Lately, I’ve been hearing objections to the Catholic imposition of celibacy on its clergy. Celibacy is not mandated in the Catholic Church in the same way that certain irreversible dogmas are. But while the practice could be changed in theory, it is disciplinary and desirable. And it is upheld by Scripture, the historical traditions of the early Church, and reason.
Ultimately, resistance to clerical celibacy must boil down to a rejection of the one true Christian (Catholic) understanding of sex, marriage, chastity, sacrament, the role of the pastor, and Church authority/Roman primacy.
Scriptural Proofs (emphases mine of course)
Jesus himself, St. John the Baptist, St. Paul, and the prophet Jeremiah were all celibate their entire lives. Jewish tradition also regard Elijah and Elisha to have been celibate.
Only Catholicism actually takes the following sacred verses seriously and incorporates them into its doctrine and practice.
Our Lord Jesus Christ said,
For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it. (Mt 19:12)
Why are non-Catholics unable to receive this truth from our Lord? Why do none of them embrace this highest standard and make themselves “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven”? Why do they hold none of their members to this highest standard?
St. Paul said in great detail in 1 Corinthians 7:7-38:
I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion . . . Every one should remain in the state in which he was called . . . . Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage. But if you marry, you do not sin . . . Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. . . I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; But the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord . . . So that he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.
Non-Catholics arbitrarily ignore these sacred and fairly straightforward verses. Moreover, St. Paul in particular aptly summarizes the reasonableness of celibacy. There is nothing I can think of to add to his argument.
How can Protestants criticize Catholicism for demanding that its clerics be like St. Paul, for demanding of its clerics the higher standard of celibacy that St. Paul wished/preferred for ALL Christians?
The Gospel of St. Matthew (19:27-29) tells us that those of the Twelve Apostles who had wives, especially St. Peter, left the company of their wives:
Then Peter said to him in reply, “We have given up everything and followed you. What will there be for us?” Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you that you who have followed me, in the new age, when the Son of Man is seated on his throne of glory, will yourselves sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life.
The Gospel of St. Luke (18:28-30) confirms this fact and more explicitly with regard to wives:
Then Peter said, “We have given up our possessions and followed you.” He 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.”
Specifically with regard to Peter, Mark 1:30-31 provides circumstantial evidence that Peter’s wife may have died or lived separately by the time he was following Jesus:
Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever. They immediately told him about her. He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her and she waited on them.
Where is Peter’s wife in this scene? If she were alive or living in the same house, wouldn’t she have served the men?
In 1 Tim 5:9-12, St. Paul speaks of women who have made a voluntary pledge to be celibate:
Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years old, married only once, with a reputation for good works, namely, that she has raised children, practiced hospitality, washed the feet of the holy ones, helped those in distress, involved herself in every good work. But exclude younger widows, for when their sensuality estranges them from Christ, they want to marry and will incur condemnation for breaking their first pledge.
St. John in his Revelation (14:3-5) speaks of unmarried virgins who have remained faithful to God and entered the kingdom:
They were singing (what seemed to be) a new hymn before the throne, before the four living creatures and the elders. No one could learn this hymn except the hundred and forty-four thousand who had been ransomed from the earth. These are they who were not defiled with women; they are virgins and these are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They have been ransomed as the firstfruits of the human race for God and the Lamb. On their lips no deceit has been found; they are unblemished.
Yes, I am aware of 1 Tim 3:2, 12 and Titus 1:6, which say that a deacon or bishop should be “the husband of one wife.” However, the Apostle’s desire that other men might be as himself (1 Corinthians 7:7-8, already quoted) precludes the inference that he wished all ministers of the Gospel to be married. This direction to Timothy and Titus is restrictive, not injunctive; it excludes men who have married more than once, but it does not impose marriage as a necessary condition. Also and importantly, these verses are silent on the issue of sexual intercourse. They speak of Church leaders potentially having children, not begetting them. To state the obvious, having a wife (and children) does not necessitate intercourse with her.
