Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Celibacy Dates Back to the Apostles

by Fr. Anthony Zimmerman, STD


Fr. Zimmerman analyzes some of the early Church documents of the Fathers, Popes, and Councils that reveal a commonly held belief that the tradition of celibacy goes back to the apostles.

Publisher & Date

Human Life International, 1994

Christ, by remaining celibate, wrote Pope Paul VI, signified his total dedication to the service of God and men (The Celibacy of the Priest, June 24, 1967). If Christ found celibacy to be central to His service of God and man, we should not be surprised if He finds the same to be central to the lives of His priests; to those who act in Persona Christi.

The Gospel texts do not spell out in so many words that the apostles, in the company of Christ, instinctively adopted celibacy as their new lifestyle; that they relinquished the use of marital rights, if they were married. Documents of the young Church affirm, however, that clerical celibacy started with the apostles.

If we first inform ourselves about celibacy in the early Church from non-Scriptural documents, and thereafter read again pertinent passages of the Gospel, I think we read about celibacy in the Gospel too, at least between the lines. For example, the Gospel according to St. Luke first tells about Peter's marriage by mentioning his mother-in-law (Lk 4:38); then later Luke weaves in the passage about leaving wife and children behind:

Then Peter said, "We have given up our possessions and followed you." (Jesus) said to them, "Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not receive [back] an overabundant return in this present age and eternal life in the age to come" (Lk 18:28-30).

When I read the passage, I find myself believing that Peter and the rest had either already given up possessions and wife and children, or they were making up their minds gradually to do this. If that were not the case, the passage would lack the otherwise smooth flow and logic of St. Luke's masterful style and context. Luke constantly challenges us to read between the lines. The parallel passages of Mt 19:29 and Mk 10:29 mention leaving children behind, but not a wife. Why? Perhaps because some of the women who later accompanied apostles on their journeys were their wives. Paul describes such a companion in 1 Cor 9:5 as adelphaen gynaika, a "sister-woman" or "sister-wife." Paul thus delineates the brother-sister relationship of these apostolic teams, as we shall see.

At any rate, early Church documents of Fathers, Popes, and Councils reveal a commonly held belief that the tradition of celibacy goes back to the apostles. We shall quote and analyze some of the documents. Recently it is more fashionable to claim that obligatory celibacy for the clergy began only in the 4th century, with Pope St. Siricius (384-399). But as we shall see, Pope Siricius was affirming a norm already fixed long before his time in the tradition; he was not at all innovating a new norm.

In the meantime the book Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy appeared, which argues cogently from the sources that the tradition of clerical celibacy began with the apostles. If that is true, then opponents of obligatory celibacy oppose not the pope, but the twelve apostles. The book, written by Christian Cochini, S.J. (translated from French, Ignatius Press, 1990), merited this remarkable encomium from the late Henry Cardinal de Lubac: "This work is of the first importance. It is the result of serious and extensive research. There is nothing even remotely comparable to this work in this whole 20th century." And Curator of the Vatican Library, Fr. Alfons M. Stickler (later Cardinal) wrote: "This authoritative work is fully in accordance with the tradition of the Society of Jesus in the area of high-level scientific apostolate" (Foreword to Cochini's book). In what follows I draw my materials mainly from this book.

Saint Epiphanius of Salamis (ca.315-403)

Saint Epiphanius, probably born near Gaza in Palestine around 315, lived during the entire span of the rest of the 4th century, and died at age 88 in the year 403. While still young he acquired a knowledge of Greek, Syriac, Hebrew, Coptic and some Latin. He traveled to visit some of the great monasteries of nearby Egypt, and then, around 335, founded his own monastery in his homeland in Palestine over which he presided for thirty years. He gained a great reputation for learning and sanctity, and this induced the Bishops of Cyprus to select him as the Bishop of Constantia, which was Salamis when Paul made his first missionary journey to Cyprus. He was bishop there from 377 until his death in 403.

St. Epiphanius was a towering figure in the Church during the dramatic 4th century, when the Church emerged from its customary persecution and enjoyed a new-found civic freedom. It was the century of Nicea, when in 325 the Fathers intoned the "Deum de Deo, Lumen de Lumine, Deum verum, de Deo vero," defining Christ's divinity once and for all. Though Arianism prevailed in much of the Church for some decades thereafter, the Council of Constantinople put the final nail into its coffin in the East in 381, and Ambrose (ca. 339-397) gave it the coup de grace in the West.

