The Holy See
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Priestly celibacy in patristics and in

the history of the Church

Roman Cholij

Secretary of the Apostolic Exarch for Ukrainian Catholics in

Great Britain


It is clear from the New Testament (Mk 1:29-31; Mt 8:14-15; Lk 4:38-39; 1 Tim 3:2, 12; Tit 1:6) that at least the Apostle Peter had been married, and that bishops, presbyters and deacons of the Primitive Church were often family men. It is also clear from epigraphy, the testimony of the Fathers, synodal legislation, papal decretals and other sources that in the following centuries, a married clergy, in greater or lesser numbers was a normal feature of the life of the Church. Even married popes are known to us.1 And yet, paradoxically, one has to desist, when faced with this incontrovertible fact, from assuming that this necessarily excluded the co-existence of an obligatory celibacy discipline.


In the patristic era, clerical celibacy, strictly speaking meant the inability to enter marriage once a higher Order had been received. The first legislative expression of this is found in the eastern councils of Ancyra (314), c. 10, and Neocaesarea (ca. 314-325), c. 1, for deacons and priests respectively. An Armenian collection of canons, probably from 365, includes this prohibition of marriage2 and it is clearly expressed in the Apostolic Constitutions and Apostolic Canons of the late fourth century.3 Canon 14 of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451) likewise endorses this discipline (albeit indirectly), and it is found in other documents of the fifth and subsequent centuries which consider the practice to be an ancient and timeless tradition.4


At first sight this insistence, with its serious canonical penalties, on the law of what would eventually be called the «impediment of orders to contracting marriage» is curious for its apparent lack of scriptural foundation. At best there is the injunction from the Pastoral epistles, «man of one wife» (1 Tim 3:2, 12; Tit 1:6), which would prohibit only a widower cleric from remarrying, but in actual fact this was generally interpreted by patristic authorities as being a prohibition of ordaining remarried laymen.5 Theodore of Mopsuestia and Theodoret of Cyrrhus stand apart, however, in that they do attest to a different tradition of interpretation. St Paul, according to them, was concerned only with marital fidelity and not with a prohibition of ordaining the remarried.6 Nonetheless, the tendency was to understand strict monogamy as being, together with other qualities required of the wife, a guarantee that the future deacon or priest would be able to live chastely.7


Among the legislators of the West, there seems to be a curious lack of interest, given the legislative activity of the East, in the matter of contracting marriage after ordination. Among individual authors the first hint of this rule is in the Philosophoumena of Hippolytus of Rome (d. 235) where Pope Callistus is accused of unforgivable innovations in ecclesiastical discipline, including the ordination of the remarried. Hippolytus then adds: «And even if a member of the clergy did marry, he could, as far as Callistus was concerned, remain a cleric, as if he had not sinned».8 Indirectly, and independently of the truth of these accusations, we learn of what, in the author’s mind, was the traditional discipline. A further reference is found in the Quaestiones Veteris et Novi Testamenti of Ambrosiaster who lived under the pontificate of Pope Damasus (366-84). He writes, a propos of objections to priestly continence, «But people might say: if it is permitted and good to marry, why should priests not be authorized to take wives? In other words, why should ordained men not be permitted to be united (to wives)?»9 The significance of the second sentence of this quotation, in relation to the first, can be better appreciated if read in the light of a Roman document of the following century. Pope Leo the Great writes to Bishop Rusticus of Narbonne (458/9):


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.10


Introduced here is the technical expression ‘law of continence’ (lex continentiae). It can also be called the law of celibacy in a ‘wide’ sense. Early Western legislation tends to focus on clerical continence as specifically applied to married clergy: the discipline of abstinence from marital relations. If a bishop, priest or deacon (and subdeacon from the fifth century onwards) was prohibited from having sexual relations once in orders, then it is obvious that his commitment to continence would be the major impediment to subsequent marriage (quite apart from the general disfavour shown towards second marriage). For there could be no real marriage unless it was potentially open to sexual consummation. The same law of continence would also impede the unmarried deacon or priest from marrying. The laws, so clearly expressed in the East, prohibiting marriage to the already ordained may thus be reasonably understood to be but the reverse expression of this more basic discipline of continence. This possibility needs to be taken into account when reconstructing the history of clerical celibacy.


Although perhaps strange to our own modern ways of thinking, absolute marital continence was far from unknown or unesteemed in patristic times. Tertullian, himself a married man, informs us in his Catholic period, of lay people who practise continence within marriage «pro cupiditate regni coelestis».11 So do Jerome and Augustine in the following century.12 The rapid growth of monasticism and an attraction to the ascetic life led many couples to renounce their intimacy and to enter a monastery13 or to live in continence within more domestic settings. Church authorities had to intervene decisively when the enthusiasm for continence was deemed excessive and tainted with heretical motives, but at the same time praising those who lived the life of continence for the right motives.14 Four centuries later the Second Nicene Council (787) would still endorse the possibility of monastic vocations for the married.15 Neither should one forget the continence that the separated and divorced were required to live. Augustine did not hesitate to invoke the example of some of the married clergy, who had had their difficulties in adjusting to a life of continence, in order to encourage men separated from their wives to live continently. He also applies the celibacy logion «eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven» (Mt 19:12) to divorcees.16



