Clerical celibacy

Clerical celibacy is the requirement in certain religions that some or all members of the clergy be unmarried. These religions consider that, outside of marriage, deliberate sexual thoughts, feelings, and behavior are sinful; clerical celibacy also requires abstention from these.[1]

Within the Roman Catholic Church, clerical celibacy is mandated for all clergy in the Latin Church except deacons who do not intend to become priests. Exceptions are sometimes admitted for ordination to transitional diaconate and priesthood on a case-by-case basis for married clergymen of other churches or communities who become Catholics, but ordination of married men to the episcopacy is excluded (see Personal ordinariate). Clerical marriage is not allowed and therefore, if those for whom in some particular Church celibacy is optional (such as permanent deacons in the Latin Church) wish to marry, they must do so before ordination. Eastern Catholic Churches either follow the same rules as the Latin Church or require celibacy for bishops while allowing priestly ordination of married men.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church and Oriental Orthodoxy, celibacy is the norm for bishops; married men may be ordained to the priesthood, but even married priests whose wives pre-decease them are not allowed to enter marriage after ordination. Similarly, celibacy is not a requirement for ordination as a deacon and in some Oriental Orthodox churches deacons may marry after ordination. For a period in the 5th and early 6th centuries the Church of the East did not apply the rule of celibacy even for ordination to the episcopate. Anglicanism and Protestantism in general do not require celibacy of its clergy and allow—or even encourage—clerical marriage.

Meanings of "celibacy"

The word "celibacy" can mean either the state of being unmarried or abstinence, especially because of religious vows, from sexual intercourse.[2][3] In the canon law of the Latin Church, the word "celibacy" is used specifically in the sense of being unmarried. However, for its clergy this state of being unmarried is considered to be a consequence of the obligation to be completely and perpetually continent:

Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and therefore are bound to celibacy which is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and are able to dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and humanity.[4]

Permanent deacons, namely those deacons who are not intended to become priests, are, in general, exempted from this rule.[5] But married permanent deacons are not allowed to remarry after the death of their spouse.[6]

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

All the ordained ministers of the Latin Church, with the exception of permanent deacons, are normally chosen from among men of faith who live a celibate life and who intend to remain celibate "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven." Called to consecrate themselves with undivided heart to the Lord and to "the affairs of the Lord", they give themselves entirely to God and to men. Celibacy is a sign of this new life to the service of which the Church's minister is consecrated; accepted with a joyous heart celibacy radiantly proclaims the Reign of God.

In the Eastern Churches a different discipline has been in force for many centuries: while bishops are chosen solely from among celibates, married men can be ordained as deacons and priests. This practice has long been considered legitimate; these priests exercise a fruitful ministry within their communities. Moreover, priestly celibacy is held in great honor in the Eastern Churches and many priests have freely chosen it for the sake of the Kingdom of God. In the East as in the West a man who has already received the sacrament of Holy Orders can no longer marry.[7]

On the granting of permission, by exception, for the priestly ordination of married men in the Latin Church, see Rules, below.


In some Christian churches, such as the western and some eastern sections of the Catholic Church, priests and bishops must as a rule be unmarried men. In others, such as the Eastern Orthodox Church, the churches of Oriental Orthodoxy and some of the Eastern Catholic Churches, married men may be ordained as deacons or priests, but may not remarry if their wife dies, and celibacy is required only of bishops. Since celibacy is seen as a consequence of the obligation of continence, it implies abstinence from sexual relationships. The Code of Canon Law prescribes:

Clerics are to behave with due prudence towards persons whose company can endanger their obligation to observe continence or give rise to scandal among the faithful.[8]

In some Christian churches, a vow of chastity is made by members of religious orders or monastic communities, along with vows of poverty and obedience, in order to imitate the life of Jesus of Nazareth (see also Evangelical counsels). This vow of chastity, made by people not all of whom are clergy, is different from what is the obligation, not a vow, of clerical continence and celibacy

Celibacy for religious and monastics (monks and sisters/nuns) and for bishops is upheld by the Catholic Church and the traditions of both Eastern Orthodoxy and Oriental Orthodoxy. Bishops must be unmarried men or widowers; a married man cannot become a bishop. In Latin Church Catholicism and in some Eastern Catholic Churches, most priests are celibate men. Exceptions are admitted and there are over 200 married Catholic priests who converted from the Anglican Communion and Protestant faiths. In most Orthodox traditions and in some Eastern Catholic Churches men who are already married may be ordained priests, but priests may not marry after ordination.

Neither the Catholic nor the Orthodox tradition considers the rule of clerical celibacy to be an unchangeable dogma, but instead as a rule that could be adjusted if the Church thought it appropriate and to which exceptions are admitted.

