The Gift: A Married Priest Looks at Celibacy

“You’re a married priest? I didn’t know we had married priests. I think the Church should let all her priests marry.”

Words like these have greeted me frequently since my ordination to the priesthood in 1983, with dispensation from the rule of celibacy. I always assure those who favor optional celibacy that both my wife and I strongly support the Church’s discipline of priestly celibacy. 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. The priesthood and marriage are both full-time vocations. The fact is, no one can do complete justice to both simultaneously.

The objection usually persists. “But surely a married man is better qualified to teach people about marriage than is a celibate priest.” Again, I disagree (politely, of course). The purpose of marriage preparation is not to teach couples what the priest has experienced. Catholic couples need and have the right to be instructed in the Church’s revealed truth about the meaning of human sexuality and holy matrimony. If both a married and a celibate priest are reasonably mature, and if each teaches in harmony with the Church, the married priest has no essential advantage over the celibate priest in giving marriage instruction.

Then comes the final argument. “Yes, that may be, but if priests could marry, it would solve our priest shortage.” I reply that this is an assumption with no evidence to support it. If the rule of celibacy is keeping men out of the priest-hood, how do we account for the dioceses in this country that have an abundance of priests? As Pope Paul VI said 40 years ago, the decline in priestly vocations is due to lack of faith on the part of our people. The dissent that has been rampant in recent decades has created widespread confusion about the Church’s teaching, especially with regard to the priesthood.

An Ancient Discipline

Unquestionably, sentiment in favor of optional celibacy for priests is growing, even among faithful Catholics. But there are two fundamental errors underlying this opinion, one historical, the other theological.

First, the historical error: People commonly believe that the Church mandated celibacy for her priests beginning in the fourth century or the twelfth century or somewhere in between. The fact is, priestly celibacy is an apostolic institution.

The connection of celibacy with priesthood was first revealed in Christ. We see that in its perfect embodiment, priesthood involves remaining free from all claims of marriage and parenthood. That freedom enabled God’s Son to be completely available for the working of the Father’s perfect will through Him (Cf. Jn 4:34).

When He called His successors, the apostles, “they left everything and followed him” (Lk 5:11). Later, Peter reminded Jesus, “We have left everything and followed you.” Then he asked, with typical candor, “What then will we have?” (Mt 19:27). Jesus replied, “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” (Lk 19:29, emphasis added). Recall also that when Jesus taught the indissolubility of marriage, He also highly com-mended celibacy (Mt 19:12). And Paul himself strongly endorsed celibacy for more effective service to the Lord.

The disciplinary canons of the Council of Elvira in 305 are the Church’s earliest record regarding priestly celibacy. The council gave no explanation of its rulings, which were ancient and presumably well-known. Canon 33 forbade all married bishops, priests, and deacons from having sexual relations with their wives and begetting children. The council reminded the married clergy that they were bound by a vow of perpetual continence. Penalty for breaking that vow was deposition from the ministry. Commenting on this council, Pope Pius XI said that these canons, the “first written traces” of the “Law of Ecclesiastical Celibacy,” “presuppose a still earlier unwritten practice.”‘

The Council of Arles, nine years later, upheld both the obligation of continence for married clergy and the penalty for nonconformity. The Council of Nicaea in 325 took for granted priestly celibacy for unmarried and married clergy. Canon 3 stated, “This great synod absolutely forbids a bishop, presbyter, deacon or any of the clergy to keep a woman who has been brought in to live with him, with the exception of course of his mother or sister or aunt, or of any person who is above suspicion.”‘ On the basis of the fourth- and fifth-century evidence, Rev. Christian Cochini, S. J., holds that the phrase “any person who is above suspicion” includes wives of clergy who with their spouses had taken vows of continence before their husbands were ordained.4

Near the end of the fourth century, a Spanish bishop wrote to the pope, asking for help in dealing with married clergy who were having conjugal relations with their wives and having children. In 385 Pope Siricius reminded all married clergy (in Spain and presumably everywhere) that their vows of perpetual continence were “indissoluble.”5 The next year, the pope issued a decretal repeating his prior ruling. He insisted he was not giving new rulings but was rather recalling the clergy to rules long established in the Church.

