimately married priests in the Catholic Church. The steady opposition of the American Latin-rite hierarchy to the presence of married Eastern Catholic priests in North America has generally prevented married clergy from those churches serving here. This policy was formalized in 1929 with the Vatican decree Cum Data Fuerit. In recent years some bishops in the Ukranian and Ruthenian Catholic Churches in North America have not altogether followed this policy. Moreover, there are in the United States a small number of former Anglican priests, married, who have converted to Catholicism and are now legitimately functioning as Roman Catholic priests. They are not obliged to observe continence with their spouses.
Finally, we must clearly distinguish between the discipline of celibacy that is required of (almost) all priests of the Latin rite and the vow of chastity freely undertaken by priests (and others) who are members of religious orders. For the priests in religious orders, the vow fits into the triad of chastity, poverty and obedience, which in principle commits them to a more total availability for ministry or, in the case of monk-priests, for the worship of God. There is considerable confusion today about this distinction, with even some high ecclesiastics speaking as if the diocesan clergy had pronounced the traditional three vows, with all they imply. The members of religious orders also live together in community, which in practice has precluded wife and children. Even if the discipline of celibacy should be changed to allow diocesan priests to marry, priests who are members of religious orders, by definition and by their own choice, would not marry.
With those basics in place, we can turn to the history of celibacy in the Western church. There are three crucial moments—the fourth, the 11th and the 16th centuries. But since the New Testament is the basis for Christian life and belief, a word must be said about it. Although the practice of celibacy was not common in ancient Judaism, it appears that some Essenes and the Therapeuticae, members of Jewish religious sects who lived a communal life analogous to that of later Christian monks, were celibate.
There is no indication in Jewish or Christian sources that either John the Baptist or Jesus was married. At least there is no mention of either one’s wife or children. Indeed, celibacy undertaken “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 19:12) fits well with what we know to have been the focus of Jesus’ life and preaching. Peter was certainly married, since Mark tells us (1:29-31) he had a mother-in-law. And Paul claims in 1 Corinthians 9:5 that Cephas (usually interpreted as another name for Peter) was accompanied by his wife on his apostolic journeys. We know nothing about the marital status of the rest of “the Twelve.”
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul holds up virginity, continence and celibacy as Christian ideals. For him, writing in an eschatological context while awaiting the Second Coming, these practices were helps toward a more fervent consecration to God. Paul even concludes that one “who refrains from marriage will do better” (7:38). He was careful, however, to insist that they were gifts from God and were not granted to everyone. When Paul wrote his letters, he was not married and affirms that he was celibate. But, on the basis of 1 Corinthians 7:8 (“To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am”) some interpreters argue that Paul had been married and was now a widower. The First Letter to Timothy directs that “bishops” (3:2) and “deacons” (3:12) be “married only once.” Whether this stipulation forbade polygamy or remarriage after a spouse’s death has been debated among exegetes for many years.
Beginning with the third century there is indisputable evidence that even in the West many priests and bishops in good standing were married. The following list of bishops is but a small sample that I have randomly selected: Passivus, bishop of Fermo; Cassius, bishop of Narni; Aetherius, bishop of Vienne; Aquilinus, bishop of évreux; Faron, bishop of Meaux; Magnus, bishop of Avignon. Filibaud, bishop of Aire-sur-l’Adour, was the father of St. Philibert de Jumiäges, and Sigilaicus, bishop of Tours, was the father of St. Cyran of Brenne. The father of Pope Damasus I (366-84) was a bishop. Pope Felix III (483-92), whose father was almost certainly a priest, was the great-great grandfather of Pope Gregory I the Great (590-604). Pope Hormisdas (514-23) was the father of Pope Silverius (536-37).
Being a married man with children was obviously no obstacle to the episcopacy or even to the papacy. We know for certain that one of the great fathers of the church, St. Hilary, bishop of Poitiers (315-68), who was declared a doctor of the church in 1851 by Pope Pius IX, was married and had a daughter named Apra. It is thus clear that during the patristic era and into the early Middle Ages celibacy, as such, was not in force.
Celibacy is one thing, continence another. Until the fourth century no law was promulgated concerning clerical marriage or clerical continence after marriage for those in major orders who were already married when ordained. But we know that by that time clerical renunciation of marriage was not rare, nor was the practice of living apart from their wives by those who were married before ordination. There is no way of estimating how many conformed to this behavior, but it is clear that in some places it was considered normative and traditional.
We nonetheless cannot underestimate the dramatic change in status for all Christians that Constantine’s recognition of Christianity early in that century brought with it. It gave fuel to a sometimes fierce asceticism, as Christians now withdrew into the desert from a world that had become too friendly. This period marks the beginning of Christian monasticism. With the age of the martyrs over, Christians had to have other means of following Christ to the limits and laying down their lives for him. With St. Jerome (345-420), as well as many others, virginity for those espoused to Christ began to be extolled with new fervor and consistency. These ideas and ideals were, however, by no means new for Christians.
