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Clerical Celibacy

© Cleenewerck - His Broken Body, used with permission.

A matter of ecclesiastical discipline…

The sensitive topic of clerical celibacy has already been mentioned several times in the course of our study. It will be remembered that what is often understood as a simple matter of discipline was (and still is) perceived as a major point of contention. Celibacy  was explicitly addressed as a divisive issue the council of Trullo (692), in the correspondence of Patriarch Photius and indeed in the bull of excommunication of Cardinal Humbert in 1054. Finally, the question, or indeed the “scandal” of married clergy (from a Latin perspective) became a full-fledged nightmare in the relations of Rome with its ‘Uniate’ communities.
In theory, there is really nothing to argue about: Rome and the Latin tradition favor the discipline of a continent and unmarried priesthood while the East feels that in general, married presbyters are better suited for non-monastic service to a parish. The official position of the Roman Catholic Church is that celibacy is not intrinsic to the priesthood and that this disciplinary, non-dogmatic matter could be revised. A recent National Catholic Register column noted:

Pope Benedict XVI’s choice as the church’s top official for priests has said that celibacy “is not a dogma,” and that the Catholic church “can reflect” on the subject. The explosive character of the issue, however, was reflected in a “clarification” issued in the name of the cardinal by the Vatican Press Office on Dec. 4. Cardinal Claudio Hummes, 72, of São Paulo, Brazil, was nominated Prefect of the Congregation for Clergy on Oct. 31. He made the comments as he left for Rome in an interview with the Brazilian publication Estado de São Paulo. “Even if celibates are part of our history and of Catholic culture, the church can reflect on the question of celibacy, because it’s not a dogma but a disciplinary norm,” Hummes said. Hummes, a Franciscan, recalled that several Apostles were married, and that the discipline of priestly celibacy in the Western church developed several centuries after the institution of the priesthood itself. “The church is not stationary, but an institution that changes when it has to change,” Hummes said. “The church must first discuss if it is necessary to reconsider the norm of celibacy.”

On the Eastern Orthodox side, it is sometimes forgotten that those who were called hiereus and sacerdos by the Fathers (i.e. the bishops) are also under a discipline of clerical celibacy . According to the canons, Orthodox bishops are elected from the monastic ranks, but in practice, celibate priests are often chosen as well. As a result, it is disingenuous to say that the question of clerical celibacy is only a Roman Catholic issue, especially because the Eastern discipline of episcopal celibacy has also been challenged by respected Orthodox bishops and theologians. The issue of diaconal celibacy should also be considered. If the rationale for celibacy, especially in the West, was Eucharistic and connected to the ‘proximity to the altar,’ we can understand why deacons were under the same discipline as priests and bishops. Hence, the issue of marital continence and celibacy is extremely complex and multi-faceted.

…or Apostolic Tradition?

At this point, it might be tempting to dismiss the entire issue as ‘not an actual cause of separation between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy’ because it is just a matter of discipline, and one that is currently under review anyway. However, I am convinced that the question of celibacy was in fact a major cause of tension between East and West, and that this issue remains extremely divisive. On the one hand, the Eastern Orthodox world looks at the imposition of priestly celibacy on the Uniate communities with the same reaction as St. Photius: a great sense of not wanting to be in any shape or form under the control of the Roman Church. On the other hand, there is a strong traditionalist movement within Catholicism that sees the debate over celibacy as a liberal ploy to destroy the identity and essence of the Roman Catholic priesthood . This movement is supported by a current of thought that sees priestly celibacy not just as a discipline but indeed as an apostolic tradition. Among the few documents posted on the official Vatican web site on this topic, the overwhelming majority are strongly in favor of such a theory. We find for instance a lengthy article by a Roman Cholij who relies heavily on Fr. Cochini’s study: The apostolic origins of priestly celibacy. The title leaves no doubt as to the position being advocated, and this view, at least tacitly endorsed by the Vatican, is a factor that must be reckoned with.
This perspective will certainly surprise and challenge many, including the majority of Eastern Orthodox clergy who assumed that the Eastern discipline is the closest to the apostolic model. It must be understood, then, that the Latin insistence on priestly continence (which led to celibacy) has very profound roots, and that the underlying issues need to be squarely faced. If continence and celibacy are indeed an apostolic command, or even if this position becomes dominant in Roman Catholic circles, the effect on Catholic-Orthodox reconciliation cannot be ignored. Archbishop Vsevolod of Scopelos (EO) is very lucid on the importance of this issue:

Very recently, there are disturbing signs of a new effort in Rome itself to claim that sacerdotal celibacy is “an apostolic tradition,” and to suggest that the married priests of the Eastern Churches are not fully canonical. This seems to have begun with the book of Christian Cochini, Origines apostoliques du célibat sacerdotal and to have continued with special reference to the Eastern Churches in a tendentious book of Roman Cholij. The latter book carries a ringing endorsement from Alfons Cardinal Stickler, Librarian and Archivist of the Holy Roman Church. From such one-sided works, the attempt to present sacerdotal celibacy as an apostolic tradition then began to appear in Vatican documents, such as Pope John Paul II’s Pastores Dabo Vobis of 25 March 1992 and the Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests issued January 1993 by the Vatican Congregation of the Clergy, which actually asserts that “the Church, from apostolic times, has wished to conserve the gift of perpetual continence of the clergy and choose the candidates for Holy Orders from among the celibate faithful.” If this attempt succeeds – and may God not permit it – it would have the gravest consequence for the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue.