In 377, the year in which Epiphanius was consecrated bishop, he finished his book Panarion, in which he tabulated eighty heresies; in it he gave priceless testimony about priestly celibacy as we shall see shortly. He had an encyclopedic mind, was a sharp controversialist, made great friends with the pillars of the Church of his day as well as enemies. For example, he traveled to Jerusalem, out of his diocese, and there engaged Bishop John of Jerusalem in a titanic debate; the two Bishops opposed each other in thunderings from the pulpit in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; Bishop Epiphanius denounced Origen as an arch-heretic, whereas Bishop John defended him as orthodox. St. Jerome, listening to both, was converted then and there from being a follower of Origen to become now his opponent. As a result, the book burning of Origen's works took place and many of his precious works were lost forever. St. Epiphanius had traveled to Rome with Saint Jerome years before this. St. Jerome, at that time, had become the secretary of Pope Damascus, and was disappointed when he was not elected to succeed him. All this shows that St. Epiphanius had his fingers on the pulse of the Church during this dramatic period (see Johannes Quasten, Patrology IV, 215-217).

Because Epiphanius engaged in sometimes acerbic controversy with the great ones of his time, we can well imagine that his enemies would have gleefully exposed him had he given wrong testimony about the then prevailing norm concerning priestly celibacy. He had a sweeping knowledge of affairs of his time, as witnessed by his writing of the Panarion. The first twenty heresies he denounces are all of the pre-Christian period. The first Christian heresy he describes and opposes is that of Simon Magus; he made use of the writings of St. Irenaeus of Lyons and of others for his materials; the last of the heresies in his list is that of the contemporary Malawians, who would be officially condemned at the Council of Ephesis in 431, after Epiphanius had passed away. The Bishops of Cyprus, as indicated above, were so impressed by his learning that they asked him to become a fellow bishop on their island. What he says in the Pearson is that clerical celibacy dates back to the time of the apostles, and that it remains as the norm for the Church ever since. Here, then, is an illustration of what he says about clerics and continence:

Since the Incarnation of Christ, the holy Word of God does not admit to the priesthood the monogamists who, after the death of their wives, have contracted a second marriage ...And it is observed by the Holy Church of God with great exactitude and without fail. But the man who continues to live with his wife and to sire children is not admitted by the Church as a deacon, priest, or bishop, even if he is the husband of an only wife. And [only he can be admitted to be deacon, priest, or bishop] who having been monogamous, observes continence or is a widower. [This is observed] especially where the ecclesiastical canons are exact" (GAS 31, 367; Cochini, 229).

Epiphanius testifies about a practice of the Church which, he says, started with the Incarnation of Christ. God Himself, he says in the passage, does not admit to the priesthood men who have re-married, by reason of the exceptional honor due to the priesthood. And the Church, he continues, admits married monogamists whose wives are with them, but only on condition that they observe continence.

The practice of the 4th century to which St. Epiphanius testifies is in accord with the instructions of Paul to Timothy (1 Tim 3:2-5) and to Titus (Tit 1:5-6). That is, "A bishop may be married only once." But Epiphanius adds what Paul had not spelt out there, namely that the married man who is to be ordained bishop must practice continence as a condition for ordination. Such is the norm where the canons of the Church are observed exactly, Epiphanius tells us. The Canons of the Church of which he speaks must be understood in the context of the 4th century: they are not yet a written Code of Canon Law; rather they are methods of procedure followed by those in authority who make the decisions about who is to be admitted to ordination. The "Canons" referred to by Epiphanius, then, are traditions which Church administrators were expected to follow.

St. Jerome observes that the works of Epiphanius "were eagerly read by the learned, on account of their subject matter, and also by the plain people, on account of their language" (De Air. Ill. 114). We saw above that Epiphanius had his fingers on what was going on in the Church at his time; the information he gives that the Church was ordaining married men, but only on condition that they give up marital intercourse from the time of ordination, cannot be wrong. Other sources tell us the same thing, and do not contradict Epiphanius. From other sources we know that there was usually a time of probation before ordination, during which the ordinand and his wife could test themselves, and the ordaining prelate could examine their fitness.

But St. Epiphanius was not blind to the reality of offenses against this norm being committed in the 4th century. He wrote: "But you will surely ask [tell me]: in certain places there are priests, deacons, and subdeacons who are still begetting children. This is not done in conformity with the 'canon' but because men are now letting themselves go, and given the multitude [of the faithful], there are not enough ministers" (GAS 31,367-368; Cochini 230).

We ask why the discipline of clerical celibacy was not observed rigorously everywhere at the time of St. Epiphanius. We recall that during this stormy post-Nice period Arians were unseating orthodox bishops everywhere, after stirring up riots with ruffians and then calling in the Imperial army to quell the riots and install the Arian bishop. Bishops and clergy were inclined to take the law into their own hands. We rightly admire the clergy who remained faithful, who preserved the general norm of celibacy despite the defections, despite the trying times. Defections, then as now, served to sharpen the profile of the general norm.

