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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > C > Celibacy of the Clergy

Celibacy of the Clergy

Celibacy is the renunciation of marriage implicitly or explicitly made, for the more perfect observance of chastity, by all those who receive the Sacrament of Orders in any of the higher grades. The character of this renunciation, as we shall see, is differently understood in the Eastern and in the Western Church. Speaking, for the moment, only of Western Christendom, the candidates for orders are solemnly warned by the bishop at the beginning of the ceremony regarding the gravity of the obligation which they are incurring. He tells them:

You ought anxiously to consider again and again what sort of a burden this is which you are taking upon you of your own accord. Up to this you are free. You may still, if you choose, turn to the aims and desires of the world (licet vobis pro artitrio ad caecularia vota transire). But if you receive this order (of the subdiaconate) it will no longer be lawful to turn back from your purpose. You will be required to continue in the service of God, and with His assistance to observe chastity and to be bound for ever in the ministrations of the Altar, to serve who is to reign.

By stepping forward despite this warning, when invited to do so, and by co-operating in the rest of the ordination service, the candidate is understood to bind himself equivalently by a vow of chastity. He is henceforth unable to contract a valid marriage, and any serious transgression in the matter of this vow is not only a grievous sin in itself but incurs the additional guilt of sacrilege.

Before turning to the history of this observance it will be convenient to deal in the first place with certain general principles involved. The law of celibacy has repeatedly been made the object of attack, especially of recent years, and it is important at the outset to correct certain prejudices thus created. Although we do not find in the New Testament any indication of celibacy being made compulsory either upon the Apostles or those whom they ordained, we have ample warrant in the language of Our Saviour, and of St. Paul for looking upon virginity as the higher call, and by inference, as the condition befitting those who are set apart for the work of the ministry. In Matthew 19:12, Christ clearly commends those who, "for the sake of the kingdom of God", have held aloof from the married state, though He adds: "he who can accept it, let him accept it". St. Paul is even more explicit:

I would that all men were even as myself; but every one hath his proper gift from God .... But I say to the unmarried and to the widows, it is good for them if they so continue, even as I.

And further on:

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. (1 Corinthians 7:7-8 and 32-35)

Further, although we grant that the motive here appealed to is in some measure utilitarian, we shall probably be justified in saying that the principle which underlies the Church's action in enforcing celibacy is not limited to this utilitarian aspect but goes even deeper. From the earliest period the Church was personified and conceived of by her disciples as the Virgin Bride and as the pure Body of Christ, or again as the Virgin Mother (parthenos meter), and it was plainly fitting that this virgin Church should be served by a virgin priesthood. Among Jews and pagans the priesthood was hereditary. Its functions and powers were transmitted by natural generation. But in the Church of Christ, as an antithesis to this, the priestly character was imparted by the Holy Ghost in the Divinely-instituted Sacrament of Orders. Virginity is consequently the special prerogative of the Christian priesthood. Virginity and marriage both holy, but in different ways. The conviction that virginity possesses a higher sanctity and clearer spiritual intuitions, seems to be an instinct planted deep in the heart of man. Even in the Jewish Dispensation where the priest begot children to whom his functions descended, it was nevertheless enjoined that he should observe continence during the period in which he served in the Temple. No doubt a mystical reason of this kind does not appeal to all, but such considerations have always held a prominent place in the thought of the Fathers of the Church; as is seen, for example, in the admonition very commonly addressed to subdeacons of the Middle Ages at the time of their ordination. "With regard to them it has pleased our fathers that they who handle the sacred mysteries should observe the law of continence, as it is written 'be clean ye who handle the vessels of the Lord?' "(Maskell, Monumenta Ritualia, II, 242).

On the other hand, such motives as are dwelt upon in the passage just quoted from the Epistle to the Corinthians are of a kind which must appeal to the intelligence of all. The more holy and exalted we represent the state of marriage to be, the more we justify the married priest in giving the first place in his thoughts to his wife and family and only the second to his work. It would be hard to find more unexceptionable testimony to this point of view than that of Dr. Döllinger. No scholar of this generation was more intimately acquainted with the by-ways of medieval history. No one could have supplied so much material for a chronique scandaleuse like that which Dr. Lea has compiled in his history of celibacy. Moreover, when Dr. Döllinger severed his connection with the Church after the Vatican Council, he had absolutely no motive to influence his judgment in favour of Rome's traditional discipline, if it were not that he believed that the lesson both of the past and the present was clear. Nevertheless, when the Old Catholics abolished compulsory celibacy for the priesthood, Dr. Döllinger, as we are told by the intimate friend of his, an Anglican, was "sorely grieved" by the step, and this seems to have been one of the principal things which kept him from any formal participation in the Old Catholic communion. In reference to this matter he wrote to the same Anglican friend:

You in England cannot understand how completely engrained it is into our people that a priest is a man who sacrifices himself for the sake of his parishioners. He has no children of his own, in order that all the children in the parish may be his children. His people know that his small wants are supplied, and that he can devote all his time and thought to them. They know that it is quite otherwise with the married pastors of the Protestants. The pastor's income may be enough for himself, but it is not enough for his wife and children also. In order to maintain them he must take other work, literary or scholastic, only a portion of his time can be given to his people; and they know that when the interests of his family and those of his flock collide, his family must come first and his flock second. In short, he has a profession or trade, a Gewerbe, rather than a vocation; he has to earn a livelihood. In almost all Catholic congregations, a priest who married would be ruined; all his influence would be gone. The people are not at all ready for so fundamental a change, and the circumstances of the clergy do not admit of it. It is a fatal resolution. (A. Plummer in "The Expositor", December, 1890, p. 470.)