Moreover, the early Church fathers interpreted these verses to mean a prohibition against the ordination of remarried laymen, not against the ordination of virgins, who were actually preferred (Origen (and here), Tertullian, Ambrose, Jerome, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, Pope Siricius, Epiphanius, Apostolic Canons)
And I am also quite aware of 1 Cor 9:3-6. Please see the commentary below of Tertullian and Pope Clement of Alexandria on this verse.
Even in the Old Testament there are proofs of the propriety of celibacy for men of God who undertake holy endeavors. According to Jewish tradition, Moses did not have marital relations with his wife Zipporah after his encounter with God in the burning bush. Also, before Moses went to meet God and receive the 10 Commandments, he orders the Israelites to purify themselves by abstaining from sex (Exodus 19:15): “He warned them, ‘Be ready for the third day. Have no intercourse with any woman.’”
God tells the prophet Jeremiah that he is to be celibate: “This message came to me from the LORD: Do not marry any woman; you shall not have sons or daughters in this place” (Jer 16:1-2).
David and his men are permitted to eat the holy temple bread because they have abstained from sexual relations with their wives:
“Now what have you on hand? Give me five loaves, or whatever you can find.” But the priest replied to David, “I have no ordinary bread on hand, only holy bread; if the men have abstained from women, you may eat some of that.” David answered the priest: “We have indeed been segregated from women as on previous occasions. Whenever I go on a journey, all the young men are consecrated–even for a secular journey. All the more so today, when they are consecrated at arms!” (1 Sam 21:4-6)
Historical Tradition: Early Fathers and Councils (emphases mine)
There can be no dispute that virginity was always held in honor historically in the Church, and that large numbers of the clergy practiced it or separated from their wives if they were already married . While there was no commandment for virginity, celibacy/continency was a general rule going back to apostolic times. Specifically, though many clergy had wives, they were expected to be wholly abstinent from sexual intercourse after their ordination.
Tertullian writes (circa 204-212 AD) commending the clergy and devoted women who practice celibacy:
How many men, therefore, and how many women, in Ecclesiastical Orders, owe their position to continence, who have preferred to be wedded to God; who have restored the honour of their flesh, and who have already dedicated themselves as sons of that (future) age, by slaying in themselves the concupiscence of lust, and that whole (propensity) which could not be admitted within Paradise! Whence it is presumable that such as shall wish to be received within Paradise, ought at last to begin to cease from that thing from which Paradise is intact.
In his On Monogamy, Tertullian explains 1 Cor 9:3-6, saying that the wives and female companions of the apostles were merely ministers to them, not sex partners:
The rest [of the Twelve], while I do not find them married I must of necessity understand to have been either eunuchs or continent. Nor indeed, if, among the Greeks, in accordance with the carelessness of custom, women and wives are classed under a common name— however, there is a name proper to wives— shall we therefore so interpret Paul as if he demonstrates the apostles to have had wives? For if he were disputing about marriages, as he does in the sequel, where the apostle could better have named some particular example, it would appear right for him to say,
For have we not the power of leading about wives, like the other apostles and Cephas? But when he subjoins those (expressions) which show his abstinence from (insisting on) the supply of maintenance, saying,
For have we not the power of eating and drinking? he does not demonstrate that
wives were led about by the apostles, whom even such as have not still have the power of eating and drinking; but simply
women, who used to minister to them in the same way (as they did) when accompanying the Lord.
Pope St. Clement of Alexandria (died circa. 215) concurs:
Even Paul did not hesitate in one letter to address his consort. The only reason why he did not take her about with him was that it would have been an inconvenience for his ministry. Accordingly he says in a letter: “Have we not a right to take about with us a wife that is a sister like the other apostles?” But the latter, in accordance with their particular ministry, devoted themselves to preaching without any distraction, and took their wives with them not as women with whom they had marriage relations, but as sisters, that they might be their fellow-ministers in dealing with housewives. It was through them that the Lord’s teaching penetrated also the women’s quarters without any scandal being aroused.
Origen (185-254 AD) in his Homilies on Leviticus seems to contrast the spiritual offspring of the priests of the New Law with the natural offspring begotten in wedlock by the priests of the Old (In Levit. Hom. vi, no. 6).