From the time of the first ecumenical council the Christian church forbids voluntary physical castration,[9] and the alleged self-castration of the theologian Origen was used to discredit him.

Clerical continence in Christianity

First century

Some of the earliest Christian leaders were married men. The mention in Mark 1:30, Luke 4:38, and Matthew 8:14-15 of Saint Peter's mother-in-law indicates that he had married (Matthew 8:14-15: "when Jesus was come into Peter's house, he saw his wife's mother laid, and sick of a fever.") According to Clement of Alexandria (Stromata, III, vi, ed. Dindorf, II, 276), Peter was married and had children and his wife suffered martyrdom. Pope Clement I wrote: "For Peter and Philip begat children".[10]

On the other hand, in Luke 18:28-30 Jesus responds to Peter's statement that he and the other disciples had left all and followed him by saying there is "no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not receive back an overabundant return in this present age and eternal life in the age to come".[11][12][13][14]

In 1 Corinthians 7:8 Paul the Apostle indicates that he was unmarried: either single or a widower.[15] In 1 Corinthians 9:5 he contrasts his situation with that of the other apostles, including Peter, who were accompanied by believing wives. Paul, says Laurent Cleenewerck, a priest of the Orthodox Church in America and professor of theology at Euclid University, clearly favored celibacy, which he understood as "a gift".[16][17] Cleenewerck supports this statement by quoting 1 Corinthians 7:5-8:

Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. This I say by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.

A locus classicus used in favour of sacerdotal celibacy is 1 Corinthians 7:32–33 ("The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife") and a locus classicus used against sacerdotal celibacy is the statement in 1 Timothy 3:2–4 that a bishop should be "the husband of one wife" and "one who ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection".

One interpretation of "the husband of one wife" is that the man to be ordained could not have been married more than once and that perfect continence, total abstinence, was expected from him starting on the day of his ordination.[18][19][20][21] Usually these also conclude that, because of the exclusion of sexual relations, the members of the clergy were not entitled to marry after ordination.

On the other hand, George T. Dennis SJ of Catholic University of America says: "There is simply no clear evidence of a general tradition or practice, much less of an obligation, of priestly celibacy-continence before the beginning of the fourth century."[22] Peter Fink SJ agrees, saying that underlying premises used in the book, Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, "would not stand up so comfortably to historical scrutiny".[23] Dennis says this book provides no evidence that celibacy had apostolic origins.[22]

Similarly, Philippe Delhaye wrote: "During the first three or four centuries, no law was promulgated prohibiting clerical marriage. Celibacy was a matter of choice for bishops, priests, and deacons. ... The apostolic constitutions (c. 400) excommunicated a priest or bishop who left his wife 'under pretense of piety' (Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio 1:51)."[24]

However, the 19th-century Protestant historian Philip Schaff evidences that by the early fourth century priestly celibacy-continence was not a novelty, stating that all marriages contracted by clerics in Holy Orders were declared null and void in 530 by Emperor Justinian I, who also declared the children of such marriages illegitimate.[25]

Second and third centuries

The North African Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225), writing of the apostles, indicated that he was obliged to believe that apart from Peter, who was certainly married, the apostles were continent.[26] In his De praescriptione contra haereticos, Tertullian mentioned continence as one of the customs in Mithraism that he claimed were imitated from Christianity, but does not associate it specifically with the clergy.[27]

The Didascalia Apostolorum, written in Greek in the first half of the 3rd century,[28] mentions the requirements of chastity on the part of both the bishop and his wife, and of the children being already brought up, when it quotes 1 Timothy 3:2–4 as requiring that, before someone is ordained a bishop, enquiry be made "whether he be chaste, and whether his wife also be a believer and chaste; and whether he has brought up his children in the fear of God".[29]

There is record of a number of 3rd-century married bishops in good standing, even in the West. They included: 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 Jumièges, and Sigilaicus, bishop of Tours, was the father of St. Cyran of Brenne.[30] No statement is made about whether they had children after becoming bishops or only before.

"A famous letter of SYNESIUS OF CYRENE (d. c. 414) is evidence both for the respecting of personal decision in the matter and for contemporary appreciation of celibacy. For priests and deacons clerical marriage continued to be in vogue".[31]

The consequence of the requirement from higher clerics who lived in marriages to abstain permanently from sexual intercourse with their wives was prohibition for those who were single of entering a marriage after ordination. The Apostolic Canons of the Apostolic Constitutions decreed that only lower clerics might still marry after their ordination. Bishops, priests, and deacons were not allowed.[32] Jerome, referred in Against Jovinianus to marriage prohibition for priests when he argued that Peter and the other apostles had been married, but had married before they were called and subsequently gave up their marital relations.[33] The Paphnutius legend in the first half of the fifth century called the marriage prohibition an ancient ecclesiastical tradition.[34][35]

