Home Page

Fr McGovern


Part 1


In the current debate on celibacy, there is a considerable range of opinions about the origin and development of this charism in the Church. Some affirm that it became obligatory from the fourth century while, for others, the Second Lateran Council (1139) is the basic reference point. There is also disagreement as to its source, ranging from those who consider it to be of divine or apostolic origin, to the affirmation that it is merely a later expression of ecclesiastical discipline.

It is well known that the practice of the Latin Church, which requires of its priests an irrevocable commitment to celibacy, differs from the discipline of the Eastern Church. There is a commonly held belief that in the Eastern Churches (apart from special cases) no law of celibacy exists. There is also a perception that the Eastern tradition is the more ancient, and that the Latin discipline was imposed at a comparatively late date. In discussion about revising the tradition of celibacy in the West the discipline of the Eastern Churches is frequently offered as a point of reference.

Why is there a divergence in discipline between East and West, and how did this come about? How explain that the East insists rigidly on celibacy for bishops, but encourages a married clergy? Why in the East is it normal that there are married priests, but at the same time it was never permitted to a man to marry after he had been ordained?

That such a variety of opinion, and indeed contradictory affirmations, are the consequence of an inaccurate knowledge of the historical facts is confirmed by important publications in recent years on the history of ecclesiastical celibacy both in the Eastern and Western Church. In particular the detailed studies of Cochini, Cholij and Stickler open up new ground on the history and the theology of this charism and make a strong case for the apostolic origin of this discipline. [1]

To understand the history of celibacy from today's perspective it is necessary to realise that in the West, during the first millennium of the Church, a large number of bishops and priests were married men, something which today is quite exceptional. However, a precondition for married men to receive orders as deacons, priests, or bishops was that after ordination they were required to live perpetual continence or the lex continentiae. They had, with the prior agreement of their spouses, to be prepared to forego conjugal life in the future.

Nevertheless, alongside the married clerics, there were always present in the Church, in varying proportions, many clerics who never married, or who lived in celibacy as we know it today. As time went on, the appropriateness of a celibate priesthood in the Western Church became clearer and the proportion of married men called to the priesthood decreased. With the institution of seminaries by the Council of Trent, the Church had sufficient candidates for a celibate clergy to meet all the needs of the dioceses. Accordingly, instances of married men being admitted to orders, through a dispensation of the Holy See, became less and less frequent.

In the early Church, as already indicated, ordination of married men was the norm. Sacred Scripture confirms this; St Paul prescribes to his disciples Titus and Timothy that candidates for ordination should only have been married once (cf. 1 Tim 3:2.12; Tit 1:6). We know that Peter was married and perhaps others of the Apostles. This seems to be implied in Peter's question to Christ - 'We have left our homes and followed you'. And Jesus replied, 'Truly, I say to you, there is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life' (Lk 18:28-30; cf. Mt 19:27-30).

Here we see the first obligation of clerical celibacy, that is, continence in relation to the use of marriage after ordination. This was the original meaning of celibacy - the lex continentiae or absolute continence in relation to the generation of children. This is how it is defined in all the first written laws about celibacy, dating from the fourth and fifth centuries. Candidates for ordination could not commit themselves to live continence without the prior, express agreement of their spouses, since as a consequence of the sacramental bond they had an inalienable right to conjugal relations.

For several reasons, practical as well as ascetical, a preference developed in the Church for the ordination of celibate, unmarried men, a preference which subsequently became the normal requirement for all candidates for the priesthood in the Western Church. Hence, as has been pointed out, in the first millennium of the Church, celibacy meant either of two things: that ordained ministers did not marry, or, if those chosen to be ordained were already married, after ordination they had to commit themselves to a life of perpetual continence. The failure to distinguish between the lex continentiae and celibacy as we understand it today has given rise to a number of misunderstandings and misinterpretations about the history of this charism.