Similarly, Eusebius (c. 265-340 AD) compares the relationship of Old Testament patriarchs and of Christian leaders to women and children. He says,
But in our days there are many external interests that draw us away, and involve us in uncongenial thoughts, and seduce us from our zeal for the things which please God. The word of the Gospel teaching certainly gives this as the cause of the limitation of marriage, when it says…
Eusebius then continues by quoting St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (7:29-35) as I did above. Most strikingly, he then says,
I am glad to say we are able to provide teachers and preachers of the word of holiness, free from all ties of life and anxious thoughts. And in our day these men are necessarily devoted to celibacy that they may have leisure for higher things; they have undertaken to bring up not one or two children but a prodigious number, and to educate them in godliness, and to care for their life generally.
On the top of all this, if we carefully examine the lives of the ancient men [of the Old Testament] of whom I am speaking, we shall find that they had children in early life, but later on abstained and ceased from having them…. To this I must refer the student, only warning him that according to the laws of the new covenant the producing of children is certainly not forbidden, but the provisions are similar to those followed by the ancient men of God. “For a bishop,” says the Scripture, “must be the husband of one wife.” Yet it is fitting that those in the priesthood and occupied in the service of God, should abstain after ordination from the intercourse of marriage.
The Spanish Council of Elvira (c. 300-315) in Canon 33 imposed celibacy on bishops, priests, and deacons. It applied only to clergy in Spain and is the oldest positive ecclesiastical ordinance for celibacy.
The Council of Ancyra (314) assumed that celibacy was the traditional norm in Canon 10. Marriage was allowed only as a concession/dispensation to a deacon from the bishop:
They who have been made deacons, declaring when they were ordained that they must marry, because they were not able to abide so, and who afterwards have married, shall continue in their ministry, because it was conceded to them by the bishop. But if any were silent on this matter, undertaking at their ordination to abide as they were, and afterwards proceeded to marriage, these shall cease from the diaconate.
The Council of Neo-Caesarea (315) is even more stringent in Canon 1:
If a presbyter marry, let him be removed from his order; but if he commit fornication or adultery, let him be altogether cast out [i.e. of communion] and put to penance.
The Council of Nicaea (325) did not impose celibacy but did say in Canon 3:
The great Synod has stringently forbidden any bishop, presbyter, deacon, or any one of the clergy whatever, to have a subintroducta dwelling with him, except only a mother, or sister, or aunt, or such persons only as are beyond all suspicion.
No bishop, priest, or deacon was to have any woman living in the house with him, unless it were his mother, sister, or aunt, or at any rate persons against whom no suspicion could lodge. The clear implication is that clergy are to have no sexual relations after their ordination.
In writing about the birth of Jesus, St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315-386) urges that the minister of the altar who serves God properly abstains from marriage/sex:
For it became Him who is most pure, and a teacher of purity, to have come forth from a pure bride-chamber. For if he who well fulfills the office of a priest of Jesus abstains from a wife, how should Jesus Himself be born of man and woman?
In his Panarion or Against Heresies (374-377), St. Epiphanius writes most vehemently in favor of clerical celibacy:
…in particular through those who observe continence after a single marriage and those who persevere in virginity, as also his apostles ordered in the ecclesiastical rule of the priesthood in the spirit of good order and religion.
He says also:
Holy Church respects the dignity of the priesthood to such a point that she does not admit to the diaconate, the priesthood, or the episcopate, no nor even to the subdiaconate, anyone still living in marriage and begetting children. She accepts only him who if married gives up his wife or has lost her by death, especially in those places where the ecclesiastical canons are strictly attended to.
While acknowledging that in some localities priests and deacons had children, Epiphanius argues against it and urges that the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit has always disapproved of that allowance.
St. Jerome writes in his famous (or should be famous) treatise “The Perpetual Virginity of Mary” (c. 383) that though marriage may be a holy relationship, it presents a hindrance to prayer, and that virginity is more consonant with God’s will:
I do not deny that holy women are found both among widows and those who have husbands; but they are such as have ceased to be wives, or such as, even in the close bond of marriage, imitate virgin chastity.
