Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Ancient Tradition of Clerical Celibacy

by Mary R. Schneider


This article by Mary R. Schneider defends clerical celibacy as an ancient tradition of Church law and has been in practice since apostolic times contrary to the popular belief that it is a relatively new practice. The author traces the legislative roots of clerical continence back to the decrees of the Council of Elvira held in Spain around the year 305. She also discusses the immoralities which arose during the era when it was permissible for married men to join the clergy — under the condition of absolute continence between the spouses, re-emphasizing the importance for clerics to remain chaste in order to thoroughly respect their vocation.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


18 – 25

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, July 2007

Vision Book Cover Prints

Celibacy is the distinctive characteristic of the ministerial priesthood of the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church. Yet this discipline, which symbolizes the consecration of bishops, priests, and deacons to their sacred ministry, is attacked today as an unreasonable, unnatural rule and as the primary cause of the decline in vocations to the priesthood. The opponents of celibacy cite its seemingly recent appearance in history as further proof of its illegitimacy. Indeed, the issue of its legitimacy hinges largely upon the answer to this question: is celibacy merely a disciplinary matter of recent historical vintage or is it a more deeply rooted tradition? This article will attempt to show that celibacy is an ancient tradition that has been part of the law and practice of the Church since the patristic era and possibly even from apostolic times.

This, of course, runs counter to popular wisdom, which sees celibacy as a relatively "new" practice in the history of the Church. Part of the confusion on this is due to semantics. Most people today would define "celibacy" simply as "the state of being unmarried," which is, indeed, one of its meanings. However, celibacy also means "sexual abstinence, especially for religious reasons" (American Heritage Collegiate Dictionary, 1997). Although celibacy defined in the strict sense as the conferring of Orders only upon unmarried men did not become the law of the Church until the eleventh century, celibacy defined in the broad sense of "absolute continence for a cleric whether he was married or not" was the law and practice of the western Church from the fourth century through the eleventh century.1 During this era, the Church repeatedly issued laws requiring all clerics in major orders, including those who were married, to remain sexually abstinent after ordination. Therefore, the late eleventh-century legislation that restricted ordination only to unmarried men should be considered a reform of an existing tradition, an evolution rather than a revolution in ecclesiastical law and practice.

The roots of clerical celibacy can be found, of course, in Scripture. Jesus, who never married, exhorted those who could accept it to renounce marriage for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt 19:12). Many early Christians eagerly responded to Christ's invitation and in the early Church, "even before the beginnings of monasticism in the 4th century, celibacy accepted for the Kingdom of God appears as the perfection of Christian holiness, second only to martyrdom."2 St. Paul also addressed the question of clerical marriage, writing that "A bishop must be irreproachable, married but once" (1 Tim. 3:2) and that "he must manage his household well, keeping his children under control with perfect dignity" (1 Tim. 3:4).3 He laid down the same requirements for deacons (1 Tim. 3:12) and priests (Titus 1:6). These passages clearly indicate that Orders were conferred on married men but at the same time they prohibit Orders from being conferred on men who were married more than once. Moreover, St. Paul told the Corinthians not to take wives if they were single and instructed those who had wives to live as though they did not (1 Cor. 7:27-9), adding, "An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided." (1 Cor. 7:32-4) These passages of Scripture were adopted by the early Church, which forbade the ordination of digamists, the remarriage of clerics, and marriage after ordination.

The first known legislation on clerical continence can be found in the decrees of the Council of Elvira, which was held in Spain around the year 305. Canon 33 states: "It has seemed good absolutely to forbid bishops, the priests, and deacons, i.e. all the clerics in service of the ministry, to have relations with their wives and procreate children; should anyone do so, let him be excluded from the honor of the clergy."4 This canon clearly ordered higher clerics to observe perfect continence with their wives under the pain of deposition from their ministry. Although scholars are divided on whether Elvira was a departure from an earlier tradition which did not require married clerics to remain continent, or whether it codified an existing but unwritten rule of continence for all clerics, the latter interpretation is probably the correct one. The persecution suffered by the early Church during the first three centuries made it difficult for it to write down most of its laws.5 Yet it is very unlikely that when the Church did begin to write down its laws in the fourth century, that it would have ignored its earlier, unwritten rules and composed brand new ones, especially one such as the Elvira canon, which would have deprived clerics of a long-established right.6 It is quite likely that the tradition of clerical continence dates back to apostolic times but the lack of written records from that era means that we cannot know this with certainty.