Up to recently, the general historical perception held that it was not until the fourth century that the Church articulated a law of celibacy. This view was established by Franz X. Funk, the well-known ecclesiastical historian, in the last century. [2] However, Funk's judgement was erroneous because of basing it on a document that has since been proved to be spurious. [3] In addition Funk was incorrect in one of his basic assumptions. If discourse on the question of celibacy is to advance scientifically from a theological and juridical point of view, there is a second fundamental presupposition which needs to be clearly understood. Historians of law have pointed out that it is a basic methodological error to identify the concepts of ius and lex, which is what Funk did. [4]

All obligatory juridical norms, both those handed down orally and transmitted through custom, as well as those expressed in writing constitute the content of the idea of ius. On the other hand, law understood as lex is a narrower concept, since it refers only to dispositions which have been written down and legitimately promulgated. History confirms that all juridical ordinances began as oral traditions which were only slowly fixed in writing, as was the case, for example, with Roman and Germanic law. [5]

The juridical constitution of the nascent Church consisted largely of provisions and obligations which were transmitted orally; all the more so since, during the first three centuries of persecution, it would have been difficult to have put any laws in writing. Certainly some elements of the primitive law of the Church were written down, yet St Paul also encouraged the Thessalonians to keep to the traditions which had been passed on orally (cf. 2 Thess 2:15). Funk made the basic error of dating the origin of celibacy from the first known written law about it, that is from the Council of Elvira. This is our starting point for a review of the significant developments in the Latin rite legislation up to the seventh century.

Celibacy in the Latin Church

The Council of Elvira (Spain) is of particular significance for the legislative history of celibacy. Held at the beginning of the fourth century (circa 305 AD), the purpose of its eighty-one canons was to renew the life of the Church in the western part of the Roman empire, to reaffirm ancient disciplines and to sanction new norms. Canon 33 contained the first known written law about celibacy, applicable to bishops, priests, and deacons, (that is 'for all clerics dedicated to the service of the altar'), which proclaimed that they ought to keep complete continence in relation to their wives, and that anyone who had broken this rule should be excluded from the clerical state. [6] Canon 27 of the same Council prohibited women living with ecclesiastics, except for a sister or a daughter who was a consecrated virgin.

From these primitive and important legal texts, it can be deduced that most of the ecclesiastics in the Spanish church were viri probati, that is, men who were married before becoming ordained deacons, priests or bishops. All, however, were obliged, after receiving Holy Orders, to renounce completely the use of marriage, that is to live in total continence. Consequently Stickler can say that, in the light of the aims of the Council of Elvira, and of the history of law in the Roman empire, in no way can one see in canon 33 a statement of a new law. It was, on the contrary, a reaction to the extended lack of observance of a traditional and well-known obligation, to which at this time the Council added a sanction: either the delinquent ecclesiastics accepted the obligation of the lex continentiae, or gave up the clerical state. The fact that the legislation of Elvira was pacifically accepted confirms that no juridical novelty was being introduced, but that it was concerned primarily with maintaining an already existing normative discipline. This is what Pius XI meant when, in his encyclical on the priesthood, he affirms that this written law implied previous praxis. [7] To suggest, therefore, that Elvira is the origin of the law of celibacy in the Church, and that there is, consequiently, a discontinuity in discipline between its introduction and what was the praxis beforehand, is, for the reasons already given, a fundamentally erroneous conclusion. [8]

Council of Carthage

At the end of the fourth century, legislation of the Synod of Rome (386) and the Second Council of Carthage (390) confirmed the lex continentiae as a discipline practised universally from the beginning of the Church, and related it explicitly to the teaching of the Apostles. [9] Canon 3 of Carthage stipulated that married clerics had to observe continence with their wives on the basis of a tradition originating with the Apostles:

It is fitting that the holy bishops and priests of God as well as the Levites, i.e. those who are in the service of the divine sacraments, observe perfect continence, so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God; what the Apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us also endeavour to keep... It pleases us all that bishop, priest and deacon, guardians of purity, abstain from conjugal intercourse with their wives, so that those who serve at the altar may keep a perfect chastity. [10 ]

This canon became known, through different collections, to all the dioceses of the Roman Church, and in the East the Quinisext Council of Trullo (691) would refer to it explicitly as a sure link with Tradition. The law that was promulgated in 390 was officially inserted in the definitive legislative record of the African Church, the Codex canonum Ecclesiae Africanae, completed and promulgated in 419, while Augustine was bishop of Hippo.

