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Part 2


Developments leading up to the Council of Trent

Despite all the efforts of the Gregorian reform the legislation on celibacy was still far from achieving the desired objectives. After the great Western Schism (1378-1417) the status of the papacy suffered a new decline and another reform was called for.

But the hoped-for reform did not materialise. This was due primarily to the economic organisation of the Church which was based on benefices that brought in considerable revenues. As we have seen already, the material advantages of these appointments attracted many men to the priesthood who had no vocation or aptitude for the priestly ministry. This situation, coupled with negligence by the competent authority, was the primary cause of decadence among the clergy. Given the abuses which were a reality in the Church, when the Protestant revolt started to take shape in the sixteenth century, it is not surprising that the question of celibacy was raised. Indeed many of the reformers had a strong aversion to it, and with Luther and Zwingli it became one of the key issues of the Reformation.
Stickler summarises the situation as follows:

'The campaign waged against celibacy at both the theoretical and practical levels achieved notable success due to the violence, skill and literary talent with which all the old objections, whether psychological, social or even financial, were worked out and presented to the public. Furthermore - and this amounted to a revolutionary innovation - the abandonment of celibacy was placed in relation to a new concept of the priesthood. The denial of the sacramental character of the ordo, the emphasis on the priesthood common to all the faithful and the doubt thrown on the existence of the ministerial priesthood essentially distinct from that of ordinary believers - all this found its concrete expression in the wish to suppress celibacy'. [32]


The Protestant opposition to celibacy was also an opportunity to give testimony to their sola scriptura doctrine, in that their rejection of celibacy was, they claimed, based on finding no scriptural support for it. If Catholics appealed to tradition to justify the doctrine and practice of celibacy, this was a source which was totally rejected by the Reformers. Hence, in the context of the Reformation, celibacy now became much more than a disciplinary problem. It resulted in direct doctrinal confrontation and was raised almost to the level of a criterion of orthodoxy.

In England, after Henry VIII's break with Rome, Thomas Cranmer, whom he appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, had already married secretly and prepared the ground for the abolition of celibacy under Henry's successor. Despite the monarch's well-known proclivity to taking wives, he was not prepared to countenance a similar arrangement for his clergy. Nevertheless, barely nine months after the king's death Convocation voted in December 1547 to abolish the laws which made the marriages of clerks in Holy Orders null and void ab initio, and a Bill to this effect was passed in the House of Commons in the 1548-49 session. All such marriages hitherto contracted, involving as many as eight or nine thousand clerics, were rendered good and lawful by the same Bill. Three years later a second Act was passed which legitimated the children born of such unions. In 1553 the new code of Canon Law for the Church of England condemned as heresy the belief that Holy Orders were an invalidating impediment to marriage. [35]

Following the elimination of celibacy in different countries, it is not surprising that many priests, diocesan as well as religious, abandoned their obligations. Sadly this was often the prelude to the abandonment of the faith as well.

Response to the Reformers

The revolutionary dimension of the opposition to celibacy at first evinced a political response from many civil authorities. The emperors Charles V (1519-56), Ferdinand I (1558-64) and Maximillian II (1564-76) all counselled a mitigation of the law at different stages during the Council of Trent. Humanists like Erasmus advised the same course. A change was admissible, even desirable they said, if it did not touch on the substance of the faith.

Some theologians and bishops rowed in with the humanists and were prepared for any accommodation which did not undermine the essentials of the faith. Still, the majority of bishops, convinced of the doctrinal and ascetical arguments for celibacy, refused to be railroaded into change. Since many of the priests who were living in compromised situations were already committed to heterodox theological positions, the bishops judged that a change in the law of celibacy would do little to win back these men to orthodoxy. They were also convinced that tolerating marriage for priests would completely undermine the radical reform of the clergy which was necessary if they were to become exemplary ministers of Christ.