The Council of Arles (314) also required clerics to observe perfect continence, citing ritual purity as the reason. Canon 29 reads, "Furthermore, with a care for what is worthy, pure and honest, we exhort our brothers [in the episcopate] to act in such a way that priests and deacons have no relations with their spouses, given that they are engaged each day in the ministry. Whoever acts contrariwise to this decision will be deposed from the honor of the clerical state."7 At the same time, the Council of Neocaesarea (314-25) issued a decree prohibiting priests from marrying after ordination. Similarly, the Council of Carthage (390) decreed that higher clerics observe perfect continence because they act as mediators between God and man. Subsequent councils at Hippo (393) and Carthage (401 and 419) repeated these requirements.

Several popes of the patristic era also issued decrees upholding clerical continence. Pope Siricius (384-99), who wrote the earliest extant papal legislation on this matter, insisted that bishops, priests, and deacons must practice perpetual rather than periodic continence since they must be ready to say the liturgy or perform the sacraments at any time. He believed that continence had an eschatological dimension, "pointing to the completion of the kingdom, to a time when marriage will be no more."8 Similarly, Pope Leo I (440-61) upheld the rule that married clerics observe continence after ordination while Pope St. Gregory I (590-604) prohibited bishops from ordaining subdeacons who would not vow to live in perpetual chastity. The decrees of these popes show two things. The first is that clerical continence, or celibacy defined in its broad sense, was the law and practice of the universal Church and was not just a law of some of the local churches. The second is that some clerics were not obeying the law. Even at this early time in the Church's history, it was becoming apparent that clerical marriage could not always be reconciled with clerical chastity.

The Fathers of the Church also insisted that clerics remain chaste. In his treatise, On the Duties of the Clergy (c. 391), St. Ambrose vehemently rejected the idea that married clerics should be allowed to have conjugal relations just because the priests of the Old Testament did. In Against Vigilantius (406), St. Jerome condemned bishops who refused to ordain unmarried men as deacons, pointing out that this contradicted the practice of the churches of Egypt and Rome, which ordained only unmarried men or married men who had taken a vow of continence. Similarly, in Against Jovianius (393) he upheld the superior dignity of celibacy and virginity. Here he argued that allowing clerics to have conjugal relations would mean that marriage was on par with virginity, but since the latter was clearly superior, it could not be lawful for priests to touch their wives.

Church laws and writings of this era not only affirm the requirement of clerical continence, even if it was not always followed in practice, they also reflect a sophisticated theology of the priesthood. Ritual purity requires only periodic abstinence, which was sufficient for the priests of the Old Testament, who offered animals in sacrifice to God. However, since the priests of the New Testament offer the Holy Victim, Jesus Christ, in sacrifice to the Father, they are, as St. Ambrose pointed out, called to a more radical and perfect purity than that of their Hebrew predecessors. Furthermore, the holiness of the clerical office demanded absolute purity.9 Their daily ministry included not only the Mass, which was not offered every day in many places, but also the administration of the sacraments and the practice of praying constantly on behalf of the Church. Finally, celibacy gave an eschatological dimension to the priesthood, pointing to the coming of the Kingdom of God.

However, this patristic ideal of clerical chastity was severely tested in practice during the tumultuous centuries of the Early Middle Ages. The barbarian invasions and the rise of feudalism not only transformed the political and social structure of Western Europe, they also profoundly affected clerical life, especially the tenuous honor system where clerical marriage co-existed with clerical chastity. The almost complete de-urbanization of Western Europe weakened the control of the Church over its lands and clergy. Most priests no longer lived in the cities but were now scattered across the countryside, away from the oversight of their ordinaries. Furthermore, the practice of lay investiture filled the episcopacy with untrained, worldly men, who were interested only in the lands and revenues that came with their office, and who essentially functioned as vassals for their lords or kings. These men often openly lived with their wives and were not bothered if their clergy did the same. Likewise, the establishment of local churches by nobles tended to corrupt the priests who were chosen to staff them and further fueled the trend of lay investiture. Many priests lived in poverty and had to support themselves by farming, which meant that they needed the help of wives and children. These men then willed their benefices to their sons, which resulted in the creation of a hereditary priesthood.11 The intermarriage of clerical families ensured the continuation of the hereditary priesthood, while the intermarriage of clerical and lay families increased lay interference in ecclesiastical affairs and the lay acquisition of church lands.