Clerical continence in the West


a. Fourth century legislation


Convincing testimonies to the normative nature of clerical continence in the fourth century can be found in individual Western patristic authors (such as Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome). The first known example of actual legislation is c. 33 of the Spanish Council of Elvira, the usual date of which is given as ca. 305. It reads:


We decree that all bishops, priests and deacons in the service of the ministry are entirely forbidden to have conjugal relations with their wives and to beget children; should anyone do so, let him be excluded from the honour of the clergy.17


There is a similar canon which certain manuscripts ascribe to the First Council of Aries (314), considered to be a sort of General Council of the West. Canon 29 reads:


Moreover, (concerned with) what is worthy, pure, and honest, we exhort our brothers (in the episcopate) to make sure that priests and deacons have no (sexual) relations with their wives, since they are serving the ministry every day. Whoever will act against this decision, will be deposed from the honour of the clergy.18


The wording of these canons does not immediately suggest that an innovation is being introduced, and it would be an error in historical procedure to maintain a priori that such was the case. The seriousness of the implications for the life of the clergy, the absence of justification for the strictness of the discipline and the canonical penalty attached, would suggest, on the contrary, that the Church authorities were concerned with the maintenance and not the introduction of this rule. The important papal decretals of the fourth century, which indicate the rule for all the West — Directa (385) and Cum in unum (386) of Pope Siricius; Dominus inter of Innocent I (or Damasus?), and the Synod of Carthage (390) — were in fact emphatic that clerical continence belonged to immemorial, even apostolic, tradition.19 Patristic writings are often explicit in considering the apostles as models of the priesthood. Yet those who might have been married were thought not to have lived other than in continence?20




b. The fifth to the seventh centuries



As with other juridical institutions of the Church, with time clerical continence developed sharper and more defined outlines. From the fifth to the seventh centuries much provincial conciliar activity is seen in the West where both the obligation to continence is reaffirmed (indicating infringement), and greater precision, taking into account changed circumstances, is given to the law. Canonical collections would circulate and consciousness of legislating in conformity with a wider legal patrimony and with ancient tradition is sometimes made explicit.21


One of the interesting features of legislation that appears throughout this period is the implicit or even explicit inclusion of a continent wife among that class of women that c. 3 of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325) had characterized as beyond suspicion: «The great Council has absolutely forbidden bishops, priests and deacons — in other words, all the members of the clergy — to have with them a sister-companion (syneisaktos) with the exception of a mother, a sister, an aunt, or, lastly, only those persons who are beyond any suspicion.» The wife, like the husband, was technically ‘converted’, conversio being the change of life that follows on the profession or public promise of continence.22 It is in mid-fifth century Gaul that an explicit public declaration of the commitment to continence first appears.23 This was to prevent excuses of ignorance of the obligation which previously had been implicit in the reception of orders. The wife (who in the Gallic Church was termed a presbytera, diaconissa, subdiaconissa or even episcopia according to the status of her husband)24 was to live as a ‘sister’ in a brother-sister relationship?25 Her rights were protected as ordination could not go ahead without her agreement.26 Her promise to live in continence was also an impediment to future marriage.27


Cohabitation of husband and wife had been given the explicit backing of papal authority. Leo the Great wrote in 458-9: « order for the union (of bishops, priests, deacons) to change from carnal to spiritual, they must, without sending away their wives, live with them as if they did not have them, so that conjugal love be safeguarded and nuptial activity cease.»28 Fifth and sixth century imperial legislation also endorses cohabitation, although without specifying its nature,29 as does the Eastern Apostolic Canon 6(5): «Let no bishop, priest or deacon send his spouse away under the pretext of piety...», part of a collection of canons, of Syrian or Palestinian origin, which had considerable influence on the Churches of the fifth and sixth centuries. The Byzantine Church, at the end of the seventh century, would interpret this canon as authorizing marital relations.


Continent cohabitation expressed trust in the nobility of human love to combine marital affection with the values of the consecrated clerical state. Paulinus of Nola (d. 431) and Pseudo-Jerome (ca. 417?) indicate a warm spirituality for those embracing this new life.30 Yet the difficulties of the discipline were not unappreciated by the Church authorities. The necessary conditions for this life was a constant concern, Pope Gregory the Great deeming it «harsh and inopportune» (durum atque incompetens) to expect its observance from the unprepared.31 A return to conjugal relations, after all, was often considered to be as serious a sin as adultery,32 the cleric being punished by reduction to the lay state. Councils also occupied themselves with the details of sleeping arrangements to avoid possible scandal to the faithful.33 A shortage of vocations due to the rapid growth of the Church was not to be taken as an excuse for mitigating traditional rules.34 Finally, because of the real possibilities of incontinence, and departing from earlier practice, total physical separation would be recommended35 or even sometimes required.36



