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VATICAN CITY (LifeSiteNews) –– The concept of clerical celibacy is currently under attack, both from critics of the Church who seek to refute it as pointless and restrictive, but also from Pope Francis who has made a number of remarks in recent days suggesting that priests will no longer be required to be celibate in the near future. However, examining the early years of the Church’s history highlights the development of clerical celibacy and how it has been consistently taught from the very earliest ages. 

In a recent interview given to mark his decade upon the papal throne, Francis repeated some of his regular phrases regarding priestly celibacy, making hints at future moves to undermine the Church’s traditional teaching.

“There is no contradiction for a priest to marry,” he said. “Celibacy in the Western Church is a temporary prescription: I do not know if it is resolved in one way or another, but it is temporary in this sense; it is not eternal like priestly ordination, which is forever, whether you like it or not.”

Noting celibacy as “a discipline,” the Pope replied in the affirmative when asked if such a rule “could be revised.”

Francis has regularly made such comments throughout his papacy, prompting media outlets to speculate whether the Catholic teaching on clerical celibacy might be next in line on the papal chopping block. 

However, examining the origins of clerical celibacy in the early centuries of the Church highlights the beauty and meaning of the Church’s teaching on the matter.

‘We have left everything and followed you’

Some of the earliest evidence of the celibate priesthood is found in the Gospels in Christ’s call to the Apostles, who responded with a complete giving of themselves. St. Peter represented the Twelve when he spoke thus: “Behold we have left everything and followed you.” (Matt 19:27) 

This was a call to leave their “house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18: 29) They had thus renounced the joy of marriage for the sake of responding selflessly to the call of God to minister as priests and bishops to the Mystical Body of Christ. 

In the very early ages this call to celibacy “strictly speaking meant the inability to enter marriage once a higher Order had been received.” Married men were at that time permitted to be ordained to that holy state, but only on the condition that they became “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 19:12) 

But St. Paul expressed concerns about the difficulties faced by a married cleric: “The married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.” (1 Cor 7:32) 

Early Church outlines the law of continence

Pope Leo the Great penned in his letter to the bishop of Narbonne:

The law of continence is the same for the ministers of the altar, for the bishops and for the priests; when they were (still) lay people or lectors, they could freely take a wife and beget children. But once they have reached the ranks mentioned above, what had been permitted is no longer so. (Epist. ad Rusticum Narbonensem episcopum, Inquis, III., Resp. PL 54, 1 204a.)

The Council of Elvira (c A.D 305) pronounced very clearly upon the practice of marital relations after ordination, stipulating it is “entirely forbidden to have conjugal relations with their wives and to beget children.” The Council of Aries (A.D. 314) went further and stated that the reason for this continence was due to the fact that “they are serving the ministry every day” and to be following two masters is of course impossible.

These decrees were not new revelations, but rather “a reaction to the prevalent nonobservance of a traditional obligation that was well known,” as Cardinal Alfons Stickler notes in his text “The Case for Clerical Celibacy.”  

St. John Chrysostom wrote so beautifully that: “The priest must be so pure that, if he were to be lifted up and placed in the heavens themselves, he might take a place in the midst of the Angels.” Thence the practice of cohabitation of the already married cleric and his wife arose, with the pair living as brother and sister, devoid of all nuptial activity.

The priest was not permitted to send his wife away however, but rather, if she so agreed to a future of continence, then they would remain continently married. The Church ensured the protection of the rights of both parties in this arrangement, and thus “ordination could not go ahead without her [wife’s] agreement” in order to prevent any abuses.

As Stickler writes, Sts. Ambrose and Jerome both expressed very clearly that those who were ordained “could not continue the use of marriage after ordination,” since with ordination came the complete and constant giving of the man to God, to acts of prayer and service to the flock. This was quite different to the Jewish traditions which had held that such liturgical and priestly actions were only required at certain times, leaving the priest free to continue with other duties. 

In his directive of 385, Pope Siricius silenced objections made by those who appealed to the Old Testament traditions, whereby the clergy were permitted to avail themselves of the marital rights during the period when they were not serving in the Temple. However, this custom had been done away with in the New Covenant, for “the major clerics had to offer daily their sacred sacrifice,” notes Stickler. 

The wives of married men who were ordained and thereafter practiced continence, were known as “presbytera, diaconissa, subdiaconissa or even episcopia according to the status of her husband.” (Such terms are of course nowadays used by those seeking to justify the ordination of women, misquoting and taking them out of context to invalidly prove that the early Church accepted women clerics.) 

When dealing with the matter after questions were raised by some dissenters amongst the African church, an assembly was convened in order to restate the decrees on continence. Here was ordered celibacy for the “deacons, priests and bishops” according to how the Church had dealt with “certain clerics, especially lectors.” 

This evidence would point to celibacy for all the minor orders, in addition to the major orders. Seeing as the minor orders led to the major and were a stepping stone to those major orders, it would be only right and fitting that those who had received minor orders would also forgo any marital privileges, given that they were in the service of the Lord.

From continence to celibacy

However, this state which could be seen as an amalgamation of two completely different vocations cannot have been easy. For a married couple, however virtuous they may be, to suddenly cease to be in a conjugal relationship of husband and wife, could never be a smooth transition. 

Yet, the “difficulties of the discipline were not unappreciated by the Church authorities.” From here grew the practice and general realization of the fact that cohabitation could lead to problems and thus, from shortly after the time of Pope Leo, Stickler records that cohabitation was “generally not tolerated because of the danger of not remaining faithful to the obligation that had been undertaken.”

This law of continence thus leads to the law of celibacy. Since marriage is ordered to the “good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring,” as the catechism teaches, entering into the marital state with the intention of abstinence would be a defiance of the very purpose for which it is instituted. Hence the necessity for the prohibition of marriage following the reception of orders. 

Importantly, St. Jerome in his treatise Adversus Vigilantium stated that in the “Eastern Church…Egyptian Church and Apostolic See…only those clerics were accepted who were celibate and continent or, if married, had first renounced the matrimonial life.”

This particular reference is quite key to the history of the topic, for it appears to be one of the first quotations where the word “celibate” is specially used, and seemingly denoting preference to those who had been married.

Pope Gregory the Great then went on to prohibit any “common life between major clerics and women which was not authorized” and increasingly included amongst those unauthorized women were spouses. 

Come the time of the Council of Tours, the Church was selecting for holy orders more “celibate candidates” rather than “those who were married,” writes Cardinal Stickler.

In her wisdom, Holy Mother Church saw the prudence in removing any possible occasion of sin, for a breaking of the vow of continence was first punishable by excommunication, and later by removal from office. In selecting only those men who were unmarried, the office of the holy priesthood was reserved for people who were prepared to entirely devote their lives to that most sacred of offices. 

In the period all the way up until the pontificate of Pope Gregory the Great, a clear precedent had been set, from the very beginning of the Church, for clerics to act in a celibate manner. 

Whilst the early members of the clergy were indeed married, upon ordination any further marital activity was prohibited and as time went on, this became stricter, only permitting a very select circle of women into the priest’s household, which does not seem to have included his wife. Naturally this developed into the gradual selecting of men who were virgins, without any ties, and thus most suitable for the call to the altar.

Thus in a brief examination, it can be seen that the issue of clerical celibacy is not a recent invention which can be swiftly, or easily, overturned by the whims of one pope. Rather, it is a practice and a teaching which dates back to the Gospels and is evidenced in the life of the early Church. 

While advocates for revolution in the Church repeatedly push the issue of a possible overturning of clerical celibacy, to do so would be against the teaching and Tradition of the Church of the earliest times.