In any case, many things changed for Christians as they “emerged from the catacombs” in that fourth century. Among these changes was the beginning of legislation concerning our subject. Around the year 305, 19 bishops assembled from various parts of Spain for the Council of Elvira (near Granada). Also in attendance, but not voting, were 24 priests and a number of deacons and laypeople. The council promulgated 81 disciplinary decrees. Canon 33 is the one that concerns us, for it is chronologically the first of a long series of legislative measures extending down to the present dealing with the subject of marriage and the clergy. The text reads: “It has seemed good absolutely to forbid the bishops, the priests, and the deacons, i.e., all the clerics in the service of the ministry, to have relations with their wives and procreate children; should anyone do so, let him be excluded from the honor of the clergy.”
The decree takes for granted that some clerics will be married. What is prohibited is for them to have conjugal relations with their wives. The decree thus concerns continence, not celibacy. It seems likely that the decree was meant to deal with infractions of what was considered normative rather than to initiate some new practice. If the contrary were the case in such a serious and potentially disruptive matter, we could certainly expect some reasons to be given for the change. But there are none. By the end of the century, the Council of Carthage (390) would justify its almost identical prohibition with the claim it was legislating only “what the Apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed.” There is, however, one thing that is certainly new about Canon 33 of the Council of Elvira: it made a practice or tradition into a law, violations of which would be punished.
In any case, from the early fourth century forward councils, popes and bishops issued a number of decrees enjoining continence on married men who had been ordained to the diaconate, priesthood or episcopacy. That is the orientation of the church in the West through the patristic period into the Middle Ages. There was no prohibition against married men being ordained. There were, however, plenty of laws, letters and exhortations enjoining continence. (It is interesting to note that the “Synod in Trullo” or “Quinisext” Council, 691-92, held in Constantinople, explicitly repudiated in Canon 13 the “Roman” custom of requiring continence. The Western church, however, never received, that is, accepted, the canons of this council or considered it ecumenical.)
What lay behind this insistence on continence for married clergy? That is a question not easy to answer. In general, there were four motivations that seemed to be operative all at once, or singly or in some combination. The first was the conviction that continence for those ministering at the altar was traditional, with at least some commentators believing the tradition was of apostolic origin. That conviction was itself sufficient for insisting without question on its observance. Second, the practice was often explained by arguing for the total dedication required in the minister of the sacraments and by arguing that an incontinent cleric could not urge virgins and widows to continence. The argument from ritual purity, with allusions to Old Testament precedents, also appears frequently in the sources. Finally, as is clear from a curious decree of the Emperor Justinian in 528, some Christians were concerned that bishops would squander on their wives and children resources given the church for worship and for the aid of the poor. This last, however, is in these centuries a relatively infrequent and subdued theme. Although the context would be radically different, these four arguments are fundamentally the ones that the Gregorian reformers of the 11th century would borrow and develop.
The second decisive moment comes with those reformers. The Gregorian Reform, also known as the Investiture Controversy, was one of the greatest turning points in the history of the church in the West. From the fourth century onward, the gradual incursion of the “barbarian” tribes into the West had transformed the structures of the Roman Empire and gradually weakened them. Bishops began to take over more and more civic duties, including the military defense of cities. The situation deteriorated badly, as Europe entered “the dark ages.” Although Charlemagne was able in the ninth century to establish some semblance of centralized order, his accomplishments were soon dissipated by internal dissensions and attacks from the outside by Vikings, Magyars and Moors. Despite all, society began to recover in the late 10th and early 11th centuries, and with recovery came a yearning to reestablish proper order in society.
Two interlocking abuses among the clergy shocked reformers in the 11th century. Simony and incontinence—that is, clergy living openly with their wives or in concubinage. These abuses were related in that clerical offices, like bishoprics, were sometimes being sold to the highest bidder, no matter what his morals, or being passed on, with their considerable revenues, from father to son.
With the gradual recovery of society in the 11th century came recovery of substantial collections of canon law from the patristic period. For 35 years beginning in 1049, a series of energetic popes emerged who were determined to set things right. Their principal weapon was the canonical collections that provided them with their blueprint for how society and church were to be ordered. These collections included many documents from the patristic period related to our subject. The popes launched a program of reform that, in the name of restoring the authentic past, created something new, especially a papacy with claims of authority far exceeding in theory and practice anything that had preceded it. The reform reached its culmination with Pope Gregory VII (1073-85), one of the most important popes in the history of the papacy. The reform movement is named after him.
The movement began, however, with the more modest, though still formidable goal, of bringing the behavior of the clergy into line with the reformers’ interpretation of the ancient canons. To that extent it was a holiness movement. In the wake of the Gregorians’ efforts, the law of celibacy began to emerge in much the form we know it today, that is, as a prohibition against ordaining married men and entering the married state after ordination. The very first of “the Gregorians,” Pope Leo IX (1049-54), for instance, presided along with the German emperor at a synod in Mainz in 1049 that condemned “the evil of clerical marriage”—nefanda sacerdotum coniugia. If this prohibition is to be understood as somehow qualified for those already married before ordination, the limitation is not clear from the text itself.