Clerical continence in the East


I. Patristic testimonies


Any direct evidence for rules or customs of marital continence in the East comes from patristic writers rather than from Councils. However, one must bear in mind the possible implicit presence of the rule in the tradition of the impediment of orders to contracting marriage. The Persian Church (which was outside the Byzantine Empire and became Nestorian) did, however, legislate, in the late fifth century, explicitly against the practice of clerical marital continence, at the same time authorizing those already in orders to contract marriage. The Council of Mar Acacius (486), which ratified a similar decision of the Council of Beth Lafath (484), recognized the antiquity of these traditions of celibacy, but abrogated them, rather than as in the West, try to reinforce them. The Council did this in an effort to eradicate or regularize clerical incontinence.37 The previous obligatory character of continence is strongly implied, as is the intrinsic relationship between continence and the impediment of orders.


Eusebius of Caesarea, a prominent bishop at the Council of Nicaea, writes in the Demonstratio Evangelica, I, 9 (3 15-325): «It is fitting, according to Scripture, ‘that a bishop be the husband of an only wife’. But this being understood, it behoves consecrated men, and those who are at the service of God’s cult, to abstain thereafter from conjugal intercourse with their wives.» St Jerome, who had a good knowledge of the Eastern Churches, writes to the priest Vigilantius (406): «What would the Eastern Churches do? What would (those of) Egypt and the Apostolic See do, they who never accept clerics unless they are virgins or continent men, or if they had had a wife, (accept them only) if they give up matrimonial life...» (Adversus Vigilantium, 2).


Epiphanius (315-403), born in Palestine and consecrated bishop of Constantia in Cyprus, condemns all forms of encratism but nonetheless insists that priests themselves are required to live continently, as regulated (he believed) by the apostles. Priestly continence is observed, he maintains, wherever the ecclesiastical canons are adhered to, human weakness and the shortage of vocations being inadequate reasons for clergy to contravene the rule.38


Synesius. of Ptolemais, of the Libyan Church, knows that he is expected to live in continence with his wife if made bishop,39 and Palladius the historian reports that a synod presided over by John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople in the year 400, condemned Anton inus, Bishop of Ephesus, for doing what was forbidden by the ‘holy laws’ including resuming common life with his wife.40


Other testimonies to be taken into special account include Origen (d. ca. 253) (23rd homily on Numbers, 6th homily on Leviticus), Ephraem Syrus (Carmina Nisibena, 18 and 19 [ca. 363]), and the Syriac Doctrina Addei (ca. 400).


Caution, of course, has to be exercised in not reading into these texts more than they contain, and one has to recognize that local practices do not necessarily imply a general rule. Furthermore, other tests need to be considered, such as Clement of Alexandria, Stromata III, 12; Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis 12, 25; Athanasius, Letter to Dracontius which do not obviously suggest the possibility of a general rule. Indeed, since the end of the nineteenth century such texts have been used to demonstrate the existence of an early general law of continence in the East. Polemical or confessional interests aside, it can be said that modern tools of scholarship, not available in the past, have allowed doubt to be cast on the certainty of these conclusions too.41



b. Legislation to the seventh century


The only law dealing with continence promulgated at the Council of Nicaea was canon 3, dealing with the categories of women a cleric was permitted to live with. The famous story of Bishop Paphnutius of Egypt, first recounted by the Greek historian Socrates in the mid-fifth century, relates how at the Council a proposal to impose obligatory clerical continence on all the Churches was opposed by the bishop and then rejected.42 But this story has been proved to be a myth, without any historical foundation.43 Socrates’ statement (HE, V, 22) that continence was a voluntary matter in the East, and the bishops were held to no law prohibiting them to continue having children, is likewise unreliable.44


Canon 10 of Ancyra (314) allows the marriage of a deacon if he makes known his desire at ordination, otherwise it is forbidden. This exception was not accepted by the Chalcedonian Christian Churches (Chalcedon [451], c. 14) and recently doubts have been raised over the authenticity of the canon in its present formulation.45 Canon 8 of Neocaesarea (314-325) requires the expulsion from the clerical home of an adulterous wife, yet a similar law was found in the West within the setting of clerical continence.46 Gangra (ca. 340), c. 4, anathematized those who refused to receive communion from a married priest and c. 6 of the Apostolic Canons, from the late fourth century, prohibited sending a wife away under the pretext of piety. Canon 51 (not accepted as authentic in the West) deposed a cleric who kept continence for heretical reasons rather than from ‘personal discipline’. The background to these laws was the rejection of heretical encratism, and nothing certain can be said concerning the authorisation (or otherwise) of marital relations in these canons.