Fourth century

The Council of Elvira (306) is often seen as the first to issue a written regulation requiring clergy to abstain from sexual intercourse. Its canon 33 decreed: "Bishops, presbyters, deacons, and others with a position in the ministry are to abstain completely from sexual intercourse with their wives and from the procreation of children. If anyone disobeys, he shall be removed from the clerical office."[36] It is disputed whether this canon mandated permanent continence or only, as is the practice in the Eastern Orthodox Church even for the laity, periodical continence before partaking of the Eucharist.[37][38] and Maurice Meigne even interpreted it as meaning: "It was decided to forbid keeping back from one's wife and not producing children".[39]

In 387 or 390, or according to others in 400, a Council of Carthage decreed that bishops, priests and deacons abstain from conjugal relations: "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."[40]

The Directa Decretal of Pope Siricius (10 February 385) states: "We have indeed discovered that many priests and deacons of Christ brought children into the world, either through union with their wives or through shameful intercourse. And they used as an excuse the fact that in the Old Testament—as we can read—priests and ministers were permitted to beget children."[41]

Saint Hilary of Poitiers (315–68), a Doctor of the Church, was a married bishop and had a daughter named Apra, who was baptized together with her father, when he and his wife became Christians. Among Popes of the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries, 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).[30] No statement is given on whether, among these, the children in question were born when their fathers were still laymen.

As for the East, the Greek ecclesiastical historians Socrates and Sozomen, who wrote a century after the event, reported that the First Council of Nicaea (325) considered ordering all married clergy to refrain from conjugal relations, but the Council was dissuaded by Paphnutius of Thebes.[42]

According to Sozomen's history:

While [the bishops at Nicaea] were deliberating about this, some thought that a law ought to be passed enacting that bishops and presbyters, deacons and subdeacons, should hold no intercourse with the wife they had espoused before they entered the priesthood; but Paphnutius, the confessor, stood up and testified against this proposition; he said that marriage was honorable and chaste, and that cohabitation with their own wives was chastity, and advised the Synod not to frame such a law, for it would be difficult to bear, and might serve as an occasion of incontinence to them and their wives; and he reminded them, that according to the ancient tradition of the church, those who were unmarried when they took part in the communion of sacred orders, were required to remain so, but that those who were married, were not to put away their wives. Such was the advice of Paphnutius, although he was himself unmarried, and in accordance with it, the Synod concurred in his counsel, enacted no law about it, but left the matter to the decision of individual judgment, and not to compulsion.[43]

The Council of Nicaea, AD 325, decides in Canon 3:

The great Synod has stringently forbidden any bishop, presbyter, deacon, or any one of the clergy whatever, to have a subintroducta dwelling with him, except only a mother, or sister, or aunt, or such persons only as are beyond all suspicion.[44]

The term "subintroducta" refers to an unmarried woman living in association with a man in a merely spiritual marriage, a practice that seems to have existed already in the time of Hermas; in the 4th century such a woman was also referred to as an "agapeta".[45][46] Stefan Heid has argued that the pre-Nicaean acceptance of that arrangement for clerics was an indication that the clergy were expected to live in continence even with their wives.[47]

A leading participant in the Council, Eusebius of Caesarea, wrote: "It is fitting that those in the priesthood and occupied in the service of God, should abstain after ordination from the intercourse of marriage."[48]

Epiphanius of Salamis (died 403) accused the heretics whom he called "Purists" of "mixing up everyone's duty":

They have assumed that what is enjoined upon the priesthood because of the priesthood's preeminence applies equally to everyone. They have heard, "The bishop must be blameless, the husband of one wife, continent; likewise the deacon and the presbyter", but not understood the limitation of the ordinances. … She (God's holy church) does not accept the husband of one wife if he is still co-habiting with her and fathering children. She does accept the abstinent husband of one wife, or the widower, as a deacon, presbyter, bishop and subdeacon, [but no other married men], particularly where the canons of the church are strictly observed. But in some places, you will surely tell me, presbyters, deacons and sub-deacons are still fathering children [while exercising their office.] This is not canonical, but is due to men's occasional remissness of purpose, and because there is no one to serve the congregation.[49]

Similar evidence of the existence in the 4th-century East, as in the West, of a rule or at least an ideal of clerical continence that was considered to be canonical is found in Epiphanius's Panarion, 48, 9 and Expositio Fidei, 21. Synesius (died c. 414), who refused to be bound by the obligation, knew that, if made a bishop, he was expected to live in continence with his wife.[50] One of the accusations against Antoninus, Bishop of Ephesus, in his trial before John Chrysostom was that "after separating from his married wife, he had taken her again".[51] In his note on this phrase, the translator Herbert Moore says: "According to the 'Apostolic Canons', only the lower orders of clergy were allowed to marry after their appointment to office; the Council in Trullo ordered that a bishop's wife should retire to a convent, or become a deaconess; that of Caesarea, that if a priest marries after ordination he must be degraded. For Antoninus to resume relations with his wife was equivalent to marriage after ordination. It was proposed at the Council of Nicaea that married clergy should be compelled to separate from their wives, but the proposal was rejected; though it was generally held that the relations of bishops with their wives should be those of brother and sister."