To answer objections against the tradition of ordaining married men who promise to live celibately, Epiphanius wrote a defense. One reason why the Holy Catholic Church ordains married men, he wrote, is to demonstrate her esteem for the state of the married life. The Church is not at all narrow-minded, is by no means opposed to marriage, as the Coauthors are, wrote the saint. She admits married monogamists to the priesthood, as well as virgins and widows; these married men then renounce the use of marital intercourse as a condition for ordination. In this practice the apostles followed the lead of Christ; the Church today, continued Epiphanius, wisely and in a holy manner, follows the regulation instituted by the apostles that continence is to be observed by all the clergy, including the clergy who are married. "The Word of God (chose) former monogamists practicing continence ... (as well as) men living continually in virginity; his apostles regulated with wisdom and sanctity the ecclesiastical canon of the priesthood in that same way" GAS 31, 231; see Cochini,227).

Christ, then, according to Epiphanius, selected alternative lifestyles as being compatible with the priesthood: and by honoring these various lifestyles with the glory of the priesthood, Christ honored these different states of life. He chose virgins for the priesthood, on the one hand, to give honor to virginity; and He chose monogamists for the priesthood on the other hand — those who thenceforth practiced continence — to honor marriage. It was Christ who selected priests in this manner, testified Epiphanius, and the apostles followed this precedent of Christ by doing as He had shown them; that is, by ordaining virgins to the priesthood, and by ordaining also married monogamists who choose to embrace continence. This very significant testimony of Epiphanius reveals what must have been the general conviction of the Church at his time; namely that Christ admitted to the priesthood both virgins and married men; that the married men whom Christ admitted to the priesthood ceased exercising conjugal life; and that the apostles followed this precedent shown to them by Christ, by making celibacy the norm for the clergy in the Church.

In another passage Epiphanius allows us to see his great esteem for virginity, which he shared with the believers of his time. He regarded virginity as a great spiritual dynamism which nourishes and supports the Christian people at their spiritual roots; he relates that very many contemporary Christians, men and women, were living a virginal life, the state most highly esteemed and honored by believers at his time. Next in rank to virgins, he writes, are those living a solitary life [also celibates]; then numerous monks and contemplative of both sexes [celibates living a common life]; next in rank are continence, and widowhood; and finally marriage lived in sanctity. All of these ranks are esteemed in the Church and honored by her. But then comes the crowning of the structure of the Church, which is none other than the priestly order; Epiphanius salutes the priestly order as the nurturing mother of the Church: "The crowning of all these, or if one wishes, the mother and the one who gives them life, is the holy priesthood, whose dynamic force comes in great part from the virgins [who are priests]" (GAS 37, 522; Cochini 232). The priesthood, then is the crown and glory of the Church, he says; and what supplies the priesthood with its spiritual power is largely the dynamism of the state of virginity of its members. In the context he includes the continence of the married priests after ordination as part of this dynamism. Such is the insight of the great St. Epiphanius, a towering figure of the 4th century.

Priests and deacons are recruited, continues Epiphanius, as the need for them is indicated, first from among virgins, then monks, then monogamists, in that hierarchy of preference:

When there are not enough virgins [they are recruited] among the monks; if there are not enough monks for the ministry [they are recruited] among men who observe continence with their wives or among the exmonogamists who are widowers; but ... admitting a re-married man to the priesthood is not permitted; even if he observes continence or is a widower, [he is not admitted to] the Order of the bishops, priests, deacons, and subdeacons (see ibid.).

In the passage we note that continence is esteemed as the determining quality for the selection of the clergy at the time of St. Epiphanius. Fr. Cochini observes that "through the hierarchical ordering of the possible candidates to the priesthood — first the virgins, then the monks, and lastly the monogamists ready to observe continence — Epiphanius does indeed stress the prevailing importance that the Church granted to" perfect chastity. "The continence demanded from the moment of ordination is thus placed within the large movement gathering all the living forces of the Christian community toward the ideal of virginity...and, beyond virginity ... toward the sacred priesthood." The obligation of celibacy "no longer appears as a strange demand ... but as a luminous border of a zone lit at its center by virginity," as a condition for "participation in a peerless, enviable state ... rather than an arbitrary constraint imposed ... as a superhuman burden" (Cochini 232-233). In other words, the 4th century Church, newly emerged from the catacombs, esteemed the priesthood as the highest glory of the Church; and this Church, ever young, made continence the narrow gateway through which she strictly required all candidates for the priesthood to pass; she left no other detour open to reach the priesthood, no other way to reach it, than a pledge of lifetime continence.

Other Witness to the Tradition of Celibacy

Allow me to provide a fast-moving kaleidoscope of witnesses to the practice of clerical celibacy during the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries; time does not allow us to analyze the passages at leisure, but the abundance of prominent witnesses should leave no doubt in our minds that clerical celibacy was so firmly and so universally established at the time, that the Church simply took it for granted that this is how it must be.

CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA (died ca. 215) believed that Paul was married and took his wife with him during his apostolic ministry. But he believes that Paul must have lived with her as brother and sister, without marital intercourse. Clement says this because he also believed that the other apostles, if they were married, did not have conjugal intercourse with their wives. If the apostles did take a woman with them during their ministry, he states, "women were not treated as wives but as sisters, to serve as interpreters with women whose duties kept them within their homes, and in order that, through these intermediaries, the doctrine of the Lord could penetrate the women's quarters without the apostles being blamed or unjustly suspected by people of ill will" (GAS 52, 220; Cochini, 80).

AMBROSIASTER (ca. 366-84) reminds us that Christ did not desist from choosing Peter as chief of the apostles just because Peter had a wife and children; in the same manner the Church chooses married men today as priests. But, Ambrosiaster adds, the apostles lived in perfect continence with their wives; following this precedent, he continues, priests today do not have intercourse with their wives (CSEL 50, 414-16; Cochini 82).

ST. AMBROSE (333-397), one of the four "great" doctors of the Church, urged his priests to persevere in perfect chastity: "You who have received the grace of the sacred ministry in an integral body and with an incorruptible purity and who are alien to the conjugal community itself know that the ministry must be immune from offense and stain and must not be subjected to any injuries from possible conjugal relations. ...Learn, O priest, O deacon ... to present your pure body to the celebration of the mysteries" (PL 16, 104b-5a; Cochini 236).

ST. AUGUSTINE (354-430), another of the great doctors, urged husbands, when separated from their wives by force of circumstances, to live chastely. To encourage them he tells about the members of the clergy who were ordained against their will (inviti), but who kept the rule of chastity thereafter, as imposed on them by ordination. He recalled how Ambrose had been elected suddenly as bishop, and how he himself was made bishop of Hippo. And once ordained the obligation to practice continence followed:

That is why we inspire these men ... (and) give them as an example the continence of these clerics who were frequently forced against their wills to carry such a burden. Nevertheless, as soon as they have accepted it, they carry it, faithful to their duty until death. ...If a great number of the Lord's ministers accepted all of a sudden and without warning the yoke imposed on them, in the hope of receiving a more glorious place in Christ's inheritance, how much more should you avoid adultery and embrace continence, for fear, not of shining less in the Kingdom of God, but of burning in the Gehenna of fire" (CSEL 41, 409; Cochini 289-290).

ISIDORE OF PELUSIUM (died ca. 435) wrote to Deacon Isidore explaining 1 Cor 9:5: If women accompanied the apostles, "it was not in order to procreate children or to lead with them a common life but, in truth, to assist them with their goods, to take care of feeding the heralds of poverty." If Paul called them sister-women, it is "because by the word 'sister' he wanted to show that they were chaste, while describing their nature with the word 'women'" (PG 78, 865d-68c; Cochini 81). Note here his interpretation of the "sister-woman" passage of 1 Cor 9:5; Paul, says Isidore, used the term to indicate a brother-sister relationship.

I pause here to observe that some contemporary translators use the word wife in this passage. The New Catholic Study Bible, for example, reads like this: "Don't I have the right to follow the example of the other apostles and the Lord's brothers and Peter, by taking a Christian wife with me on my trips?" That translation is misleading. Scripture professionals of the early Church beg to differ. Clement of Alexandria (died ca. 215), Tertullian (died ca. 220), Jerome (died ca.420), Isidore of Pelusium (died ca. 435) and others, all state that Paul refers here to a brother-sister relationship (see Cochini 81 ff.).

May I add that if we look at the passage in context, Paul argues here not about conjugal life, but about a right to receive support for his living from the community, by reason of his apostolic work; support which would include meals and other services. He forgoes that right voluntarily, he says, out of a feeling that he wishes to be a burden to no one. The context is not at all about conjugal relations, but about services provided by a "sister-woman," or if you will, a "sister-wife" (adelphaen gynaika). Today we would call her a housekeeper. A correct translation reveals that Paul refers here to sister-companions or sister-wives of the apostles: if the actual wives of the apostles went with them, they went as sister-women, not as conjugal partners.

COUNCIL OF ELVIRA (ca. 305): Canons 27 and 33 of this Council show clearly that clerical celibacy was in force in Spain at the beginning of the 4th century, even before Constantine won the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312, and extended religious freedom to the Empire by the Edict of Milan in 313.

Can. 27: A bishop, or any priest at all, may have with him only a sister or a virgin daughter dedicated to God; it is decided that he by no means have a stranger.

Can. 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 (trans. of Deferrari, the Sources of Catholic Dogma; DS 52 b and c).