A testimony given under such circumstances carries more weight than long explanations would do. Neither was it the only occasion on which the historian so expressed himself. "When a priest", Döllinger wrote in a letter to one of his Old Catholic friends in 1876, "can no longer point to personal sacrifice which he makes for the good of his people, then it is all over with him and the cause which he represents. He sinks to the level of men who make a trade of their work [Er rangiert dann mit den Gewerbetreibenden]." (See Michael, Ignaz von Döllinger, ed. 1894, p. 249.)

Supposing always that the vow of celibacy is faithfully kept, the power which this practical lesson in disinterestedness must lend to the priest's exhortations when addressing his people is too obvious to need insisting upon. Numberless observers, Protestant and Agnostic as well as Catholic, have borne the obstacles to really confidential relations and more especially to confession in the case of the married clergy — even if this difficulty is often quite unfairly exaggerated in the many current stories of Anglican clergymen sharing the secrets of the confessional with their wives — are certainly real enough. When the once famous Père Hyacinth (M. Loyson) left the Church and married, this was the first point which once struck a free-thinker like George Sand. "Will Père Hyacinthe still hear confessions?" she wrote. "That is the question. Is the secrecy of the confessional compatible with the mutual confidences of conjugal love? If I were a Catholic, I would say to my children: 'Have no secrets which cost too much in the telling and then you will no cause to fear the gossip of the vicar's wife'."

Again, with regard to missionary work in barbarous countries, the advantages which lies with a celibate clergy can hardly need insisting upon and are freely admitted both by indifferent observers and by the non-Catholic missionaries themselves. The testimonies which have been gathered in such a work as Marshall's "Children Missions" are calculated perhaps, from their juxtaposition, to give an exaggerated impression, while the editor's bantering tone will sometimes wound and repel: but the indictment is substantially accurate, and the materials for a continuation of this standard work, which have been collected from recent sources by the Rev. B. Solferstan, S.J., in every respect bear out Marshall's main contention. Over and over again the admission is made by well-qualified observers, who are themselves either indifferent or opposed to the Catholic Faith, that whatever genuine work of conversion is done, is effected by the Catholic missionaries whose celibate condition permits them to live among the natives as one of themselves. See, for example, to speak only of China, Stoddard, "Life of Isabella Bird", (1906), pp. 319-320; Arnot Reid, "Peking to Petersburgh" (1897), p. 73; Professor E.H. Parker, "China Past and Present" (1903), pp. 95-96.

The comparatively slight cost of the Catholic missions with their unmarried clergy need not be dwelt upon. To take a single example, the late Anglican Bishop Bickersteth, the much-respected Bishop of South Tokio, Japan, describes in one of his published letters how he had "a good deal of talk" with a Catholic vicar Apostolic, who was on his way to China. Whereupon Bickersteth remarks that "Roman Catholics certainly can teach us much by their readiness to bear hardships. This man and his priests are at times subject to the most serious privations I should fear. In Japan a Roman priest gets one-seventh of what the Church Missionary Society and the Society of the Gospel allow to an unmarried deacon. Of course they can only live on the food of the country." (See "The Life and Letters of Edward Bickersteth", 2nd ed., London, 1905), p. 214) With regard again to the effect upon a priest's work the following candid testimony from a distinguished married clergyman and professor of Trinity College, Dublin, is very striking. "But from the point of view of preaching", writes Professor Mahaffy, "there can be little doubt that married life creates great difficulties and hindrances. The distractions caused by sickness and other human misfortunes increase necessarily in proportion to the number of the household; and as the clergy in all countries are likely to have large families the time which might be spent in meditation on their discourses is stolen from them by other duties and other cares. The Catholic priest when his daily round of outdoor duties is over, comes home to a quiet study, where there is nothing to disturb his thoughts. The family man is met at the door by troops of children welcoming his return and claiming his interest in all their little affairs. Or else the disagreements of the household demand him as an umpire and his mind is disturbed by no mere speculative contemplation of the faults and follies of mankind but by their actual invasion of his home." (Mahaffy, The Decay of Modern Preaching, London, 1882, p. 42.)

To these general considerations various replies are urged. In the first place, it is asserted that celibacy is a mere specious device invented to ensure the subjection of the clergy to the central authority of the Roman See. Such writers as Heigl (Das Cölibat, Berlin, 1902) contend that the deprivation of home and family ties tends to rob the priest of all national feeling and of standing in the country, and consequently to render him a willing tool in the hands of the spiritual autocracy of the popes. The historical summary which follows will help to do justice to this objection. But for the moment, we may note that St. Dunstan, who more than any other character in early English history is identified with the cause of a celibate clergy, was Archbishop of Canterbury from 960 to 988, a period during which the papacy was subjected to oppression and disorder of the worst kind. In fact the practice of celibacy was almost universally enjoined long before the resolute energy of Gregory VII (Hildebrand) built up what it has of late years been the fashion to call the papal monarchy. Again, the consistently nationalist tone of such a chronicler as Matthew Paris, not to speak of countless others, lets us see how mistaken it would be to suppose that celibates are devoid of patriotism or inclined to lay aside their racial sympathies in deference to the commands of the pope. And a similar lesson might be drawn from the Gallicanism of the French clergy in the seventeenth century, which seemingly was not inconsistent with at least ordinary fidelity to their vows of continence.

Another objection which has been urged against sacerdotal celibacy is that the reproduction of the species is a primary function and law of man's nature, and therefore constitutes an inalienable right of which no man can deprive himself by any vow. In view of the fact that social conditions of every sort, as well as the moral law, necessitate celibacy on the part of millions of the race, no one takes this objection seriously. So far as any justification of this position has been attempted, it has been found in the analogy of the animal or vegetable kingdom, in which the reproduction of its own kind has been represented as the main object of created existence. But such a comparison applied to an intellectual being like man is hardly more than puerile, and if the argument is pressed we might answer that, as horticulturists are well aware, some of the most beautiful and highly-developed of the natural products of our flower-gardens are only to be obtained at the sacrifice of their fertility. The argument if anything tells the other way. The one serious objection against the law of clerical celibacy is the difficulty which its observance presents for all but men of exceptionally strong character and high principle.