The 4th-century Church Fathers Ambrose and Jerome argued that the passage in 1 Timothy 3:2–4 did not conflict with the discipline they knew, whereby a married man who became a bishop was to abstain from sexual relations and not marry again: "He speaks of having children, not of begetting them, or marrying again";[52] "He does not say: Let a bishop be chosen who marries one wife and begets children; but who marries one wife, and has his children in subjection and well disciplined. You surely admit that he is no bishop who during his episcopate begets children. The reverse is the case—if he be discovered, he will not be bound by the ordinary obligations of a husband, but will be condemned as an adulterer."[53]

According to Epiphanius of Salamis, also of the 4th century, Nicholas, one of the Seven Deacons of Acts 6:1–6, noticed others being admired for their celibacy. To avoid seeming immoderately devoted to his beautiful wife and therefore inferior in his ministry, he renounced conjugal intercourse forever. While he was able to remain continent for a while, eventually his burning desire overpowered him. However, he did not want to be regarded as inconsistent or seen as taking his oath lightly. Instead of returning to his wife, he engaged in promiscuous sex and what Epiphanius termed "sex practices against nature". In this way, he started Nicolaism, an antinomian heresy which believed that as long as they abstained from marriage, it was not a sin to exercise their sexual desires as they pleased. Revelation 2:6 and 15 expresses hatred for the "works of the Nicolaitans".[54]

Fifth to seventh centuries

In saying that "in certain provinces it is permitted to the readers and singers to marry",[55] of the Council of Chalcedon (451) suggests that, in other provinces, not only bishops, priests, deacons and subdeacons, but even those in the lower orders of readers and singers were at that time not permitted to marry.

Needless to say, the rule or ideal of clerical continence was not always observed either in the West or in the East, and it was because of violations that it was from time to time affirmed. Emperor Justinian I (died 565) ordered that the children of priests, deacons and subdeacons who, "in disregard of the sacred canons, have children by women with whom, according to sacerdotal regulation, they may not cohabit" be considered illegitimate on the same level as those "procreated in incest and in nefarious nuptials".[56] As for bishops, he forbade "any one to be ordained bishop who has children or grandchildren".[57]

Canon 13 of the Quinisext Council (Constantinople, 692) shows that by that time there was a direct contradiction between the ideas of East and West about the legitimacy of conjugal relations on the part of clergy lower than the rank of bishop who had married before being ordained:

Since we know it to be handed down as a rule of the Roman Church that those who are deemed worthy to be advanced to the diaconate or presbyterate should promise no longer to cohabit with their wives, we, preserving the ancient rule and apostolic perfection and order, will that the lawful marriages of men who are in holy orders be from this time forward firm, by no means dissolving their union with their wives nor depriving them of their mutual intercourse at a convenient time. Wherefore, if anyone shall have been found worthy to be ordained subdeacon, or deacon, or presbyter, he is by no means to be prohibited from admittance to such a rank, even if he shall live with a lawful wife. Nor shall it be demanded of him at the time of his ordination that he promise to abstain from lawful intercourse with his wife: lest we should affect injuriously marriage constituted by God and blessed by his presence.[58]

The canon mistakenly claims that the canon of the late-4th-century Council of Carthage quoted above excluded conjugal intercourse by clergy lower than bishops only in connection with their liturgical service or in times of fasting. The Council of Carthage excluded such intercourse perpetually and made no distinction between bishops, priests and deacons.[59]

There have been no changes since then in the discipline of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which for bishops, priests, deacons, and subdeacons excludes marriage after ordination, but allows, except for periods before celebrating the Divine Liturgy, conjugal relations by priests and deacons married before ordination, and requires celibacy and perpetual continence only of bishops.

