Clerical celibacy (Catholic Church): Wikis


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Clerical celibacy is the discipline by which, in some of the particular Churches that constitute the Catholic Church, only unmarried men are, as a rule, to be ordained to the priesthood. The same discipline holds in some other Churches for ordination to the episcopate.

Chief of the Catholic particular Churches that follow this discipline is the Latin Rite, but, among the Eastern Catholic Churches, at least the Ethiopic Catholic Church applies it also.

In this context, "celibacy" retains its original meaning of "unmarried", and does not refer to the continence or abstinence from sexual intercourse that even the married may practise.

Throughout the Catholic Church, East as well as West, a priest may not marry. To become a married priest, one must therefore marry before being ordained.

The Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches, without exception, rule out ordination of married men to the episcopate.

The law of clerical celibacy is considered to be not a doctrine, but a discipline. Exceptions are sometimes made, especially in the case of Protestant clergymen who convert to the Catholic Church, and the discipline could in theory be changed for all ordinations to the priesthood. However, it is considered a valuable witness of Christian faith and as a way of following the example of Christ and his celibate way of life.


Historical origins

Studies by Catholic scholars, one of which is available on the Vatican website,[1] have argued that, in early Christian practice, married men who became priests—they were often older men, "elders"—were expected to live in complete continence, refraining permanently from sexual relations with their wives.[2][3][4] When at a later stage it was clear that not all did refrain, the Western Church limited ordination to unmarried men and required a commitment to lifelong celibacy, while the Eastern Churches relaxed the rule, so that Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches now require their married clergy to abstain from sexual relations only for a limited period before celebrating the Eucharist. The Church in Persia, which in the fifth century became separated from the Church described as Orthodox or Catholic, decided at the end of that century to abolish the rule of continence and allow priests to marry, but recognized that it was abrogating an ancient tradition. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, whose separation, along with the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, came slightly later, allows deacons (who are ordained when they are boys) to marry, but not priests: any future priests who wish to marry must do so before becoming priests. The Armenian Apostolic Church, which also belongs to Oriental Orthodoxy, while technically prohibiting, like the Eastern Orthodox Church, marriage after ordination to the sub-diaconate, has generally let this rule fall into disuse and allows deacons to marry up to the point of their priestly ordination, thus continuing to maintain the traditional exclusion of marriage by those who are priests.[5] This theory would explain why all the ancient Christian Churches of both East and West, with the one exception mentioned, exclude marriage after priestly ordination, and why all reserve the episcopate (seen as a fuller form of priesthood than the presbyterate) for the celibate.

The earliest textual evidence of the forbidding of marriage to clerics and the duty of those already married to abstain from sexual contact with their wives is in the fourth-century decrees of the Council of Elvira and the later Council of Carthage. According to some writers, this presumed a previous norm, which was being flouted in practice.[6]

  • Council of Elvira (c. 305)
(Canon 33): It is decided that marriage be altogether prohibited to bishops, priests, and deacons, or to all clerics placed in the ministry, and that they keep away from their wives and not beget children; whoever does this, shall be deprived of the honor of the clerical office.
  • Council of Carthage (390)
(Canon 3): 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.

Among the early Church statements on the topic of sexual continence and celibacy are the Directa and Cum in unum decretals of Pope Siricius (c. 385), which asserted that clerical sexual abstinence was an apostolic practice that must be followed by ministers of the church.

The writings of Saint Ambrose (died 397) also show that the requirement that priests, whether married or celibate, should be continent was the established rule. To the married clergy who, "in some out-of-the-way places", claimed, on the model of the Old Testament priesthood, the right to father children, he recalled that in Old Testament times even lay people were obliged to observe continence on the days leading to a sacrifice, and commented: "If such regard was paid in what was only the figure, how much ought it to be shown in the reality!"[7] Yet more sternly he wrote: "(Saint Paul) spoke of one who has children, not of one who begets children."[8]

Theological foundations

Theologically, the Church teaches that priesthood is a ministry conformed to the life and work of Jesus Christ. Priests as sacramental ministers act in persona Christi, that is in the person of Christ. Thus the life of the priest conforms to the chastity of Christ himself. 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".