Such writers as Dr. H.C. Lea and M. Chavard have set themselves to gather up all the scandalous excesses which have been charged against a celibate priesthood since the beginning of the Middle Ages. It has been their aim to show that the observance of continence in a much-exposed life is beyond the strength of the average man, and that consequently to bind the rank and file of the clergy by such a law is only to open the door to irregularities and abuses far more derogatory to the priestly character than the toleration of honourable marriage could possible be. They urge that, in point of fact, the law during long periods of time has become a dead letter throughout the greater part of Christendom, and that its only result has been to force the priest into courses of licence and hypocrisy which have robbed him of all power to influence men for good. As to the historical evidence upon which such charges are based, there will probably always be much difference of opinion. The anti-clerical animus which prompts a certain type of mind to rake these scandals together, and to revel in and exaggerate their prurient details, is at least as marked as the tendency on the part of the Church's apologists to ignore these uncomfortable pages of history altogether. In any case, it may be said in reply, that the observance of continence with substantial fidelity by a numerous clergy, even for centuries together, is assuredly not beyond the strength of human nature when elevated by prayer and strengthened by Divine grace. Not to speak of such countries as Ireland and Germany, where, it might be contended, the admixture with other creeds tends to put the Catholic clergy unduly upon their mettle, we might turn to the example of France or Belgium during the last century. No candid student of history who reviews this period will hesitate to admit that the immense majority of many thousands of secular priests in these two countries have led lives which are clean and upright, in accordance with their professions. We prove it not only by the good report which they have enjoyed with all moderate men, by the tone of respectable novelists who have portrayed them in fiction, by the testimony of foreign residents, and by the comparatively rare occurrence of scandals, but, what is most striking of all, we argue from the tributes paid to their integrity by former associates who have themselves severed their connection with the Catholic Church, men, for example, like M. Loyson (Père Hyacinthe) or M. Ernest Renan. Speaking of the wholesale charges of incontinence often levelled against a celibate priesthood, M. Renan remarks: "The fact is that what is commonly said about the morality of the clergy is, so far as my experience goes, absolutely devoid of foundation. I spent thirteen years of my life under the charge of priests, and I never saw the shadow of a scandal [je n'ai pas vu l'ombre d'un scandale]; I have known no priests but good priests. The confessional may possibly be productive of evil in some countries, but I saw no trace of it in my life as an ecclesiastic" (Renan, Souvenirs 'Enfance et de Jeunesse, p. 139).

Similarly M. Loyson, when seeking to justify his own marriage, does not attempt to suggest that the obligation of celibacy was beyond the strength of the average man, or that the Catholic clergy lived otherwise than chastely. On the contrary, he writes: "I am well aware of the true state of our clergy. I know of the self-sacrifice and virtues within its ranks." His line of argument is that the priest needs to be reconciled with the interests, the affections, and the duties of human nature; which seems to mean that he ought to be made less spiritual and more earthly. "It is only", he says, "by tearing himself away from the traditions of a blind asceticism, and of a theocracy still more political than religious, that the priest will become once more a man and a citizen. He will find himself at the same time more truly a priest." We are not contending that the high moral standard conspicuous in the clergy of France and Belgium is to be found in an equally-marked degree all over the world. Our argument is that the observance of celibacy is not only possible for the few called to be monks and enjoying the safeguards of the monastic life, but that it is not beyond the strength of a great body of men numbered by tens of thousands, and recruited, as the French and Belgian clergy mostly are, from the ranks of the industrious peasantry. We have no wish to deny or to palliate the very low level of morality to which at different periods of the world's history, and in different periods of the world's history, and in different countries calling themselves Christian, but Catholic priesthood has occasionally sunk, but such scandals are no more the effect of compulsory celibacy than the prostitution, which is everywhere rampant in our great cities, is the effect of our marriage laws. We do not abolish Christian marriage because so large a proportion of mankind are not faithful to the restraints which it imposes on human concupiscence. No one in his heart believes that civilized nations would be cleaner or purer if polygamy were substituted for monogamy. Neither is there any reason to suppose that scandals would be fewer and the clergy more respected if Catholic priests were permitted to marry.

History of clerical celibacy

First period

Turning now to the historical development of the present law of celibacy, we must necessarily begin with St. Paul's direction (1 Timothy 3:2, 12, and Titus 1:6) that a bishop or a deacon should be "the husband of one wife". These passages seem fatal to any contention that celibacy was made obligatory upon the clergy from the beginning, but on the other hand, the Apostle's desire that other men might be as himself (1 Corinthians 7:7-8), already quoted) precludes the inference that he wished all ministers of the Gospel to be married. The words beyond doubt mean that the fitting candidate was a man, who, amongst other qualities which St. Paul enunciates as likely to make his authority respected, possessed also such stability of divorce, by remaining faithful to one wife. The direction is therefore restrictive, no injunctive; it excludes men who have married more than once, but it does not impose marriage as a necessary condition. This freedom of choice seems to have lasted during the whole of what we may call, with Vacandard, the first period of the Church's legislation, i.e. down to about the time of Constantine and the Council of Nicaea.