Despite powerful political pressures Rome refused to legislate for a compromise solution, although it did show tolerance in particular mitigating circumstances. A dispensation could be given to priests, who wanted to keep their wives, to have their marriages validated (sanatio in radice), but they would have to give up their benefices and renounce the exercise of their ministry for the future. On the other hand, priests who desired to be readmitted to the ministry could do so only on condition that they separated from their concubines and showed an authentic spirit of repentance. These were the dispositions which were offered to Germany. Through Cardinal Pole, Rome made a similar arrangement with England during the period of the Catholic restoration under Mary (1553-8) to facilitate those priests who wanted to return to orthodoxy.

Council of Trent

From the time the Council of Trent first met in 1547, the question of priestly celibacy formed part of the agenda. However, because of interruptions, the council Fathers did not get round to addressing the issue until the third and last session in 1563. Clerical celibacy was studied by a commission of theologians in light of the Protestant affirmations that:

  • marriage as a state in life was superior to celibacy, and

  • that Western priests could marry licitly, ecclesiastical laws and vows notwithstanding; that to say otherwise is to disparage matrimony; and that all those who are not aware of having received the gift of chastity are free to marry.


Discussion of these two propositions opened in March 1563 in Trent and continued for thirteen sessions. It was the second issue which elicited a historical consideration of celibacy.

The commission studied the question under two headings (i) celibates who became priests, and (ii) married men who were accepted for ordination. In relation to the former it was discovered that at no time in the history of the Church had there been any exception to the prohibition on marriage for celibate priests. The majority of the commission considered this discipline to be of apostolic origin and the Council refused to define it as a discipline of merely ecclesiastical origin. [36] As regards married men accepted for orders, some argued that the obligation to perfect continence was of apostolic origin, whilst others considered it as resulting from ecclesiastical discipline. In relation to the Apostles who were married before being called by Christ, all the theologians affirmed unhesitatingly that afterwards they gave up conjugal life with their wives in line with their own declaration: 'We have left everything and followed you...'(Mt 19:27).

The discussions of the theological commission led to the approval of the following canon by the Fathers of Trent on 11 November 1563

'If anyone says that clerics constituted in sacred orders or regulars who have made solemn profession of chastity can contract marriage, and that the one contracted is valid notwithstanding the ecclesiastical law or the vow, and that the contrary is nothing else than a condemnation of marriage, and that all who feel they have not the gift of chastity, even though they have made such a vow, can contract marriage, let him be anathema, since God does not refuse that gift to those who ask for it rightly, neither does he suffer us to be tempted above that which we are able (1 Cor 10:13)'. [37]

Two other decisions were taken at Trent which were of much greater significance for the future of celibacy in the Church. The first was the decision to set up seminaries for the formation of candidates for the priesthood from their adolescence. This was perhaps the single most important measure both for the restoration of the traditional discipline and the elimination of immoral situations. [38]

The fact that as a consequence an increasing number of candidates were celibate at ordination meant that it eventually became unnecessary to ordain married men. The formation programme in the seminary would allow, firstly, a judicious selection and screening procedure to ensure that only candidates with the necessary aptitudes were ordained. Secondly, seminarians would be given the necessary formation at the theological, moral and ascetical levels to ensure that they would have the maturity required to live up to the demands of consecrated celibacy in a dedicated priestly life.

The second important consequence for celibacy was the decision by Trent to bring about a renewal of the priesthood and the episcopal ministry. Bishops were required to give first priority to their priests in the exercise of their pastoral concern, and to provide them with every help and encouragement to persevere in their vocation. They were encouraged to be real fathers to their priests, to be aware of their needs, anxieties, and difficulties and to support them in every way. It was precisely the lack of this paternal care and attention which was, for many priests, one of the main causes of infidelity to celibacy in the past.