Emperor Justinian, on the other hand, considers priestly continence to be the rule, even if it is not always observed. Writing of those clerics who contract marriage after orders, he states: «...some of them (i.e., priests, deacons, subdeacons) despise the holy canons and beget children from the wives with whom, according to the priestly rule, they are not permitted to have relations.»47 Children born after ordination were declared illegitimate. The Emperor also went further than the ecclesiastical canons in requiring bishops to be without progeny, for fear of alienation of Church property.48 Bishops would thus preferably be chosen from the ranks of unmarried clerics and monks.49 Childless married bishops were to live away from their wives.50


The Quinisext Synod, or Synod ‘in Trullo’ (691), is of very special significance. It followed Justinian in requiring bishops to be separated from their wives (c. 12). This was to be done by common agreement before their consecration, and the wives would enter a monastery where they could become deaconesses (c. 48). The requirement of childlessness was ignored (this was abrogated by Emperor Leo VI two centuries later). Widespread ignorance among clergy of the laws governing marriage is acknowledged and traditional discipline re-asserted (c. 3). But married priests, deacons and subdeacons are authorized to have marital relations, except during the periods when they serve at the altar (c. 13). Priests in ‘barbarian’ lands who live in continence are required to separate from their wives (c. 30). With regard to c. 13, which is of special importance to subsequent tradition, two canonical authorities are invoked to authorize marital relations: c. 6 of the Apostolic Canons (with bishops, however, excluded) and the canons of the Codex Canonum Ecclesiae Africanae, compiled in 419. The Codex, however, is clearly misinterpreted. The canon from the Synod of Carthage (390) which is quoted had declared perpetual continence (...continentes esse in omnibus) to be «what the apostles taught and what antiquity itself has observed». Here it is presented as saying the same of ‘temporary’ continence. The Trullan Synod is regarded in the East as part of the Sixth Ecumenical Council (681-2), thus having supreme legislative authority. It has since remained the definitive statement on clerical marriage. Rome, on the other hand, immediately objected to the canons which were against Western discipline and to this day has not accepted them as belonging to the ecumenical heritage.51


Early motives for clerical continence


The Trullan Synod highlights service at the altar as the dominant motive for clerical continence, even if only practised on a temporary basis. Indeed, the patristic theology of the priesthood, stressing its intercessorial and mediatorial function favoured, on scriptural grounds, a connection between dedicated continence and priestly prayer.52 The abstinence recommended by St Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:5, in order to devote oneself to prayer, was one such scriptural ground. This also figured prominently in the history of married lay spirituality. A further prominent argument, appearing first in the fourth century papal decretals and in St Ambrose, was a counter-argument to the ‘judaizing’ argument of those priests unwilling to embrace continence. These justified their behaviour by calling upon the example of the Levites of the Old Testament. The swift response was that the Christian priesthood was more than a continuation of the Levitical priesthood — it was its perfection, being spiritual and non-hereditary. Hence the a fortiori case: if the Levites practised temporary continence when in the sanctuary, so much more should Christian priests, always ready to serve, practise continence.53


One scriptural quotation notable for its absence in the early texts is the Matthean logion: «eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom» (Mt 19:12), which is never directly applied to priests. This omission suggests an attitude that priestly continence was not to be considered a voluntary perfection of the priestly state, but rather to be an intrinsic characteristic. Pope Siricius (385) called its relation to priesthood ‘indissoluble’54 Subsequent Western canonical tradition, by its refusal to mitigate the law, seems to have displayed a similar conviction.


It is true that, in the patristic age, the marked sense of the transcendence of God led to an anthropology that relativized many of the values of marriage to the things of this world. Relative to the things of God, sexual activity could be described in terms that draw on the vocabulary of Levitical ritualism but which offend the linguistic sensibilities of our own time.55 And yet it would be wrong to see in this use of language a veiled encratism, and in the discipline of priestly continence an attack on marriage. The fact that married men, with sexual experience, were chosen for the ministry showed the Church’s respect towards conjugal values.56 The new exclusive relationship to the Church inherent in the nature of priestly ordination would mean, however, that thenceforth the type of exclusivity implicit in sexual relations had to be renounced.57



The Eastern Churches from the seventh century


The mandatory norms of continence for Byzantine married priests following the Trullan Synod were generally patterned after the norms that then existed for married lay people: one to three days of ‘eucharistic’ continence as well as continence during the periods of fasting.58 Reception of communion was not frequent among the faithful during the Middle Ages; the continence rule also discouraged attempts by married priests to celebrate the Eucharist daily. Non-monastic priests were expected to be married. From the eleventh century norms appear which prohibit the ordination to the parochial ministry of an unmarried man. Those celibates who worked closely with the bishop would be unmarried priests who had taken the monastic profession. Thus arose, in later Russia, the distinction between the ‘black’-(monastic) clergy and the ‘white’ (parochial) clergy. Those married clergy who became widowers were compelled to leave their ministry and enter a monastery. The Synod of Moscow (1666-1667) abrogated this requirement, at the same time authorizing remarriage with reduction to the state of a minor cleric. Bishops, in keeping with the spirit, if not the letter, of Trullan legislation, were chosen from amongst monastic candidates, although, exceptionally, a celibate layman would be ordained after making monastic profession.