A strenuous attempt has indeed been made by some writers, of whom the late Professor Bickell was the most distinguished, to prove that even at this early date the Church exacted celibacy of all her ministers of the higher grades. But the contrary view, represented by such scholars as Funk and Kraus, seems much better founded and has won general acceptance of recent years. It is not, of course, disputed that all times virginity was held in honour, and that in particular large numbers of the clergy practised it or separated from their wives if they were already married. Tertullian comments with admiration upon the number of those in sacred orders who have embraced continence (De exhortatione castitatis, cap. xiii), while Origen seems to contrast the spiritual offspring of the priests of the New Law with the natural offspring begotten in wedlock by the priests of the Old (In Levit. Hom. vi, no. 6). Clearly, however, there is nothing in this or similar language which could be considered decisive, and Bickell, in support of his thesis, found it needful to appeal mainly to the testimony of writers of the fourth and fifth century. Thus Eusebius declares that it is befitting that priests and those occupied in the ministry should observe continence (Demonst. Evangel., I, C. ix), and St. Cyril of Jerusalem urges that the minister of the altar who serves God properly holds himself aloof from women (Cat. xii, 25). St. Jerome further seems to speak of a custom generally observed when he declares that clerics, "even though they may have wives, cease to be husbands".

But the passage most confidently appealed to is one of St. Epiphanius where the holy doctor first of all speaks of the accepted ecclesiastical rule of the priesthood (kanona tes ierosynes) as something established by the Apostles (Haer., xlviii, 9), and then in a later passage seems to describe this rule or canon in some detail. "Holy Church", he says, "respects the dignity of the priesthood to such a point that she does not admit to the diaconate, the priesthood, or the episcopate, no nor even to the subdiaconate, anyone still living in marriage and begetting children. She accepts only him who if married gives up his wife or has lost her by death, especially in those places where the ecclesiastical cannons are strictly attended to" (Haer., lix, 4). Epiphanius goes on, however, to explain that there are localities in which priests and deacons continue to have children, but he argues against the practice as most unbecoming and urges that the Church under the guidance of the Holy Ghost has always in the past shown her disapproval of such procedure. But we need hardly insist that all this is very inadequate evidence (even when supplemented by some few citations from St. Ephraem and other Orientals) to support the contention that a general rule of celibacy existed from Apostolic times. Writers in the fourth century were prone to describe many practices (e.g. the Lenten fast of forty days) as of Apostolic institution which certainly had no claim to be so regarded. On the other hand, there are facts which tell the other way. The statement of Clement of Alexandria at an earlier date is open to no ambiguity. After commenting on the texts of St. Paul noted above, and expressing his veneration for a life of chastity, Clement adds: "All the same, the Church fully receives the husband of one wife whether he be priest or deacon or layman, supposing always that he uses his marriage blamelessly, and such a one shall be saved in the begetting of children" (Stromateiae, III, xiii).

Not less explicit is the testimony given by the church historian, Socrates. He declares that in the Eastern Churches neither priests nor even bishops were bound to separate from their wives, though he recognized that a different custom obtained in Thessaly and in Greece (H.E., Bk. I, cap. xi) Socrates tells the story of Paphnutius rising in the assembly and objecting to an enactment which he considered to rigorous in behalf of celibacy. It would be sufficient, he thought, that such as had previously entered on their sacred calling should abjure matrimony according to the ancient tradition of the Church, but that none should be separated from her to whom, while yet unordained, he had been united. And these sentiments he expressed although himself without experience of marriage. Some attempt has been made to discredit this story, but nearly all modern scholars (notably Bishop von Hefele, with his most recent editor, Dom H. Leclercq) accept it without reserve. The fact that the attitude of Bishop Paphnutius differs but little from the existing practice of the Eastern Churches is alone a strong point in its favour. These testimonies, it will be observed, are from Eastern sources and indicate, no doubt, the prevailing Oriental discipline. Wernz expressed the opinion that from the earliest days of the Church the custom, if not the law, was for bishops, priests, and all in major orders, to observe celibacy.

Editor's note: More recent scholarship has strengthened the case for the legendary character of the Paphnutius story, and its possible origin in Novatianist circles. According to Winkelmann (1968), Stickler (1970) and Heid (1997), it seems unlikely that this Paphnutius ever attended the council, much less made the speech attributed to him. See Christian Cochini, The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990; original French edition 1981), pp. 24-26, 44-46, 195-200 and index; and Stefan Heid, Celibacy in the Early Church (Ignatius, 2000, original German edition, 1997), pp. 15-19, 297-305 and index.

Second period

In the history of clerical celibacy conciliar legislation marks the second period during which the law took definite shape both in the East and in the West. The earliest enactment on the subject is that of the Spanish Council of Elvira (between 295 and 302) in canon xxxiii. It imposes celibacy upon the three higher orders of the clergy, bishops, priests, and deacons. If they continue to live with their wives and beget children after their ordination they are to be deposed. This would seem to have been the beginning of the divergence in this matter between East and West. If we may trust the account of Socrates, just quoted, an attempt was made at the Council of Nicaea, (perhaps by Bishop Osius who had also sat at Elvira) to impose a law similar to that passed in the Spanish council. But Paphnutius, as we have seen, argued against it, and the Fathers of Nicaea were content with the prohibition expressed in the third canon which forbade mulieres subintroductas. No bishop, priest, or deacon was to have any woman living in the house with him, unless it were his mother, sister, or aunt, or at any rate persons against whom no suspicion could lodge. But the account of Socrates at the same time shows that marriage on the part of those who were already bishops or priests was not contemplated; in fact, that it was assumed to be contrary to the tradition of the Church. This is again what we learn from the Council of Ancyra in Galatia, in 314 (canon x), and of Neo-Caesarea in Cappadocia, in 315 (canon i). The latter canon absolutely forbids a priest to contract a new marriage under the pain of deposition; the former forbids even a deacon to contract marriage, if at the moment of his ordination he made no reservation as to celibacy. Supposing, however, that he protested at the time that a celibate life was above his strength, the decrees of Ancyra allow him to marry subsequently, as having tacitly received the permission of the ordaining bishop. There is nothing here which of itself forbids even a bishop to retain his wife, if he were married before ordination. In this respect the law, as observed in the Eastern Churches, was drawn gradually tighter. Justinian's Code of Civil Law would not allow anyone who had children or even nephews to be consecrated bishop, for fear that natural affection should warp his judgment. The Apostolic Constitutions (c. 400), which formed the principal factor of the church law of the East, are not particularly rigid on the point of celibacy, but whether through imperial influence or not the Council of Trullo, in 692, finally adopted a somewhat stricter view. Celibacy in a bishop became a matter of precept. If he were previously married, he had at once to separate from his wife upon his consecration. On the other hand, this council, while forbidding priests, deacons, and subdeacons to take a wife after ordination, asserts in emphatic terms their right and duty to continue in conjugal relations with the wife to whom they had been wedded previously. This canon (xiii of Trullo) still makes the law for the great majority of the Churches of the East, though some of the Eastern Catholic communions have adopted the Western discipline.

