Celibacy Dates Back to the Apostles

Anthony Zimmerman
Panafrican Conference on Love, Life, and Family
Kenya Technical Teachers' College
Nairobi, Kenya,
August 22-28, 1993
Published as pamphlet
by Human Life International 1994
Reproduced with Permission

Christ, by remaining celibate, wrote Pope Paul VI, signified his total dedication to the service of God and men (The Celibacy of the Priest, June 24, 1967). If Christ found celibacy to be central to His service of God and man, we should not be surprised if He finds the same to be central to the lives of His priests; to those who act in Persona Christi.

The Gospel texts do not spell out in so many words that the apostles, in the company of Christ, instinctively adopted celibacy as their new lifestyle; that they relinquished the use of marital rights, if they were married. Documents of the young Church affirm, however, that clerical celibacy started with the apostles.

If we first inform ourselves about celibacy in the early Church from non-Scriptural documents, and thereafter read again pertinent passages of the Gospel, I think we read about celibacy in the Gospel too, at least between the lines. For example, the Gospel according to St. Luke first tells about Peter's marriage by mentioning his mother-in-law (Lk 4:38); then later Luke weaves in the passage about leaving wife and children behind:

Then Peter said, "We have given up our possessions and followed you." (Jesus) said to them, "Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not receive [back] an overabundant return in this present age and eternal life in the age to come" (Lk 18:28-30).

When I read the passage, I find myself believing that Peter and the rest had either already given up possessions and wife and children, or they were making up their minds gradually to do this. If that were not the case, the passage would lack the otherwise smooth flow and logic of St. Luke's masterful style and context. Luke constantly challenges us to read between the lines. The parallel passages of Mt 19:29 and Mk 10:29 mention leaving children behind, but not a wife. Why? Perhaps because some of the women who later accompanied apostles on their journeys were their wives. Paul describes such a companion in 1 Cor 9:5 as adelphaen gynaika, a "sister-woman" or "sister-wife." Paul thus delineates the brother-sister relationship of these apostolic teams, as we shall see.

At any rate, early Church documents of Fathers, Popes, and Councils reveal a commonly held belief that the tradition of celibacy goes back to the apostles. We shall quote and analyze some of the documents. Recently it is more fashionable to claim that obligatory celibacy for the clergy began only in the 4th century, with Pope St. Siricius (384-399). But as we shall see, Pope Siricius was affirming a norm already fixed long before his time in the tradition; he was not at all innovating a new norm.

In the meantime the book Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy appeared, which argues cogently from the sources that the tradition of clerical celibacy began with the apostles. If that is true, then opponents of obligatory celibacy oppose not the pope, but the twelve apostles. The book, written by Christian Cochini, S.J. (translated from French, Ignatius Press, 1990), merited this remarkable encomium from the late Henry Cardinal de Lubac: "This work is of the first importance. It is the result of serious and extensive research. There is nothing even remotely comparable to this work in this whole 20th century." And Curator of the Vatican Library, Fr. Alfons M. Stickler (later Cardinal) wrote: "This authoritative work is fully in accordance with the tradition of the Society of Jesus in the area of high-level scientific apostolate" (Foreword to Cochini's book). In what follows I draw my materials mainly from this book.

Saint Epiphanius of Salamis (ca.315-403)

Saint Epiphanius, probably born near Gaza in Palestine around 315, lived during the entire span of the rest of the 4th century, and died at age 88 in the year 403. While still young he acquired a knowledge of Greek, Syriac, Hebrew, Coptic and some Latin. He traveled to visit some of the great monasteries of nearby Egypt, and then, around 335, founded his own monastery in his homeland in Palestine over which he presided for thirty years. He gained a great reputation for learning and sanctity, and this induced the Bishops of Cyprus to select him as the Bishop of Constantia, which was Salamis when Paul made his first missionary journey to Cyprus. He was bishop there from 377 until his death in 403.