The dispositions laid down by Trent for bishops and priests effectively constituted a new image and definition of priesthood. [39] Their duties were no longer to be restricted to the celebration of the liturgy and the administration of the sacraments; priests were also to be the pastoral leaders of the people in their care. The different decrees manifest how strongly Trent insisted on the prophetic office attached to the apostolic ministry. There is a remarkable new emphasis on the importance of preaching to instruct people in the teaching of Christ and the demands of the Christian life. Parish priests are required to preach daily during Lent and Advent, and also during the administration of the sacraments. [40]

The demands of this mission provided the priest with a new impetus to develop his moral and spiritual life, and consequently gave his priesthood a more supernatural grounding. In this way the Council provided the necessary theological and ascetical structure to prevent priests falling back into the bad habits of a worldly outlook and over-concern for material interests. [41]

Even so, the system of revenues accruing from benefices was not entirely broken, a situation which explains why the new dispositions laid down by Trent failed to have an immediate effect in relation to the renewal of the clergy and the practice of celibacy. Nevertheless, the Council was a landmark in the history of the Church in relation to celibacy, the benefits of which have lasted down to our own day.

In summary it can be said that all through the Middle Ages and into modern times, despite the pressures which were often brought to bear at its very centre, the Church never questioned the basis and the application of the law of celibacy in its essentials - candidates in major orders were never allowed to marry; any marriage so attempted was declared void. Those who were already married were forbidden to exercise their conjugal rights and were asked to make a commitment to perfect continence for the future. The ordination of married men gradually became the less favoured option, because, over time, the conviction grew that such ordinations created a certain ambiguity with regard to the appreciation of the celibate vocation and, as Stickler points out, called into question the close affinity between vocation to the priesthood and that to virginity.

The frequent reports of infraction of the discipline of priestly celibacy during this period suggests that in many places it was more honoured in the breach than in the observance. This led some commentators to the conclusion that celibacy per se was a commitment beyond the capacity of the normal run of clerics, and a charism which was only granted to a special few. Still, the evidence demonstrates that there was a high correlation between failure in celibacy and the decline in spiritual life of the clergy. As Stickler incisively comments,

'This demanding commitment, which involves a life of constant sacrifice, can only be lived out if it is nourished by a living faith, since human weakness is a constant reminder of its practical implications. It is only through a faith that is constantly and consciously sustained that the supernatural reasons underlying the commitment can be truly understood. When this faith grows weak, the determination to persevere fades; when faith dies, so does continence'. [42]

It is also true that at that time there was little rigour in the criteria of selecting candidates for orders. Their ascetical and doctrinal formation was seriously inadequate, making it almost inevitable that future priests would lack the necessary theological and spiritual habits of mind to understand the deeper meaning of celibacy and their priesthood.

In spite of all the difficulties and failures the Church never allowed herself to be invaded with a defeatist attitude about celibacy. The fact that, generation after generation, she got down to the work of reform, and was always ready to swim against the current of compromise, confirms her supernatural character as an institution. The fortitude to require her priests to observe this difficult discipline she drew from the conviction that this was a way of life that derived from apostolic tradition. As a result, she never doubted that, in spite of human weakness and all the vicissitudes to which such a commitment was prone, the grace of God would never be lacking to those who wanted to be faithful.

From Trent to the Present

Later, in the difficult times spawned by the French Revolution, the Church maintained its tradition of celibacy. However, the currents of thought generated by the Enlightenment paved the way for a brutal attack on celibacy, with inevitable losses. The Church's attitude was the praxis adopted at the time of the Reformation: priests who married during the Revolution had to decide either to renounce their invalidly contracted civil marriages, or to seek the sanation of the invalidity in the Church. In the first case they could be readmitted as ministers of the altar; in the second they remained permanently excluded from the sacred ministry, a solution which was long since established in the first written law on this topic, that is by the Council of Elvira (305).

In the early nineteenth century an association was formed in Germany to advocate a change in the law, but Gregory XIV rejected this move in his encyclical Mirari Vos (1834). Fourteen years later Pius IX defended the discipline in his Qui Pluribus. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Modernism provoked a new attack on the law of celibacy, but its effects were limited, due largely to the decisive measures taken by St Pius X. [43]

After World War I, when a group of Czech priests tried to bring about a change in the law of celibacy by suggesting that Rome was ready to relax this discipline, Benedict XV's unequivocal response left no room for doubt: 'We once more affirm, solemnly and formally, that this Apostolic See will never in any way lighten or mitigate the obligation of this holy and salutary law of clerical celibacy, not to speak of abolishing it'. [44]

Pius XI, in his detailed encyclical on the priesthood, Ad Catholici Sacerdotii, reaffirmed the appropriateness of the discipline of celibacy, [45] , as did Pius XII [46] and John XXIII. [47]

Since Vatican II there have been a number of efforts to change the discipline on celibacy. One was the attempt to have married men (viri probati) ordained, but without requiring the renunciation of conjugal life; another was the proposal to allow priests to marry.

