Priestly Celibacy
Christ's Gift to the World

Chapter 9: Fourth Century Married Celibates

Authors who should know better claim that clerical celibacy was optional until Pope St. Siricius (384-399) made it mandatory. Constant repetition of this falsehood has become all but a standard fixture in textbooks and articles, perpetuating this egregious misconception.

Historical documents tell quite another story. Many of the clergy, in the first millennium, were indeed married, and many of them lived with their wives and children. But the norm in force was that from the day of ordination married bishops, priests, and deacons were obligated to abstain from sexual intercourse with their wives. That is the very important detail which misleading authors neglect when they crank out propaganda for a married clergy today.

The discipline was officially relaxed for clergy of the Byzantine world at the Council Trullo in the year 691, but not in the Latin world. There Popes and Councils retained the discipline of clerical celibacy intact, "linking priestly continence with the very origins of the Church" (Christian Cochini, The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, 418). A number of great Fathers of the Church give us very interesting insights into the why and wherefore of celibacy among the married clergy in their time.

Saint Epiphanius of Salamis (ca.315-403)

We begin with Saint Epiphanius, probably born near Gaza in Palestine around 315, who lived through the rest of the 4th century and died in 403. For thirty years he prayed and studied as a monk, until bishops in Cyprus elected him to the See of Constantius in 367; the city was formerly called Salamis, the place where Saul and Barnabas had first proclaimed the word of God in a Jewish synagogue almost 300 years before (Acts 13:2).

Evidence of the horizon spanning intellect of Epiphanius is his book PANARION in which he tabulated no less than eighty heresies; he fought earnestly to develop Christian life; he promoted orthodoxy, sometimes with a heavy hand. For example, he descended in wrath upon Jerusalem to thunder from the cathedral pulpit there a resounding denunciation of the works of the intellectual giant Origen. John, Bishop of Jerusalem, defended Origen but lost the debate in his own cathedral; Jerome sat listening and turned against Origen; the books of Origen were then burnt and many of his works were lost for all times.

St. Jerome himself was no amateur in controversy, of course; his pen, dipped in acid, stung the great ones who dared to differ with him; St. Basil, for example, he dismissed as "arrogant;" St. Ambrose was for him an intellectual imposter, "an ugly crow trying to adorn itself in borrowed plumes" ("St. Jerome" in The New Catholic Study Bible, p. XIX). Jerome and Eiphanius traveled together to Rome where the former became the secretary of Pope Damasus. This, by way of introduction to Epiphanius, should give us some respect for the reliability of his writings. Here, then, is an illustration of what he says about clerics and continence:

Since the Incarnation of Christ, the holy Word of God does not admit to the priesthood monogamists who, after the death of their wives, have contracted a second marriage, because of the exceptional honor of the priesthood. And it is observed by the Holy Church of God with great exactitude and without fail. But the man who continues to live with his wife and to generate children is not admitted by the Church as a deacon, priest, or bishop, even if he is the husband of an only wife... (GCS 31, 367; see Cochini, 229).

The passage states that, unless married men would agree to practice celibacy, they were not admitted to ordination. That, where ecclesiastical norms are being observed properly, bishops, priests, deacons, and subdeacons were practicing continence after their ordination.

One reason for ordaining married men, he stated elsewhere, was to show that marriage is an honorable and holy institution esteemed by the Church. She thus gave the lie to extremists who despised marriage, such as the "Cathars." After ordination, however, the married men were obliged to practice continence. Christ selected alternative lifestyles as being compatible with the charisma of the priesthood: He chose virgins for the priesthood, on the one hand, to give honor to virginity; and He chose monogamists on the other hand, who thenceforth practiced continence, to honor monogamy; the apostles took up this pattern from Him (GCS 31, 231; Cochini, 227). Epiphanius thus declares that the continence of the clergy after ordination is of apostolic origin, built on the model shown to the apostles by Christ.