Scriptural foundations

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) in Salt of the Earth saw this practice as based on Jesus' words in Matthew 19:12: "Some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it." He linked this celibacy "because of the kingdom of heaven" with God's choice to confer the Old Testament priesthood on a specific tribe, that of Levi, which unlike the other tribes received no land from God, but which had "God himself as its inheritance" (Numbers 1:48–53).

Also of import are the teachings of St. Paul that celibacy is the superior state of life, and his desire expressed in 1 Corinthians 7:7–8, 7:32–35: "For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that. But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am ... I want you to be without care. He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord—how he may please the Lord. But he who is married cares about the things of the world—how he may please his wife. There is a difference between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman cares about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she who is married cares about the things of the world—how she may please her husband. And this I say for your own profit, not that I may put a leash on you, but for what is proper, and that you may serve the Lord without distraction."

Eleventh century developments

It is sometimes claimed that celibacy became mandatory for Latin-Rite priests only in the eleventh century; but others say, for instance: "(I)t may fairly be said that by the time of St. Leo the Great (440–61) the law of celibacy was generally recognized in the West,"[9] and that the eleventh-century regulations on this matter, as on simony, should obviously not be interpreted as meaning that either non-celibacy or simony were previously permitted.[10]

Eastern Catholic Churches

In general, the Eastern Catholic Churches allow ordination of married men as priests. Within the lands of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the largest Eastern Rite Catholic Church, priests' children often became priests and married within their social group, establishing a tightly-knit hereditary caste.[11] In North America, for fear that married priests would create scandal among Latin Rite Catholics, Eastern Catholic bishops usually ordained only unmarried men; but since the Second Vatican Council called for restoration of Eastern Catholic traditions, some of them have returned to the elsewhere traditional Eastern practice of ordaining married men to the presbyterate. A condition for becoming an Eastern Catholic bishop is to be unmarried or a widower.[12]


The Latin Rite discipline continues to be debated for a variety of reasons.

First, many believe celibacy was not required of the apostles. Peter himself had a wife at the time of Jesus' ministry, whose mother Jesus healed of a high fever.[13] However, others think the apostles did leave their wives.[14]

Second, this requirement excludes a great number of otherwise qualified men from the priesthood, qualifications which according to the defenders of celibacy should be determined not by merely human hermeneutics but by the hermeneutics of the divine.

Third, some say that resisting the natural sexual impulse in this way is unrealistic and harmful for a healthy life. Sexual scandals among priests, especially homosexuality and pedophilia, the defenders say, are a breach of the Church's discipline, not a result of it, especially since only a small percentage of priests have been involved.

Fourth, it is said that mandatory celibacy distances priests from this experience of life, compromising their moral authority in the pastoral sphere, although its defenders argue that the Church's moral authority is rather enhanced by a life of total self-giving in imitation of Christ, a practical application of Vatican II teaching that "man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself."[15]


Opposition to clerical celibacy during the Reformation

Celibacy as a requirement for ordination to the priesthood (in the Western Church) and to the episcopate (in East as well as in West) and declaring marriages of priests invalid[16] (in both East and West) were important points of disagreement during the Protestant Reformation, with the Reformers arguing that these requirements were contrary to Biblical teaching in 1 Ti 4:1-5, Heb 13:4 and 1 Co 9:5, implied a degradation of marriage, and were one reason for "many abominations"[17][18] and for widespread sexual misconduct within the clergy at the time of the Reformation.[19] The doctrinal view of the Reformers on this point was reflected in the marriages of Zwingli in 1522, Luther in 1525, and Calvin in 1539; in England, the married Thomas Cranmer was made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533. Both of these actions, marriage after ordination to the priesthood and consecration of a married man as a bishop, went against the long-standing tradition of the Church in the East as well as in the West. See Clerical marriage.