Oriental Church Legislation

The criticism has often been made against the Church that, from a more liberal position at the beginning, its present discipline on celibacy expresses a more severe and hard-line approach. As proof of this point reference is made to the praxis of the Oriental Church where, we are told, the primitive discipline is preserved. Consequently it is suggested that the Latin Church should return to its original praxis of a married clergy because of the heavy burden which celibacy constitutes for the pastoral situation of the Church today.

The truth of the matter is, however, somewhat different. Authoritative witnesses of priestly celibacy in the fourth century Church of the East testify to a discipline parallel to what we have seen in the West. An important first witness is Bishop Epiphanius of Constantia in Cyprus (317-403). He was well known as an expert defender of orthodoxy and Church tradition. In his best known work, Panarion, he says that the charism of the new priesthood is shown through men who have renounced the use of their marriage contracted before ordination, or through those who have always lived as virgins. In his Expositio Fidei he claims that most clerics come from young men who have chosen virginity or from monks. If these candidates are not sufficient for the Church's needs, future priests are recruited from married men, but only from those who are freed from conjugal duties either by widowhood or by a free profession of continence. Men who have contracted a second marriage can never be accepted to the episcopate, the priesthood, or the diaconate. He does not deny that in various places priests and deacons have fathered children after ordination, but he makes the point that this does not conform to the norm but is rather a consequence of human weakness. [48]

The Council of Nicea (325), the first ecumenical council, legislated against bishops, priests and deacons having women in their houses which could give rise to any possible scandal against their chastity. The only exceptions permitted were the mother, sister, or aunt of the cleric or those clearly above suspicion. [49] It was at this council that Paphnutius, a bishop from Egypt, is supposed to have intervened to prevent the imposition of the discipline of total continence on clerics in major orders. Nevertheless, the arguments for the spuriousness of this intervention would seem to be unanswerable. [50]

As already reported, St Jerome, because of his many travels in Egypt, Syria and Palestine, was very familiar with the praxis of celibacy in the Eastern Church. In his defence of celibacy against Vigilantius he gives witness to a praxis in the East and in Egypt similar to that adopted by the Apostolic See, which, he affirms, only accepted virgin clerics for ordination and, if they were married, only those who had renounced conjugal relations. [51]

On the other hand, it is not surprising that, humanly speaking, such a serious commitment as celibacy should, down through the centuries, pay the price of human weakness. Fulfilment did not always correspond to precept, but the Church persistently intervened by means of encouragement, sanction and legislation to restore the traditional praxis in spite of difficulties and, at times, opposition from the clergy themselves. Nevertheless, it would seem that this attention and concern for the constant renewal of celibacy was lacking to some extent in the Eastern Church, partly because it was less well organised than the Churches of the Latin rite, and also because the negative consequences of the Christological heresies had a more deleterious effect on the general discipline of the East. Although East and West reached conciliar agreement in matters of dogma, they were never able to achieve a common legislation in matters of discipline. The particular churches of the East were more independent and, as a consequence, it was more difficult to achieve systematic agreement on matters of general discipline, including that of clerical celibacy; each Church tended to have its own individual approach in this area. The divergence from the Western tradition was also accelerated by the development over the years of certain tensions between the Byzantine and Latin Churches. [52]

During the seventh century the Byzantine empire of the East suffered in much the same way at the hands of invading infidels as did the West in the fourth and fifth centuries. Moslem, Bulgarian and Slavic incursions had a devastating effect on the Eastern Church such that of the four patriarchates which comprised it, only Constantinople remained; Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem were no more. These invasions had not only a profound effect on the ethnic structure of Byzantium, but had serious consequences for administration, and for religious and social development as well. The effects of these upheavals were to bring about a serious intellectual and moral decline. These internal disorders were to create lasting difficulties in the relationships between Byzantium and Rome, which were further exacerbated by the disputes surrounding the Monophysite and Monothelite heresies, disputes which the Council of Constantinople in 681 only partially resolved.