ST. AMBROSE (333-397), who had a promising career as a lawyer, a teacher of rhetoric, and governor of Liguria and Aemilia, was drafted, against his will initially, to become Bishop of Milan in about 372. He had not yet been baptized at the time, but when he submitted to the appointment, he put his heart into the new vocation. He gave away his properties, studied theology, the Bible, and great Christian writers, then assumed his task with all his vigor. He became the hammer of the Arian heretics whose power he broke in the West. And he confronted Emperor Theodosius eyeball-to-eyeball before the altar of the Cathedral of Milan, forcing him to do penance before he admitted him to the sacraments. "The Emperor," he said, "is in the Church, not above it." This same Ambrose - we don't know whether he was ever married - urged his clergy to persevere in chastity. Abuses notwithstanding, he was not a wishy-washy administrator who would change the system to accommodate the abusers:

You who have received the grace of the sacred ministry in an integral body and with an incorruptible purity; you who are alien to the conjugal community itself know that the ministry must be immune from offense and stain and must not be subjected to any injuries from possible conjugal relations. I did not leave this issue aside for the following reason: in many places that are quite remote, some men who exercise the ministry, even the priesthood, have at times begotten children;...Learn, O priest, O deacon ... to present your pure body to the celebration of the mysteries" (PL 16, 104b-5a; Cochini 236).

ST. AUGUSTINE (354-430) wrote to Pollentius in 419 urging that laborers who had left home because of work, should be told to observe chastity when apart from their wives. They should learn chastity from the good example of priests, he wrote. Many of these priests were forced to be ordained against their will; and with ordination, the obligation to cease intercourse with their wives was imposed on them. But look at them! They remain chaste!

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

The faith shown here is admirable, and the Lord's grace works miracles; but our mentality today would not easily admit such a practice of drafting the clergy and interrupting their family life.

Wives of Apostles?

The New Catholic Study Bible translates 1 Cor 9:5 as follows: "Don't I have the right to follow the example of the other apostles and the Lord's brothers and Peter, by taking a Christian wife with me on my trips?" But that is an egregious mistranslation. The term which this and some other versions translate as "wife" is adelphaen gunaika, mulierem sororem. Isidore of Pelusius (died ca. 435) wrote that when women accompanied the apostles, "it was not in order to procreate children or to lead with them a common life but, in truth, to assist them with their goods, to take care of feeding the heralds of poverty". If Paul called them sister-women, it is "because by the word sister he wanted to show that they were chaste" (PG 78, 865d-68c; Cochini 81).

Ancient commentators, fully conversant in Greek, agree that the term refers to sister women, not to wives. They include such greats as Clement of Alexandria (died ca. 215), Tertullian (died ca. 220), Jerome (died 419 or 420) and others (see Cochini, 79). Translations should be corrected to put a halt to this error, which is being exploited wrongly for propaganda purposes.

The Latin Clergy Vote With Their Feet

Will the clergy of the Latin rite continue to carry on the tradition of celibacy? The media clamor for a change, but the clergy today - as the clergy in Carthage in 390 - are voting by their feet to keep the discipline intact. In preparation for the 1971 Synod of Bishops, there was a widespread consultation among the clergy of the Latin rite numbering in the neighborhood of 400,000. Then representative bishops met in Rome for discussion. On Nov. 6, 1971, Pope Paul VI announced the result of their deliberations:

It follows from your discussions that the Bishops of the entire Catholic world want to retain intact that absolute gift by which the priest is dedicated to God; and an important part of that gift - in the Latin Church - is sacred celibacy.

Therefore the Fathers of this Synod, supported also by the experience gained in this matter since the Second Vatican Council, have decisively affirmed the Council's doctrine which taught: "Celibacy ... is in may ways particularly suited to the priesthood." Through celibacy, "undertaken for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, [priests] are consecrated to Christ in a new and exalted sense. They are more free, in Him and through Him, to devote themselves to the service of God and man. They are less encumbered in the ministry of the kingdom of Christ and in the divine work of regeneration. Their fatherhood, which is in Christ, makes them more fit for their work" (Decree on the Priestly Ministry, No. 16; The Pope Speaks 1971, p.201).

The media had indeed given the impression widely that the bishops would want a change. But when the bishops assembled in Rome, the vote to keep celibacy was overwhelming. So it had been 1600 years before, when the bishops who gathered at Carthage declared:

All the bishops said: We agree unanimously...that chastity be observed completely and by all who serve at the altar.

Next Page: Chapter 10: Why I Want Mandatory Celibacy to Continue
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