At that time most, though not all, of the clergy were married men. They are asked by the African Synod to give up all conjugal intercourse, because it is deemed that this would prevent them from carrying out simpliciter their mediatory function. The import of the canon is that those who by consecration have now become sacred persons should in future manifest by their lives this new ontological reality. To be effective mediators between God and man, and the commitment to service at the altar, are the specific reasons for the continence they are asked to observe.

Decretals of Pope Siricius

Three other documents issued by the Magisterium at the end of the fourth century claim apostolic origin for clerical celibacy and the perpetual continence required of ministers of the altar. These were the two decretals of Pope Siricius, dating from 385 and 386, and a canon of the Synod of Rome of about the same time. [11]

In the first of these, the Directa decretal written in 385, the Pope is responding to news that clerics in major orders continued living with their wives and having children in violation of the traditional discipline, and that this was being justified with reference to the tradition of the Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament. He replies that these priests were under the obligation of temporary continence when serving in the Temple, but that with the coming of Christ the old priesthood had been brought to completion, and by this very fact the obligation of temporary continence became an obligation to perpetual continence. [12]

In the Cum in unum decretal, sent to the different ecclesiastical provinces in 386, Pope Siricius refers to the various Pauline texts (cf. Tit 1:15; 1 Tim 3:2; 1 Cor 7:7; Rom 8:8-9) as the scriptural foundation for the discipline of ecclesiastical celibacy, and in doing so gives an authoritative interpretation of the unius uxoris virum (man of one wife) text. If Timothy and Titus are to choose bishops, priests or deacons among 'men married once only', this does not mean that after ordination they can continue with their conjugal life. Rather it is seen as a requirement to guarantee the future continence (propter continentiam futuram) that the candidate for orders will be asked to practise. In other words, a man who had remarried after his first wife died could not be considered as a candidate for ordination, since the fact of his remarriage would indicate an inability to live the life of perpetual continence required of clerics in major orders. [13]

The legislation of Pope Siricius in 385 and 386, and the canons of the Council of Carthage (390), claim apostolic origin for the lex continentiae. It is worth noting that these are not the claims of mere individuals but are the view of those who carried hierarchical responsibility in the Church. In Carthage it was the unanimous view of the whole African episcopate which declared 'ut quod apostoli docuerunt, et ipsa servavit antiquitas nos quoque custodiamus' (what the Apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us also endeavour to keep). In Rome Pope Siricius was conscious of placing himself in the line of the same living tradition with his predecessors as bishops of the See of Peter. [14]

Later in the eleventh century the promoters of the Gregorian Reform drew on the Carthaginian canons of 390 for their most solid historical argument. After the Reformation, when the German princes wrote to the Pope requesting the authorisation of a married clergy, Pius IV's negative reply was grounded in the first place on the same Carthaginian canons.

As we have seen, the Latin rite legislation of the fourth century did not represent an innovation in the sense of imposing sexual abstinence on clerics for the first time. It was rather a response to a difficult situation in the Church when the general atmosphere of moral laxity was threatening a discipline which was regarded as a tradition, the infraction of which was sanctioned by severe penalties. In an unfavourable situation Church authorities would not have imposed on clerics the heavy burden of continence if they did not have the conviction of being accountable to apostolic tradition for the fidelity of their teaching.

Patristic Evidence

Theologically, in the first four centuries of the Church's history, the validation of clerical continence is grounded on the Pauline teaching, linking it to availability for service at the altar and a greater freedom for prayer. Being permanently in God's presence, and because of the importance given to prayer, praise and adoration, the minister of the New Covenant does not have the leisure needed to fulfil the responsibilities of married life. [15]

Nevertheless, the catechesis of St Cyril of Jerusalem (313- 86) had already affirmed that the discipline of clerical continence was anchored in the example of the Eternal High Priest, a living norm that was more convincing than all other justifications. By linking priestly continence closely to the virginal birth of Christ, in the mind of Cyril it is based on a foundation that goes far beyond mere historical conjecture. [16]