St. Epiphanius was a towering figure in the Church during the dramatic 4th century, when the Church emerged from its customary persecution and enjoyed a new-found civic freedom. It was the century of Nicea, when in 325 the Fathers intoned the "Deum de Deo, Lumen de Lumine, Deum verum, de Deo vero," defining Christ's divinity once and for all. Though Arianism prevailed in much of the Church for some decades thereafter, the Council of Constantinople put the final nail into its coffin in the East in 381, and Ambrose (ca. 339-397) gave it the coup de grace in the West.

In 377, the year in which Epiphanius was consecrated bishop, he finished his book Panarion, in which he tabulated eighty heresies; in it he gave priceless testimony about priestly celibacy as we shall see shortly. He had an encyclopedic mind, was a sharp controversialist, made great friends with the pillars of the Church of his day as well as enemies. For example, he traveled to Jerusalem, out of his diocese, and there engaged Bishop John of Jerusalem in a titanic debate; the two Bishops opposed each other in thunderings from the pulpit in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; Bishop Epiphanius denounced Origen as an arch-heretic, whereas Bishop John defended him as orthodox. St. Jerome, listening to both, was converted then and there from being a follower of Origen to become now his opponent. As a result, the book burning of Origen's works took place and many of his precious works were lost forever. St. Epiphanius had traveled to Rome with Saint Jerome years before this. St. Jerome, at that time, had become the secretary of Pope Damascus, and was disappointed when he was not elected to succeed him. All this shows that St. Epiphanius had his fingers on the pulse of the Church during this dramatic period (see Johannes Quasten, Patrology IV, 215-217).

Because Epiphanius engaged in sometimes acerbic controversy with the great ones of his time, we can well imagine that his enemies would have gleefully exposed him had he given wrong testimony about the then prevailing norm concerning priestly celibacy. He had a sweeping knowledge of affairs of his time, as witnessed by his writing of the Panarion. The first twenty heresies he denounces are all of the pre-Christian period. The first Christian heresy he describes and opposes is that of Simon Magus; he made use of the writings of St. Irenaeus of Lyons and of others for his materials; the last of the heresies in his list is that of the contemporary Malawians, who would be officially condemned at the Council of Ephesis in 431, after Epiphanius had passed away. The Bishops of Cyprus, as indicated above, were so impressed by his learning that they asked him to become a fellow bishop on their island. What he says in the Pearson is that clerical celibacy dates back to the time of the apostles, and that it remains as the norm for the Church ever since. 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 the monogamists who, after the death of their wives, have contracted a second marriage ...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 sire children is not admitted by the Church as a deacon, priest, or bishop, even if he is the husband of an only wife. And [only he can be admitted to be deacon, priest, or bishop] who having been monogamous, observes continence or is a widower. [This is observed] especially where the ecclesiastical canons are exact" (GAS 31, 367; Cochini, 229).

Epiphanius testifies about a practice of the Church which, he says, started with the Incarnation of Christ. God Himself, he says in the passage, does not admit to the priesthood men who have re-married, by reason of the exceptional honor due to the priesthood. And the Church, he continues, admits married monogamists whose wives are with them, but only on condition that they observe continence.

The practice of the 4th century to which St. Epiphanius testifies is in accord with the instructions of Paul to Timothy (1 Tim 3:2-5) and to Titus (Tit 1:5-6). That is, "A bishop may be married only once." But Epiphanius adds what Paul had not spelt out there, namely that the married man who is to be ordained bishop must practice continence as a condition for ordination. Such is the norm where the canons of the Church are observed exactly, Epiphanius tells us. The Canons of the Church of which he speaks must be understood in the context of the 4th century: they are not yet a written Code of Canon Law; rather they are methods of procedure followed by those in authority who make the decisions about who is to be admitted to ordination. The "Canons" referred to by Epiphanius, then, are traditions which Church administrators were expected to follow.

St. Jerome observes that the works of Epiphanius "were eagerly read by the learned, on account of their subject matter, and also by the plain people, on account of their language" (De Air. Ill. 114). We saw above that Epiphanius had his fingers on what was going on in the Church at his time; the information he gives that the Church was ordaining married men, but only on condition that they give up marital intercourse from the time of ordination, cannot be wrong. Other sources tell us the same thing, and do not contradict Epiphanius. From other sources we know that there was usually a time of probation before ordination, during which the ordinand and his wife could test themselves, and the ordaining prelate could examine their fitness.