Note that the 19 Bishops present at this early Council at the beginning of the 4th century, and the 24 priests, and an unrecorded number of deacons and lay people, give no impression whatsoever that they are promulgating a new regulation which makes clerical celibacy obligatory for the first time. Rather, the participants of this Council emphasize that the practice of obligatory celibacy, which they assume is already fixed before their time, should be observed exactly. They assume that everyone at the Council knew about the discipline beforehand, and that the believers all know it too. A reading which would make celibacy a new discipline here is completely foreign to the context. (See Cochini 158-161).

Were Many of the Clergy Married?

The proportion among the clergy of monogamously married bishops, priests, deacons, (and subdeacons), who accepted the duty of living continently after ordination, likely varied with the times, but was not inconsiderable. As Fr. Alfons Stickler, then head of the Vatican Library wrote, "Celibacy is not only, as most laymen tend to think, an interdict against marriage, but it is also continence, i.e. a relinquishing of the use of marital rights by those who have been married before ordination, which was very frequently, if not commonly, the case in the early Church" (Foreword to Fr. Cochini's book, January 24, 1981).

Fr. Cochini assembled and analyzed the documents which reveal what can be known about Peter and the other apostles in regard to marriage (pp. 65-83). He next lists 220 Catholic bishops, priests, or deacons who were married (pp. 87-122); meticulously he documents the sources from which he draws the information. Some of the Popes and some saints are in the list of married clergy. For example: Felix, priest of Rome, was the father of Pope Felix III (483-92); Pope Felix himself was married to Petronia; they had two children Paul and Gordianus, and perhaps another girl; he was the great great grandfather of Pope St. Gregory the Great. Iocundus, Priest of Rome, is the father of Pope Boniface I (418-422); Petrus, priest of Rome, is the father of Pope Anastasius II (496-498). Pope Hormisdas (514-523 is the father of Pope Silverius (536-538); Cochini 103, 107, 108, 112). In the episcopal rank, we find that Bishop Gregory the Elder of Nanziansus was the father of Bishop St. Gregory Nazianzen. Perhaps the ardent practice of continence from the day of ordination helped these eminent popes and saints to be exemplary husbands to their wives, and loving fathers to the children who were born to them before their ordination. That some of their children married and then later joined the ranks of the chaste clergy suggests compellingly that family life in celibate homes of the clergy must have been quite normal and even exemplary, inviting the children to follow the same pattern.

Did Wives Live With Their Ordained Husbands?

Practical arrangements of the household life of the celibate clergy and their wives and families were not uniform. If it seems remarkable to us that the celibate clergy sometimes lived in the same house with wife and children, we should recall that Joseph and Mary were the chaste parents of Jesus, and that they presumably lived together in the same house at Nazareth, keeping perfect chastity. Chastity is a gift of God, lived out in the strength and light of His grace. If the invisible wall of dedication to God in perfect chastity is solid, if the community supports it, if both partners will it, it is possible; at least we must say, that it was possible in the first seven centuries of the Church when this lifestyle was not uncommon.

POPE ST. LEO THE GREAT (440-461), another of the great doctors, wrote to Anastasius of Thesalonika, advising him first of all to test candidates for ordination in regard to the ability and will to practice perfect chastity: "Let no one be deemed apt for the Levitical or priestly dignity or for the supreme dignity of the episcopate if it is found that he has not yet put an end to conjugal pleasure" (PL 54, 672b-673a). He advised, however, that after ordination, wives should rightly continue to live with their clerical husbands, and to assist them, while both observed the life of devoted chastity:

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 sire children. But once they have reached the ranks mentioned above, what had been permitted is no longer so. This is why, in order for [their] union 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 be ended (quo et salva sit charitas connubiorum, et cesset opera nuptiarum; to Rusticus of Narbonne (458-459); PL 54, 1204; Cochini 262).

The advice given by Pope St. Leo apparently reflected current conditions, and affirmed the model for some time to come. Cochini observes: (From the time of Leo) "continence was less synonymous with separation than with the experience of perfect chastity lived in common by the cleric and his wife. The experience was not lacking in greatness — the daily heroism of those couples and the quiet audacity of the laws are admirable — but the risks were not eliminated. Hence we see a multitude of warnings: let them behave as brother and sister; let them be prudent enough not to share the same room...Little by little, the clerics were advised — even ordered — to separate the homes, and the episcopal residence becomes a monastery of sorts where a numerous clergy takes the place of female domesticity" (p. 425). (We cannot deal adequately with developments in the East in this writing.)

Pope Felix III (483-492) and Pope Anastasius II (496-498), sons of priests who knew clerical family life from the inside, did not change Leo's ruling. Pope Gregory the Great (590-604), the last of the great doctors, likewise approved the custom that clerics continue to live with their wives while observing celibacy; (MGH, Gregorii 1,I, p. 76; Cochini 373).