11th and 12th centuries

"Despite six hundred years of decrees, canons, and increasingly harsh penalties, the Latin clergy still did, more or less illegally, what their Greek counterparts were encouraged to do by law—they lived with their wives and raised families. In practice, ordination was not an impediment to marriage; therefore some priests did marry even after ordination."[60] "The tenth century is claimed to be the high point of clerical marriage in the Latin communion. Most rural priests were married and many urban clergy and bishops had wives and children."[61] "A terrible picture of the decay both of clerical morality and of all sense of anything like vocation is drawn in the writings of St. Peter Damian, particularly in his Liber Gomorrhianus. The style, no doubt, is rhetorical and exaggerated, and his authority as an eyewitness does not extend beyond that district of Northern Italy, in which he lived, but we have evidence from other sources that the corruption was widespread… Undoubtedly during this period the traditions of sacerdotal celibacy in Western Christendom suffered severely but even though a large number of the clergy, not only priests but bishops, openly took wives and begot children to whom they transmitted their benefices, the principle of celibacy was never completely surrendered in the official enactments of the Church."[62]

In 888, two local councils, that of Metz and that of Mainz, prohibited cohabitation even with wives living in continence. This tendency was taken up by the 11th-century Gregorian Reform, which aimed at eliminating what it called "Nicolaitism",[63] that is clerical marriage, which in spite of being theoretically excluded was in fact practised,[64] and concubinage.

The First Lateran Council (1123), a General Council, adopted the following canons:

Canon 3: We absolutely forbid priests, deacons, and subdeacons to associate with concubines and women, or to live with women other than such as the Nicene Council (canon 3) for reasons of necessity permitted, namely, the mother, sister, or aunt, or any such person concerning whom no suspicion could arise.
Canon 21: We absolutely forbid priests, deacons, subdeacons, and monks to have concubines or to contract marriage. We decree in accordance with the definitions of the sacred canons, that marriages already contracted by such persons must be dissolved, and that the persons be condemned to do penance.[65]

The phrase "contract marriage" in the first part of canon 21 excludes clerical marriages, and the marriages that the second part says must be dissolved may possibly be such marriages, contracted after ordination, not before. Canon 3 makes reference to a rule made at the First Council of Nicaea (see above), which is understood as not forbidding a cleric to live in the same house with a wife whom he married before being ordained.

Sixteen years later, the Second Lateran Council (1139), in which some five hundred bishops took part, enacted the following canons:

Canon 6: We also decree that those who in the subdiaconate and higher orders have contracted marriage or have concubines, be deprived of their office and ecclesiastical benefice. For since they should be and be called the temple of God, the vessel of the Lord, the abode of the Holy Spirit, it is unbecoming that they indulge in marriage and in impurities.
Canon 7: Following in the footsteps of our predecessors, the Roman pontiffs Gregory VII, Urban, and Paschal, we command that no one attend the masses of those who are known to have wives or concubines. But that the law of continence and purity, so pleasing to God, may become more general among persons constituted in sacred orders, we decree that bishops, priests, deacons, subdeacons, canons regular, monks, and professed clerics (conversi) who, transgressing the holy precept, have dared to contract marriage, shall be separated. For a union of this kind which has been contracted in violation of the ecclesiastical law, we do not regard as matrimony. Those who have been separated from each other, shall do penance commensurate with such excesses.[66]

This Council thus declared clerical marriages not only illicit though valid, as before, but invalid ("we do not regard as matrimony"). The marriages in question are, again, those contracted by men who already are "bishops, priests, deacons, subdeacons, canons regular, monks and professed clerics". And later legislation, found especially in the Quinque Compilationes Antiquae and the Decretals of Gregory IX, continued to deal with questions concerning married men who were ordained legally. In 1322 Pope John XXII insisted that no one bound in marriage—even if unconsummated—could be ordained unless there was full knowledge of the requirements of Church law. If the free consent of the wife had not been obtained, the husband, even if already ordained, was to be reunited with his wife, exercise of his ministry being barred. Accordingly, the assumption that a wife might not want to give up her marital rights may have been one of the factors contributing to the eventual universal practice in the Latin Church of ordaining only unmarried men.[67]

However, although the decrees of the Second Council of the Lateran might still be interpreted in the older sense of prohibiting marriage only after ordination, they came to be understood as absolute prohibitions, and, while the fact of being married was formally made a canonical impediment to ordination in the Latin Church only with the 1917 Code of Canon Law,[68] the prohibition of marriage for all clerics in major orders began to be taken simply for granted.[30] The Second Lateran Council is thus often cited as having for the first time introduced a general law of celibacy, requiring ordination only of unmarried men. Somewhat inaccurately, since several of the Eastern Catholic Churches allow married men to be ordained (though not to be consecrated as bishops), the New Catholic Encyclopedia states: "The Second Lateran Council (1139) seems to have enacted the first written law making sacred orders a diriment impediment to marriage for the universal Church.".[69]

16th century

While the 11th century Gregorian Reform's campaign against clerical marriage and concubinage met strong opposition,[70] by the time of the Second Council of the Lateran it had won widespread support from lay and ecclesiastical leaders.

New opposition appeared in connection with the Protestant Reformation, not only on the part of the Reformers, but also among churchmen and others who remained in union with the see of Rome. Figures such as Panormitanus, Erasmus, Thomas Cajetan, and the Holy Roman Emperors Charles V, Ferdinand I and Maximilian II argued against it.