For St Jerome (347-419) continence is above all a matter of holiness. In his Letter to Pammachius he justifies continence on the authority of Scripture and the actual witness of priestly chastity. This latter is not offered as an ideal to be pursued but as a fact admitted by all. Chastity, he claims, is also the rule for selection of clerics: bishops, priests and deacons are all chosen from one of the following: virgins (that is single men), widowers, or married men who, after ordination, will observe perfect continence. [17]

It is also significant that Jerome in his defence of the traditional discipline does not feel called on to make any distinction between the witness of the Western, Egyptian, or Eastern Churches in this matter. In his polemic with one Vigilantius from Gaul (406), who saw continence as nothing but heresy and an occasion for sin, Jerome reaffirms the practice which he knows to be traditional: the Church of Egypt, the East and the Apostolic See never accept clerics unless they are virgins or continent men, or, if they were clerics who had a wife, accept them only if they give up matrimonial life. In affirming this discipline he is offering as testimony the experience of the greater part of the Church of which he, through his many travels, had firsthand experience. [18] He also gives testimony to the apostolic origin of this discipline: 'The Apostles were either virgins or continent after having been married. Bishops, priests, and deacons are chosen among virgins and widowers; in any case once they are ordained, they live in perfect chastity'. [20]

St Jerome, considering the role of Christ and his mother in the origin and institution of the Church, finds in them the living principles of virginity and priestly vocation. Now freely accepted by some, it is for priests the principle of the sanctity called for by their ministry, and at their level it is translated into the special demands of continence. The imitation of virginal purity, inaugurated by Christ and his mother, is from now on the rule of the new priesthood.

St Augustine participated in the Council of Carthage (419) where the general obligation to continence for major clerics had been repeatedly affirmed and traced back to the apostles and to a constant tradition. In his treatise De conjugiis adulterinis he asserted that even married men who were unexpectedly called to enter the ranks of the major clergy, and were ordained, were obliged to continence. In this they became an example to those laymen who had to live separated from their wives and who therefore were more liable to be tempted to commit adultery. [21]

Sixth Century Legislation

In the sixth century there were some significant pieces of legislation on celibacy. The Breviatio Ferrandi was a digest of Church legislation in Africa assembled about 550 which reaffirms earlier norms of priestly celibacy. In summary the main points were as follows:

  • bishops, priests and deacons were to abstain from relations with their wives;

  • any priest who got married was to be deposed; if he commits the sin of fornication he is to do penance;
  • in order to safeguard the reputation of ministers of the Church and to help them observe chastity, clerics were not to live with women other than close family relations.

It is worth noting that this was a period of merciless persecution for the Church in North Africa when the Vandals invaded and eliminated the leaders of many of these Christian communities. [22]

The Third Council of Toledo (589) was convoked to remedy abuses that had penetrated the clergy arising from the Arian heresy. Bishops, priests and deacons, returning to the Catholic faith after abandoning Arianism, no longer considered continence an obligation of the priestly state. Matrimonial rights had reasserted themselves and, therefore, although Arianism had been officially defeated at the Council of Constantinople in 381, the negative effects of this heresy, as far as priestly chastity was concerned, were still being felt two centuries later. Canon 5 of Toledo III renewed the traditional discipline, indicating the sanctions which attended its infraction.

In Gaul in the sixth century, councils held under the reforming and energetic St Caesarius of Arles reaffirmed legislation for the restoration of priestly celibacy, a discipline which had suffered as a result of the Visigoth invasions during the previous century.

Attempts at Reform in the West from the Seventh to the Tenth Centuries

During the period of the early Middle Ages there were important historical factors which influenced the discipline of continence and celibacy. In the first place there was the gradual disintegration of the unity of the Roman Empire, giving rise to regional and national entities, which clouded the unity of vision of the various episcopates, and brought about a weakening of papal authority. [24]

The new races of barbarians, who overran the boundaries of the old empire, were often converted en masse. This meant that the full demands of Christian morality encountered serious difficulties among poorly instructed peoples, and even among the clergy who had to be recruited from them. Because these young states based several of their institutions on close collaboration with the Church, the result was that many pastors became temporal princes. Hence the interest of the state in the choice of the holders of ecclesiastical office, which was the origin of investiture by the secular powers. This resulted in important Church positions frequently being occupied by men who lacked the necessary moral and religious aptitudes. In addition, the crisis which affected the papacy during the Middle Ages diminished the vigour and effectiveness of its interventions over a long period.