In Latin Christendom, however, everything was ripe for a stricter law. We have already spoken of the Council of Elvira, and this does not seem to have been an isolated expression of opinion. "As a rule", remarks Bishop Wordsworth from his anti-celibate standpoint, "the great writers of the fourth and fifth century pressed celibacy as the more excellent way with an unfair and misleading emphasis which led to the gravest and moral mischief and loss of power in the Church." (The Ministry of Grace, 1902, p. 223). This, one would think, must be held to relieve the papacy of some of the onus which modern critics would thrust upon it in this matter. Such writers as St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, St. Hilary, etc., could hardly be described as acting in collusion with the supposed ambitious projects of the Holy See to enslave and denationalize the local clergy. Although it is true that at the close of the fourth century, as we may learn from St. Ambrose (De Officiis, I, l), some married clergy were still to be found, especially in the outlying country districts, many laws then enacted were strong in favour of celibacy. At a Roman council held by Pope Siricius in 386 an edict was passed forbidding priests and deacons to have conjugal intercourse with their wives (Jaffe-Löwenfeld, Regesta, I, 41), and the pope took steps to have the decree enforced in Spain and in other parts of Christendom (Migne, P.L., LVI, 558 and 728). Africa and Gaul, as we learn from the canons of various synods, seem to have been earnest in the same movement, and though we hear of some mitigation of the severity of the ordinance of Elvira, was enforced against transgressors than that if they took back their wives they were declared incapable of promotion to any higher grade, it may fairly be said that by the time of St. Leo the Great the law of celibacy was generally recognized in the West. With regard to subdeacons, indeed, the case was not clear. Pope Ciricius (385-398) seems to rank them with acolytes and not to require separation from their wives until after the age of thirty when they might be ordained deacons if they had previously, during some short period of trial, given proof of their ability to lead a life of stricter continence. Writers like and Wernz regard them as bound to celibacy in the time of Pope Leo the Great (446). The Council of Agde in Gaul, in 506, forbade subdeacons to marry, and such synods as those of Orléans in 538 and Tours in 567 prohibited even those already married from continuing to live with their wives. As other councils took an opposite line, the uncertainty continued until King Pepin, in 747, addressed a question upon the subject to Pope Zachary. Even then the pope left each locality in some measure to its own traditions, but he decided clearly that once a man had received the subdiaconate he was no longer free to contract a new marriage. The doubtful point was the lawfulness of his continuing to live with his wife as her husband. During this Merovingian period the actual separation of the clergy from the wives which they had previously married was not insisted on. A law of the Emperor Honorius, in 420, forbids that these wives should be left unprovided for, and it even lays stress upon the fact that by their upright behaviour they had helped their husbands to earn that good repute which had made them worthy of ordination. However, this living together in the relation of brother and sister cannot have proved entirely satisfactory, even though it had in its favour such illustrious examples as those of St. Paulinus of Nola, and of Salvinianus of Marseilles.

At any rate the synods of the sixth and seventh centuries, while fully recognizing the position of these former wives and according them even the formal designation of bishopess, priestess, deaconess, and subdeaconess (episcopissa, presbytera, diaconissa, subdiaconissa), laid down some very strict rules to guide their relations with their former husbands. The bishopess, as a rule, did not live in the same house with the bishop (see the Council of Tours in 567, can. xiv). For the lower grades actual separation does not seem to have been required, although the Council of Orléans in 541, can. xvii, ordained: "ut sacerdotes sive diacom cum conjugibus suis non habeant commune lectum et cellulam"; while curious regulations were enforced requiring the presence of subordinate clergy in the sleeping apartment of the bishop, archpriest, etc., to prevent all suspicion of scandal (see, e.g., the Council of Tours, in 567), canons xiii and xx). A good deal seems to have been done at the beginning of the Carolingian epoch to set things upon a more satisfactory footing. To this St. Chrodegang (formerly the chancellor of Charles Martel, and after 742 Bishop of Metz), contributed greatly by his institution of canons. Those were clergy leading a life in common (vita canonica), according to the rule composed for them by St. Chrodegang himself, but at the same time not precluded by their hours of study and prayer from giving themselves like ordinary secular priests to the pastoral duties of the ministry. This institution developed rapidly and met with much encouragement. In a slightly modified from the Rule of St. Chrodegang was approved by the Council of Aachen, in 816, and it formed the basis of the cathedral chapters in most of the diocese throughout the dominions of Charlemagne.

The influence both of these canons who devoted themselves principally to the public recitation of the Office, as also of those who lived with the bishop in the episcopium and were busied with parochial work, seems to have had an excellent effect upon the general standard of clerical duty. Unfortunately, "the Iron Age", that terrible period of war, barbarism, and corruption in high places which marked the break-up of the Carolingian Empire, followed almost immediately upon this revival. "Impurity, adultery, sacrilege and murder have overwhelmed the world", cried the Council of Trosly in 909. The episcopal sees, as we learn from such an authority as Bishop Egbert of Trier, were given as fiefs to rude soldiers, and were treated as property which descended by hereditary right from father to son. 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 and that few parts of the world failed to feel the effect of the licence and venality of the times. How could it be otherwise when there were intruded into bishoprics on every side men of brutal nature and unbridled passions, who gave the very worst example to the clergy over whom they ruled? 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.