In practice, the discipline of clerical continence meant by then that only unmarried men were ordained. Thus, in the discussions that took place, no distinction was made between clerical continence and clerical celibacy.

The Reformers made abolition of clerical continence and celibacy a key element in their reform. They denounced it as opposed to the New Testament recommendation that a cleric should be "the husband of one wife" (see on 1 Timothy 3:2–4 above), the declared right of the apostles to take around with them a believing Christian as a wife (1 Corinthians 9:5) and the admonition, "Marriage should be honoured by all" (Hebrews 13:4). They blamed it for widespread sexual misconduct among the clergy.[71]

Against the long-standing tradition of the Church in the East as well as in the West, which excluded marriage after ordination, Zwingli married in 1522, Luther in 1525, and Calvin in 1539. And against what had also become, though seemingly at a later date, a tradition in both East and West, the married Thomas Cranmer was made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533.

The Council of Trent considered the matter and at its twenty-fourth session decreed that marriage after ordination was invalid: "If any one saith, that clerics constituted in sacred orders, or Regulars, who have solemnly professed chastity, are able to contract marriage, and that being contracted it is valid, notwithstanding the ecclesiastical law, or vow; and that the contrary is no thing else than to condemn marriage; and, that all who do not feel that they have the gift of chastity, even though they have made a vow thereof, may contract marriage; let him be anathema: seeing that God refuses not that gift to those who ask for it rightly, neither does He suffer us to be tempted above that which we are able" (canon 9).

It also decreed, concerning the relative dignity of marriage and celibacy: "If any one saith, that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity, or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony; let him be anathema."[72]

Rules for Christian clergy

Rules on celibacy differ between different religious traditions and churches:

Other religions

The Catholic Church today

Celibacy is represented in the Catholic Church as having apostolic authority. Theologically, the Church desires to imitate the life of Jesus with regard to chastity and the sacrifice of married life for the "sake of the Kingdom" (Luke 18:28–30, Matthew 19:27–30; Mark 10:20–21), and to follow the example of Jesus Christ in being "married" to the Church, viewed by Catholicism and many Christian traditions as the "Bride of Christ". Also of importance are the teachings of St. Paul that chastity is the superior state of life, and his desire expressed in I Corinthians 7:7–8, "I would that all men were even as myself [celibate]—but every one has his proper gift from God; one after this manner, and another after that. But I say to the unmarried and the widows. It is good for them if they so continue, even as I."

Practically speaking, the reasons for celibacy are given by the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 7:7–8; 32–35: "But I would have you to be without solicitude. He that is without a wife is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God. But he that is with a wife, is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife: and he is divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin thinketh on the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit. But she that is married thinketh on the things of this world how she may please her husband. And this I speak for your profit, not to cast a snare upon you, but for that which is decent and which may give you power to attend upon the Lord without impediment."

I Corinthians 9:5 is sometimes cited by those opposed to celibacy, as the verse is often rendered as referring to the Apostles carrying "wives" with them. Even apart from disputes about the significance of the word translated as "wives",[81] this passage is of doubtful relevance to the rule of celibacy for priests of the Latin Church, which was introduced much later and is seen only as a discipline within that particular Church alone, not a doctrine binding all: in other words, a church regulation, but not an integral part of Church teaching. St. Peter, often seen as the first pope, as well as many subsequent popes, bishops, and priests during the church's first 270 years were in fact married men, and often fathers of children. The practice of clerical continence, along with a prohibition of marriage after ordination as a deacon, priest or bishop, is traceable from the time of the Council of Elvira of approximately 305-306. This law was reinforced in the Directa Decretal (385) and at the Council of Carthage in 390. The tradition of clerical continence developed into a practice of clerical celibacy (ordaining only unmarried men) from the 11th century onward among Latin Church Catholics and became a formal part of canon law in 1917. This law of clerical celibacy does not apply to Eastern Catholics. Until recently, the Eastern Catholic bishops of North America would generally ordain only unmarried men, for fear that married priests would create scandal. Since Vatican II's call for the restoration of Eastern Catholic traditions, a number of bishops have returned to the traditional practice of ordaining married men to the presbyterate. Bishops are still celibate and normally chosen from the ranks of monks.

In the Latin Church exceptions are sometimes made. After the Second Vatican Council a general exception was made for the ordination as deacons of men of at least thirty-five years of age who are not intended to be ordained later as priests and whose wives consent to their ordination.[82] Since the time of Pope Pius XII individual exceptions are sometimes made for former non-Catholic clergymen. Under the rules proposed for personal ordinariates for former Anglicans, the ordinary may request the Pope to grant authorization, on a case-by-case basis, for admission to ordination in the Catholic Church of married former Anglican clergy (see Personal ordinariate#Married former Anglican clergy and rules on celibacy).