Over the past few years, the ‘apostolic tradition’ view has gained tremendous support in conservative Roman Catholic circles, including those connected with the ministry of convert-apologists. For instance, Fr. Ray Ryland, a married priest and convert from the Episcopal Church to Catholicism, wrote an article for Crisis Magazine entitled The Gift: A Married Priest Looks at Celibacy, in which he asserts:

The fact is, priestly celibacy is an apostolic institution.

Interestingly, Fr. Ryland can quote from the Vatican-publisher Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests for official support, with the added note that “the celibate faithful” would include married men who with their wives had vowed to observe perpetual continence after ordination. This married Roman Catholic priest concludes:

While I’m deeply grateful that the Church has made an exception for certain former Protestant clergy like me, the exception is clearly a compromise
I earlier noted that the advocacy of optional celibacy for priests reflects two basic errors. One is historical—a failure to recognize that priestly celibacy is an apostolic tradition. The other error lies in the ambiguity of the word “discipline” to characterize the Church’s rule of celibacy. True, the requirement of priestly celibacy is not part of the deposit of Faith. In a sense it is part of the Church’s discipline. But it is quite unlike all her other disciplines. Take the Church’s rules about fasting before receiving the Eucharist; about allowing meat on Friday if one otherwise fulfills the obligation of penance; about being allowed to register in a parish when one lives outside the parish bounds. These have been changed with no theological consequences.
Theoretically, if he so chose, the pope could set aside the rule of priestly celibacy overnight. But if he did, it would have a profound, negative effect on the Church’s understanding of herself and of the priesthood.

We are far from Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus which had stated:

If the legislation of the Eastern Church is different in the matter of discipline with regard to clerical celibacy, as was finally established by the Council of Trullo held in the year 692, and which has been clearly recognized by the Second Vatican Council, this is due to the different historical background of that most noble part of the Church, a situation which the Holy Spirit has providentially and supernaturally influenced.
We Ourselves take this opportunity to express Our esteem and Our respect for all the clergy of the Eastern Churches, and to recognize in them examples of fidelity and zeal which make them worthy of sincere veneration.

Theological and historical overview

Let us then review some of the historical and patristic evidence for the position advocated in Fr. Cochini’s landmark study.

The key to understanding this issue is not so much celibacy as it is continence. Nobody denies that there were married clergymen in the early post-apostolic Churches – the question is that of the nature of their conjugal relationship after ordination. If it is agreed that those who were ordained could not, by apostolic command, maintain physical relations with their wives, then the evolution of continence into celibacy makes sense. The ‘law of continence’ (lex continentiae) was undoubtedly normative in the West long before the Great Schism. The council of Elvira (Spain, 300-306), in a disputed canon, decided that:

[M]arriage 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.

The same principle was expressed in no ambiguous terms in a letter of St. Leo of Rome to the Bishop of Narbonne:

The law of continence is the same for the ministers of the altar, for the bishops and for the priests; when they were (still) lay people or lectors, they could freely take a wife and beget children. But once they have reached the ranks mentioned above, what had been permitted is no longer so.

A council held in Carthage in 390 confirmed this discipline for the Churches of North Africa and stressed the antiquity and apostolic origin of this law:

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 endeavor to keep. The bishops declared unanimously: It pleases us all that bishop, priest and deacon, guardians of purity, abstain from conjugal intercourse with their wives, so that those who serve at the altar may keep a perfect chastity.

It is noteworthy that on the Eastern side, the seventh century council in Trullo also claimed apostolic credentials for its repudiation of this discipline:

Since we know it to be handed down as a rule of the Roman Church that those who are deemed worthy to be advanced to the diaconate or presbyterate should promise no longer to cohabit with their wives, we, preserving the ancient rule and apostolic perfection and order, will that the lawful marriages of men who are in holy orders be from this time forward firm, by no means dissolving their union with their wives nor depriving them of their mutual intercourse at a convenient time.

If therefore anyone shall have dared, contrary to the apostolic Canons, to deprive any of those who are in holy orders, presbyter, or deacon, or subdeacon of cohabitation and intercourse with his lawful wife, let him be deposed. In like manner also if any presbyter or deacon on pretence of piety has dismissed his wife, let him be excluded from communion; and if he persevere in this let him be deposed.

Within the limited scope of this study, I would like to discuss the rationale behind the law of continence, the apostolic credentials of both positions, as well as the history of continence and celibacy in the East.

“Those who serve at the altar”

Regardless of any alleged apostolic origin, the canons of Carthage make it clear that continence is connected with proximity of the altar and the Old Testament laws of ritual purity applicable to the Levitical priesthood. The analogy between the threefold order of high priest-priest-Levite and bishop-presbyter-deacon was common, as can been verified in 1 Clement, Athanasius, etc. This imagery was especially popular in North Africa where it was even suggested that baptism should take place on the eighth day as the Christian equivalent to circumcision. If the ancient priesthood was bound by a law of temporary marital continence, was it not fitting that New Testament ‘priests’ should be committed to even higher ideals? And if the liturgical sacrifice was to be offered daily, the Levitical rules of abstinence before temple service made it impossible for clergy to ever have conjugal relations. Even the council in Trullo upheld the ideal of abstinence before service at the altar, but the fact that the Divine Liturgy was normally a weekly event did not prevent clerics from “mutual intercourse at a convenient time.”