But St. Epiphanius was not blind the to reality of offenses against this norm being committed in the 4th century. He wrote: "But you will surely ask [tell me]: in certain places there are priests, deacons, and subdeacons who are still begetting children. This is not done in conformity with the 'canon' but because men are now letting themselves go, and given the multitude [of the faithful], there are not enough ministers" (GAS 31,367-368; Cochini 230).

We ask why the discipline of clerical celibacy was not observed rigorously everywhere at the time of St. Epiphanius. We recall that during this stormy post-Nice period Arians were unseating orthodox bishops everywhere, after stirring up riots with ruffians and then calling in the Imperial army to quell the riots and instal the Adrian bishop. Bishops and clergy were inclined to take the law into their own hands. We rightly admire the clergy who remained faithful, who preserved the general norm of celibacy despite the defections, despite the trying times. Defections, then as now, served to sharpen the profile of the general norm.

To answer objections against the tradition of ordaining married men who promise to live ciliately, Epiphanius wrote a defense. One reason why the Holy Catholic Church ordains married men, he wrote, is to demonstrate her esteem for the state of the married life. The Church is not at all narrow-minded, is by no means opposed to marriage, as the Coauthors are, wrote the saint. She admits married monogamists to the priesthood, as well as virgins and widows; these married men then renounce the use of marital intercourse as a condition for ordination. In this practice the apostles followed the lead of Christ; the Church today, continued Epiphanius, wisely and in a holy manner, follows the regulation instituted by the apostles that continence is to be observed by all the clergy, including the clergy who are married. "The Word of God (chose) former monogamists practicing continence ... (as well as) men living continually in virginity; his apostles regulated with wisdom and sanctity the ecclesiastical canon of the priesthood in that same way" GAS 31, 231; see Cochini,227).

Christ, then, according to Epiphanius, selected alternative lifestyles as being compatible with the priesthood: and by honoring these various lifestyles with the glory of the priesthood, Christ honored these different states of life. He chose virgins for the priesthood, on the one hand, to give honor to virginity; and He chose monogamists for the priesthood on the other hand - those who thenceforth practiced continence - to honor marriage. It was Christ who selected priests in this manner, testified Epiphanius, and the apostles followed this precedent of Christ by doing as He had shown them; that is, by ordaining virgins to the priesthood, and by ordaining also married monogamists who choose to embrace continence. This very significant testimony of Epiphanius reveals what must have been the general conviction of the Church at his time; namely that Christ admitted to the priesthood both virgins and married men; that the married men whom Christ admitted to the priesthood ceased exercising conjugal life; and that the apostles followed this precedent shown to them by Christ, by making celibacy the norm for the clergy in the Church.

In another passage Epiphanius allows us to see his great esteem for virginity, which he shared with the believers of his time. He regarded virginity as a great spiritual dynamism which nourishes and supports the Christian people at their spiritual roots; he relates that very many contemporary Christians, men and women, were living a virginal life, the state most highly esteemed and honored by believers at his time. Next in rank to virgins, he writes, are those living a solitary life [also celibates]; then numerous monks and contemplative of both sexes [celibates living a common life]; next in rank are continence, and widowhood; and finally marriage lived in sanctity. All of these ranks are esteemed in the Church and honored by her. But then comes the crowning of the structure of the Church, which is none other than the priestly order; Epiphanius salutes the priestly order as the nurturing mother of the Church: "The crowning of all these, or if one wishes, the mother and the one who gives them life, is the holy priesthood, whose dynamic force comes in great part from the virgins [who are priests]" (GAS 37, 522; Cochini 232). The priesthood, then is the crown and glory of the Church, he says; and what supplies the priesthood with its spiritual power is largely the dynamism of the state of virginity of its members. In the context he includes the continence of the married priests after ordination as part of this dynamism. Such is the insight of the great St. Epiphanius, a towering figure of the 4th century.