Because the rule of clerical celibacy is a law and not a doctrine, exceptions can be made, and it can, in principle, be changed at any time by the Pope. Nonetheless, both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II spoke clearly of their understanding that the traditional practice is unlikely to change.

See also


  1. "People should cultivate chastity in the way that is suited to their state of life. Some profess virginity or consecrated celibacy which enables them to give themselves to God alone with an undivided heart in a remarkable manner. Others live in the way prescribed for all by the moral law, whether they are married or single" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2349).
  2. American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: celibacy
  3. Webster's New World College Dictionary: celibacy
  4. Canon 277 §1
  5. "The following are simply impeded from receiving orders . . . a man who has a wife, unless he is legitimately destined to the permanent diaconate."
  6. What is a Deacon? - Busted Halo
  7. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1579-1580 Archived January 11, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
  8. canon 277 §2
  9. Council of Nicaea, canon I
  10. Clements, Stromata (book VII) / Eusebius, Church History (Book III)
  11. Michael E. Giesler, Celibacy in the First Two Centuries
  12. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, "Celibacy"
  13. Michael F. Hull, Responding to Objections to Priestly Celibacy
  14. Pope John Paul II, General Audience 14 July 1993
  15. The Story of the Early Church
  16. Orthodox Answers (an Eastern Orthodox website): "Clerical Celibacy"
  17. Laurent Cleenewerck, His Broken Body (Euclid University Consortium Press 2008 ISBN 978-0-615-18361-9), p. 372
  18. Celibacy in the Early Church: The Beginnings of Obligatory Continence for Clerics in East and West, Stefan Heid, trans. Michael J. Miller. ISBN 0-89870-800-1
  19. Roman Cholij, Priestly celibacy in patristics and in the history of the Church.
  20. BONIVENTO, Cesare. Priestly Celibacy. Ecclesiastical Institution or Apostolic Tradition? Archived September 26, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.; Thomas McGovern,Priestly Celibacy Today; Cochini, Christian, The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, Ignatius Press (October 1990). ISBN 0-89870-951-2, ISBN 0-89870-280-1.
  21. Celibacy in the Early Church: The Beginnings of Obligatory Continence for Clerics in East and West, Stefan Heid, p. 15; Anthony Zimmerman, Celibacy Dates Back to the Apostles Archived October 22, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
  22. 1 2 Dennis, George T. SJ on Cochini, The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy (book review), Theological Studies, 52:4 (1991:Dec.) p.738
  23. "Books about the priesthood," America. New York: July 4, 1992. vol 167, issue 1, pg.17, 3pgs.
  24. Philippe Delhaye, "Celibacy, Clerical, History of" in New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol 3, Catholic University of America: Washington, D.C. 1967 p.370
  25. Excursus on the Marriage of the Clergy
  26. On Monogamy, chapter VIII
  27. "Habet et uirgines, habet et continentes" (It too has virgins, it too has continent people)—De praescriptione contra haereticos, XL, 5
  28. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2005, art. Didascalia Apostolorum
  29. Didascalia Apostolorum, chapter IV (ii, 2) (emphases added)
  30. 1 2 3 John W. O'Malley, Some Basics about Celibacy
  31. New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol 3 Catholic University of America: Washington, D.C. 1967, p 323
  32. Constitutiones apostolorum 8, 47, 26 (SC 336, 280, 83f.) των εις κληρον παρελθόντων αγαμον κελεύομεν Βουλομένους γαμειν αναγνώστας και ψαλτας μόνους.
  33. Aduersus Jovinianum I, 7. 26 (PL 23, 230C; 256C).
  34. Socrates Scholasticus, Historia ealesiastica I, 11, 5 (GCS Socr. 42,i9f.)
  35. Stefan Heid (2000),Celibacy in the Early Church, p. 170
  36. The Council of Elvira, ca. 306. The original text is: "Placuit in totum prohibere episcopis, presbyteris et diaconibus vel omnibus clericis positis in ministerio abstinere se a coniugibus suis et non generare filios. Quicumque vero fecerit, ab honore clericatus exterminetur."
  37. Helen Parish, Clerical Celibacy in the West (Ashgate 2010 ISBN 978-0-7546-3949-7), pp. 43-44
  38. Stefan Heid, Celibacy in the Early Church, pp. 111-114
  39. M. Meigne, " Concile ou Collection d'Elvire?" in Revue d'histoire ecclésiastique 70 (1975), cited in Stefan Heid, Celibacy in the Early Church, p. 110 and Heinz-Jürgen Vogels, Celibacy, Gift or Law? (Kösel 1978; English translation: Sheed & Ward 1992 ISBN 1-55612-653-0), p. 39
  40. The Canons of the CCXLII Blessed Fathers Who Assembled at Carthage, canon III
  41. Epistola Decretalis Papae Siricii, VII. De clericis incontinentibus
  42. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2005, art. "Paphnutius".