With Pope St. Leo IX, St. Gregory VII (Hildebrand), and their successors, a determined and successful stand was made against the further spread of corruption. For a while in certain districts where effective interference appeared hopeless, it would seem that various synodal enactments allowed the rural clergy to retain the wives to whom they had previously been married. See, for example, the Councils of Lisieux of 1064, Rouen in 1063 and 1072, and Winchester, this last presided over by Lanfranc, in 1076. In all these we may possibly trace the personal influence of William the Conqueror. But despite these concessions, the attitude of Gregory VII remained firm, and the reform which he consolidated has never subsequently been set aside. His determined attitude brought forth a whole literature of protests, amongst others the letter "De Continentiâ" which is widely attributed to St. Ulric of Augsburg, though every modern scholar admits it to be a forgery, fabricated more than one hundred years after St. Ulric's death. The point is of importance because the evidence seems to show that in this long struggle the whole of the more high-principled and more learned section of the clergy was enlisted in the cause of celibacy. The incidents of the long final campaign, which began indeed even before the time of Pope St. Leo IX and lasted down to the First Council of Lateran in 1123, are too complicated to be detailed here. We may note, however that the attack was conducted along two distinct lines of action. In the first place, disabilities of all kinds were enacted and as far as possible enforced against the wives and children of ecclesiastics. Their offspring were declared to be of servile condition, debarred from sacred orders, and, in particular, incapable of succeeding to their fathers' benefices. The earliest decree in which the children were declared to be slaves, the property of the Church, and never to be enfranchised, seems to have been a canon of the Synod of Pavia in 1018. Similar penalties were promulgated later on against the wives and concubines (see the Synod of Melfi, 1189, can. xii), who by the very fact of their unlawful connection with a subdeacon or clerk of higher rank became liable to be seized as slaves by the over-lord. Hefele (Concilienge-schichte, V, 195) sees in this first trace of the principle that the marriages of the clerics are ipso facto invalid.

As regards to the offenders themselves, the strongest step seems to have been that taken by Nicholas II in 1059, and more vigorously by Gregory VII in 1075, who interdicted such priests from saying Mass and from all ecclesiastical functions, while the people were forbidden to hear the Mass which they celebrated or to admit their ministrations so long as they remain contumacious. In the controversies of this time the Masses said by these incontinent priests were sometimes described as "idolatrous"; but this word must not be pressed, as if it meant to insinuate that such priests were incapable of consecrating validly. The term was only loosely used, just as if it was also sometimes applied at the same period to any sort of homage rendered to an antipope. Moreover the wording of a letter of Urban II (Ep. cclxxiii) enforcing the decree takes an exception for cases of urgent necessity, as, for example, when Communion has to be given to the dying. Clearly, therefore, the validity of the sacraments when consecrated or administered by a married priest was not in question. Finally, in 1123, at the First Lateran Council, an enactment was passed (confirmed more explicitly in the Second Lateran Council, can. vii) which, while not in itself very plainly worded, was held to pronounce the marriages contracted by subdeacons or ecclesiastics of any of the higher orders to be invalid (contracta quoque matrimonia ab hujusmodi personis disjungi ... judicamus — can. xxi). This may be said to mark the victory of the cause of celibacy. Henceforth all conjugal relations on the part of the clergy in sacred orders were reduced in the eyes of canon law to mere concubinage. Neither can it be pretended that this legislation, backed, as it were, by the firm and clear pronouncements of the Fourth Council of Lateran in 1215, and later by those of the Council of Trent, remained any longer a dead letter. Laxity among the clergy at certain periods and in certain localities must undoubtedly be admitted, but the principles of the canon law remained unshaken, and despite all assertions to the contrary made by unscrupulous assailants of the Roman system the call to a life of self-denying continence has, as a rule, been respected by the clergy of Western Christendom.

In England

A few words may here be added in particular about the history of clerical celibacy upon English soil. Very extreme views have been put forward by various Anglican writers. Passing over Dr. Lea as quite untrustworthy, the following statement of a more sober writer, the Bishop of Salisbury (John Wordsworth) may be taken as a specimen. After declaring that during the Anglo-Saxon period the English clergy were undisguisedly married, he adds: "It would be easy to multiply evidence for the continuance of a practically married clergy in this country up to the time of the Reformation. Sometimes I believe that they were privately but still legally married so that their wives and children might have the benefit of their property after their death. For all marriages properly performed in England were valid according to the civil law, unless they were voided by action in the Bishop's Court, down to the passing of Lord Lynhurst's Act in 1835, however much they might be contrary to law" (Ministry of Grace, p. 236). It can only be said that this is a quite gratuitous assertion, unsupported by any evidence yet produced, and founded in the main upon that strange misconception, so well exposed in Professor Maitland's "Roman Canon Law in the Church of England", that ecclesiastical law in England differed from, and was independent of, the jus commune (i.e. the canon law) of the Catholic Church. Objectors may safely be challenged to produce a single case during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in which a clerk in sacred orders went through the marriage ceremony with any woman, or in which is wife or the children born after his ordination claimed to inherit his property upon his death. On the other hand, the denunciations of all such unions as mere concubinage are innumerable, and the evidence for any great prevalence of these irregular connections, despite the rhetorical exaggerations of such writers as Gower or Langland, is relatively slight. Unfortunately, nearly all the best-known popular histories (Trevelyan's "Age of Wicliffe" might be cited as a specimen) are written with a strong anti-Roman or anti-sacerdotal bias, particularly disastrous in matters in which there can be no question of comparative statistics, but only of general impressions.