More research is needed to understand properly the developments in the non-Chalcedonian Churches under Islamic rule. It is reasonable to assume, however, that whilst under Byzantine rule imperial legislation was required to be observed. By the High Middle Ages a tradition had developed in the Coptic Church of ordaining children to the diaconate. They were permitted to marry after reaching puberty. The Nestorians, who were outside the Empire, continued from the fifth century to have a married clergy not bound to strict continence. All Orthodox Churches today have a married clergy.


The Eastern Churches in union with Rome followed the norms of temporary continence appropriate to each respective tradition. The ordination of unmarried men was encouraged by the Eastern hierarchies, bishops also being selected from non-monastic candidates. The discipline of temporary continence has been largely ignored in the twentieth century, presumably because of the assimilation to contemporary Roman Catholic practice of daily Eucharist. Special decrees have been issued by the Holy See in respect to married clergy outside the territory of origin of their Church, and the present law is found in the Codex Canonum Ecclesiarum Orientalium.



The Western Church from the seventh century


From the seventh century to the time of the Gregorian Reform and the legislation of the Lateran Councils, Church authorities made constant efforts to reform clerical mores. The whole fabric of clerical life, not just the life of continence, was deeply affected by the new social structures and changed conditions that followed the disintegration of imperial organization. The tone of the disciplinary measures taken by the hierarchy was that of conservation and reformation, not innovation. Canonical collections, such as the Dionysiana, were circulated widely, reminding bishops of the discipline of earlier centuries. Some over-zealous reformers skilfully fabricated a number of texts, claiming they had been lost, to add even greater weight to the existing sources. These formed part of the Pseudo-Isidorian Forgeries (ca. 850), the decretals of which had particular influence. They were accepted because of the widely-held conviction that they corresponded to the spirit of traditional legislation. Penitential books and the Capitularies of the Frankish bishops also expressed the need to conserve established discipline, as did the rulings of many regional councils and diocesan synods as well as the interventions of the popes.59 Patristic sources are sometimes quoted by councils and some, such as the Council of Metz (888) and the Council of Mainz (888), prohibited cohabitation even with wives living in continence.


The Gregorian Reform, enthusiastically encouraged by the monasteries, was a systematic effort to strike at the roots of abuses in the Church. It was directed against simony, ‘Nicolaitism’ (priests living in marriage) and also lay investiture. The success of the Reform was largely due to the uninhibited exercise of papal authority, by Gregory VII and his successors, over the bishops who had allowed traditional discipline to be ignored or forgotten. This period is also characterized by the appearance of theoretical attacks on priestly celibacy, with corresponding counter-arguments: the libelli de lite. One argument used by the opponents to the reform was the story of Paphnutius at the Council of Nicaea. Gregory VII condemned this at the Roman Synod of 1077 as a falsification of history.


Of the numerous synods convoked throughout Europe during the eleventh and twelfth centuries to enforce with rigour the neglected law, the most notable are the First Lateran Council (1123) and the Second Lateran Council (1139), considered as ecumenical in Roman tradition. Lateran I made into general law the prohibition of cohabiting with wives (c. 7). Lateran II, c. 7, reiterating the declaration of the Council of Pisa (1135), also declared marriages contracted subsequent to ordination to be not only prohibited, but non-existent (... matrimonium non esse censemus). At times, this Council is wrongly interpreted as having introduced for the first time the general law of celibacy, with only unmarried men being admitted to the priesthood. Yet what the Council was doing, in a more pointed way, was re-emphasizing the law of continence (... ut autem lex continentiae et Deo placens munditia in ecciesiasticis personis et sacris personis dilatetur...)60 Subsequent legislation, however, continues to deal with questions relating to married men ordained secundum legem, not contra legem.


The principle sources for this legislation are the Quinque Compilationes Antiquae and the decretals of Gregory IX. These decretals form part of the Corpus Iuris Canonici, a work completed in the fourteenth century and which influenced law-making until the appearance of the 1917 Code of Canon Law. From these sources, we learn that from the time of Alexander III (1159-1181) married men were not, as a rule, allowed to have ecclesiastical benefices; a lower cleric who married would have his benefice withdrawn, but not his right to subdiaconate ordination on the condition that he discontinues his marital life. A son of a priest (considered legitimate if born before ordination) was prohibited from succeeding to his father’s benefice. Young wives and the wives of bishops were to agree at the time of ordination to enter a convent.61 The rights of the wife were also protected.