In Jerome’s Against Jovinianus (393), he says that the apostles abandoned their marriages but not their wives, confirming Tertullian’s and Clement’s interpretation of 1 Cor 9:3-6:
In accordance with this rule Peter and the other Apostles (I must give Jovinianus something now and then out of my abundance) had indeed wives, but those which they had taken before they knew the Gospel. But once they were received into the Apostolate, they forsook the offices of marriage. For when Peter, representing the Apostles, says to the Lord: (Matthew 19:27)
Lo we have left all and followed you, the Lord answered him, (Luke 18:29-30)
Verily I say unto you, there is no man that has left house or wife, or brethren, or parents, or children for the kingdom of God’s sake, who shall not receive manifold more in this time, and in the world to come eternal life. But if, in order to show that all the Apostles had wives, he meets us with the words
Have we no right to lead about women or wives (for γυνή in Greek has both meanings)
even as the rest of the apostles, and Cephas, and the brethren of the Lord? let him add what is found in the Greek copies,
Have we no right to lead about women that are sisters, or wives? This makes it clear that the writer referred to other holy women, who, in accordance with Jewish custom, ministered to their teachers of their substance, as we read was the practice with even our Lord himself. Where there is a previous reference to eating and drinking, and the outlay of money, and mention is afterward made of women that are sisters, it is quite clear, as we have said, that we must understand, not wives, but those women who ministered of their substance.
Jerome says that St. Paul “is anxious throughout the whole discussion to give virginity the preference over marriage” but that the early apostles “made the rules for fresh believers somewhat lighter that they might not in alarm shrink from keeping them.” And he continues, demanding celibacy of the bishop:
For he [St. Paul] does not say: Let a bishop be chosen who marries one wife and begets children; but who marries one wife, and has his children in subjection and well disciplined. You surely admit that he is no bishop who during his episcopate begets children. The reverse is the case— if he be discovered, he will not be bound by the ordinary obligations of a husband, but will be condemned as an adulterer….
He then demands celibacy/continence of the priest:
A layman, or any believer, cannot pray unless he abstain from sexual intercourse. Now a priest must always offer sacrifices for the people: he must therefore always pray. And if he must always pray, he must always be released from the duties of marriage. For even under the old law they who used to offer sacrifices for the people not only remained in their houses, but purified themselves for the occasion by separating from their wives, nor would they drink wine or strong drink which are wont to stimulate lust.
St. Jerome gives preference to ordaining virgins, saying that the only reason non-virgins have been accepted into the priesthood is for practical, numerical reasons:
That married men are elected to the priesthood, I do not deny: the number of virgins is not so great as that of the priests required. Does it follow that because all the strongest men are chosen for the army, weaker men should not be taken as well? All cannot be strong. If an army were constituted of strength only, and numbers went for nothing, the feebler men might be rejected. As it is, men of second or third-rate strength are chosen, that the army may have its full numerical complement.
St. Jerome apparently could not foresee the future consequences of admitting “men of second or third-rate strength” to the priesthood, namely widespread clerical corruption of all sorts (including nepotism) that stains the history of the Catholic Church.
In Jerome’s Against Vigilantius (c. 406), he rips those bishops who ordain men not committed to continency:
Shameful to relate, there are bishops who are said to be associated with him in his wickedness— if at least they are to be called bishops— who ordain no deacons but such as have been previously married who credit no celibate with chastity— nay, rather, who show clearly what measure of holiness of life they can claim by indulging in evil suspicions of all men, and, unless the candidates for ordination appear before them with pregnant wives, and infants wailing in the arms of their mothers, will not administer to them Christ’s ordinance. What are the Churches of the East to do? What is to become of the Egyptian Churches and those belonging to the Apostolic Seat, which accept for the ministry only men who are virgins, or those who practice continency, or, if married, abandon their conjugal rights?