Some of the married clergy tried to defend their continuing conjugal life, but there was no tradition of optional celibacy to which they could appeal. They pointed rather to 1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:6, and 1 Timothy 3:12, which specified that bishops, priests, and deacons must have been “married only once” (must be unius uxoris vir, “husband of one wife”). In response, Pope Siricius declared that “married only once” does not mean that after their ordination married clergy could continue conjugal relations with their wives. The true meaning is this: A man faithful to one wife could be expected to be mature enough to live the perpetual continence required of him and his wife after his ordination.

This is the original magisterial exegesis of these pas-sages. Further, Pope Siricius’s teaching finds clear echoes in the writings of the Fathers of this era: Ambrose, Epiphanius of Salamis, and Ambrosiaster.

Another passage used to buttress the apostolic case for optional celibacy is 1 Corinthians 9:5. Referring to his prerogatives as an apostle, Paul asks (seemingly rhetorically), “Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” The Greek behind “believing wife” in this translation is “a sister wife” or “a sister as wife.” The words together do not mean “wife” in the ordinary sense. In the early centuries the term “sister” (as in 1 Corinthians 9:5) was used to designate a wife of a clergyman who with her had vowed perpetual continence before his ordination. Their relation was that of brother and sister.

(Momentarily to depart from our chronology, we should glance at the Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests, issued in 1994 by the Congregation for the Clergy. Section 59 affirms Pope Siricius’s exegesis of the passages in Timothy and Titus. It also cites several early councils that required continence for married as well as for unmarried clergy. Then come these words: “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” [emphasis added]. “The celibate faithful” clearly in early centuries would include married men who with their wives had vowed to observe perpetual continence after the men were ordained.)

Back to the fourth century: The Council of Carthage in 390, involving the whole African hierarchy, restated the rule of perpetual continence for all married clergy. They declared they were simply restating the Church’s unbroken tradition. In explaining their decree, the presiding bishop, Genethlius, urged that “what the apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us also endeavor to keep” (emphasis added).

The decretal Dominus Inter was issued in the early fifth century by a Roman synod, led most likely by Pope Innocent I. Responding to questions raised by bishops from Gaul, Canon 16 repeats the Church’s rule of perpetual continence for married clergy. We find the same teaching by pontiffs who succeeded Innocent I—Leo the Great and Gregory the Great, for example, as well as Sts. Jerome, Augustine, and Ambrose. So did the Council of Tours (461), the Council of Gerona (517), and the Council of Auvergne (535). Further, the requirement of perpetual continence for married clergy appears in the penitential books of the Celtic churches.

Confusing History

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Gregorian reform dealt with violations of the norm of clerical celibacy. The Second Lateran Council (1139) was part of this movement. From this fact, Catholics and non-Catholics alike have wrongly concluded that this council originated clerical celibacy. Like all its predecessors that dealt with the matter, the Lateran Council sought to enforce the apostolic ban on conjugal life for the clergy.

Apologists for the Eastern Orthodox practice of mixed celibacy (married priests and deacons, celibate bishops) ignore these councils’ declaration that they were only up-holding an apostolic tradition.

In more recent times, the predecessor of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued an instruction in 1858 that stated: “Whoever ponders diligently the true tradition of celibacy and clerical continence will indeed find that, from the first centuries of the Catholic Church, if not by a general and explicit law, at least by behavior and custom, it was firmly established that not only bishops and priests, but [all] clergy in Holy Orders were to preserve inviolate virginity or perpetual continence.”

That priestly celibacy is an apostolic tradition “is shown clearly and convincingly” by the work of Stickler, Cochini, Heid, and others. This is the verdict of then— Cardinal Ratzinger.

Optional Celibacy?

The Eastern Orthodox discipline of optional celibacy (optional for priests and deacons, required for bishops), was first formulated in 692. Prior to that time, all the Eastern Churches followed the apostolic tradition of mandatory continence for both married and unmarried clergy.