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.62 One of the factors that must have contributed to the eventual universal practice of ordaining only unmarried men would have been the assumption that a wife would not want to give up her marital rights. Hence the irregularitas ex defectu libertatis of a married man, which became a formal impediment (impedimentum simplex) only in the twentieth century with the promulgation of the Codex Iuris Canonici (1917), was not due to the marriage bond per se. It was due to this assumption of unwillingness and inability to separate. From 1917, all cases of dispensation from the impediment were reserved to the Holy See. But those receiving dispensation were not authorized by that fact to continue with marital relations.63


The decretals and other parts of the Corpus Iuris Canonici provided the guidelines for synodal activity, concubinage being a persistent problem for the authorities. Opposition to the law of the Church was not lacking and occasionally well-respected figures argued for a mitigation of the law to help solve the problems of clerical indiscipline (Panormitanus, at the time of the Council of Basle [1417-1437], for example). The example of the practice of the East was given as a precedent, although it is unlikely that there was a proper understanding of this discipline.64 Similar calls for mitigation were heard at the time of the Reformation. They included humanists such as Erasmus, theologians such as Cajetan de Vio, and secular authorities with pragmatic and political aims in mind: Charles V, Ferdinand I, Maximilian II. The crisis precipitated by the Reformers was doctrinal as well as disciplinary. Zwingli and Martin Luther made the abolition of clerical celibacy a key element to their reform, but this was also related to the dismantling of the traditional theology of the sacramental priesthood.


In the third and final period of the Council of Trent (1562-3), and despite considerable pressures, all suggestions that the Catholic Church should modify and mitigate its rules of celibacy were rejected. In Session XXIV on 11 November 1563, the Fathers upheld the prohibition of clerical marriage (c. 9), adding (concerning the difficulties): «For God would not deny the gift to those who duly ask for it (the gift of chastity), nor allow us to be tempted beyond our strength.» They also rejected the thesis that the marital state should be considered better than that of celibacy (c. l0).65 The Council, in Session XXIII, also voted in favour of founding seminaries to prepare candidates from their youth for the celibate life. The discipline of continence by this time had meant in practice that only an unmarried man would be ordained. This is also shown in the discussions of the Council, for example when one theologian, Desiderius de S. Martino, concerned by the shortage of priests, suggested the possibility of ordaining married men provided the wives gave consent and that they and their husbands lived in continence. But the measure was not deemed expedient.66


The decrees of the Council were not immediately accepted in all nations but with time they did bring about a general observance of the law of celibacy, thanks in no small measure to their provisions for the better training of the clergy. The Enlightenment brought fresh assaults against clerical celibacy and after the First Vatican Council, the Old Catholics, separating themselves from Rome, abolished the rule. Despite the pressures on the Catholic Church to relax the law of celibacy, it has always resisted. Pope Benedict XV declared, in his Consistorial Allocution of 16 December 1920, that the Church considered celibacy to be of such importance that it could never abolish it.67 Following Vatican II, the Church has made an exception for married deacons of mature age and for individual former non-Catholic clergymen, following a precedent set by Pope Pius XII.68






1. For example Pope Hormisdas (5 14-23), father to Pope Silverius, his successor.

2. Canons of Gregory the Illuminator, c. 2. A. Mai, Scriptorum veterum nova collectio, X, 2 (Rome 1838), p. 269.

3. Apostolic Constitutions, VI, 17; Apostolic Canons. c. 26 (27).

4. Socrates, Historia Ecclesiastica, 1, 2 (Ca. 440); Council of Mar Acacius (486), c. 3; Emperor Justinian, Novella 6 (535), chap. 5; Council in Trullo (691), c. 6.

5. Origen, Homilia in Lucam, 17; Contra Celsum 111, 48; Tertullian, Ad Uxorem, 1, 7; Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 111, 12; Ambrose, Ep. 63. 62-63; Jerome, Adversus Jovinianum, 1, 34; John Chrysostom, In Epist. ad Timotheum I, Ill, X, 1-2; Augustine, De Bono Coniug., 18; Epiphanius, Adv. Haer., 59,4; Apostolic Canons, c. 17.

6. Theordoret of Cyrrhus, Ep. 110 to Domnus of Antioch. Theodore of Mopsuestia, In Epist. ad Timotheum I, III, 2.

7. Second marriage was always thought of in the early Church as being a concession to incontinence. Some Fathers also interpreted «man of one wife» as being propter continentiam futuram; Siricius, Cum in unum decretal (Ad episcopos Africae); Ambrose, Ep. 63, 63; Ambrosiaster, In Epist. ad Timotheum 1, 111, 12-13; Epiphanius, Adv. Haer., 59, 4.

8. Refutatio omnium haeresium, IX, 12, 22: GCS 26, 249-50.

9. CSEL 50, 414.

10. Epist. ad Rusticum Narbonensem episcopum, Inquis, III., Resp. PL 54, 1 204a.

11. Ad uxorem, 1,6.

12. Jerome, Ep. 49, 2; 49, 5; Augustine, De Coniug. Adult., 11, 18 (19), 19 (20).

13. Cf Athanasius, Letter to Dracontius, PG 25, 532d-33b.

14. lrenaeus, Adv. haer., 28,1; Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 111; Council of Gangra (Ca. 340), cc. 1, 4, 9; Epiphanius, Adv. Haer., 48; 59; Augustine, De Bono Coniug., etc. Useful introductions to this theme include AA. VV., Etica sessuale e matrimonio nel cristianesimo delle origini, Studia part. Mediol. 5, Milan 1976, and P. Brown, The body and society: men, women and sexual renunciation in early Christianity, New York — Columbia 1988.