For all of these reasons, the morality of the clergy declined during the Middle Ages. Many deacons, priests, and bishops, and even some monks, married and fathered children after ordination, while others lived with concubines. The practice of simony became common. The Church issued numerous decrees throughout this era in order to correct these abuses but it was very difficult for popes and bishops to enforce them, especially when errant clergymen refused to comply. There were numerous episodes in which married clerics resorted to violence against their bishops or superiors in order to defend their conjugal "rights."

Nevertheless, from the fifth century through the eleventh century, the Latin Church firmly held to its law that all clerics in major orders were to observe perfect continence after ordination. In fact, over the course of these centuries, the Church actually increased its restrictions on married clerics. In 653 the Council of Toledo prohibited clerics from having any type of public relationship with their wives or concubines.11 When the Frankish Church held its first reform synod in 743, it forbade any priest or deacon to live in the same house with any woman, including his wife. The Irish Penitentials of the sixth century, which were one of the earliest medieval collections of disciplinary norms on clerical life, imposed strict penalties upon clerics who committed fornication or who engaged in conjugal activity after ordination. Similar ordinances for Anglo-Saxon lands could be found in penitential books of the eighth century. Bishop Chrodegang of Metz (d. 766) issued the Regula canonicorum, which required that his cathedral clergy, or canons, live in a community governed by a rule similar to those of religious orders. This practice, which was eventually adopted by many other dioceses, provided a practical alternative to the existing custom of allowing married clerics to live with their wives, making it easier for priests to live celibately.

While the Latin Church attempted to uphold its laws on clerical continence, the churches in the Greek-speaking East adopted a laxer code for their clergy. The Council of Trullo (691-92), which was held in Constantinople, decreed that married subdeacons, deacons and priests were not permitted to separate from their wives and were required only to observe periodic abstinence rather than perpetual continence in conjunction with the exercise of their liturgical ministry. However, these canons did not apply to bishops, who were required to separate from their wives, and Trullo continued to uphold the ban on marriage and remarriage for all major clerics after ordination. The Holy See, which was not represented at Trullo, angrily refused to recognize its authority, especially its brazen claim that it was an ecumenical council whose canons were binding upon the whole Church. Naturally, Rome rejected Trullo's canons on clerical marriage, which deviated so clearly from a tradition of clerical chastity that had long been observed in both the East and West.

Indeed, during the following centuries, the decrees of the Western Church on this matter became progressively stricter. In some dioceses, men could not receive Orders unless they made a formal vow of perfect chastity first. In the late ninth and early tenth centuries, several councils prohibited clerics from living with any women, including their wives. These decrees culminated in the reforms of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, which made strict clerical celibacy the undisputed law and practice of the Catholic Church. Although Pope St. Gregory VII (1073-85) is credited with carrying out the reforms that effected this change, the popes and councils who preceded him laid the groundwork of his program, which also included ending the abuses of simony and lay investiture.

The Council of Pavia (1022), which was convened by Pope Benedict VIII and Emperor Henry II, mandated strict celibacy, banning clerical marriage and forbidding clergy to live with any women, including their wives. Clerics refusing to separate from their wives, including bishops, were to be laicized. The Council of Burgess (1031) struck a blow against the hereditary priesthood by declaring that any children fathered after ordination were illegitimate and, therefore, ineligible to receive Orders. During the pontificate of Leo IX (1049-54), synods in Rome and Mainz banned clerical marriage. Pope Nicholas II (1059-61) convened a synod at the Lateran, which ordered the laity not to attend Masses said by priests who were living with women and which ordered the excommunication of clerics who had not yet complied with Leo IX's directives. More importantly, the synod established the College of Cardinals and vested it with the authority to elect popes. By stripping the Holy Roman Emperor and his nobles of their power to appoint popes, this synod ended the most egregious example of lay investiture and greatly increased the power and authority of the papacy.