Given the general situation in the Eastern Church, it is not difficult to explain the lack of effective action against the ever-present temptation to give way in matters of celibacy, specifically in relation to the lex continentiae. The Eastern Church, however, maintained the ancient tradition of complete continence for bishops, even for those married before ordination. Nevertheless, for the reasons outlined above, Byzantium gradually came to the conclusion that, because it was increasingly abused, it was impossible to prohibit conjugal life to priests, deacons, and subdeacons. As a result they gave way to a de facto situation which had developed over the years.

Imperial Laws

While the councils of the Western Church were defending the Carthaginian and Roman discipline, and recovering ground lost as a result of the barbarian invasions, during the sixth century the Byzantine East was enacting a body of civil and ecclesiastical law which has come to be known as the Corpus juris civilis. This was an initiative of the emperor Justinian I (527-65) and related not only to civil law but covered every aspect of ecclesiastical discipline as well.

The first laws sanctioning conjugal life for priests were in fact imperial laws which were primarily concerned with the civil situation of married clerics. The Justinian Code of 534, while still prohibiting clerics to marry after ordination, allowed for the use of marriage by priest, deacons, and subdeacons. [53] Other prescriptions of the Justinian legislation relate to the ordination of priests and deacons. The bishop is responsible for the selection of suitable candidates and must do a thorough investigation of their background to ensure that they fulfil the requirements of 'the laws and holy canons', that is, have lived up to then in perfect chastity if they were single, or have been married only once and to a virgin.

The sanctions for infraction of these regulations were severe. [54] All clerics who are single or widowers are forbidden to live with women who are not close members of their family circle, the reason, as usual, being to avoid the risk of suspicion that the presence of such a woman living under the same roof could bring on them. The Justinian law was even stricter in relation to bishops. No woman, not even mother or sisters, is permitted to live with him. The transgressor risked serious sanction, no less than the loss of his see.

Council of Trullo (691)

The Council of Trullo was convoked by the emperor Justinian II (685-711) with the express purpose of promulgating disciplinary decrees to complete the work of the previous ecumenical Council of Constantinople (681). Although a group of bishops from Rome was present, it was essentially a council of the Byzantine empire. The one hundred and two canons promulgated had as their primary objective the correction of abuses and the re-establishment of discipline.

There is no doubt that, as a consequence of the influences already referred to, the legislation was hostile in spirit to the Roman Church. [55] Because of the canons which were contrary to the Roman dispositions, the Pope refused to sign the acts of the Council, the first time in history that Rome formally disavowed the discipline of the Oriental Church. Yet Trullo was to determine the future of Byzantine legislation for centuries and to leave its mark on the Eastern church right down to the present day. Hence its most important decrees deserve to be considered in some detail.

Canon 3: conditions for a married clergy Not since Chalcedon (451) had a council faced up to disciplinary problems. In the meantime the church had tolerated many irregular marriage situations among the clergy. The purpose of Canon 3 was to restore the traditional discipline, specifically the following points:

a) the unius uxoris vir requirements of St Paul: this injunction excluded from orders any man who had taken a second wife after the decease of his first spouse; [56]

b) no man who had married a widow, a servant, or an actress could be accepted as a candidate for orders; [57]

c) a cleric's wife who was left a widow could not remarry. [58]

Canon 6: Ordination an impediment to marriage This canon forbade priests and deacons, who were ordained as single men, to marry after ordination. In addition, all clerics were forbidden to marry a second time should their first spouse die. These disciplinary norms, which still define the particular law of the Eastern Churches, bear witness to a deep concern for fidelity to the apostolic tradition. In addition, with the exception of Canon 13 (which will be dealt with below), they paralleled exactly the legislation of the Latin Church.