Without passing judgment on the propriety of this transference of the Old Testament law to the New Covenant, we can understand how the Western ideal of the daily mass would require a continent or celibate clergy. We can also see that only those who were close to the altar, including deacons, would be bound by this ritual law. In this regard, it is somewhat inconsistent on the part of Roman Catholicism to have restored a permanent married diaconate that is exempt from a canon cited as an authoritative witness to apostolic tradition.
This marriage of Old Testament Levitical law and New Testament Christianity is especially hard to accept for Protestants who wonder how this ‘anti-Pauline’ drift could have taken place so quickly. Reformed theologian James White suggests that the lack of knowledge and recognition of the Epistle to the Hebrews limited its ability to act as an antidote against this ‘Levitization’ of Christianity.

Another important fact was the prevalent (and more biblical) understanding that virginity was the highest expression of Christian life. In the biblical context, this was never meant to exclude married man from service or to present conjugal relations as a necessary evil. Yet, the exaltation of the virginal and monastic ideals often turned into an extremely negative view of marriage. St. Augustine (perhaps by reason of his Manichean background and unmarried paternity) and St. Jerome were influential representatives of this position. In his Westminster Handbook to Patristics, Fr. John McGuckin (EO) comments:

Jerome was so effusive in his praise of virginity that he regarded marriage as only good for one thing, the production of more virgins in the ascetical life. His views caused furor in the Church of Rome among the married aristocrats, which was partly responsible for him leaving the capital to settle in Palestine.

The struggle with dualistic and unreasonably ascetic forms of Christianity is as old as the Pauline Epistles. The issue of celibacy (in general) continued to be addressed by the bishops of the early Church, Writing in the middle of the second century, Dionysus of Corinth “discussed marriage and celibacy at length”:

He urges Pitynus, the bishop, not to make celibacy compulsory for the brethren but to remember the weakness of many.

 St. Paul, an ardent promoter of virginity and celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom, was nevertheless concerned that heretical extremes were a strong temptation. The Epistle to the Hebrews, whose voice was so weak for so long, reminded its readers that “honorable {is} the marriage in all, and the bed undefiled” . In the East, this tradition of exalting virginity while honoring marriage was exemplified by St. John Chrysostom:

Marriage was not instituted for wantonness or fornication, but for chastity . Listen to what Paul says: “Because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” These are the two purposes for which marriage was instituted, to make us chaste, and to make us parents. Of these two, the reason of chastity takes precedence.

The question was twofold: is marriage holy and undefiled, yet possibly ritually impure as regards the service of the altar? If so, should Levitical abstinence be temporary (as in the Old Testament) or permanent?

The Scriptural paradigm and the Levitical model

The only scriptural texts directly relevant to the issue at hand are found in the pastoral writings of St. Paul. The only ‘apostolic requirements’ on record for the office of presbyter/bishop and deacon are clearly spelled out in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 2:

This is a sure word: if a man aspires to the office of overseer (bishop), he desires a good work. The overseer (bishop) must be irreproachable, husband of one wife, self-controlled, sensible, modest, hospitable and a good teacher. He must not be a drinker, not someone violent or greedy for money. He should be gentle, not irritable or envious. He should be someone who rules his own house well, keeping his [own] children in subjection with all reverence. (Indeed, if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how can he take care of the Church of God?)
Deacons, in the same way, must be reverent, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine and not greedy for money. They should keep the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience. Let them also be tested first; then let them serve if they are blameless. Likewise, their wives must be reverent, not slanderers but self-controlled and faithful in all things. Deacons should be husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.
I left you in Crete for this reason: that you would set in order the things that were lacking and appoint presbyters in every city, as I directed you, someone who is blameless, the husband of one wife, whose children believe and who are not accused of loose or unruly behavior. Indeed, the overseer (bishop) must be beyond reproach, as God’s steward; not self-pleasing, not easily angered, not someone who abuses wine, not violent and not greedy for dishonest gain. Instead, he should be hospitable, a lover of what is good, sensible, just, holy, self-controlled; holding fast to the sure word which is harmony with what has been taught, so that he may be able to exhort in the sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.
Indeed, the apostle concludes:
To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure. Their very minds and consciences are corrupted.

St. Paul’s instructions have never been understood as meaning that one must be married to qualify for ordination, as was obvious in the case of Timothy himself. Assuming that most candidates would be converts with families, the apostle indicated the ‘canonical boundaries’ of eligibility. Clearly, the great missionary favored celibacy which he understood as “a gift”:

Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. This I say by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind.  To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.

A few verses later, St. Paul also writes:

For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.

The apostolic advice, then, was filled with his wisdom and pastoral sense: that married couples, regardless of their role in the Church, should “not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again.”

It is quite possible that the “perhaps by agreement for a set time… to devote yourself to prayer” is applicable to the liturgical cycles, but in the New Testament, the word ‘priest’ (hiereus) is never applied to the ministers of the New Covenant. The letter to the Hebrews does not seem to leave much room for a Levitical type of system in the Church, although there are oblique references to “sacrifices ” and “an altar .” This epistle, which was an attempt to discourage Jewish Christians from returning to the old sacrificial system, was not widely received in the early Church and its influence was limited. Be that as it may, the Eucharist was always understood as a memorial sacrifice, offered by a priestly people, which meant that even though the term hiereus was not used in the New Testament in a ministerial sense, the concept was there. The early Christians were especially fond of applying Malachi 1:11 to the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Church . As a result, the fusion of episkopos-presbyteros and hiereus was accomplished soon after the destruction of the Temple. Hence, the book of Revelation can use the term presbyteroi to describe what is unmistakably a sacrificial office.