The lower clergy were affected by the bad example of their superiors, but the principal cause of laxity regarding the law of continence arose from the system of conferment of benefices and the setting up of many private churches. This arrangement compromised the clergy by tying their ministry to the totality of material resources of which the Church could in future dispose. The material advantages of ecclesiastical positions were frequently more attractive than the pastoral responsibility, which often resulted in unsuitable and unworthy candidates entering the priesthood. With the resulting financial independence, economic security and free disposal of revenues, the ministerial function itself, as Stickler points out, became largely independent of higher authority. This inevitably led to worldly life-styles, which contributed to a deterioration in the practice of continence and celibacy as these had broadly established themselves at the end of the patristic era.

What was the response of Church authority to this situation of decadent morals among the clergy? The historical evidence shows that a number of disciplinary norms were laid down, which took on board the most significant patristic texts concerning continence and celibacy. These are to be found in the conciliar rulings of the African Church, of Gaul and Spain, as well as in the important decretals of Popes Siricius, Innocent I and Leo I, most of which we have already reviewed. They made their way into countless small collections of disciplinary norms which had a wide distribution.

Among these collections the Penitential Books[25] had a particular importance, containing as they did the whole of ecclesiastical discipline. They originated in Ireland and England and spread to the continent through missionaries from these countries. As regards the discipline of celibacy we read in one of these, dating from the second half of the sixth century, that a cleric who contracted marriage may not return to his wife after ordination and may no longer give her children, as this would be the equivalent of infidelity to the promise he had made to God. [26] Another penitential collection with Irish connections, the Poenitentiale Bobiense, laid down that a cleric in major orders, who after ordination renewed conjugal relations with his wife, should consider that he had committed a sin the equivalent of adultery, with severe penances attached. [27]

It is therefore true to say that, during those centuries of crisis for clerical morals, the Church never lost sight of the ancient tradition concerning the law of celibacy. From her memory she constantly affirmed the prohibition of marriage for clerics in major orders and the duty of a vow of perpetual continence for those married before ordination, even at times when these laws were being flagrantly violated. Apart from evidence in the collections of disciplinary norms, this commitment is also attested to by the efforts of regional councils and diocesan synods. In France, for example, the Council of Metz (888) forbade priests to keep a woman in their homes; the Council of Rheims (909), noting the decadence in clerical conduct as regards continence, urged that association with women should be forbidden, and also cohabitation with them, both norms being related to the precept of continence. In Germany, the Council of Mainz (888) recalled that the prohibition on cohabitation with women even included the wife whom the cleric had previously married, that is, it confirmed the prohibition of canon 3 of the Council of Nicea (325). In England, Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury, towards the end of the tenth century, made considerable efforts to reform the morals of the English clergy and restore the traditional discipline. His endeavours were resisted but he had no hesitation in replacing recalcitrant priests by monks.

During this period there were a number of papal rulings about celibacy despite times of decadence in the papacy itself. These consisted in instructions to bishops and princes of various countries, and decrees by Roman synods defending or restoring the tradition of celibacy. But it was not until the period of the Gregorian Reform in the eleventh and twelfth centuries that these instructions were given the canonical and disciplinary teeth necessary to be effective.

The Gregorian Reform

The Gregorian reform succeeded because it struck at the very root of the disorders which had become so widespread. The initiative for reform came from the monasteries and their objective was to re-establish the supreme authority of the papacy. The roots of the evil were not only recognised but eliminated. First there was a systematic attack against simony and Nicolaitism (the widespread violation of clerical celibacy), and this was followed by a courageous battle against the scourge of lay investiture. This led to a new era in the development of legislation concerning celibacy and, more importantly, its implementation. The basic inspiration of the Gregorian reform was not to innovate but rather to draw deeply on the wisdom of tradition and of the Fathers, and on the ancient and authentic discipline of the Church which it so desired to restore.