The focus of the reformers was, however, more in accord with the older tradition in that they insisted on continence—absolutely. Along with other sanctions for incontinent priests, they forbade the laity to assist at the Masses of priests they knew were not conforming to the requirement. They found a good argument for their ideals in Canon 3 of the Council of Nicea (325), which forbade clerics in major orders to have any women in their households except their mothers, sisters or aunts. They interpreted the canon, incorrectly, as a prohibition of marriage.
With the passage of time, the absolute prohibition of marriage assumed ever greater prominence and gradually became accepted by a seeming majority of lay magnates and the upper clergy as the tradition of the church. In 1059 St. Peter Damian, a cardinal and one of the most effective spokesmen for the Gregorian program, wrote his book On the Celibacy of Priests (De Coelibatu Sacerdotum), which by its very title helped promote this trend and give prominence to the word itself.
But no aspect of the Gregorians’ program went uncontested, including this one. Otto, the bishop of Constance, refused to enforce with his own clergy Gregory VII’s directives regarding clerics and women. When Bishop Altmann of Passau tried, on the contrary, to implement the reforms, the clergy attacked him and with the help of imperial troops drove him out of his diocese. A cleric, probably Ulrich, the bishop of Imola, took up his pen about 1060 in a defense of clerical marriage that assumed conjugal relations after the ordination of the spouse. Ulrich’s “Rescript” influenced other writings in the same vein that continued to appear into the 12th century. But by the time of the Second Lateran Council (1139), the Gregorians had substantially achieved their aims in this regard and won widespread support for them from lay and ecclesiastical leaders.
Some 500 bishops gathered for Lateran II. Canons 6 and 7 of that council forbade all those in major orders (now including subdeacons) from taking wives and forbade the faithful from assisting at the Masses of priests they knew to have wives or concubines. These two decrees represent a culmination of the reform movement, and, although they might still be interpreted in the older sense of prohibiting marriage after ordination, they came to be understood as absolute prohibitions. From this time until the Reformation, the prohibition of marriage for all clerics in major orders began to be taken simply for granted.
The third decisive moment came in the 16th century with the Reformation. Since Luther and the other Reformers found no justification for celibacy in the New Testament, they denounced it as just one more restriction on Christian liberty imposed by the tyrant in Rome. Luther also argued that celibacy was responsible for the debauchery of the clergy that he found prevalent. He and the other Reformers all married. Although the question of married clergy was not at the center of the Reformation agenda, it in fact gave that agenda an institutional grounding that would serve it well. These ministers would be a powerful force resisting reconciliation with the traditional church until they could be assured it meant they could bring their wives and children with them as they continued to exercise their ministry.
The Reformation was certainly the most massive frontal attack that the traditions of clerical celibacy and continence had ever received. It had to be answered. The Council of Trent (1545-63) finally took up the matter in the final period (1562-63) of its 18-year history. The theologians deputed to deal with it were divided in their opinions, with a few of them maintaining that celibacy for the clergy was of divine law and could not be abrogated; but most of them held more moderate opinions. The matter was further complicated by political pressure from the German Emperor Ferdinand and Albrecht V, Duke of Bavaria, both devout Catholics who wanted celibacy abrogated. If that were not possible, they wanted a dispensation from it for their own territories. On July 24, 1562, for instance, Augustin Baumgartner, a layman and the ambassador of the Duke to the council, spoke at length before the bishops arguing precisely along those lines.
The decrees and canons of the Council of Trent run to almost 300 pages in a standard English translation. The council in several places touched upon issues related to our subject, as when Canon 10 of Session 24 condemned the opinion that marriage was better than virginity or celibacy. It issued, however, only one brief canon, a paragraph, that addressed this burning matter directly (Canon 9, Session 24). That canon is notably cautious. It makes no assertions about the origins of the tradition, about its importance or about its necessity. It simply condemns three opinions concerning celibacy: first, that clerics in major orders and religious priests who have made a solemn vow of chastity can validly contract marriage; second, that the regulation of celibacy is a disparagement of marriage; and third, that those who, after making a solemn vow of celibacy, cannot observe it are free to contract marriage.
The canon obliquely reaffirms the discipline of celibacy, but it does not do so explicitly and directly. It would seem to leave open the possibility of exceptions and dispensations. German leaders continued in fact to press their case with Pope Pius IV after the conclusion of the council. The pope, under pressure from King Philip II of Spain to stand firm, submitted the matter to a consistory of cardinals, wavered and then finally denied the Germans’ petition. His successor, Pope Pius V (1566-72), left no doubt that the matter was definitively closed.
In the centuries between then and now the issue occasionally surfaced again, especially during the French Revolution, but by and large it has been quiescent within Catholicism until quite recently. Canon 132 of the Code of Canon Law of 1918 stated: “Clerics in major orders may not marry and they are bound by the obligation of chastity to the extent that sinning against it constitutes a sacrilege.” Although a few bishops at Vatican II (1962-65) advocated abrogating or modifying the law, Pope Paul VI in 1965 prevented it from being formally discussed at the council. In the code of 1983, the one currently in effect, the law of celibacy was reformulated in Canon 277, which echoes themes that have recurred in the history of the issue: “Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and therefore are obliged to observe celibacy, which is a special gift of God, by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and can more freely dedicate themselves to the service of God and humankind.”