The text of canon 6 runs as follows:

'Since it is declared in the Apostolic canons that of those who are advanced to the clergy unmarried, only lectors and cantors are able to marry, we too maintaining this determine that henceforth it is in nowise lawful for any subdeacon, deacon or presbyter after his ordination to contract matrimony, but if he shall have dared to do so, let him be deposed. And if any of those who enter the clergy wishes to be joined to a wife in lawful marriage, let it be done before he is ordained subdeacon, deacon or presbyter'. [59]

This was a confirmation of the discipline affirmed at Chalcedon (451). The prohibition of marriage after the reception of orders was, in Cholij's opinion, a direct consequence of the law of continence: priests were forbidden to marry because the marriage could not be consummated. [60]

In addition to those already outlined, Cholij advances several compelling arguments to show that the prohibition on clerics marrying after ordination was due to the law of absolute continence, which leads him to the conclusion that there was a universal law of celibacy (in the broad sense) in the early Church: 'The logic of the legislation prohibiting marriage after the reception of orders indicates that, at least in the first centuries, a cleric by the fact of his ordination was "consecrated" to God with the full implications of such consecration - total continence. Ordination would be conferred if the wife agreed to this life of celibacy which she also freely chose to take upon herself'. [61] This, he claims, is the only satisfactory explanation for the impediment to clerical marriage.

Canon 12: Episcopal continence This canon finds the Western praxis of bishops living with their wives reprehensible because of the scandal to which it could give rise. Bishops should not only be living perfect continence, but should also be seen to do so. This being so, once a man is ordained a bishop, Trullo legislated that his wife should enter a convent situated at a distance from the bishop's residence. At this time in the West the bishop's house had in fact in many places acquired a structure akin to a monastic institution, and in this way the scandal perceived by Trullo was largely theoretical. However, as a result of canon 12, the East was the first to impose the strict discipline of total physical separation of the bishop from his wife. [62]

While the Trullan legislation was to lead to a strictly celibate episcopate, it did not require that candidates for the episcopacy be monks. Yet by the second millennium this was practically the norm for all Eastern Churches. This situation arose because after Trullo the custom developed, which by the eleventh century had the force of law, that all secular clergy married before receiving orders. Those who wanted to remain celibate had to enter a monastery if they wished to be ordained.

Canon 13: Marriage of Clerics It was however the content of Canon 13, limiting chastity for married men ordained as deacons or priests to a simple temporary continence, which introduced the main cleavage between the traditions of Byzantium and Rome on priestly celibacy. [63]

It is explicitly hostile to Roman custom, and protests that no married cleric should be required to make a profession of continence. Cohabitation with one's wife and the use of marriage are not only strongly defended, but any alternative approach is severely punished by sanctions. Contrary to what the Trullan canon says, Rome did not view marriage as a prohibition to entering the priestly ministry. Nor did she try to dissolve the marriage bond as suggested by Trullo; rather by prescribing total continence to married clerics it raised their married life to a new level which it considered appropriate to what was required for service at the altar.

The Fathers of Trullo based their claim for temporary continence for deacons and priests 'on the ancient rule of strict observation and the apostolic discipline', as well as the Council of Carthage and the sixth Apostolic Canon. The inconsistency of their approach is underlined by the fact that they used the same tradition to deny to a bishop what they now offered to a priest.

What is also surprising is the reference to the Council of Carthage. While the decrees of the African Councils are used by the Byzantine Fathers as an anchor point with antiquity, a comparison of the parallel passages in the Trullan and Carthaginian canons shows that: a) while Carthage legislates for total continence for married clerics, Trullo inexplicably makes it read temporary continence; b) the decrees of Carthage are applied to bishops, priests and deacons, yet in the Trullan canon the reference to bishops has disappeared. [64]

Cholij is of the opinion that the redactors of canon 13 of Trullo were aware they were citing the Carthaginian canons in a partial and selective sense which changed their meaning. [65] What in fact the Trullan Fathers proposed for priests was the discipline of periodic marital continence practised by all lay married Christians in the early Church, in line with the Pauline admonition in 1 Corinthians 7:5.