Priests and deacons are recruited, continues Epiphanius, as the need for them is indicated, first from among virgins, then monks, then monogamists, in that hierarchy of preference:

When there are not enough virgins [they are recruited] among the monks; if there are not enough monks for the ministry [they are recruited] among men who observe continence with their wives or among the exmonogamists who are widowers; but ... admitting a re-married man to the priesthood is not permitted; even if he observes continence or is a widower, [he is not admitted to] the Order of the bishops, priests, deacons, and subdeacons (see ibid.).

In the passage we note that continence is esteemed as the determining quality for the selection of the clergy at the time of St. Epiphanius. Fr. Cochini observes that "through the hierarchical ordering of the possible candidates to the priesthood - first the virgins, then the monks, and lastly the monogamists ready to observe continence - Epiphanius does indeed stress the prevailing importance that the Church granted to" perfect chastity. "The continence demanded from the moment of ordination is thus placed within the large movement gathering all the living forces of the Christian community toward the ideal of virginity...and, beyond virginity ... toward the sacred priesthood." The obligation of celibacy "no longer appears as a strange demand ... but as a luminous border of a zone lit at its center by virginity," as a condition for "participation in a peerless, enviable state ... rather than an arbitrary constraint imposed ... as a superhuman burden" (Cochini 232-233). In other words, the 4th century Church, newly emerged from the catacombs, esteemed the priesthood as the highest glory of the Church; and this Church, ever young, made continence the narrow gateway through which she strictly required all candidates for the priesthood to pass; she left no other detour open to reach the priesthood, no other way to reach it, than a pledge of lifetime continence.

Other Witness to the Tradition of Celibacy

Allow me to provide a fast-moving kaleidoscope of witnesses to the practice of clerical celibacy during the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries; time does not allow us to analyze the passages at leisure, but the abundance of prominent witnesses should leave no doubt in our minds that clerical celibacy was so firmly and so universally established at the time, that the Church simply took it for granted that this is how it must be.

CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA (died ca. 215) believed that Paul was married and took his wife with him during his apostolic ministry. But he believes that Paul must have lived with her as brother and sister, without marital intercourse. Clement says this because he also believed that the other apostles, if they were married, did not have conjugal intercourse with their wives. If the apostles did take a woman with them during their ministry, he states, "women were not treated as wives but as sisters, to serve as interpreters with women whose duties kept them within their homes, and in order that, through these intermediaries, the doctrine of the Lord could penetrate the women's quarters without the apostles being blamed or unjustly suspected by people of ill will" (GAS 52, 220; Cochini, 80).

AMBROSIASTER (ca. 366-84) reminds us that Christ did not desist from choosing Peter as chief of the apostles just because Peter had a wife and children; in the same manner the Church chooses married men today as priests. But, Ambrosiaster adds, the apostles lived in perfect continence with their wives; following this precedent, he continues, priests today do not have intercourse with their wives (CSEL 50, 414-16; Cochini 82).

ST. AMBROSE (333-397), one of the four "great" doctors of the Church, urged his priests to persevere in perfect chastity: "You who have received the grace of the sacred ministry in an integral body and with an incorruptible purity and 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. ...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), another of the great doctors, urged husbands, when separated from their wives by force of circumstances, to live chastely. To encourage them he tells about the members of the clergy who were ordained against their will (inviti), but who kept the rule of chastity thereafter, as imposed on them by ordination. He recalled how Ambrose had been elected suddenly as bishop, and how he himself was made bishop of Hippo. And once ordained the obligation to practice continence followed:

That is why we inspire these men ... (and) give them as an example the continence of these clerics who were frequently forced against their wills 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).

ISIDORE OF PELUSIUM (died ca. 435) wrote to Deacon Isidore explaining 1 Cor 9:5: If 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, while describing their nature with the word 'women'" (PG 78, 865d-68c; Cochini 81). Note here his interpretation of the "sister-woman" passage of 1 Cor 9:5; Paul, says Isidore, used the term to indicate a brother-sister relationship.