Nicholas II also made effective use of his legates, Cardinal Humbert of Silva, Archdeacon Hildebrand of Rome, and the indomitable monk, St. Peter Damian, in enforcing the decrees of his councils. Humbert crusaded tirelessly against clerical incontinence or "nicolaitism," which had been condemned as a heresy in 1059.12 At the pope's behest, Damian, who was also the Cardinal of Ostia, wrote several works that praised celibacy and that condemned unchaste clerics and their consorts. Hildebrand used his authority as the Archdeacon to reform the clergy of Rome and he also made trips abroad on behalf of the pope. Nicholas held other councils that repeated the decrees of the synod of 1059 and he wrote an encyclical on celibacy. However, the reforms of his pontificate affected priests and deacons rather than bishops, who were not forced to submit to these laws.13

Nicholas II was succeeded by Alexander II (1061-73), who had to contend with the claims of the anti-pope Honorius II, and who did little to advance his predecessor's agenda on clerical chastity. When Alexander died, Archdeacon Hildebrand was elected pope and took the name Gregory. The new bishop of Rome wasted no time in restarting the engine of reform. Although his bitter struggle over lay investiture with Emperor Henry IV took up much of his energy and ultimately resulted in his exile from Rome in 1080, Gregory VII effectively combated clerical marriage up until then. He held several synods at the Lateran, including one in 1074, which required all clerics to make a vow of celibacy upon ordination and which prohibited lay people from attending Masses or receiving the sacraments from unchaste clerics.14 The synod of 1078 put the burden of enforcing clerical chastity upon the bishops, who would be suspended if they tolerated the behavior of unchaste clerics. The pope even enlisted the aid of abbots and nobles in bringing reluctant bishops to heel. By the year 1080, when Gregory VII was forced into exile, strict clerical celibacy was becoming the accepted practice throughout the Western Church. The reforms of the eleventh century were finalized in the twelfth century by the First Lateran Council (1123), which proclaimed that the marriages of all higher clerics were invalid, and by the Second Lateran Council (1139), which prohibited Orders from being conferred on married men.15 From that time onward, strict celibacy has remained the law and practice of the Church.

The coexistence of clerical marriage with clerical continence had never been easy but by the eleventh century it had become obvious that this shaky "marriage" was over. If the Church was to uphold the morality of its clergy or keep them under its control at all, the tradition of clerical marriage had to be abandoned. Clerical marriage actually threatened to undermine the ontological identity of the ministerial priesthood as a sacred class set apart from the laity and consecrated to the service of God and the Church and to replace it with a notion in which the priesthood would be seen merely as a set of functions or an office that a man exercised. Moreover, clerical marriage was clearly laicizing the clergy and it would have continued to do so if the Church had not put an end to it. By adopting strict clerical celibacy, the Church preserved both the tradition of clerical chastity and the theology of the priesthood that had developed along with it from apostolic times.

Today's advocates of optional celibacy and a married priesthood do not want to return to the Church's earlier law and discipline. They would reject any requirement that married priests observe either periodic or perpetual continence after ordination. Nor would they be satisfied if the Church ordained married men while refusing to allow clerics to marry or remarry after ordination. Indeed, the Church's prohibition against marriage after ordination, which it has always had, would continue to bar the return to ministry of men who have left the priesthood in order to marry. Rather, the promoters of optional celibacy want the Church to adopt a radically new discipline, one that would encourage clerical marriage while undermining clerical chastity. Furthermore, many of them are using the celibacy issue as a means of advancing a more radical agenda, which includes women's ordination, the acceptance of remarriage after divorce, and the recognition of same-sex unions. Chastity is clearly not something which these would-be reformers value and they are anxious to reduce it to an option for everyone, including the clergy. Unfortunately, as history shows, when priests and bishops treat chastity as an option, clerical morals and the theology of the priesthood suffer.16

Although celibacy is not intrinsic to the priesthood, it is an ancient discipline with deep roots in the history, law, and practice of the Latin Church. Because it is clearly a part of the Church's tradition, something that has been handed down from the age of the Church Fathers, it should not and must not be discarded just because it is unpopular or because it does not reflect modern sensibilities. There are, in fact, good practical reasons for the Church to retain this venerable discipline.17 However, the theological reasons for doing so are even more important. Celibacy marks the priest as a man consecrated to the service of Christ and the Church. It shows in a concrete way that he is not merely someone who exercises a set of functions or who holds a certain office but that he has been changed on an ontological level by his reception of the sacrament of Orders. Celibacy configures the priest more closely to Christ, the great High Priest, who forsook earthly marriage for the sake of the Kingdom and for the sake of uniting himself more perfectly to his heavenly Bride, the Church. Moreover, it is fitting that the priest who offers this same Jesus in sacrifice to the Father, show in his own person (albeit to an imperfect degree) the purity and holiness of his unspotted Victim. Finally, celibacy has an eschatological aspect, pointing to the coming of the Kingdom when marriage will no longer exist. If the Latin Rite of the Church were to abandon clerical celibacy, it would have to sacrifice much of the sophisticated theology of the priesthood that has developed over the last seventeen hundred years as a result of this discipline.