The prevailing lifestyle of clerics and their wives at this time, when celibate husband and wife shared the same house, shaped the expectation of the Church and people which subtly supported their resolution to observe chastity; which could influence them to observe the indicated patterns of prudence which renders a celibate life possible, livable, and practical as well. The wife, being now a partner to her husband in spiritual resolve, her care and propriety would help to create and maintain from day to day the wall of chastity which neither would violate. For her, success in life and a good reputation in the local community meant living her new vocation fully, as well as carefully. We can be sure that sharp eyes were constantly watching. To be found pregnant would be a disgrace for her in the community; it would also disgrace her husband, and likely deprive them of their position and living. God, ever in charge of the Church, supplied the grace necessary to live in this manner for many of the clergy, and for hundreds of years.

The Work of Pope Saint Siricius (384-399)

A Spanish Bishop Himerius had sent a letter to Pope Damascus in 384 requesting directions on various matters. In the meantime Pope Damascus had died, and Pope Siricius replied on February 10, 385. The passage is found in PL 13, 1138a-39a; also in DS 89; the long passage is well known, and we confine ourselves to the heart of it, using the translation of Deferrari, from DS 89:

Therefore also the Lord Jesus, when He had enlightened us by His coming, testifies in the Gospel, that he came to fulfill the Law, not to destroy it (Mt 5:17). And so He has wished the beauty of the Church, whose spouse He is, to radiate with the splendor of chastity, so that on the day of judgment, when He will have come again, He may be able to find her without spot or wrinkle (Eph 5:27) as He instituted her through His Apostle. All priests and levites are bound by the indissoluble law of these sanctions, so that from the day of our ordination, we give up both our hearts and our bodies to continence and chastity...

But those, who contend with an excuse for the forbidden privilege, so as to assert that this has been granted to them by the Old Law, should know that by the authority of the Apostolic See they have been cast out of every ecclesiastical office, which they have used unworthily, nor can they ever touch the sacred mysteries, of which they themselves had deprived themselves, so long as they give heed to impure desires.

As we see, Pope Siricius does not at all condemn the priests and deacons for having wives. He sees this as an accepted and legitimate practice. But to have children with their wives after ordination, or to have illicit extra—matrimonial sex, that he condemns. He refutes their excuse that Levites of the Old Testament who served at the altar were permitted to beget children. Pope Siricius states that Christ perfected the Old Law with the superior norm of the Gospel: the Old Law had imposed temporary sexual abstinence upon Priests and Levites during their turn of service in the temple; the New Law binds its priests and levites to observe lifelong continence within the Church.

Although Pope Siricius does not mention an apostolic tradition in so many words, his manner of speaking suggests that the norm of clerical celibacy has been in force from the time of the origin of the Church down to his own day. He treats the matter as a tradition received rather than as a norm which he is initiating.

I wish to add that in Japan today the Shinto High Priest, before he offers certain prescribed rituals at the Grand Shrine of Ise, is bound to live separately from his wife for a time; he is obliged to leave his house and live in a sequestered place where it is obvious to all that the ritual of continence is being observed. I learned this first hand when I was touring the great Shinto Shrine at Ise in Japan, with some eminent visitors from the Vatican. The guide explained the duty of the Shinto High Priest to practice temporary continence before great ceremonies. Our guide did this with a show of some pride, knowing that the people with whom he spoke were committed to consecrated celibacy.

The Council of Carthage in 390

Fr. Cochini rightly gives place of honor to the famous declaration made at the Council of Carthage in 390; it is a high profile declaration which made its way into legislative texts of the African Church, into documents of Rome, which is much celebrated in the Byzantine tradition, which the promoters of the Gregorian Reform used more than once as their most solid historical argument (p. 4). The text is lean, sparse of words, authentic to human considerations, austere, totally sincere, and disarmingly humble. Bishop Epigonius proposes the declaration, presiding Bishop Genethlius formulates its wording, all the bishops vote in favor:

Epigonius, Bishop of the Royal Region of Bulla, says: The rule of continence and chastity had been discussed in a previous council. Let it now instruct with more emphasis the three ranks that, by virtue of their consecration, are under the same obligation of chastity, i.e. the bishop, the priest, and the deacon, and let them be taught to keep purity.

Bishop Genethlius says: As was previously said, 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 keep.

The bishops declared unanimously: It pleases 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 (CC 149, p.13; Cochini p. 5).

