Discipline of Celibacy:
Definition of Terms:
The practice of celibacy refers to the commitment made by certain members of the clergy to remain unmarried and abstain from sexual relations. This practice has a Biblical foundation and is considered an eschatological sign of the fact that celibacy will be universal in heaven: “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30). Christ Himself promises that those who choose celibacy for His sake will be rewarded; (Luke 18:28-30). Christ also says that celibacy is not something all men can do, but that those who can, should; (Matthew 19:12). St Paul endorses celibacy for those capable of it and states that he himself practiced celibacy (1 Cor. 7:6-9). Paul even goes on to make a case for preferring celibacy to marriage (7:27-34), and concludes that “he who marries does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better” (7:38).
It is essential to understand that celibacy is not a doctrine or dogma, but is rather a discipline which has been imposed to varying degrees throughout history. As such, it is subject to change over time and is not always the rule for all Catholic priests, even today. Celibacy is one of the biggest acts of self sacrifice that a priest is called upon to make. When a priest is ordained, the Church becomes his highest calling. The main reasons behind the Catholic practice of celibacy are:
- Celibacy allows priests and other clergy members to dedicate themselves fully to their pastoral duties, spiritual growth, and service to the Church without the responsibilities and distractions of family life. Celibacy allows priests and other clergy members to be more available to their parishioners and the Church.
- By choosing celibacy, clergy members imitate Christ’s example of total self-giving and undivided attention to His mission. It is seen as a way to demonstrate their total commitment to God and the Church. By abstaining from the marital bond, they can focus more completely on their relationship with Christ and grow in their love for Him.
- Celibacy is considered a sacrificial offering by clergy members, renouncing the natural desire for marital companionship and family life to dedicate themselves entirely to their ministry and service to God and His people. This consecration sets them apart for a unique vocation within the Church.
- Celibacy better enables clergy to embrace evangelical poverty, which involves living a simple and detached lifestyle, free from material attachments. By renouncing the ownership of worldly goods, clergy can be more focused on the spiritual needs of their congregation.
- Celibacy is also understood in eschatological terms, representing the future reality of the Kingdom of God, where there will be no marriage or procreation (Matthew 22:30).
Historical evidence suggests that celibacy for clergy gradually became more widespread and established as an ideal within certain Christian communities. Some early Church Fathers, such as Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35 – 108 AD) and Polycarp (c. 69 – 155 AD), who were disciples of the apostles, are believed to have lived celibate lives. Their teachings and writings often emphasized the value of chastity and self-restraint, setting an example of clerical celibacy. Several Church Fathers, including Melito of Sardis and Origen of Alexandria, were purported to be celibate. Ambrose of Milan (c. 337 – 397 AD) and Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 AD) saw celibacy as a way to emulate Christ’s example and to be more fully consecrated to the service of God.
The practice of clerical celibacy varied in different regions of the early Church. While it was more commonly observed in the East, the rise of the monastic movement in the early Church, beginning with Anthony the Great, further promoted the value of celibacy as a means of total dedication to God. Many of the early monks and nuns were celibate and became influential figures in the Church. Over time, the practice of clerical celibacy and the requirement of continence became more widely established in the Western Latin Rite of the Catholic Church.
Early Church councils and synods demonstrate the gradual development of clerical celibacy and the increasing trend of restricting married clergy from holding higher offices such as bishopric. While the practice of allowing married men to become bishops continued in some regions and traditions, these councils reflect the emerging preference for celibate clergy in leadership roles. In the case of married clergy who were widowers, they were discouraged from having a second marriage (1 Tim. 3:2). Over time, the practice of clerical celibacy became more firmly established in the Catholic Church and became the norm for bishops and priests in the Latin Rite. Some early Church Councils and Synods that gave rulings on clerical celibacy include;
- The Council of Elvira, held around 305 AD in Spain, issued a decree that clerics should abstain from sexual relations with their wives, reinforcing the idea of clerical celibacy. This decree also included a provision that widowers should not remarry, suggesting that the practice of clerical continence applied not only to those who were never married but also to those who had lost their spouses.
- The First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD in modern day Turkey did not explicitly address celibacy but had canons concerning the ordination of already married men to the priesthood. Canon 3 of the council allowed already married men to be ordained priests, but it forbade them from marrying after ordination.
- The Synod of Rome (386 AD), convened under Pope Siricius, issued a letter to Himerius, Bishop of Tarragona, in response to certain questions posed by Himerius. In the letter, Pope Siricius expressed support for clerical celibacy and asserted that those who were ordained to the priesthood or diaconate should maintain perpetual continence and abstain from sexual relations with their wives.
- The Council of Carthage (390 AD), in Northern Africa, addressed the issue of clerical celibacy more directly. Canon 3 of this council declared that bishops, priests, and deacons should abstain from sexual relations with their wives, and those who failed to do so were threatened with being removed from their clerical office. Additionally, Canon 4 of the same council specifically prohibited widowers from remarrying, reiterating the importance of clerical continence.