Lastly, in a letter to Pammachius, Jerome writes:
Again, when explaining the witness of the apostle to the Galatians,
By the works of the law shall no flesh be justified, I have spoken to the following effect:
Marriages also are works of the law. And for this reason there is a curse upon such as do not produce offspring. They are permitted, it is true, even under the Gospel; but it is one thing to concede an indulgence to what is a weakness and quite another to promise a reward to what is a virtue. See my express declaration that marriage is allowed in the Gospel, yet that those who are married cannot receive the rewards of chastity so long as they render their due one to another. If men feel indignant at this statement, let them vent their anger not on me but on the Holy Scriptures; nay, more, upon all bishops, presbyters, and deacons, and the whole company of priests and levites, who know that they cannot offer sacrifices if they fulfill the obligations of marriage….
Therefore, as I was going to say, the virgin Christ and the virgin Mary have dedicated in themselves the first fruits of virginity for both sexes. The apostles have either been virgins or, though married, have lived celibate lives. Those persons who are chosen to be bishops, priests, and deacons are either virgins or widowers; or at least when once they have received the priesthood, are vowed to perpetual chastity. Why do we delude ourselves and feel vexed if while we are continually straining after sexual indulgence, we find the palm of chastity denied to us? We wish to fare sumptuously, and to enjoy the embraces of our wives, yet at the same time we desire to reign with Christ virgins and widows. among Shall there be but one reward, then, for hunger and for excess, for filth and for finery, for sackcloth and for silk? Lazarus, (Luke 16:19-25) in his lifetime, received evil things, and the rich man, clothed in purple, fat and sleek, while he lived enjoyed the good things of the flesh but, now that they are dead, they occupy different positions. Misery has given place to satisfaction, and satisfaction to misery. And it rests with us whether we will follow Lazarus or the rich man.
St. Ambrose (340-397) writes in his On the Duties of the Clergy:
But ye know that the ministerial office must be kept pure and unspotted, and must not be defiled by conjugal intercourse; ye know this, I say, who have received the gifts of the sacred ministry, with pure bodies, and unspoilt modesty, and without ever having enjoyed conjugal intercourse. I am mentioning this, because in some out-of-the-way places, when they enter on the ministry, or even when they become priests, they have begotten children. They defend this on the ground of old custom, when, as it happened, the sacrifice was offered up at long intervals. However, even the people had to be purified two or three days beforehand, so as to come clean to the sacrifice, as we read in the Old Testament. They even used to wash their clothes. If such regard was paid in what was only the figure, how much ought it to be shown in the reality! Learn then, Priest and Levite, what it means to wash your clothes. You must have a pure body wherewith to offer up the sacraments. If the people were forbidden to approach their victim unless they washed their clothes, do you, while foul in heart and body, dare to make supplication for others? Do you dare to make anoffering for them?… You must show yourself continent and sober, and this needs temperance.
St. John Chrysostom (347-407) implies the high virtue of celibacy in his denunciation of envy among Christians:
For this cause, even if a man do miracles, have celibacy to show, and fasting, and lying on the bare ground, and does by this virtue advance even to the angels, yet shall he be most accursed of all, while he has this defect [of envy], and shall be a greater breaker of the Law than the adulterer, and the fornicator, and the robber, and the violator of supulchres.
Chrysostom also implies in his book On Priesthood the superiority of priests who have no wife or children:
For the recluse has but himself to fear for; or should he be forced to have the care of others they are easily counted: and if they be many, yet they are less than those in our Churches, and they give him who is set over them much lighter anxiety about them, not only on account of their fewness, but because they are all free from worldly concerns, and have neither wife nor children, nor any such thing to care about; and this makes them very deferential to their rulers, and allows them to share the same abode with them, so that they are able to take in their failings accurately at a glance and correct them, seeing that the constant supervision of a teacher is no little help towards advance in virtue. But of those who are subject to the Priest, the greater number are hampered with the cares of this life, and this makes them the slower in the performance of spiritual duties. Whence it is necessary for the teacher to sow every day (so to speak), in order that by its frequency at least, the word of doctrine may be able to be grasped by those who hear….. For the Priest ought not only to be thus pure as one who has been dignified with so high a ministry, but very discreet, and skilled in many matters, and to be as well versed in the affairs of this life as they who are engaged in the world, and yet to be free from them all more than the recluses who occupy the mountains. For since he must mix with men who have wives, and who bring up children, who possess servants, and are surrounded with wealth, and fill public positions, and are persons of influence, he too should be a many-sided man— I say many-sided, not unreal, nor yet fawning and hypocritical, but full of much freedom and assurance, and knowing how to adapt himself profitably, where the circumstances of the case require it, and to be both kind and severe, for it is not possible to treat all those under one’s charge on one plan, since neither is it well for physicians to apply one course of treatment to all their sick, nor for a pilot to know but one way of contending with the winds.