I pause here to observe that some contemporary translators use the word wife in this passage. The New Catholic Study Bible, for example, reads like this: "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?" That translation is misleading. Scripture professionals of the early Church beg to differ. Clement of Alexandria (died ca. 215), Tertullian (died ca. 220), Jerome (died ca.420), Isidore of Pelusium (died ca. 435) and others, all state that Paul refers here to a brother-sister relationship (see Cochini 81 ff.).

May I add that if we look at the passage in context, Paul argues here not about conjugal life, but about a right to receive support for his living from the community, by reason of his apostolic work; support which would include meals and other services. He forgoes that right voluntarily, he says, out of a feeling that he wishes to be a burden to no one. The context is not at all about conjugal relations, but about services provided by a "sister-woman," or if you will, a "sister-wife" (adelphaen gynaika). Today we would call her a housekeeper. A correct translation reveals that Paul refers here to sister-companions or sister-wives of the apostles: if the actual wives of the apostles went with them, they went as sister-women, not as conjugal partners.

COUNCIL OF ELVIRA (ca. 305): Canons 27 and 33 of this Council show clearly that clerical celibacy was in force in Spain at the beginning of the 4th century, even before Constantine won the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312, and extended religious freedom to the Empire by the Edict of Milan in 313.

Can. 27: A bishop, or any priest at all, may have with him only a sister or a virgin daughter dedicated to God; it is decided that he by no means have a stranger.

Can. 33: 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 (trans. of Deferrari, the Sources of Catholic Dogma; DS 52 b and c).

Note that the 19 Bishops present at this early Council at the beginning of the 4th century, and the 24 priests, and an unrecorded number of deacons and lay people, give no impression whatsoever that they are promulgating a new regulation which makes clerical celibacy obligatory for the first time. Rather, the participants of this Council emphasize that the practice of obligatory celibacy, which they assume is already fixed before their time, should be observed exactly. They assume that everyone at the Council knew about the discipline beforehand, and that the believers all know it too. A reading which would make celibacy a new discipline here is completely foreign to the context. (See Cochini 158-161).

Were Many of the Clergy Married?

The proportion among the clergy of monogamously married bishops, priests, deacons, (and subdeacons), who accepted the duty of living continently after ordination, likely varied with the times, but was not inconsiderable. As Fr. Alfons Stickler, then head of the Vatican Library wrote, "Celibacy is not only, as most laymen tend to think, an interdict against marriage, but it is also continence, i.e. a relinquishing of the use of marital rights by those who have been married before ordination, which was very frequently, if not commonly, the case in the early Church" (Foreword to Fr. Cochini's book, January 24, 1981).

Fr. Cochini assembled and analyzed the documents which reveal what can be known about Peter and the other apostles in regard to marriage (pp. 65-83). He next lists 220 Catholic bishops, priests, or deacons who were married (pp. 87-122); meticulously he documents the sources from which he draws the information. Some of the Popes and some saints are in the list of married clergy. For example: Felix, priest of Rome, was the father of Pope Felix III (483-92); Pope Felix himself was married to Petronia; they had two children Paul and Gordianus, and perhaps another girl; he was the great great grandfather of Pope St. Gregory the Great. Iocundus, Priest of Rome, is the father of Pope Boniface I (418-422); Petrus, priest of Rome, is the father of Pope Anastasius II (496-498). Pope Hormisdas (514-523 is the father of Pope Silverius (536-538); Cochini 103, 107, 108, 112). In the episcopal rank, we find that Bishop Gregory the Elder of Nanziansus was the father of Bishop St. Gregory Nazianzen. Perhaps the ardent practice of continence from the day of ordination helped these eminent popes and saints to be exemplary husbands to their wives, and loving fathers to the children who were born to them before their ordination. That some of their children married and then later joined the ranks of the chaste clergy suggests compellingly that family life in celibate homes of the clergy must have been quite normal and even exemplary, inviting the children to follow the same pattern.

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