With regard to the Saxon and Angevin period again, careful study of the evidence has convinced the present writer that a very exaggerated estimate has been formed of the prevalence of marriage or concubinage among the secular clergy. Two points deserve especially to be remembered. First, that the Anglo-Saxon word preost does not necessarily mean a priest but simply a cleric. The ordinary word for priest in the sense of sacerdos, was maesse-preost. This is continually ignored, but the evidence for it is quite unmistakable and is fully admitted in Bosworth-Toller's "Dictionary" and in the important monograph, "The Influence of Christianity upon the Vocabulary of Old English" (1902) by the American scholar Dr. H. MacGillivray. To take one illustration, Abbot Ælfric writes: "Gemaenes hades preostum is alyfed ... thaet hi syferlice sincipes brucon" — i.e. "To clerics [preostum] of the common order [i.e. to clerks in minor orders] it is permitted that they enjoy marriage soberly"; and then he continues: "but in sooth to the others that minister at God's altar, that is to say mass-priests and deacons (maessepreostum and diaconum), all conjugal relations are forbidden" (Ælfric, Homilies). Similarly, where Bede speaks of St. Wilfrid receiving the tonsure, the Anglo-Saxon translation, as in many similar cases, renders it, "he waes to preost gesceoren", i.e. he was shorn into a cleric (preost). Wilfrid's ordination as priest did not take place until several years later. Now the importance of this will be appreciated when we find a well-known historian writing thus: "Celibacy was avowedly not practised by the northern clergy [in Anglo-Saxon England]. The law of the Northumbrian Priests declares 'if a priest forsake a woman and take another let him be excommunicate'. A priest might therefore take a wife and cleave to her without rebuke". (Hunt, The English Church to the Norman Conquest, 1899, p 383). Now this piece of evidence is quite inconclusive; the word preost which is here used, may or may not assume that it refers to any other class of preost, i.e. cleric, than those in minor orders who were always entirely free to marry. The second point which it is equally important to remember is that clerics in minor orders were a very numerous class in Saxon, Norman and Angevin times. With us there are, practically preparing for ordination to the priesthood, while such candidates now from their earliest years lead a life apart from the world in the seclusion of colleges and seminaries. In the medieval Church things were very different. Almost all young men with any little education preferred to enroll themselves in the ranks of the clergy to receiving the tonsure, hoping that some chance of employment or of a benefice might come their way. They were still free to marry and sometimes they married openly. But often, it seems, they entangled themselves in rather ambiguous relations which in the then state of marriage law might easily be legitimized afterwards, but which also might be repudiated and broken off if they desired to receive ordination.

All this, which up to a certain point was not inconsistent with good faith, unfortunately prepared the way for easy relapses into incontinence, and generated a public opinion in which it was not accounted a reproach to be known as the son of a priest. Undoubtedly the sons of priests formed a large class. There was a natural tendency to bring them up also as clerics, and there was no doubt an immense amount of scheming, not unfrequently successful, to secure their promotion to the benefices held by their fathers. But promotion to the benefices held by their fathers. But it would be a great mistake to regard these sons of priests as all necessarily born in flagrant violation of the canons. The situation was a very complicated one, and it is impossible to pronounce any sober opinion upon its moral aspects without a careful study, on the other hand, of the conditions of social, and particularly of student, life, which an appreciation of the ambiguities of the marriage law, as regards which the difficulties raised by the sponsalia de praesenti have long been the despair of canonists. One of the Constitutions of the Legate Otho, issued in 1237, is particularly instructive in this connection. He has learnt, he declares, on good authority that "many clerics [not yet priests, be it noted] forgetful of the salvation of their souls, after contracting a clandestine marriage, do not fear to retain the churches (to which they may previously have been appointed) without putting away their wives, and to acquire fresh ecclesiastical benefices and to be promoted to sacred orders contrary to the provisions of the sacred canons, and finally in due course of time after children have been reared from this union, to prove at the proper moment, by means of witnesses and documents, whether they themselves be still living or have passed away, that a marriage had really be contracted between the parties". (Wilkins, I, 653.) To meet this, Otho decrees that any married clerk in possession of a benefice, loses all title to it ipso jure, and secondly, that all property in possession of such clerks or priests who have been clandestinely married before their promotion to Holy orders, is to go to the Church and none of it to their children. But the whole legal aspect of the celibacy question in England can best be studied in the pages of Lyndewode's "Provinciale". (See particularly pp. 16 sqq. and 126-130, of the standard edition of 1679. The only thing which Lyndewode makes clear, quoted above, is that the English Church in the fifteenth century refused to recognize the existence of any such entity as the priest's "wife". It knew of nothing but concubinae and denied to these any legal right whatever or any claim upon the property of the partner of their guilt.