St. Augustine (354-430) writes in his On the Good of Marriage:
For what Christian men of our time being free from the marriage bond, having power to contain from all sexual intercourse, seeing it to be now
a time, as it is written,
not of embracing, but of abstaining from embrace, would not choose rather to keep virginal or widowed continence, than (now that there is no obligation from duty to human society) to endure tribulation of the flesh, without which marriages cannot be…. And this is so great a thing, that many at this day more easily abstain from all sexual intercourse their whole life through, than, if they are joined in marriage, observe the measure of not coming together except for the sake of children. Forsooth we have many brethren and partners in the heavenly inheritance of both sexes that are continent, whether they be such as have made trial of marriage, or such as are entirely free from all such intercourse: forsooth they are without number….
For there is not now necessity of begetting children, as there then was, when, even when wives bare children, it was allowed, in order to a more numerous posterity, to marry other wives in addition, which now is certainly not lawful. For the difference that separates times causes the due season to have so great force unto the justice and doing or not doing any thing, that now a man does better, if he marry not even one wife, unless he be unable to contain.
In 385 Pope Siricius responded back to a letter from Bishop Himerius of Tarragona with regard to clerical discipline (Directa decretal). He upholds priestly celibacy, writing:
For we learned that many priests and deacons of Christ, long after their ordination, have produced offspring both from their own wives and even through filthy liaisons, and defend their sin with this excuse, that it is read in the Old Testament that the opportunity to procreate was given to priests and ministers. Let him speak to me now, whoever is an addict of obscenities and a teacher of vices. If he thinks that here and there in the law of Moses the restraints of indulgence are relaxed by the Lord for sacred orders, why does He admonish those to whom the Holy of Holies was committed saying: “Be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy”? Why indeed were priests ordered to live in the temple, far from their homes, in the year of their service? Just for this reason: so that they could not engage in physical contact even with wives, and that shining in integrity of conscience they might offer acceptable service to God. The period of service having been completed, use of wives was permitted to them for reason of succession alone, because no one from a tribe other than of Levi was directed to be admitted to the ministry of God. Whence the Lord Jesus, when he enlightened us by his advent, testified in the Gospel that he had come to fulfill the law not to destroy it. And he wished thus that the figure of the Church, whose bridegroom he is, radiate with the splendor of chastity, so that on the day of judgment when he comes again he can find her without stain and blemish, just as he taught through his Apostle. All we priests and deacons are bound by the unbreakable law of those sanctions, so that from the day of our ordination we subject our hearts and bodies to moderation and modesty in order that in every respect we might please our God in these sacrifices which daily we offer. “They who are in the flesh,” says the chosen vessel, “are unable to please God. But you are not now in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you.” And where can the Spirit of God dwell except, as we read, in holy bodies?… But those who lean on the excuse of an illicit privilege by asserting that this was conceded to them in the old law, let them know that they have been expelled by the authority of the apostolic see from every ecclesiastical office, which they used unworthily, nor can they ever touch the mysteries which ought to be venerated, of which they deprived themselves when they were obsessed with obscene desires…. Any cleric indeed who marries a widow or a second wife should thereupon be stripped of all privilege of ecclesiastical rank, with communion as only a layman conceded to him, which he can then have provided that he does nothing henceforth for which he should lose it. We certainly do not allow women in the houses of clerics, other than those alone whom the synod of Nicaea, for reasons only of necessities, permitted to live with them.