A glance at the Fathers

It is beyond the scope of this study to discuss every point of patristic evidence relevant to this topic. Let us then focus on the Levitical associations and on directly applicable statements.
1 Clement does not explicitly apply the Levitical language to the Christian ministers, although it is possible to argue that it was the author’s intention to do so. St. Athanasius, on the other hand, is very clear:

You shall see the Levites [priests] bringing loaves and a cup of wine, and placing them on the table. So long as the prayers of supplication and entreaties have not been made, there is only bread and wine. But after the great and wonderful prayers have been completed, the bread has become the Body, and the wine the Blood, of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This possible connection between the “bread of the presence” and the Eucharistic bread, brings us back to Matthew 12:4 and 1 Samuel 21:4. The story tells us that David’s men were allowed to partake of the consecrated bread was “only if the young men have kept themselves from women.”

This Levitical paradigm , turned omnibus (permanent) at Carthage, had a profound influence on Latin discipline, and was under serious consideration in the East. The idea that those who served at the altar should temporarily abstain from marital relations was implicitly retained at the council in Trullo, but the Old Testament ritual law was not extended to a permanent requirement.

In the West, St. Ambrose rebuked those who would follow the biblical discipline of temporary abstinence: relying extensively on the Levitical model, he exhorts his clergy with these words:

But you know that the ministerial office must be kept pure and unspotted, and must not be defiled by conjugal intercourse... I am mentioning this, because in some out-of-the-way places, when they enter on the ministry, or even when they become priests, they have begotten children. They defend this on the ground of old custom , when, as it happened, the sacrifice was offered up at long intervals.

This radicalization of the intent of Scripture is obvious in Ambrose’s treatise: where the apostle called for moderation as regards wine consumption, the bishop of Milan writes:
We note how much is required of us. The minister of the Lord should abstain from wine…
Pope Gregory the Great was painfully aware that the enforcement of permanent continence on all those who served at the altar, including subdeacons, was a problem, to put it mildly, for those who were married. It is in this context that the adoption of vows of life-long celibacy would slowly become the absolute norm in the Latin tradition.

In the East, the testimony of Clement of Alexandria (†215) is without ambiguity; after commenting on the texts of St. Paul noted above, and expressing his veneration for a life of chastity, he adds:

All the same, the Church fully receives the husband of one wife whether he be presbyter, deacon or layman, supposing always that he uses his marriage blamelessly, and such a one shall be saved in the begetting of children.

Hence, the rule of continence for clerics was sometimes endorsed, sometimes denounced. Commenting on the “husband of one wife” clause, Eusebius of Caesarea writes:

It is fitting, according to Scripture, ‘that a bishop be the husband of an only wife.’ But this being understood, it behooves consecrated men, and those who are at the service of God’s cult, to abstain thereafter from conjugal relations with their wives.

St Epiphanius (†403), a monk-bishop known for his “zeal for the monastic life” and who had close ties with the Church of Rome, was among those who promoted the ascetic ideal on all, including subdeacons:

Holy Church respects the dignity of the priesthood to such a point that she does not admit to the deaconate, the priesthood or the episcopate, nor even to the subdeaconate, anyone still living in marriage and begetting children. She accepts only him who if married gives up his wife or has lost her by death, especially in those places where the ecclesiastical canons are strictly attended to.

Fr. Cholij is wise in concluding that:

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 texts 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.

Once embarked on the path of merging the veterotestamental Levitical system with the New Testament model of elder/overseer/deacon, the Church had to redefine rules of ritual purity and impurity. For many centuries, communicants received the Eucharistic bread in their hands, which meant that the entire Christian people ‘touched and ate of the holy things.’ It is possible that all the faithful were called to abstain on the day before receiving communion, and this remains the operative guideline in the Eastern Orthodox Churches. The high priest, priest, Levite class system of the Old Testament was found to be a good match for the threefold order of bishop, presbyter, deacon – notwithstanding the strong language of the letter to the Hebrews. To this day, Orthodox bishops are honored with the song “To our high-priest and master grant O Lord many years!” Hence, a strict rule of continence was meant to reflect the higher and more perfect sacrifice of the New Covenant, and this rule was increasingly expected from all three orders of clergy, since they were more directly involved in the service at the altar, and this eventually included subdeacons.

While recognizing the fulfillment of the Old Covenant in the New, many question how this ‘Levitization’ of the Church can be harmonized with the writings of St. Paul and the spirit of the New Testament. It is perhaps indicative that ‘Bible-only Christians’ reach all sort of conclusions based on their varied interpretations of the Scriptures, but never conclude that those ordained should be under obligation to abandon marital relations. Jerome, in his extreme eagerness to exalt virginity and disparate marital relations, went so far as to present the pagan ideal of clerical continence as some kind of model.

[Before] the light of our religion shone upon the world, wives of one husband ever held high rank among matrons, that by their hands the sacred rites of Fortuna Muliebris were performed, that a priest or Flamen twice married was unknown, that the high-priests of Athens to this day emasculate themselves by drinking hemlock, and once they have been drawn in to the pontificate, cease to be men.