Although the Trullan legislation introduced a major difference between Byzantium and Rome on the issue of priestly celibacy, it is noteworthy that both agree on the apostolic origin of the duty of continence (temporary or perpetual) imposed on the ministers of the altar. To be worthy ministers of the divine mysteries and effective mediators for the people through prayer, they are bound to abstain from sexual relations. It is also merits attention that both East and West did not consider it possible to justify the difficult discipline of priestly chastity except in relation to a mandate from the apostles themselves.

Consequence of Trullo for Western Canon law

Since the prohibition of clerical marriage was due to the obligation to live in total continence, whether the cleric was married or not, the discipline introduced by Canon 13 of Trullo, which permitted priests to have conjugal life, created for the first time in legislative form a rupture between the prohibition on clerical marriage and its cause. This had serious consequences for later canonical theory when a reason was sought to justify the fact of orders being an impediment to marriage. Gratian, the famous twelfth century canonist, uncritically accepted Canon 13 of Trullo as ecumenical and, as a consequence, not only accepted but legitimised the Oriental praxis regarding celibacy and established it as being of apostolic origin. The effect of Gratian's presentation of the Eastern discipline of celibacy was to make it impossible to establish a cause and effect relationship between the law of continence and the impedimentum ordinis. Decretists recognised the difference in disciplines between East and West and tried to accommodate it in a canonical theory which would explain the law of celibacy in the Latin Church. This inevitably led to the conclusion that the law forbidding marriage, and still more the law imposing continence on married clerics, had been introduced in the West at a fairly late date. [66]

Because they accepted uncritically the Greek texts presented by Gratian, the canonists of the twelfth century failed to see the immediate (and necessary) relationship between continence and the impediment to marriage. Canonical theory during the period developed an explanation of the impediment to marriage constituted by orders deriving mainly from the theory of the votum, or the votum adnexum, the vow of chastity attached to orders. [67] Nevertheless, this theory ran into difficulties because of its inability to explain the impediment from the point of view of the Greeks whose priests were not bound by any vow of continence.

This anomaly gave rise to another canonical theory towards the end of the twelfth century, which grounded the obligation to continence on ecclesiastical law. In the thirteenth century St Thomas synthesises the view of the different canonists as follows:


But what impedes matrimony is the law of the Church. However, it binds the Latins in a different way from the Greeks; for among the Greeks the impediment to contracting marriage comes solely from the force of orders (vi ordinis) whereas among the Latins the impediment is both from the force of orders and from the vow of continence which is attached to sacred orders; so that if someone verbally does not take the vow, by the very fact of his receiving the order according to the rite of the Western Church it is understood that he has taken it. And again, among the Greeks and other Orientals holy orders impedes the contracting of marriage but not the use of previously contracted marriage, for they can use this marriage even though they cannot contract marriage again. [68]


From the time of the Second Lateran Council (1139) sacred orders, as well as the votum, were considered to be an invalidating impediment to marriage. Cholij's conclusion is that if the canonists and theologians of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries had not been presented with the difficulty of the Greek discipline, legitimised by Gratian, it is quite conceivable they would have had little difficulty in attributing the law of continence to the Apostles and of relating the impediment to marriage to this law alone. Any promise or vow of continence would then have been understood to be an external expression and guarantee of a commitment freely taken, but demanded by the very nature of the priestly vocation at the time of the reception of orders. [69]

In his elucidation of this conclusion Cholij poses the question - how can one sacrament render another invalid on the basis of a purely ecclesiastical law? His response is that unless a consecrating pact between the cleric and God is effected at the time of the reception of orders, then the law prohibiting marriage can only be regarded as a 'vestigial positive discipline expressing that simpler ancient discipline which harmonised the natural relation which exists between the priesthood and celibacy'. And so he concludes that the impediment to marriage in the Oriental canonical discipline, detached from its theological grounding, appears little more than juridical formalism. [70]

Third part of Chapter 1: Celibacy - A Historical Perspective.

Section Contents Copyright ©;Fr Thomas McGovern 1998-2000

This version: 17th January 2003

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