Since the Second Vatican Council

The Holy See has officially re-affirmed the discipline of clerical celibacy in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II in Pastores Dabo Vobis stated that the "unchanging" essence of ordination "configures the priest to Jesus Christ the Head and Spouse of the Church." Thus, he said, "The Church, as the Spouse of Jesus Christ, wishes to be loved by the priest in the total and exclusive manner in which Jesus Christ her Head and Spouse loved her."

The Latin Church now admits married men of mature age to ordination as deacons, provided that they intend to remain permanently as deacons and do not intend to advance to priestly ordination[20] (ordination to the order of deacon is part of the process through which priests pass on their way to priestly ordination)[21]. Ordination even to the diaconate is an impediment to a later marriage, though special dispensation can be received for remarriage under extenuating circumstances.[22]


Exceptions are sometimes made (including in Latin Rite Catholicism), granted by authority of the Pope, when married Protestant clergy become Catholic. Because the rule of celibacy is an ecclesial law and not a doctrine, it can, in principle, be changed at any time by the Pope. Doctrines, on the other hand, cannot be changed. Nonetheless, both the present Pope, Benedict XVI, and his predecessors, have spoken clearly of their understanding that the traditional practice was not likely to change.[23]


  1. ^ Priestly celibacy in patristics and in the history of the Church
  2. ^ Roman Cholij, Priestly celibacy in patristics and in the history of the Church.
  3. ^ BONIVENTO, Cesare. Priestly Celibacy. Ecclesiastical Institution or Apostolic Tradition?; 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.
  4. ^ Celibacy in the Early Church: The Beginnings of Obligatory Continence for Clerics in East and West, Stefan Heid, p. 15.
  5. ^ On Oriental Orthodoxy's exclusion of marriage after ordination to priesthood, see Deacons Focus of Oriental Orthodox-Roman Catholic Consultation
  6. ^ McGovern, chapter 1; [Alfons Stickler: The Case for Clerical Celibacy (Ignatius Press) ISBN 0-89870-533-9]
  7. ^ De officiis ministrorum, 258.
  8. ^ "habentem filios dixit, non facientem" (Ep. extra coll. [Maur.63] 14,62, quoted in Giovanni Coppa, Il sacerdote "vero levita" secondo S. Ambrogio, L'Osservatore Romano 13 January 2007).
  9. ^ "Celibacy of the Clergy". Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2006-09-16.  
  10. ^ "Gregory VII: Simony and Celibacy 1074". Medieval Sourcebook.  
  11. ^ Orest Subtelny. (1988). Ukraine: A History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp.214-219.
  12. ^ Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canon 180
  13. ^ Matthew 8:14
  14. ^ Luke 18:28-30
  15. ^ Pope Paul VI (December 1965). "Gaudium et Spes". Vatican. Retrieved 2006-09-16.  
  16. ^ There was no "oath of celibacy", only a declaration that marriage by a priest was invalid.
  17. ^ Letter of Pope Adrian VI to Francesco Chieregati 25 November 1522, where the Pope says that even "in this Holy See there have been many abominations these many years — abuses in spiritual things, excessive decrees, and everything perverted" but did not attribute these abominations to clerical celibacy (Luther's Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, vol. 2 p. 146 by Preserved Smith).
  18. ^ Catholic historian Ludwig von Pastor's The history of the popes, from the close of the Middle Ages (1891) (vol. V): Corruption of the Italian Clergy of all Ranks,169ff.; Fra Girolama Savonarola 181ff. likewise did not attribute to clerical celibacy the need for reform that was one of the reasons for holding the Council of Trent.
  19. ^ Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion IV,12,23–28 .
  20. ^ can. 1042.1 CIC 1983
  21. ^ can. 1032, CIC 1983
  22. ^ Cong. for Divine Worship and Displine of the Sacraments, Circular Letter to Diocesan Ordinaries..., 6 June 1997, Prot. N. 263/97, 8; in Origins 27 (28 August 1997) p 171
  23. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia, "Celibacy of the Clergy".

See also

External links


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