In 386, a Roman synod reaffirmed Pope Siricius’ edict forbidding priests and deacons to have conjugal intercourse with their wives and took steps to enforce it in the universal church. The Synod of Hippo (393) and other synods later reaffirmed clerical celibacy as well.
In that same year, Pope Siricius issued another decretal (Cum in unum) to various provinces, including the faraway churches of Africa. Again, he affirms clerical celibacy:
Moreover, as it is worthy, chaste, and honest to do so, this is what we advise: let the priests and Levites have no intercourse with their wives, inasmuch as they are absorbed in the daily duties of their ministries. Paul, when writing to the Corinthians, told them: “Leave yourself free for prayer” (1 Cor 7:5). If lay people are asked to be continent so that their prayers are answered, all the more so a priest should be ready at any moment, thanks to immaculate purity, and not fearing the obligation of offering the sacrifice or baptizing. Were he soiled by carnal concupiscence, what could he do? Would he excuse himself? With what shame, in what state of mind would he carry out his functions? What testimony of conscience, what merit would give him the trust to have his prayers granted, when it is said: “To all who are pure themselves, everything is pure; but to those who have been corrupted and lack faith, nothing can be pure” (Titus 1:5). Which is why I am exhorting, warning, supplicating: let us do away with this opprobrium that even the pagans can rightly hold against us. Perhaps does one believe that this [is permitted] because it is written: “He must not have been married more than once” (1 Tim 3:2). But [Paul] was not talking about [a man] persisting in his desire to beget; he spoke about the continence that one should observe [propter continentiam futuram]. He did not accept those who were not beyond reproach [in this matter] and he said: “I should like everyone to be like me” (1 Cor 7:7). And he stated even more clearly: “People who are interested only in unspiritual things can never be pleasing to God. Your interests, however, are not in the unspiritual, but in the spiritual” (Rom 8:8-9).
Around the same time as the aforementioned papal letter, yet another papal decretal (Dominus inter) of uncertain authorship also upholds clerical celibacy:
Here is what has been decided, first of all, with regard to bishops, priests, and deacons: those who have the responsibility of the divine sacrifice, and whose hands give the grace of baptism and consecrate the Body of Christ, are ordered by divine Scripture, and not only ourselves, to be very chaste; the Fathers themselves had ordered them to observe bodily continence. Let us not omit this point but explain the reason for it: how would a bishop or a priest dare preach continence and integrity to a widow or a virgin, or yet [how would he dare] exhort [spouses] to the chastity of the conjugal bed, if he himself is more concerned about begetting children for the world than begetting them for God? This is why we read in Scripture regarding these three ranks that the ministers of God are under obligation to observe purity; it is obvious that this is always a necessity for them; they must either give baptism or offer the sacrifice. Would an impure man dare soul what is holy when holy things are for holy people? It was thus that [the priests of the Old Testament] who offered sacrifices in the temple rightly stayed there without going out during the entire year they were on duty and had nothing to do with their homes. As to the idolaters, when they dedicate themselves to their impieties and immolate [sacrifices] to the demons, they impose on themselves continence with regard to women and also endeavor to keep themselves pure from [certain] foods; and you would ask me if the priest of the living God, who must offer spiritual sacrifices, must be constantly purified, if he must, in his whole flesh, be concerned about flesh? If commixture is defiling, it is obvious that the priest must be ready to carry out his celestial functions–he who has to supplicate on behalf of the sins of others–so that he himself not be found impure. If the lay people are told, “Leave yourselves free for prayer” (1 Cor 7:5), these men who put themselves first at the service of human procreation might have the title of priests, but they cannot have that dignity….
St. John Chrysostom in his Homilies on First Timothy (392-397) addresses head on the apparent contradiction between St. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and to Timothy:
he who is married cares for the things of the world (1 Corinthians 7:33), and a Bishop ought not to care for the things of the world, why does he say “the husband of one wife”? Some indeed think that he says this with reference to one who remains free from a wife. But if otherwise, he that has a wife may be as though he had none (1 Corinthians 7:29). For that liberty was then properly granted, as suited to the nature of the circumstances then existing. And it is very possible, if a man will, so to regulate his conduct. For as riches make it difficult to enter into the kingdom of Heaven, yet rich men have often entered in, so it is with marriage.
