Married Priests From the First Centuries Practiced Celibacy

The practice of celibacy in the priesthood is apparent in the years following Jesus’ resurrection.  Single priests and priests who were married abstained from sex, of course with approval from their wives. Just as Jesus chose celibacy giving up a family in order to give himself to mankind, priests are called by God to imitate Jesus. In fact, the priest is able to better serve all people because he is more available.

Monsignor Angelo Amato of the Prefect of the Congregation of the Causes of Saints states:

“Jesus was chaste, virgin, celibate and he defended it. His virginity distanced him from others, but it’s what made him able to show, compassion and forgiveness to others.”

Thus priests are called by God to imitate Jesus in this discipline.

By the end of the fourth century Pope Saint Siricius pushed for a celibate priesthood in order to maintain continuity with earlier centuries.  Later this became a discipline* in order to carry out the tradition of celibacy, thus priests could not marry in the Catholic Church.

YouTube Preview Image

Video courtesy Rome Reports.

_._

* The Eastern Orthodox still allow their priests to marry, but they must be so before entering the seminary and are not allowed to become bishops.

19 Responses to Married Priests From the First Centuries Practiced Celibacy

  • Eric Brown says:

    Tito,

    While there is good, valid arguments for a purely celibate priesthood, the case that the early church had such a priesthood is simply not there. In fact, there is evidence of married priests, even in the West, way into the Middle Ages. In fact, there were married Bishops in the East well beyond the fourth century and it was clearly the case until that point.

    There is valid theological, historical grounds to support married priests (quite obviously). Moreover, I would carefully assess evidence of married priests commonly practicing celibacy within their marriage in the first century. The notion of priest is not as developed in that century as one would find in later time periods.

  • Tito Edwards says:

    Eric,

    According to the Pontifical University it is true.

    That or I guess doctors in Church history are incorrect.

    It would be cool if you provided references to books or links, since I am a history buff and never turn down a good recommendation to a history book!
    ;)

  • Eric Brown says:

    Tito,

    I have never formally read a book focused precisely on the question of a celibate priesthood. However in all of my study of Catholic theology and history, I have not ever encountered anything to the degree of which you have asserted nor any existing historical evidence that would substantiate it.

    In the first century, the Eucharist was celebrated in house-churches typically over a common meal. There was not a very rigorous developed theology of the sacrament of the priesthood nor was there any universal mandate or encouragement of celibacy. St. Paul suggests it, encourages it, but he did not see it as something to be required. So while it might have surely existed, I don’t think that is the same thing as saying it was “widely practiced” (depending on what you mean by that) nor was it required. Indeed, the local church was under the leadership of an “elder” or usually a council of them. The terms Bishop, Presbyter, and Deacon were not definitively defined in such a way that we can easily describe the essential ministry and function of each in the same way we can today.

    Sts. Timothy and Titus celebrated by the Church as Bishops were hardly territorial monarchial bishops set over a fixed diocese. They functioned more like “emissiaries” or “ambassadors” whom were sent by St. Paul to Christian churches throughout the region for the purposes of teaching and maintenance.

    There seems to be very little evidence, if any, from documents that can be dated prior to the second century that the marriage status or even continence was a great concern amongst Christians and those providing ministry in the first century. Indeed, in the beginning, these men were Jews and worked from a Jewish mentality where celibacy was not at all the mainstream norm, though there are clearly Jewish traditions of which celibacy is esteemed, e.g. the Essenes. The greatest indicator is that Christ Himself who began and instituted the priestly ministry, from a Catholic sacramental perspective, chose a number of married men for such a position and there is no New Testament era evidence that the Apostles were specifically celibate within their marriages; we can only speculate and that scarcely amounts to hard evidence. Indeed, the Apostles themselves selected a great number of married men to succeed them.

    I do not think any reasonable historian would dispute that in the first centuries of Christianity married priests quite a norm, if not the norm itself. There is however evidence that continence within marriage was advocated and that is valid. However it is not clear that this was strictly enforced or how universal were such strictures. It is clear local synods were mandating celibacy for clergyman in certain regions in the West, but these were not practices affirmed as universally obligatory at ecumenical councils.

    The Council of Elvira held in the Roman province of Hispania Baetica, for example, enjoined celibacy on bishops, priests, and deacons. This was obviously local. A number of scholars hold a tradition of clerical continence, obviously, whereby married priests were expected to abstain from sexual relations with their wives. This tendency was more characteristic of the West than in the East. There is a tradition that is in practice today that married priests are not to engage in sexual relations on days where they celebrate Mass (this is the common practice of married Eastern Catholic and Orthodox priests). Now clearly there became a tradition against already ordained clergyman marrying, but there are still cases of married Bishops up until about the time of Gregorian reforms (heck, the East had women deaconesses up until about the 9th century).