- The Synod of Hippo (393 AD) in North Africa discussed various issues, including the requirement of continence for clergy. Canon 21 of this synod reaffirmed that bishops, priests, and deacons should abstain from sexual relations with their wives, and widowers were also expected to observe clerical continence.
- The Council of Toledo (400 AD) in Spain addressed the issue of clerical celibacy. Canon 10 of this council mandated that bishops, priests, and deacons should abstain from sexual relations with their wives. Those who violated this rule were to be excommunicated and removed from their clerical office.
- The Synod of Orange (441 AD), held in Southern France, reaffirmed the requirement of clerical celibacy. Canon 21 of this synod stated that clerics should abstain from sexual relations with their wives, and those who did not observe this rule were to be removed from their office, including widowers who were ordained to these offices.
- The Council of Agde (506 AD) in Southern France addressed the issue of clerical celibacy. Canon 13 of this council reaffirmed the requirement of continence for bishops, priests, and deacons, and those who violated this rule were to be deposed from their offices.
- The Council of Orleans (511 AD) in France issued a canon that reiterated the requirement of clerical celibacy. Canon 23 of this council stated that bishops, priests, and deacons should abstain from sexual relations with their wives. Violators were subject to penance and were not allowed to continue in their clerical roles.
- The Second Council of Tours (567 AD) in France addressed the issue of clerical celibacy. Canon 17 of this council mandated that bishops, priests, and deacons should abstain from conjugal relations with their wives. Those who did not observe this requirement were to be removed from their office.
- The Third Council of Toledo (589 AD) in Spain addressed the issue of clerical celibacy. Canon 13 of this council restated the requirement of continence for bishops, priests, and deacons, and those who violated this rule were to be removed from their offices.
- The Council of Trullo (Quinisext Council, 692 AD), held in Constantinople, reaffirmed the ideal of clerical celibacy. Canon 13 of the council stated that bishops, priests, and deacons should not cohabit with their wives, and those who did so were to be deposed from their offices.
Clerical celibacy became more firmly established in the Latin Church during the Middle Ages and was officially mandated by the First Lateran Council in 1123. Subsequent Church councils and papal decrees further reinforced and solidified the practice of clerical celibacy within the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church.
“For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”
“Peter said, ‘Look, we have left our homes and followed you.’ And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.'”
“For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”
1 Corinthians 7:6-9:
“Now, as a concession, not a command, I say this. 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.”
1 Corinthians 7:27-38:
“Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin. Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that. I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none.”
1 Timothy, 3: 2
“Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach.”
Church Father Quotes:
Ignatius of Antioch
“It is fitting for men and women who marry to be united with the consent of the bishop, that the marriage may be in accordance with the will of God.” – St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to Polycarp, 5.
“[Scripture says:] ‘There are some who have been made eunuchs of men, and some who were born eunuchs, and some who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake; but all cannot receive this saying’ [Matt. 19:12, 11]. . . . And many [of us], both men and women, who have been Christ’s disciples from childhood, remain pure at the age of sixty or seventy years; and I boast that I could produce such from every race of men” (First Apology 15 [A.D. 151]).
Hippolytus of Rome
“For if anyone has attained unto the high prize of virginity, and walks in the way of the Lord, she is full of the Holy Spirit, and can become a beautiful temple of God.” – St. Hippolytus, On the Veiling of Virgins, 1.
Cyprian of Carthage
“Let no one envy the virgins, who, preserving their bodies and minds undefiled, have obtained from the Lord this desirable honor.” – St. Cyprian, To the Virgins, 4.
“The first decree commanded to increase and to multiply; the second enjoined continency. While the world is still rough and void, we are propagated by the fruitful begetting of numbers, and we increase to the enlargement of the human race. Now, when the world is filled and the earth supplied, they who can receive continency, living after the manner of eunuchs, are made eunuchs unto the kingdom. Nor does the Lord command this, but He exhorts it; nor does He impose the yoke of necessity, since the free choice of the will is left.” –Three Books of Testimonies against the Jews
“But if they [consecrated virgins] have faithfully dedicated themselves to Christ, let them persevere in modesty and chastity, without incurring any evil report, and so in courage and steadiness await the reward of virginity. But if they are unwilling or unable to persevere, it is better that they should marry than that by their crimes they should fall into the fire. Certainly let them not cause a scandal to the brethren or sisters.” (Letters 61:2 [A.D. 253]).
“If a husband comes upon his wife and sees her lying with another man, is he not angry and raging, and by the passion of his rage does he not perhaps take his sword into his hand? And what shall Christ our Lord and Judge think when he sees his virgin, dedicated to him, and destined for his holiness, [merely] lying with another? How indignant and angry is he, and what penalties does he threaten against such unchaste connections!” (ibid., 61:3).
Liturgy of Mark
“Remember the orthodox bishops everywhere, the elders, deacons, sub-deacons, readers, singers, monks, virgins, widows, and laity” (Liturgy of Mark, priest’s prayer during the offering of incense [A.D. 250]).