But the Council of Trullo in 692 radically changed the discipline of celibacy. One of its canons did retain the prohibition of bishops, priests, and deacons marrying after ordination. It also partly preserved the apostolic tradition in requiring perpetual continence of married men who were installed in the episcopate. But it decreed that married men ordained to the diaconate and priesthood could continue their conjugal life after ordination. The council herein both explicitly and polemically rejected the clerical discipline of Rome, which is to say, the apostolic tradition.

To justify this departure, Trullo quoted the earlier canons of the Council of Carthage. That council, as we have seen, had restated the rule of perpetual continence for all married clergy by appealing to what it called the apostolic tradition. Its records were widely available. Trullo changed the wording of the Carthaginian canons so that they man-dated only temporary continence for married clergy only on days when they served at the altar. (This is effectively the Old Testament law for levitical priests who served in the Temple.)

Despite this radical alteration of the Carthage council’s ruling, the Council of Trullo blithely assured all who would listen that by their decrees they were only “preserving the ancient rule and apostolic perfection and order.”” The Catholic Church, of course, has never recognized the Council of Trullo.

In her magisterial statements, the Catholic Church has often spoken of the Eastern practice regarding celibacy. The Church always uses guarded language, not wanting to widen the breach between the Orthodox Churches and the Catholic Church. But she has never said—never even implied—that the Eastern practice stands on par with her own discipline regarding celibacy. Typical of her attitude is the language of Pope Pius XII in his 1935 encyclical on the Catholic priesthood quoted earlier. After extolling the glories of priestly celibacy, he said he was not criticizing the Oriental discipline. “What we have said has been meant solely to exalt in the Lord something we consider one of the purest glories of the Catholic priesthood, something which seems to us to correspond better to the desires of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and his purposes in regard to priestly souls” (Section 47, emphases added).

A Unique ‘Discipline’

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.

Here we follow Benedict XVI’s teaching. The Church is both human and divine, a duality of structure (organization) and the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. That which gives the Church her permanency of structure is itself a sacrament—the sacrament of orders. This means that the Church’s structure is continuously created by God’s unfailing action through the sacrament. The Church as an institution cannot herself choose those who will serve in the hierarchy. The call to holy orders comes from God, and the Church can only recognize that call. Thus our Lord com-manded us, “Pray the Lord of the harvest to send workers into his harvest” (Mt 9:37).

So the priestly ministry has a “strictly charismatic character,” in the words of Benedict XVI. The Church emphasizes that fact by “linking . . . priesthood with virginity, which clearly can be understood only as a personal charism, never simply as an official qualification.” Any attempt to separate priesthood from celibacy (“the demand for their uncoupling”) would in effect deny the charismatic nature of priesthood. It would reduce it to an office completely under the control of the institution. Thus the Church in effect would be regarded as a purely human institution.12

The Gift

The priesthood is a continuous gift to the Church. She is only a steward, not the giver, of that gift. But as recent magisterial statements have reminded us, celibacy itself is also a gift.

In his encyclical I Will Give You Shepherds (1992), Pope John Paul II repeatedly characterizes clerical celibacy as such. He calls it “a priceless gift,” “a precious gift,” a “gift of God for the Church.” It is a gift to be cherished. And because it is God’s gift, the Church as an institution has no right to set it aside—to send it back to God, so to speak.

The Synod of Bishops in 1990 issued what is perhaps the ultimate statement of modern times on the Church’s commitment to priestly celibacy. “The synod would like to see celibacy presented and explained in the fullness of its biblical, theological and spiritual richness, as a precious gift given by God to his Church and as a sign of the kingdom which is not of this world—a sign of God’s love for this world and of the undivided love of the priest for God and for God’s people, with the result that celibacy is seen as a positive enrichment of the priesthood” (emphases added).

Further, the Church is totally committed to maintaining priestly celibacy. “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” (Proposition 11).

While advocates of a married priesthood will likely continue their efforts, they have neither history nor the contemporary Church on their side.


  • Rev. Ray Ryland

    Rev. Ray Ryland is a contributing editor of This Rock magazine and chaplain of the Coming Home Network.

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