15. Canon 20 reads in part: «If there are persons who wish to renounce the world and follow the monastic life along with their relatives, the men should go off to a male monastery and their wives enter a female monastery, for God is surely pleased with this.» N. Tanner SJ (ed), Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, vol.1 Sheed & Ward —‘Georgetown U.P. 1990, pp. 153-4.

16. De Coniug. Adult., 11,20(21); 18(19).

17. «Placuit in totum prohibere episcopis presbyteris et diaconibus positis in ministerio abstinere se a coniugibus suis et non generare filios; quicumque vero fecerit, ab honore clericatus exterminetur», G. Martinez Díez & F. Rodríguez, La colección canónica hispana, Madrid 1984), IV, p. 253.

18. Corpus Christianorum . Series Latina, (from now on CC) 148, 25.

19. «The question is not one of ordering new precepts, but we wish through this letter to have people observe those that either through apathy or laziness on the part of some have been neglected. They are, however, matters that have been established by apostolic constitution, and, by a constitution of the Fathers.» Cum in unum (Ad episcopos Africae):

PL 13, 11 56a. P. Coustant, Epistolae Romanorum Pontificum Paris 1721, p. 562. The African Church declared obligatory continence to be «...what the apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed...», CC 149, p. 13. The important study by Christian Cochini SJ should be noted: The Apostolic origins of priestly celibacy (trans. Nelly Marans), Ignatius Press/San Francisco 1990 (original French version: Origines apostoliques du célibat sacerdotale, Lethielleux/Paris 1981).

20. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata. III, 6; Tertullian, De Monogamia, 8, 4; Jerome, Apologeticum ad Pammachium, Ep. 49(48), 2, 21; Eusebius of Caesarea, Demonstratlo evangelica, 111, 4, 37; Isidore of Pelusium, Ep. 111, 176.

21. E.g. Tours 1 (46): CC 148, 143; Agde (506): CC 148, 196; Orl6ans (549): CC 148 A, 149; Lyons (538): CC 148 A, 232.

22. ArIes 11(442-506), cc. 2,3,43,44. CC 148, 114, 122-3.

23. Cf Orange (441), c. 21. CC 148,84.

24. Tours (567), cc. 13 (12), 20 (19). CC 148 A, 180-1, 183-4. Auxerre (561-605), c. 21. Ibid., 268.

25. Girona (517), c. 6. H.T. Bruns, Canones Apostolorum et Conciliorum saeculorum IV-VII, Berlin, 1839,11, 19. Clermont (535), c. 13. CC 148 A, 108. Tours (567), c. 13. Ibid., 180-1.

26. Agde (506), c. 16 «...etiam uxorum voluntas ita requirenda est...». CC 148, 201. Toledo 11(531), c. 1. Bruns, 1,207-8.

27. Toledo 1(400), c. 18; Epaon (517), c. 32; Autun (589), C. 22; Bruns, 1, 206; 11171 (= CC 148 A, 32-3), 239. Cf the same law in the Armenian Council of Chahabivan (444), c. 2. Mai, X, 2, 292.

28. Epist. ad Rusticum Narbonensem episcopum, Inquis., III Resp. PL 54, 1204a.

29. C’odex Theodosianus, 1, 2; Codex Justinianus, 1, 3, 19.

30. Ep. 44. CSEL 29,372-7. De Septem Ordinibus Ecclesiae. PL 30,1 59c-d.

31. Ep. 1,42 (a. 591). Monumenta Germaniae Historica (MGH), Gregorii I Papae registrum epistolarum, I, Berlin 1891), p. 67.

32. Cf Jerome, Adversus Jovinianum, I, 34. Penitential books of the eighth century would regularly use the language of adultery. Thus, the Parisiense, c. 113: Si quis clericus vel superioris gradus uxorem habuerit et post clericatum eum agnoverit, sciat se adulterium commisisse. H.J. Schmitz, Die Bußbücher und die Bußdisziplin der Kirche, Mainz, 1883, 1, 693.

33. E.g., Oréans (541), c. 17. CC 148 A, 136; Tours (567), c. 20(19). Ibid., 183-4.

34. ArIes IV (524). CC 148 A, 43-4.

35. Toledo 111 (589), c. 5. Bruns, 1, 214.

36. Lyons (583), c. I. CC 148 A, 232.

37. J.B. Chabot, Synodicon orientale, Paris 1902, pp. 303-6.

38. Adv. Haer., 48, 9; 59,4; Expositio Fidei, 21.

39. Ep. 105 (ca. 410).

40. Dialogue on the l~fe of Saint John Chrvsostom (408). PG .47, 48a-9a.

41. The very balanced work of Cochini, op. cit., which challenges the conclusions of scholars such as Funk, Leclercq, Vacandard and Gryson, shows the care with which interpretation has to proceed.