  43. "The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen.". Retrieved 11/1/2010. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  44. "Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. XIV, The Canons of the 318 Holy Fathers Assembled in the City of Nice (sic), in Bithynia.". Early Church Fathers. Retrieved 2006-05-08.
  45. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2005, art. "subintroductae".
  46. "Agapetae.". Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2010-10-26.
  47. Stefan Heid, Celibacy in the Early Church (Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2005 ISBN 0-89870-800-1), pp. 132-135
  48. Demonstratio Evangelica, book 1, chapter 9
  49. Panarion, 59, 4 (English translation by Frank Williams, II, p. 105.)
  50. Epistle 105
  51. The Dialogue of Palladius concerning the Life of St. John Chrysostom, chapter XIII
  52. Ambrose, Epistle LXIII, 62
  53. Jerome, Against Jovinianus, I
  54. Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent: Vol. III. trans. Fred Kramer, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1986, p. 150, "Second Topic, Concerning the Celibacy of Priests", chapter IV, "History of the Celibacy of Priests from the Time of the Apostles Down to Our Times".
  55. Canon 14
  56. Code of Justinian, 1.3.44
  57. Code of Justinian, 1.3.41
  58. Canon XIII
  59. "What is said in this canon, that the council of Carthage orders priests to abstain from their wives at prescribed periods, is a misunderstanding of the decree, caused either by malice or by ignorance. This canon is one of those adopted by the Fifth Council of Carthage held in the year 400, and it is decreed that subdeacons, deacons, priests, and bishops shall abstain from their wives, following the ancient statutes, and shall be as though they had them not. The Greek version of this canon has rendered the Latin words priora statuta by these, idious horous, which may mean 'fixed times': for the translator read, following another codex, propria for priora. Be this as it may, the Fathers of the Trullan council supposed that this obliged the clergy only to continence at certain fixed times, and were not willing to see that it included bishops as well" (Comment by Fleury on canon 13 of the Council in Trullo)
  60. Barstow, Anne Llewellyn. Married Priests and the Reforming Papacy. NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1982, p. 45
  61. Lea, Henry C. History of Sacerdotal Celibacy in the Christian Church. Philadelphia: University Books. 1966, pp. 118, 126.
  62. Herbert Thurston, "Celibacy of the Clergy" in Catholic Encyclopedia (1908). Retrieved 1 March 2012; cited also in Orthodox Answers (an Eastern Orthodox website): "Clerical Celibacy" and in Cleenewerck 2008, p. 384
  63. Cf. Peter Damian, Letters
  64. For the situation in England, see E. Deanealy, Sidelights on the Anglo-Saxon Church (1962:134–36); Nancy Partner, "Henry of Huntingdon: Clerical Celibacy and the Writing of History" Church History 42.4 (December 1973:467–475); Christopher Brooke, "Gregorian reform in action: clerical marriage in England, 1050–1200", Cambridge Historical Journal 12.1 (1956:1–21). The cases mentioned largely concern, not clerical celibacy, but clerical continence.
  65. The Canons of the First Lateran Council, 1123
  66. The Canons of the Second Lateran Council, 1123
  67. Roman Cholij: Priestly celibacy in patristics and in the history of the Church
  68. Canon 987
  69. New Catholic Encyclopedia (Catholic University of America: Washington, D.C. 1967) vol. 3, p. 366
  70. "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" (John W. O'Malley, Some Basics about Celibacy).
  71. Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV,12,23–28 .
  72. canon 10
  73. Code of Canon Law, canon 1031 §2
  74. Code of Canon Law, canon 277 §1
  75. Code of Canon Law, canon 1087
  76. "Why can't a non-celibate priest re-marry if his wife dies?"
  77. Coptic Orthodox Church Network: "The Sacrament of Priesthood"
  78. Ronald G. Roberson, "The Assyrian Church of the East"
  79. "Vatican lifts married priests ban in US, Canada, and Australia" in CathNews New Zealand, 21 November 2014
  80. Marriage,
  81. Tertullian, On Monogamy: "'For have we not the power of eating and drinking?' he does not demonstrate that 'wives' were led about by the apostles, whom even such as have not still have the power of eating and drinking; but simply 'women', who used to minister to them in the same way (as they did) when accompanying the Lord"; Jerome, Against Jovinianus, Book I: "In accordance with this rule Peter and the other Apostles (I must give Jovinianus something now and then out of my abundance) had indeed wives, but those which they had taken before they knew the Gospel. But once they were received into the Apostolate, they forsook the offices of marriage."
  82. Canon 1031 §2


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