    After a number of centuries, though celibacy was common and widespread in the West it was not necessarily mandatory. It was made the official discipline of the Latin Rite at the Second Lateran Council in 1139 A.D.

    Either way, the issue remains non-dogmatic.

  • Tito Edwards says:

    Eric,

    First there is no sacrament of the priesthood.

    Second there was no mandate, it happened organically. Not everywhere, but in many places that we have historical evidence of this. Which eventually influenced those to make it a discipline. And I did not say it was required.

    There is also no evidence that the apostles were not celibate as well. In case I’m mistaken, Saint Peter refrained from sex after the death of Jesus (I could be wrong here, but I’m pulling back all the way to my CCE days).

    Never have I mentioned the word dogma as well, I always used the word discipline.

    In essence you’re arguing for argument sake and you misinterpreted the Rome Report as definitive for all early century priests which I can understand.

  • Eric Brown says:

    Tito,

    I obviously simply misunderstood you.

    Point: The priesthood because of the priestly ministry, technically speaking, includes deacons and bishops. Either way, it is obvious I was talking about holy orders.

  • Mr. Edwards,

    You write: “The Eastern Orthodox still allow their priests to marry, but they must be so before entering the seminary.”

    According to a Byzantine Catholic priest, Eastern Christian seminarians are most often single and they get married just prior to ordination. In fact, as I understand it, the wedding often takes place the day before the ordination.

  • Tito Edwards says:

    John R.P. Russell,

    I’ll take your word for it.

    I’m mostly familiar with the Russian Orthodox Church and that was what I was basing my statement on.

    Now when you say Byzantine Catholic, you mean Eastern Catholics right? Not Eastern Orthodox.

  • Gabriel Austin says:

    There are several recent books which treat the topic of celibacy in the early Church, exhaustively [and exhaustingly] – Fr. Cocini, Stefan Heid, Cardinal Stickler.

    That St. Peter was married does not affect the matter. Many priests were married BEFORE being ordained. This is the case in the Orthodox Church. A priest may not marry after being ordained. To do so would invalidate his marriage vows.

    The idiotic and illogical Fr. Kung blames the sex scandals on celibacy. How could this be? The scandals are males on males.

  • Evagrius says:

    The standard practice, at least in the Antiochan Orthodox Church, ( and most likely for the Greek and Russian), is that a seminarian can graduate with his MDiv. degree, become ordained as a deacon, and then, as it were “shop around” for a wife, becoming married before ordination as a priest.
    That is what I saw at one Antiochan parish.

  • Patrick Duffy says:

    I am not an expert in this area by any means, but married priests were quite common in Ireland well into the 12th century. St. Patrick’s grandfather was a priest and his father was a deacon. (St. Patrick was originally from Wales, so that was apparently the practice there, as well.)
    Since it did not become required in the Latin Rite until the 12th century, it should be pointed out that we have had married priests longer than priests have been required to be celibate. There are, of course, also a small number of Catholic priests today who are married, having been married and served as Anglican or Presbyterian ministers prior to converting to Catholicism and entering the priesthood.

  • Eric Brown says:

    “Byzantine Catholic, you mean Eastern Catholics right?”

    He did. The East that is not in communion with Rome scarcely, if ever, uses the term “Catholic” to describe itself. Theologically and liturgically, perhaps (they recite the term in the Nicene Creed), but surely not formally as a label. But Byzantine Catholic refers to a particular rite, or theological, liturgical tradition in the Catholic Church.

    Just for the nickel knowledge, there are 22 churches following the tradition of Eastern Christianity in communion with the Bishop of Rome.

    http://www.ewtn.com/expert/answers/catholic_rites_and_churches.htm

    If you look at the Byzantine rite, there are several churches in that tradition.

  • Veritatis Jorge says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong but if “married priests” were to practice celibacy that would be one heck of an identity crisis since, in fact, to be celibate is to be unmarried.

  • Veritatis Jorge is correct: the definition of celibate precludes being married.

    But the issue is merely a terminological one: priests in the apostolic and post-apostolic era who were married practiced not celibacy but *continency*, i.e. they abstained from sex with their wives… forever.

    Cf. Conchini’s _The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy_.

  • Fr. Joseph Bittle says:

    Evagrius,

    As an Antiochian Orthodox priest, I believe that we are not in the habit of ordaining deacons and then letting them marry. We do however ordain married men to the diaconate and priesthood. I am a married priest. However, it is common practice to allow those in “minor orders” such as subdeacons to marry, although this would seem to be technically agains the canons which seem to require the same discipline from both minor and major orders.

    peace and good,
    Fr. Joseph

Follow TAC by Clicking on the Buttons Below
Bookmark and Share
Subscribe by eMail

Enter your email:

Recent Comments
Archives
Our Visitors. . .
Our Subscribers. . .