Much of the controversy that surrounds clerical celibacy results from a general ignorance among Catholics about its history and origins. Moreover, this ignorance is shamefully exploited by the advocates of clerical marriage, who are using this issue as a way of imposing their own radical agenda on the Church. Bishops and priests who give the laity a half-hearted defense of celibacy, who wrongly concede that it is just a "recent" innovation in the history of the Church or that it is "merely" a disciplinary matter are playing into the hands of those who would abandon clerical chastity in order to make priests conform to the world rather than to Christ. Rather, bishops and priests should instruct the faithful about the history and theology of celibacy, especially its value in their own lives, in a simple, clear manner whenever the opportunity presents itself to do so. Celibacy is a great gift to the Church and to the priesthood. When priests faithfully observe their vow of celibacy, they draw themselves and the rest of the Church closer to God. This is a truth that the faithful deserve to hear. Let us hope and pray that bishops and priests will be courageous enough to proclaim it.

End Notes

  1. Roman Cholij, Clerical Celibacy in the East and West, 2nd ed. (Leominster: Fowler Wright Books, 1989), 2.
  2. H. Crouzel, "Celibacy and Ecclesiastical Continence in the Early Church: the Motives Involved," Priesthood and Celibacy, (Rome-Milan: Ancora, 1972), 455.
  3. All Scriptural citations are taken from The New American Bible, (Wichita, 1987).
  4. Herm. Theod. Bruns, Canones apostolorum et conciliorum saeculorum IV, V, VI, VII recognovit atque insignioris lectionum varietatis notationes subiunix, (Berlin 1839), II.6, as quoted in Christian Cochini, Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, trans. Nelly Marans, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 159.
  5. Alfons M. Stickler, The Case for Clerical Celibacy. Its Historical Development and Theological Foundation, trans. Brian Ferme, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 18.
  6. Ibid., 23.
  7. Corpus Christianorum, 148.25, as quoted in Cholij, 177 [author's emphasis].
  8. Daniel Callam, "Clerical Continence in the Fourth Century: Three Papal Decretals," Theological Studies 41, no. 1 (March 1980), 39-40.
  9. Ibid., 26-28.
  10. Gerd Tellenbach, The Church in Western Europe from the Tenth to the Early Twelfth Century, trans. Timothy Reuter, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 90.
  11. Alfons M. Stickler, "The Evolution of the Discipline of Celibacy in the Western Church from the End of the Patristic Era to the Council of Trent," Priesthood and Celibacy, 503-597, (Rome-Milan: Ancora, 1972), 512-13.
  12. Tellencbach, 242.
  13. Henry C. Lea, The History of Sacerdotal Celibacy in the Christian Church, (Philadelphia: 1867; reprint, New York: Russell & Russell, 1957), 159.
  14. Ibid., 185.
  15. Charles A. Frazee, "The Origins of Clerical Celibacy in the Western Church," Church History 57 supplement (1988), 126.
  16. The current clerical sex abuse scandal is just the most recent example of the kind of problems that occur when priests break their vow of celibacy. To say that celibacy caused this scandal is as ridiculous as saying that marriage is the cause of adultery.
  17. One argument would be that celibacy allows the priest to devote himself more completely to his ministry. Another is that celibacy protects clerical morals, that it shields priests from the temptations of divorce, contraception, and fornication far more effectively than clerical marriage would. There are other practical arguments but space does not permit me to go into them here.

Mrs. Mary Schneider is a homemaker from Avon Lake, Ohio, who has a B.A. in history from St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., and an M.A. in humanities from John Carroll University in University heights, Ohio. She and her husband, Jim, have six children and their oldest son is a first year theology student at St. Mary's Seminary in Cleveland. Mrs. Schneider has written several book reviews for HPR. This is her first article for HPR.

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