The ecclesiastical laws promulgated by Gregory VII (1073-85) reaffirmed the norms concerning continence of the clergy and the prohibition of marriage for clerics in major orders, as well as measures taken to forestall infringements, particularly in relation to cohabitation with women. Still, the programme for reform was not without opposition. The opponents of reform presented their own arguments, not only at the practical but also at the theoretical level. Their main argument was a scriptural one drawn from the Old Testament, which not only allowed priests to marry but mandated marriage to perpetuate the priestly caste. They also drew on the episode of Paphnutius whom, they claimed, opposed the idea of requiring absolute continence from married clerics at the Council of Nicea (325).

Ignoring all the historical documentation that supported the law of celibacy, they developed a whole series of supposedly moral and rational arguments against it. The renunciation of marriage, they claimed, could not be imposed but only recommended; it should be left optional. In any case the matter should be approached with benevolence and tact and not with Roman rigidity. Customs that the passage of time had made lawful should be accepted, and more charity and compassion shown towards human weakness.

They also made the point that an obligation as grave as that of continence could not be imposed universally as it did not come from God but from men, and presupposed in those who accepted it a charism which God only granted in individual cases. Thus, their argument continued, drawing on the Pauline admonition, it was better for a man to marry than to burn with impure desires. In any event, marriage was a sacrament instituted by Christ, hence something holy, and so marriage for a priest could not be described as wrong. It was therefore contrary to the holiness of matrimony to describe marital practice of priests lawfully united to a wife as fornicatio or adulterium. In the light of these considerations the opposition to the Gregorian reform deplored the new and severe measures decreed by Rome for infractions of the traditional discipline. [28]

The promoters of reform answered each of the objections raised by its opponents and then went on to elucidate the reasons for the new legislation. They draw on the scriptural arguments for continence, but it is to the witness of tradition that the main thrust of their arguments appeal. In this context the historical value of the Paphnutius incident at Nicea is rejected with convincing critical reasoning, an event which Gregory VII rejected as a falsification at the Synod of Rome in 1077. [29]

The partisans of reform strongly affirmed the primacy of the Roman Pontiff as the governing authority for the whole Church, with the competence to lay down laws in respect of all the bishops in matters of universal ecclesiastical discipline. Gregory VII worked ceaselessly to bring about the implementation of the traditional discipline. He did this especially by way of regional synods presided over by his legates in collaboration with the bishops, and through countless letters made the new dispositions known. Another important consequence of the reform was the regulation decided by the Second Lateran Council (1139) that a marriage attempted by a bishop, priest, deacon or sub-deacon was not only illicit but invalid. This led to the misunderstanding, still widespread even today, that celibacy for the higher clergy was introduced only at Lateran II. In reality the Council declared invalid something that had in fact always been prohibited. As Stickler points out, this new sanction actually confirmed an obligation that had in fact existed for many centuries. [30]

From the time of Alexander III (1159-81) married men were not as a rule allowed to have ecclesiastical benefices, and a son of a priest was prohibited from succeeding to his father's benefice. Before the ordination of their husbands, young wives and the wives of bishops were to agree to enter a convent. Indeed, one of the factors which in the long run must have contributed to the ordination of unmarried men only would have been the assumption that the wife was not prepared to give up her marital rights. [31]

In summary we can say that, during this period, although the traditional discipline had not changed in its main features and was not forgotten, it had in practice, as Stickler points out, ceased to be observed. The Gregorian reform must take the credit for a total commitment to eradicating the principal disorders which sullied the Church. Nevertheless the level of resistance encountered indicated that practices contrary to the ancient discipline had become so ingrained as to be regarded as lawful. The means used to restore order were primarily the implementation of severe sanctions for infractions of the discipline of clerical continence, and the intervention of papal authority against which there was no appeal. Immediately subsequent to the period of the Gregorian reform, there was a notable development in the science of canon law during the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the implementation of which facilitated the return to the traditional discipline of celibacy. In this way was developed the theology and the law for the basis of the obligation of celibacy. We will discuss later the reasons for the inherent limitations of this theology and jurisprudence.

Second Part of Chapter 1: Celibacy - A Historical Perspective.

Section Contents Copyright ©; Fr Thomas McGovern 1998-2000

This version: 17th January 2003

Home Page

Fr McGovern