42. Historia Ecciesiastica, 1, 11. PG 67, 101 b-4b.

43. F. Winklemann, «Paphnutios, der Bekenner und Bishof». Probleme der koptischen Literatur = ‘Wissenschaftliche Beitrage de Martin-Luther-Universitat Halle-Wittenberg 1968, 1 (K2), pp. 145-53. Cf H.G. Beck, in Byzantinische Zeitschrft 62(1969), p. 159; W. Gessel in Annuarium Historiae Conciliorum 2(1970), pp. 422-23. G. Denzler, Das Papsttum and der Antizölibat, I, Stuttgart 1973), pp. 9-10. R. Gryson, «Dix ans de recherches sur les origines du célibat ecclésiastique», Revue Théoiogique de Louvain 11(1980), pp. 164-5.

44. Cochini, Apostolic origins, pp. 320-2.

45. Ibid., pp. 169-177.

46. E.g., Elvira (ca. 305), c. 65; Braga 11(572), c. 28.

47. To the prefect Julian, 18 October 530: Codex Justinianus 1, 3, 44. Cf Novella 6 (535), chap. 5.

48. To the prefect Atarbius, 1 March 528: ~J 1, 3,41.

49. Novella 6, chap. I.

50. Novella 123 (546), chap. 29.

51. On the canons of the Trullan Synod and subsequent Eastern legislation, cf R. Cholij, Clerical celibacy in East and West, Leominster, Fowler Wright/Gracewing 1989 (reprint of «Married clergy and ecclesiastical continence in light of the Council in Trullo (691)», Annuarium Historiae Conciliorum 19 (1987), 71-230; 241-299).

52. Cf Origen, Homily on Numbers, XXIII, 3; Siricius, ‘Directa’ decretal: Ad Himerium Tarraconensem; Ambrosiaster, In Epist. ad Timotheum I; Synod of Carthage (390); St Ephraem, Carmina Nisibena, XVIII; Pope Innocent I, Epist., ad Victricium episcopum Rothomagensem, IX.

53. Siricius, Directa decretal, PL 13, 11 38a-39a, P. Coustant, Epistolae, pp. 629-31, Ambrose, De officiis ministrorum, PL 16, 104b-5a.

54. Ibid 11 39a.

55. In the Ad Gallos episcopos or Doininus Inter decretal, the Roman Pontiff (Innocent or Damasus?) states: «...if intercourse is defiling (pollutio), it is obvious that the priest must be ready to carry out his celestial functions so that he himself not be found impure», PL 13, 11 86a; P. Coustant, Epistolac, pp. 691.

56. Cf Ambrosiaster, Quaestiones Veteris et Novi Testamenti, 127. CSEL 50, 414-5. The author explains the relative nature of the concept of ‘impurity’.

57. The Church becomes a spiritual wife. Pseudo-Jerome, De septein ordinibus Ecclesiae; cf Ephraem, Carmina Nisibena, XIX; Chalcedon (451), c. 14 (sixth century rubric): N. Tanner, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, I, p. 98.

58. For a fuller discussion on the matters raised in this section, cf R. Cholij, Clerical celibacy in East and West, pp. 106-179.

59. A.M. (Card.) Stickler, The evolution of the discipline of celibacy in the Western Church from the end of the patristic era to the Council of Trent, I. Coppens (ed.), Priesthood and celibacy, Milan/Rome 1971, pp. 503-597 (transl. from Sacerdoce et céllibat: Etudes historiques et théologiques (BibI. Eph. Theol. Lay.), Louvain 1971).

60. N. Tanner, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, I, p. 198. For a more detailed treatment of the significance of the Lateran canons, cf R. Cholij, «De lege coelibatus sacerdotalis: nova investigationis elementa», Periodica de re morali canonica liturgica, 78 (1989), pp. 157-185.

61. X, III, 32, c. 6. The main sections of the decretals to be consulted are: Liber Ill, tit. 1 (De vita et honestate clericorum), tit. 2 (De cohabitatione clericorum et mulierum), tit. 3 (De clericis coniugatis), tit. 32 (De conversione coniugatorum), Liber IV, tit. 6 (Qui clerici vel voventes matri,noniu,n contrahere possunt).

62. Extravagantes Joannis XXII, VI, de voto et voti redemptione, cap. un.

63. B. Ojetti, Commentarium in Codicem luris Canonici, Rome/P.U.G., 1930), 11, pp. 103-109; M.C. a Coronata, Compendium luris Canonici (Turin/Rome, Marietti, 1949 III, pp. 327-8; F. Capello, Summa luris Canonici Rome/P.U.G. 1951,), II, pp. 277-8.

64. The Decretum Gratiani, part of the Corpus Iuris Canonici, gave inaccurate information on the background to Eastern discipline. Cho1ij, Clerical celibacy, pp. 63-4.

65. N. Tanner, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, II, p. 755.

66. Concilium Tridentinum Diariorum, Friburgi Brisgoviae 1924), IX, vi, p.441.

67. Acta Apostolicae Sedis 12 (1920), p. 585.

68. For the implications in present law, cf R. Cholij, «Observaciones críticas acerca de los cánones que tratan sobre el celibato en el Código de Derecho Can6nico de 1983», lus Canonicum 31(1991), pp. 291-305.