It was unavoidable that after years of pro-ascetic ascendancy, a strong counter-reaction would take place, which was indeed the case in the Persian Churches where clerical continence was completely rejected. The story of Paphnutius’ intervention at Nicea, legendary or real, is another sign that the imperial East was increasingly aware that Epiphanius’ ideal that those ordained were “forbidden entirely to live with their wives and to beget children” was disputably apostolic as well as a cause of contention and sin. The words of St. Paul of “because of fornications, let every man have his own wife” and “marriage is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled ” would then be taken into account to define the policy that endures to this day in the Eastern Churches.

The testimony of the councils

As we have seen, the first attempt to canonize the ideal of clerical continence is generally traced back to the council of Elvira (306-311) whose president was probably the great Hosius of Cordova. Because of the intense struggle over this issue that developed in the West during the following centuries, it is also possible that canon 33 could be a later addition. This is, for instance, the opinion of Archbishop Peter L’Huillier (EO):

As for canon 33 attributed to the council held in Elvira, today, Grenada, around 306-311, which made a law to this effect, it is part of the group of canons added at a later time. Only the first twenty-one canons were issued by the above mentioned council.

The same doubts exist regarding the canons of the council of Arles of 314, but there is no question that the issue of continence was widely discussed and debated. In the East, the council of Ancyra (also 314) explicitly allowed the deacons, under certain conditions, to get married after ordination and thereafter to maintain their married relations:

They who have been made deacons, declaring when they were ordained that they must marry, because they were not able to abide so, and who afterwards have married, shall continue in their ministry, because it was conceded to them by the bishop. But if any were silent on this matter, undertaking at their ordination to abide as they were, and afterwards proceeded to marriage, these shall cease from the diaconate.

The local councils, including that of Neo-Caesarea, never discussed the issue of married clerics having children, all the while laying down strict canonical penalties for immorality. It is clear, then, that the rule of continence for those who served at the altar was a matter of variable discipline.

We now arrive at the much misunderstood canons and discussions of Nicea. Canon 3 is sometimes understood as an imposition of continence on all clerics by a few untrained Roman Catholic apologists. But this view is not held by serious scholars on both sides. Peter L’Huillier comments:

The Nicene canon does not mention the legitimate wife among the women who may properly live with a cleric; must we deduce that the fathers of the first ecumenical council wanted to impose celibacy or a separation from their wives on the members of the clergy? Such an interpretation is totally excluded… In fact, the question [of continence] in all probability was not even touched on at Nicea. The anecdote reported by Socrates, taken up again by Sozomen and Gelasius of Cyzicus, about the favorable intervention on behalf of maintaining the ancient marriage discipline for the clergy made by a certain Paphnutius, bishop of the Upper Thebaid, is probably only a legend fabricated in the East at the beginning of the fifth century. It constituted one form of censure in the face of attempts by Rome to impose permanent celibacy on clerics in holy orders. As for canon 33 attributed to the council held in Elvira, today, Grenada, around 306-311, which made a law to this effect, it is part of the group of canons added at a later time. Only the first twenty-one canons were issued by the above mentioned council. Under these conditions, it is certain that the fathers of Nicea had no other intention than to forbid celibate clerics to live with women under suspicious conditions.

What really happened at Nicea? Was there an actual bishop Paphnutius whose speech put an end to any temptation to regulate the conjugal life of married clerics?
It is almost certain that the Fathers of Nicea did consider a legislation regulating clerical marriages, as would be expected if Hosius was a supporter of the lex continentiae. Yet, no such canons were passed, which confirms the widely held view that such a project was abandoned by the Council. Socrates the Historian (c. †450) is worth quoting in full on this matter:

Paphnutius was bishop of one of the cities in Upper Thebes: he was a man so favored divinely that extraordinary miracles were done by him. In the time of the persecution he had been deprived of one of his eyes… I shall now explain another thing which came to pass in consequence of his advice, both for the good of the Church and the honor of the clergy. It seemed fit to the bishops to introduce a new law into the Church, that those who were in holy orders, I speak of bishops, presbyters, and deacons, should have no conjugal intercourse with the wives whom they had married while still laymen. Now when discussion on this matter was impending, Paphnutius having arisen in the midst of the assembly of bishops, earnestly entreated them not to impose so heavy a yoke on the ministers of religion: asserting that ‘marriage itself is honorable, and the bed undefiled’; Hebrews 13:4 urging before God that they ought not to injure the Church by too stringent restrictions. ‘For all men,’ said he, ‘cannot bear the practice of rigid continence; neither perhaps would the chastity of the wife of each be preserved:’ and he termed the intercourse of a man with his lawful wife chastity... And these sentiments he expressed, although himself without experience of marriage, and, to speak plainly, without ever having known a woman: for from a boy he had been brought up in a monastery, and was specially renowned above all men for his chastity. The whole assembly of the clergy assented to the reasoning of Paphnutius: wherefore they silenced all further debate on this point, leaving it to the discretion of those who were husbands to exercise abstinence if they so wished in reference to their wives.

This statement would seem to settle the matter now as it did then, if it was not for the fact that the Paphnutius story is now under suspicion of being a legend invented by Socrates himself, and repeated on his authority by subsequent Church historians. The popular online edition of the 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia now contains a rare Editor’s note:

Editor’s note: More recent scholarship has strengthened the case for the legendary character of the Paphnutius story, and its possible origin in Novatianist circles. According to Winkelmann (1968), Stickler (1970) and Heid (1997), it seems unlikely that this Paphnutius ever attended the council, much less made the speech attributed to him. See Christian Cochini, The apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy and Stefan Heid, Celibacy in the Early Church.