Note the following points:

  • 1) They say they are under this obligation "by virtue of their consecration." That is to say, because they were consecrated by ordination, were separated from their former state and designated for the special service of God; by the power and meaning of this consecration which undergirds ecclesiastical legislation, they now recognize themselves to be bound by the state of celibacy.
  • 2) They believe that their chastity gives them privileged access to God, as though by means of what today we might call a "white telephone" to God. They don't have to plead with God in prolonged and stylized prayer, but chastity opens the way to God for them "so that they may obtain in all simplicity" what they ask for in prayer. This conviction of a special power of priestly prayer by reason of chastity appears to be part of the apostolic tradition.
  • 3) They believe that they not only OUGHT to do this, but that they CAN carry on the tradition which has been handed down to them by the apostles and the tradition of the Church: "Let us also keep what the apostles taught, and what antiquity observed." They are saying: "What they did we will also do; let's do it!"
  • 4) They agreed by a show of hands; all hands showed. The decision was unanimous. The baton of chastity is accepted from the past, is carried on at present, and is being passed on to the future — to the next generation of bishops, priests, and deacons.

We hear other overtones in this record of the Council of Carthage which met in the year of the Lord 390: namely, that the assembled Bishops have the experience that people come to them with their petitions, and ask that the priests say special prayers for them. The people trust in a special efficacy of the prayer of priests.

Secondly, their decision for celibacy indicates that the assembled bishops believe that clerical chastity is possible for themselves as well as for their fellow—clergy; they speak not from detached theory but from personal experience; they know the struggle perfectly well, and they assume the challenge willingly.

Thirdly, they do not see the obligation of clerical celibacy as an innovation of their century; they see it as a tradition which goes all the way back to the apostles: "What the apostles taught, we will also do." So far the Council of Carthage of 390.

The obligation of celibacy which the Bishops of Carthage, in 390, traced back to the apostles, is likewise the honor and pride of the clergy today. Apropos are the words spoken by the present Holy Father to USA Bishops on 8 June 1993:

This requirement (of celibacy) is not just a passing legal norm or an externally imposed condition for ordination, but a value profoundly linked with the priest's sharing in the Bridegroom's care of his body, the Church (English Oss. Rom. 23 June 1993; Pastores dabo vobis, No. 50).

Indeed, by participating in celibacy with Christ, the priest shares more fully with Him the care for His Bride, the Church. Down through the ages this has been the conviction, the comfort, and the strength of priests who, like the apostles, choose the celibate life in response to the call of Christ.

Shall We Ordain Married Men Today If They Accept Continence?

Fr. Cochini quotes Fr. Alfons Stickler (Cardinal since 1985), who says it would not be impossible to ordain monogamous men today who accept continence; but Fr. Stickler does not think that the Church will move in that direction. History shows, he says, that the Church

tried little by little to decrease this kind of ordination because of its inconvenience. I do not think that one would want to restore a practice that is obsolete now, at least under the present circumstances. But there is nothing to prevent the ordination of older bachelors or widowers or even married men in the case of a couple deciding to opt on both sides for a consecrated life and therefore continence" (Comment on the pope's Letter to the Clergy, April 8, 1979, in Osservatore Della Domenica,n. 115, p.2; Cochini 45).

Is the Cardinal correct in his prognostication that the Church will not return today to the practice of ordaining to the priesthood married men who, with their wives, volunteer and promise to cease from conjugal intercourse after his ordination? The fact that the Church has given up this practice is a sign that there must be strong reasons against it. On the other hand, the fact that the Church harbored this practice and blessed it for seven centuries is a contrary sign in its favor.

What might be considerations favoring a return to the practice today, in case worthy couples come forward to accept celibacy with his ordination? Several reasons come to mind:

  • 1). Married priests and Bishops living in the celibate state might enrich the Church with their good example, and with the pastoral knowledge gained from the experience of their marital lives and the education of their children;
  • 2) might inspire youth to practice chastity courageously;
  • 3) might inspire married couples to give up contraception and practice periodic abstinence when indicated;
  • 4) might counteract priestly scandals, such as homosexual practice and pederasty;
  • 5) might increase the supply of priests where vocations are in short supply today.

Perhaps the deficit of priestly numbers in our times could be replenished by married men who are suitable, and who, with the agreement of their families, opt for the celibate life; whom the Church then calls to the priesthood. The shortage of priests is foreseen to be chronic in countries like Japan, where large families have become the exception, where two or three children are now the rule. Most priests come traditionally from large families, whom Pope Pius XII characterized as "those most blessed by God and specially loved and prized by the Church as its most precious treasures" (The Large Family, 20 January 1958). Will large families make a comeback in Japan and other affluent countries? Will priestly vocations be supplied largely by them again? Or ought the Church adopt once more the practice of ordaining married men, on condition that they adopt the celibate life, in order to meet the shortage of priests? And to give glory to the Lord, to add lustre to the Church, and enrich the lives of worthy families?