Present position

With regard to the law of celibacy and its canonical effects in the Western Church at the present day, only one or two points can be briefly touched upon. For the details the reader must be referred to such a work as that of Wernz "Jus Decretalium", II, 295-321. Clerk in minor orders, as already stated, as free to marry, and by such marriages they forfeit the privilegia canonis and the privilegia fori only in part, provided they observe the required conditions (cf. Decreta Conc. Trid., Sess XIII, cap. vi); though in our day such observance is practically impossible; but they are incapable of being promoted to sacred orders unless they separate from their wives, and make a vow of perpetual continence. Further, if as clerks they held any benefice or ecclesiastical pension, these are at once forfeited by marriage, and the become incapable of acquiring any new benefice. Historically there has been some little variation of practice with regard to married clerks, and the severe measures enacted in their regard by Pope Alexander III were subsequently mitigated by Boniface VIII and the Council of Trent. As regards ecclesiastics in sacred orders (i.e. the subdiaconate and those that follow), the teaching of both theologians and canonists alike, for many centuries past, has been unanimous as regards the facts, though some little divergence has existed regarding the manner of explaining them. All are agreed that the subdeacon in presenting himself of his own free will for ordination binds himself by a tacit vow of chastity (Wernz, IV, n. 393), and that this even constitutes a diriment impediment in view of any subsequent marriage. The idea of this votum annexum seems to be traceable in one form or another as far back as the time of Gregory the Great. Although the opposition to the law of celibacy frequently took the form of open agitation, both in the earlier Middle Ages and again at the Reformation period, only one such movement calls for notice in modern times. This was an association formed principally in Würtemberg and Baden in the early part of the nineteenth century to advocate the mitigation or repeal of the law of celibacy. The agitation was condemned by an Encyclical of Pope Gregory XVI, on 15 August, 1832, and no more permanent harm seems to have resulted than the publication of a certain amount of disaffected literature, such as the pretentious but extremely biased and inaccurate work on compulsory celibacy by the brothers Theiner, a book which at once prohibited by authority and repudiated by Aug. Theiner before he was reconciled to the Church.

Law of celibacy in Oriental Churches

Upon this head something has already been said above, and the general principle has been stated that in the Oriental Churches deacons and priests are free to retain the wives to whom they have been wedded before ordination, but are not allowed to contract any new marriage when once they are ordained. A few details may here be added about the practice of the different Churches, taking first the schismatical communions and then those united to the Holy See.

In the Greek Churches acknowledging the jurisdiction of the schismatic Patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, etc., lectors and cantors, who are clerics in minor orders, are still free to marry, but if they contract a second marriage they can be promoted to no higher grade, and if they are guilty of continence with any other person or marry a third time, they are no longer allowed to exercise their functions. Subdeacons seem to be able to marry a second time without being deposed, but in that case they cannot be promoted to the priesthood. Again, a priest who before his ordination has contracted an unlawful marriage, even unwittingly, is no longer permitted to exercise his priestly functions when the fact is discovered. Priests and deacons are bidden to practise continence during the time of their service of the altar. In 1897 there seem to have been 4025 parish churches in Greece, and these were served by 5423 married and 242 unmarried priests.

In the Russian Church, though a previous marriage seems to be, practically speaking, a conditio sine quâ non for ordination in the case of the secular clergy, still their canonists deny that this is a strict obligation. The candidate for orders must either be already married or must formally declare his intention of remaining celibate. Any marriage attempted after the reception of the subdiaconate is invalid and the ecclesiastic so offending renders himself liable to severe penalties. Further, to have been already married, or to have married a widow, or to have contracted any other marriage which offends against the canons — e.g. with a near relative, an unbeliever, or person or notoriously loose character, e.g. an actress — constitutes a disqualification for ordination. Formerly the priest who lost his wife was required to retire into a monastery. He is still free to do so and in this way may qualify for higher functions, e.g. for the episcopate, etc., the bishops in the Greek and Russian Church being selected exclusively from the monastic clergy. Since the beginning of the eighteenth century, widower priests are no longer compelled to retire into monasteries, but they need the permission of the Synod to continue to discharge their parochial functions.

In the Armenian Church, again, clerics in minor orders are still free to contract marriage, and such marriage is required as a condition for ordination to the simple secular priesthood. Besides monks and the ordinary clergy, the Armenian Church recognizes a class of Vartapeds, or preachers, who are celibate priests of higher education. From their ranks the bishops and higher clergy are as a rule selected. It is only by exception that a monk is chosen to the episcopate.

Amongst the Nestorians celibacy is not so much honoured as amongst most of the Oriental Churches. Priests and deacons may marry even after ordination, and if their wife should die they marry a second or even a third time. Still, bishops are required to live as celibates, though formerly this does not seem to have been the case.

The Copts and also the Abyssinian Monophysites resemble the Greek Church in their laws regarding clerical marriage. A marriage contracted after the reception of Holy orders, or any second marriage, involves deposition. All the Coptic bishops are chosen from the monastic clergy. Among the Syrian Jacobites similar rules prevail. Bishops, as a rule, are chosen from the monks and a second marriage is forbidden to a priest who is left a widower. If, however, he marries, the marriage is regarded as valid although he is deprived of his clerical functions.

Turning now to the Oriental Churches in communion with the Holy See, we may note that as a general principle married clerics are not ineligible for the subdiaconate, diaconate, and priesthood. As in the Russian Church they must either be married in accordance with the canons (i.e. not to a widow, etc.), or else as a preliminary to ordination they are asked whether they will promise to observe chastity. The full recognition of the right of the Oriental clergy to retain their wives will be found in the Constitution of Benedict XIV, "Etsi pastoralis", 26 May, 1742. There has, however, been a strong movement of recent years among the Eastern Catholic Churches favouring conformity with Western Christendom in this matter of celibacy. For example, the Armenian Church dependent upon the Patriarch of Cilicia even as far back as July, 1869, passed a resolution that celibacy should be required of all the higher orders of the clergy. Again the Synod of Scharfa in Syria, in 1888, decreed that "the celibate life which is already observed by the great majority of the priests of our Church should henceforth be common to all", although the deacons and priests who were already married were allowed to continue as before, and though a certain power of dispensation in cases of necessity was left with the patriarch. Similarly in 1898 a synod of the Catholic Copts at Alexandria decreed that henceforth all candidates for any of the higher orders must be celibate "according to the ancient discipline of the Church of Alexandria and the other Churches of God".

About this page

APA citation. Thurston, H. (1908). Celibacy of the Clergy. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03481a.htm

MLA citation. Thurston, Herbert. "Celibacy of the Clergy." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03481a.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Christine J. Murray.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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