On the Eastern Orthodox side, we have seen that such an eminent authority as Archbishop Peter L’Huillier considers the story “probably only a legend fabricated in the East at the beginning of the fifth century.” It should be admitted, though, that the reasons for rejecting the ‘Paphnutius intervention’ are rather weak: the improbability of his presence at the Council, and the suspected sympathy of Socrates for the Novatians who opposed the lex continentiae. Yet, Socrates Scholasticus is recognized as a reliable and intellectually honest historian, whose esteem for the Novatians was based on their moral integrity but who remained a faithful member of the catholic Church. The fact the Novatians, a very conservative group who even held to the Quatrodeciman calendar, rejected the lex continentiae is in fact a strong argument against its apostolic origin. The word is out, then, on the authenticity of the Paphnutius story, but the discourse ascribed to the holy ascetic is worth listening to with attention and as a reflection of the mind of the Byzantine East.
Years after Nicea, the council of Gangra (c. 325-c. 381) had to reaffirm the dignity of the married presbyterate, obviously because some among the people felt that the Eucharistic offering might be defiled by the bonds of marriage:

Canon 4: If any one shall maintain, concerning a married presbyter, that it is not lawful to partake of the oblation when he offers it, let him be anathema.
The Apostolic Constitutions (c. 390) represent the same spirit:
6. Let not a bishop, a priest, or a deacon cast off his own wife under pretence of piety; but if he does cast her off, let him be suspended. If he go on in it, let him be deprived.
51. If any bishop, or presbyter, or deacon, or indeed any one of the sacerdotal catalogue, abstains from marriage, flesh, and wine, not for his own exercise, but because he abominates these things, forgetting that “all things were very good,” Genesis 1:31 and that “God made man male and female,” Genesis 1:26 and blasphemously abuses the creation, either let him reform, or let him be deprived, and be cast out of the Church; and the same for one of the laity.

After reviewing this evidence, the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1910 concludes that:
[Whether] through imperial influence or not the Council of Trullo, in 692, finally adopted a somewhat stricter view. Celibacy in a bishop became a matter of precept. If he were previously married, he had at once to separate from his wife upon his consecration. On the other hand, this council, while forbidding priests, deacons, and subdeacons to take a wife after ordination, asserts in emphatic terms their right and duty to continue in conjugal relations with the wife to whom they had been wedded previously.

We now return to the West to consider the legislation of the law of continence, especially in Latin North African. From Tertullian’s admiration of the number of those in sacred orders who had embraced continence, we arrive at the previously-mentioned council of Carthage of 390. The “endeavor” to live out the lex continentiae was then upheld and solidified by the North African bishops in 419:

Aurelius the bishop said: When at the past council [of 390] the matter on continence and chastity was considered, those three grades, which by a sort of bond are joined to chastity by their consecration, i.e. bishops, presbyters, and deacons, so it seemed that it was becoming that the sacred rulers and priests of God as well as the Levites, or those who served at the divine sacraments, should be continent altogether (omnibus), by which they would be able with singleness of heart to ask what they sought from the Lord: so that what the Apostles taught and antiquity kept, that we might also keep.

The same regulations were issued in Rome and in the West, although it is admitted that neither celibacy nor continence were fully enforced until the Gregorian reforms of the eleventh century.

The mind of St. John Chrysostom

Because St. John Chrysostom is considered, along with Basil and Gregory, as the expression of the Mind of the East, it behooves us to consider what the great commentator had to say about this subject. In his homily on 1 Corinthians 7, he notes:

Therefore he says… “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” “For if,” says he, “you enquire what is the excellent and greatly superior course, it is better not to have any connection whatever with a woman:  but if you ask what is safe and helpful to your own infirmity, be connected by marriage.”
But since it was likely, as also happens now, that the husband might be willing but the wife not, or perhaps the reverse, mark how he discusses each case. Some indeed say that this discourse was addressed by him to presbyters. But I, judging from what follows, could not affirm that it was so: since he would not have given his advice in general terms. For if he were writing these things only for the presbyters, he would have said, “It is good for the teacher not to touch a woman.” But now he has made it of universal application, saying, “It is good for a man;” not for presbyters only… And in saying, “Because of fornications, let every man have his own wife” by the very cause alleged for the concession he guides men to continence.

These comments indicate that some were wondering if the question of celibacy and continence was especially relevant for clergy, but John makes no conclusive comments. His exegesis of 1 Timothy 3 is much more revealing:

“A bishop then,” he says, “must be blameless, the husband of one wife.” This he does not lay down as a rule, as if he must not be without one, but as prohibiting his having more than one... Why does he say the husband of one wife? Some indeed think that he says this with reference to one who remains free from a wife. But if otherwise, he that has a wife may be as though he had none. (1 Cor. vii. 29.) For that liberty was then properly granted, as suited to the nature of the circumstances then existing. And it is very possible, if a man will, so to regulate his conduct. For as riches make it difficult to enter into the kingdom of Heaven, yet rich men have often entered in, so it is with marriage. But why does he say, speaking of a bishop, that he should be “not given to wine, hospitable,” when he should name greater things? Why said he not that he should be an angel, not subject to human passions? Where are those great qualities of which Christ speaks, which even those under their rule ought to possess? Why are not these things required by Paul? Plainly because few could be found of such a character, and there was need of many bishops, that one might preside in every city.
But because the Churches were to be exposed to attacks, he [St. Paul] requires not that superior and highly exalted virtue, but a moderate degree of it; for to be sober, of good behavior, and temperate, were qualities common to many.
This is rightly said, as he was certain to be reproached by them, and for the same reason perhaps he said, “the husband of one wife,” though elsewhere he says, “I would that all men were even as I myself!” (1 Cor. vii. 7.), that is, practicing continence. That he may not therefore confine them within too narrow a limit, by requiring an over-strict conversation, he is satisfied to prescribe moderate virtue.