The priest is special. He is the mother nurturer of the Church, as Saint Epiphanius wrote; this, because he stands on the firm foundation of virginity—chastity. Down through the centuries the ranks of priests fill the front lines of the Pilgrim Church, moving ever forward as the cutting edge of holiness, opening safe passage for the pilgrims who follow. Priests march always in this exposed front line position, where the most wear and tear in the phalanx of pilgrims is apt to occur. When priests in the front lines are good soldiers, their courage and perseverance augurs well for the rest. When the front line made by the priests falters, their defeat filters back into the entire phalanx. Such is the history of the Church, generation after generation, since apostolic times.

Does the world sink into chaos and barbarity? Look at priests — they are not chaste. Does the world rise to its feet and become orderly and beautiful again? Look at the priests — they are observing their tradition again: they are chaste.

The Byzantine canonist Zonaras opines that the spiritual vitality of priests, or their loss of spirit, has a ripple effect, generating echo ups and downs in the welfare of the human family. Priests, he says

are indeed intercessors between God and men; setting up a link between the divinity and the rest of the faithful, they are asking for salvation and peace on behalf of the whole world. Therefore, if they practice all the virtues and converse in full trust with God, they will obtain right away all that they are asking for. For if these same men deprive themselves, through their own fault, of their freedom of speech, how could they fulfill their role as intercessors for the good of others? (PG 138, 32c; see Cochini p. 7).

A Rabbinical story relates that God hesitated to create the world when He foresaw its massive and obscene rebellion; then His eyes lighted upon Abraham, a rock of fidelity. God therefore decided to create the world despite its evil, and to brace it against the solid rock of Abraham. The story is told by Cardinal Ratzinger:

A Rabbinical text is enlightening in this regard: "Yahweh said, 'How can I create the world, when these godless people will rise up and revolt against me?' But when God saw Abraham who was to come, he said, 'Look, I have found a rock on which I can construct and establish the world.' For this reason he called Abraham a rock, 'Look to the rock from which you were hewn'" (Is 51:1-2). By his faith, Abraham, the father of all believers, is the rock which supports creation, pushing back Chaos, the original flood which imminently threatens to ruin everything. Simon, who was the first to believe in Jesus as the Christ and was the first witness of the resurrection, with the Christological renewal of a faith worthy of Abraham, now becomes the rock which stands against the filthy tide of disbelief and its power to destroy all that is human (Address at the Pontifical Urban University, 18 April 1991, OSS. ROM. Weekly Edition in English 8 July 1991.)

Peter, in solidarity with today's presbyters, is now the rock which pushes back chaos and braces up creation. We know that the Father already fixed the day when "the sun will grow dark, the moon will no longer shine, the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in space will be driven from their courses" (Mt 24:29). How long will the Father postpone that "great and terrible day" (Joel 2:31) when creation will fall apart? Does He perhaps look to priests to induce Him to hold the day at bay yet a little longer? To priests whose task it is to hold up the sky, their feet braced on the foundation of chastity; to priests, "who obtain right away what they are asking for;" who offer "petitions, prayers, requests, and thanksgivings for all people, for kings and for all others who are in authority" (1 Tim 2:1); to priests, confessors who drain away the chaos of sin; to priests who raise on high the host and chalice in the person of Christ; who by a smile of praise with joy induce the Father to uphold His beautiful universe for yet one more generation? To priests who say today what the fathers of Carthage said in 390: "What the apostles taught, and what antiquity itself observed, let us also keep."

References and Abbreviations

  • CC Corpus Christianorum
  • Cochini, Christian, S.J., the Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1990.
  • CSEL Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum
  • DS Denzinger-Schoenmetzer, Enchiridion Symbolorum, Ed. XXXIV, Herder, 1967.
  • Deferrari, Roy J., The Sources of Catholic Dogma, Freiburg, 1957. (Available today at Marian House, Powers Lake, N.D. 58773.)
  • GCS Greischische Christliche Schriftsteller Der Ersten Drei Jahrhunderte.
  • Hughes, Philip, A History of The Church, Vol. 1, New York, Sheed and Ward, 1949.
  • The Church in Crisis: a History of the General Councils 325-1870, New York, Image Books, A Division of Doubleday, 1964.
  • Mgh Monumenta Germaniae Historica.
  • PG J. G. Migne, Patrologia Cursus Completus, Series Graeca.
  • PL J. G. Migne, Patrologia Cursus Completus, Series Latina.
  • Quasten, Johannes, Patrologia, Vol. 4, Translated into English by Rev. Placid Solari, O.S.B., Christian Classics, Inc., Westminster, Maryland, USA, 1986.
  • The New Catholic Study Bible, American Bible Society, St. Jerome Edition, Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1985.
  • SCh Sources Chretiennes
Website copyright © 2000-2004 Kochi, Japan [ ] [ OMI Japan/Korea]

This item 7052 digitally provided courtesy of