Methodius of Olympus
“He alone truly lives who is twice born, first of the flesh, then of the Spirit.” – St. Methodius, The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, Discourse 5:3.
Council of Elvira
“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.”- Council of Elvira, Canon 33. (305 A.D.)
Council of Ancrya
“If any persons who profess virginity shall disregard their profession, let them fulfill the [penitential] term for bigamists [since they were first married spiritually to Christ]. And, moreover, we prohibit women who are virgins from living with men as sisters” (canon 19 [A.D. 314]).
Cyril of Jerusalem
“He who abides in marriage is for the kingdom of heaven, and he who lives in virginity is for the kingdom of heaven.” – St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, Lecture 4:2.
Epiphanius of Salamis
“The purity of the bride is the glory of the bridegroom.” – St. Epiphanius, The Panarion, Against Heresies, 61:4.
Athanasius of Alexandria
“Now these arguments of ours do not amount merely to words, but have in actual experience a witness to their truth. For let him that will, go up and behold the proof of virtue in the virgins of Christ and in the young men that practice holy chastity, and the assurance of immortality in so great a band of His martyrs” (The Incarnation of the Word of God 48:1-2 [A.D. 318]).
“The Son of God, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, having become man for our sakes . . . bestowed this also upon us, that we should possess upon earth, in the state of virginity, a picture of the holiness of angels. Accordingly, such as have attained this virtue, the Catholic Church has been accustomed to call the brides of Christ. The heathen who see them express their admiration of them as the temples of the Word. For indeed this holy and heavenly profession is nowhere established, but only among us Christians, and it is a very strong argument that with us is to be found the genuine and true religion. … [Yet now the Arians], having obtained the consent and cooperation of the magistrates, first stripped them and then caused them to be suspended . . . and scourged them on the ribs so severely three several times, that not even real malefactors have suffered the like. . . . All men shudder at hearing the bare recital of deeds like these” (Defense Before Constantius 33 [A.D. 357]).
Basil the Great
“He who is chaste in flesh should be so in heart also.” – St. Basil the Great, Letter 217:5.
Gregory of Nazianzus
“Continence leads to God.” – St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 37:17.
“Nothing is more powerful than the prayers of a pure soul and a chaste body.” – St. John Chrysostom, On the Priesthood, 3:5.
Gregory of Nyssa
“Celibacy is, as it were, a hedge for the Church.” – St. Gregory of Nyssa, On Virginity.
Ambrose of Milan
“O priest, thou art a minister of God! If it is so difficult to be continent, where will you stand if you are corrupt?” – St. Ambrose, Exposition of the Gospel of Luke, 7:86.
Council of Hippo
“[H]oly virgins, when they are separated from their parents by whom they have been wont to be guarded, are to be commended by the care of the bishop, or presbyter where the bishop is absent, to women of graver age, so that living with them they may take care of them, lest they hurt the reputation of the Church by wandering about” (canon 31 [A.D. 393]).
Jerome of Stridon
“I beg you, my brother, to live among the virgins, among those consecrated to God, since it was from among them that the Lord chose his mother.” – St. Jerome, Letter 22:21.
Augustine of Hippo
“Celibacy for the sake of God’s kingdom is an excellent thing, for it enables a man to devote himself entirely to prayer.” – St. Augustine, On the Good of Marriage, 24:32.
Council of Chalcedon
“It is not lawful for a virgin who has dedicated herself to the Lord God, nor for monks, to marry; and if they are found to have done this, let them be excommunicated. But we decree that in every place the bishop shall have the power of indulgence toward them” (canon 16 [A.D. 451]).
“Blessed is he who, wishing to be more perfectly cleansed, so lives as if he were never going to die.” – St. John Cassian, Conferences, Conference 1:18.
Patrick of Ireland
“How, then, are the people of Ireland, who never had the knowledge of God, but until now worshiped idols and unclean things, how are they lately been made a people of the Lord, and are called the sons of God? The sons of the Scots and the daughters of their kings are seen to become monks and virgins of Christ!” (Confession of Patrick 41 [A.D. 452]).
“And especially there was one blessed lady of Scottish birth, of noble rank, and most beautiful, of full age [that is, an adult], whom I had baptized. And after a few days she came to us for a special counsel. She told us in confidence that she had received a message from God, and it admonished her to become a virgin of Christ and so come nearer to God. Thanks be to God, on the sixth day afterwards, most admirably and most eagerly she embraced that which all virgins of Christ do. Not that they have their fathers’ agreement. Nay, rather they endure persecution and lying reproaches from their parents. Nevertheless their number increases more and more. And we know not the number of our race who are thus reborn [as virgins], in addition to the widows and the continent” (ibid., 42).
John Calvin, an influential figure in the Protestant Reformation:
“We say that every one of us ought to consider that his body is not his own private property, but God’s temple; and hence, that we ought to use it as a sacred trust for the preservation of its purity, lest we should disfigure it by shameful defilement.” – John Calvin, “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” Book II, Chapter VIII, Section 52.