This text is consistent with St. Paul and Chrysostom’s own views on the superiority of celibacy, the option of temporary abstinence, as well as the honorable state of marital relations, which he calls “moderate virtue.” For the great archbishop, St. Paul was realistic and pastorally wise: it was indeed possible for a married bishop to “regulate his conduct” to continence, but it was not required. Commenting on the parallel text of Titus 2:

If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children, not accused of riot or unruly. Why does he bring forward such a one? To stop the mouths of those heretics, who condemned marriage, showing that it is not an unholy thing in itself, but so far honorable, that a married man might ascend the holy throne…

At no point does Chrysostom suggest that married clerics are bound by a law of continence. His advice, which he insists applies to all, is quite practical and direct:

Wherefore [St. Paul] says, “Defraud not one another, unless it be by consent for a season, that you may give yourselves unto prayer.” It is prayer with unusual earnestness which he here means. For if he is forbidding those who have intercourse with one another to pray, how could “pray without ceasing” have any place? It is possible then to live with a wife and yet give heed unto prayer. But by continence prayer is made more perfect. For he did not say merely, “That you may pray;” but, “That you may give yourselves unto it” as though what he speaks of might cause not uncleanness but much occupation… But this I say by way of permission, not of commandment. For I would that all men were even as I myself; in a state of continence.”
“Howbeit each man has his own gift from God, one after this manner, and another after that.” Do you see the strong sense of Paul how he both signifies that continence is better, and yet puts no force on the person who cannot attain to it; fearing lest some offence arise?

In this, Chrysostom seems like an echo of the words attributed to Paphnutius at Nicea. It should be noted, though, that Palladius the historian reports that the list of charges against Antoninus of Ephesus included “sixth, that after separating from his married wife, he had taken her again, and had had children born to him by her.” It seems that in spite of famous examples (such as Gregory Nazianzen’s father), it was now expected that bishops would separate from their wife after consecration. It is probably for this reason that Synesius († about 430), when elected bishop of Ptolemais (Egypt), conditioned his ordination to his ability to remain truly married.

Antoninus died before John became involved with the affairs, hence no conclusion can be inferred as to his position on this matter, since simony was the only issue that was really dealt with at the subsequent synod.

The Gregorian Reform and beyond

Historians generally agree that the lex continentiae omnibus of the Latin West came under intense criticism as the decay of the Roman Patriarchate reached frightening proportions. The Catholic Encyclopedia summarizes:

A terrible picture of the decay both of clerical morality and of all sense of anything like vocation is drawn in the writings of St. Peter Damian, particularly in his “Liber Gomorrhianus.” The style, no doubt, is rhetorical and exaggerated, and his authority as an eyewitness does not extend beyond that district of Northern Italy, in which he lived, but we have evidence from other sources that the corruption was widespread… Undoubtedly during this period the traditions of sacerdotal celibacy in Western Christendom suffered severely but even though a large number of the clergy, not only priests but bishops, openly took wives and begot children to whom they transmitted their benefices, the principle of celibacy was never completely surrendered in the official enactments of the Church.

It is under the strong pontificate of Pope Gregory VII (Hilderbrand) that the Latin Church addressed the matter with a firm adoption of life-long celibacy as the best solution for all:
With Pope St. Leo IX, St. Gregory VII (Hildebrand), and their successors, a determined and successful stand was made against the further spread of corruption. For a while in certain districts where effective interference appeared hopeless, it would seem that various synodal enactments allowed the rural clergy to retain the wives to whom they had previously been married. See, for example, the Councils of Lisieux of 1064, Rouen in 1063 and 1072, and Winchester, this last presided over by Lanfranc, in 1076. In all these we may possibly trace the personal influence of William the Conqueror. But despite these concessions, the attitude of Gregory VII remained firm, and the reform which he consolidated has never subsequently been set aside… The point is of importance because the evidence seems to show that in this long struggle the whole of the more high-principled and more learned section of the clergy was enlisted in the cause of celibacy.

The council of Trent, in its Doctrine on the Sacrament of Orders (1563) stipulated that although celibacy was not a divine law, the Church had the authority to impose celibacy as a discipline, which is to this day the practical position of both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

The strict standard adopted by the Roman Catholic Church became so identified with the essence of a vocational priesthood that it is almost incompatible with the Eastern tradition. The imposition of celibacy on many Uniate communities, which endures to this day, is a reminder that the idea of a married priesthood is quite intolerable for traditional-minded Roman Catholics, whereas the pressure to abolish the discipline is often promoted as part of a liberal agenda that is at odds with both authentic Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

The mind of the Roman Catholic magisterium on priestly celibacy today was recently reemphasized in 1992 the synodal document Pastores dabo vobis, where Pope John Paul II affirmed that “the Synod does not wish to leave any doubts in the mind of anyone regarding the Church’s firm will to maintain the law that demands perpetual and freely chosen celibacy for present and future candidates for priestly ordination in the Latin rite.”