Thus, while it is possible for the bishop to be as he ought to be even with a wife (removed from cares of the world and continent), a wife and children make this possibility very difficult and rare for the average human being in the clerical service of God to achieve.
Canons 3 and 4 of the Council of Carthage (419) upheld clerical continence:
Aurelius the bishop said: When at the past council the matter on continency and chastity was considered, those three grades, which by a sort of bond are joined to chastity by their consecration, to wit bishops, presbyters, and deacons, so it seemed that it was becoming that the sacred rulers and priests of God as well as the Levites, or those who served at the divine sacraments, should be continent altogether, by which they would be able with singleness of heart to ask what they sought from the Lord: so that what the apostles taught and antiquity kept, that we might also keep.
Faustinus, the bishop of the Potentine Church, in the province of Picenum, a legate of the Roman Church, said: It seems good that a bishop, a presbyter, and a deacon, or whoever perform the sacraments, should be keepers of modesty and should abstain from their wives.
By all the bishops it was said: It is right that all who serve the altar should keep pudicity from all women.
By the time of Pope St. Leo the Great (440-461), the law of continency (no sexual relations whatsoever) for clerics was generally recognized in the West. Pope Leo sent a letter to Rusticus, bishop of Narbonne, answering his question specifically about whether clergy may have sex with their wives:
The law of continence is the same for the ministers of the altar as for bishops and priests, who when they were laymen or readers, could lawfully marry and have offspring. But when they reached to the said ranks, what was before lawful ceased to be so. And hence, in order that their wedlock may become spiritual instead of carnal, it behooves them not to put away their wives but to “have them as though they had them not” (1 Cor 7:29), whereby both the affection of their wives may be retained and the marriage functions cease.
The Council of Agde/Agatha in Gaul (506) prohibited subdeacons from from marrying.
The Council of Girona (517) allowed allows the wife of a cleric to live with her husband on the condition that she live with him as a sister with her brother (i.e. no sex).
The Code of Justinian (529-534) stipulated that a man must “neither have, nor have had, a wife or concubine; and have had no legitimate or natural children” in order to become a bishop.
Canon 22 of the Council of Clermont (535) reads:
When men are called to the sublime dignity of the priesthood and of the diaconate, let them totally repudiate the works of the world; chosen for the sacred mysteries, let them renounce carnal relations and change into fraternal affection the sexual intimacy they had had until then [with their wives]. And let every priest or deacon, after having, by God’s grace, received the [Levitical] blessing, immediately become the brother of his former wife. We have learned that some, aflame with the ardor of their passion, rejected the cincture of the [priestly] militia and returned to their vomit; they resumed conjugal life that was forbidden to them, and through an incest of sorts, brought prejudice against the splendor of priestly dignity, to such an extent that they even sired children. If someone has publicly committed this kind [of offense], let him be deprived forever from his dignity; he had [in any case] lost it when he had agreed [to commit] his offense.
Canon 2 of the third national council at Orleans (538) reads:
No cleric, from the subdiaconate upward, is entitled to take a wife into the new life he has chosen. If it happens that he already has one, he will not have relations with her anymore. Should he do so, he would be deposed of his functions, in conformity with the regulations of old canons, and would have to be content with lay communion.
The second Council of Tours (567) decreed that any cleric found in bed with his wife would be excommunicated for a year and reduced to the lay state. According to Canon 14, the wife of a bishop was not to live with him in the same house.
The Council of Trullo (692) made celibacy a requirement for the bishop but rebelled against the primacy of Rome with laxer requirements for priests and deacons.
There are so many different councils reiterating the obligation of clerical continence more or less (Council of Macon, Council of Auxerre, etc.).
For Further Reading:
Priestly Celibacy (very well done paper online)
Priestly Celibacy in Patristics and Church History (Vatican website document)
Apostolic Origins of Clerical Celibacy
Celibacy in the Early Church: The Beginnings of a Discipline of Obligatory Continence for Clerics in East and West
The Case for Clerical Celibacy: Its Historical Development & Theological Foundations