However contrary this may be to the modern mind, Fr. Ryland has a point: a married clergy can be seen as “compromise,” a ‘lower ideal.’ This unpopular affirmation is simply based on the scriptural model of service and dedication. St. Paul viewed the married state as a holy icon of Christ and His Church , but also as “a concession ,” or what St. John Chrysostom calls “moderate virtue.” It must be recognized with the Apostle that not all have received the gift of celibacy or continence which certainly opens the door for undivided service to the Kingdom. At the same time, there is a safe harbor in the holy and undefiled marriage bed that is well understood, especially in today’s world. The disciplinary practice of East and West have borne the fruits that can be expected from both disciplines, some glorious, some more problematic.

The Church has always seen in dedicated virginity a living icon of the age to come, a radiant witness to radical discipleship to our Lord Jesus Christ. Certainly, celibate vocations, for those who have received this gift, should be fostered, and those who embrace this vocation should live in a context that is helpful and supportive. The trouble with the Latin model of the vocational priesthood is that is presupposes that the highest forms of service in the Church are now reserved to those who have also received the gift of celibacy. There are many gifted preachers who found themselves discouraged from entering the Roman Catholic Communion because ministerial service is reserved to the celibate caste.

The restoration of the permanent diaconate in the wake of Vatican II - without requirements of marital continence – has addressed this problem with significant success. In seems quite obvious, though, that in post-Vatican II liturgics, ‘proximity to the altar’ is granted to just about anyone, so that the Levitical model endorsed by the councils of Carthage is in fact abandoned, along with the Temple worship paradigm of the Novus Ordo. The Eastern discipline of the altar, which includes Levitical continence on the day prior to serving the Divine Liturgy – seems consistent with the ancient spirit of the ancient Eastern Christianity.

Actually, enforced continence for married clerics.

December 4, 2006 – by John L. Allen, Jr.

Presbyters only came to be called priests (in the sense of ‘sacrificer’) and ‘fathers’ with the development of the parish as a Eucharistic community detached from the physical presence of the bishop.

For instance, Metropolitan Elias of Mount Lebanon.

Orthodox Christians would agree that there are reasons for this fear: the liberal agenda concerning celibacy operates with entirely different motivations than Eastern Christianity.

Interestingly, Fr. Cholij is a Ukrainian Catholic, which indicates the reception of this view among the uniate leadership.

WAAB, pp. 288-289

Fr. Ryland means continence, as he explains in his article.

October 5 , 2006, accessed at

Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, Priestly Celibacy; Pope Paul VI, 1967, par. 38

Canon 33

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

Canon 3

It is sometimes argued that Trullo changed the wording of the Carthaginian canons to limit the requirement of continence (for married clergy) to days of service at the altar, which was indeed the Old Testament law for Levitical priests.

The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology, John McGuckin, WJK, Louisville, Kentucky, 2004, p. 57. The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1910 concurs: “Jerome recognizes the legitimacy of marriage, but he uses concerning it certain disparaging expressions which were criticized by contemporaries and for which he has given no satisfactory explanation.”

1 Timothy 4:1

HE, p. 159

Hebrews 13:4, YLT

The Greek word conveys the idea of ‘wholesomeness’.

MFL, p. 85

1 Timothy 3:1-13 EOB

Titus 2:5-9 EOB

Verse 15

1 Corinthians 7:5-8

In a non-propitiatory sense, Hebrews 13:16.

Hebrews 13:10

“For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the LORD of hosts.”

Revelations 4:1-10

Sermon to the Newly Baptized

Abstinence on the day of service for priests, abstinence for seven days for the High Priest prior to Yom Kippur

This quote seems to support the Eastern view: the older custom was both to offer ‘the sacrifice’ at long intervals (once a week) and to observe limited continence on the day before.

De officiis ministrorum, Book 1, 258 (c. 391 AD)

Stromateiae, III, xiii

Demonstratio Evangelica, I, 9

Adv. Haer., 48, 9; 59,4; Expositio Fidei, 21. Epiphanius recognized that this ideal was not applied everywhere.

Priestly celibacy in patristics and in the history of the Church, op. cit.

Against Jovinianus (Book I)

The same adjective (avmi,antoj) is applied in Hebrews to Jesus Christ as the all holy high priest (Hebrews 7:26; 13:4)

TCAC, pp. 35-36

Canon 10

TCAC, pp. 35-36

Church History, Book I, chapter 11

Canon XLVII.6

Entry: Celibacy of the Clergy

Code of Canons of the African Church

Homily XIX on 1 Corinthians 7

Homily X on First Timothy

Homily 19 on 1 Corinthians

Declaring: “God, the law, and the consecrated hand of Theophilus (bishop of Alexandria), have given me a wife. I say now beforehand, and I protest, that I will neither ever part from her, nor live with her in secret as if in an unlawful connection; for the one is utterly contrary to religion, the other to the laws; but I desire to receive many and good children from her” (Epist. 105 ed. Basil., cited in the original Greek in Gieseler).

In an EWTN interview hosted by Dn. Bill Steltemeier on the subject of celibacy, the guest (a Roman Catholic priest) actually stated that ‘a married priesthood is equivalent to bigamy’.

Ephesians 5:22-33

“This I say by way of concession, however, not as a command. Indeed, I wish everyone to be as I am, but each has a particular gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” (1 Corinthians 7:6-7)

Roman Catholic married deacons are able to do many things that priests do (counseling, baptisms, weddings, preaching), except for offering the Eucharist and granting sacramental absolution.

And permanent continence for the bishop who is seen as a parallel to the ancient High Priest.