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Tracing the Glorious Origins of Celibacy
Luiz Sérgio Solimeo
Self-appointed reformers always arise in times of crises offering “brilliant” solutions that attempt to demolish the Church’s most venerable traditions.
Priestly celibacy, a glorious trait of the Latin Church, has been a constant target of these so-called reformers.
Curiously enough, abolishing priestly celibacy comes hand-in-hand with destroying the indissolubility of marriage. This is easy to understand since it is based on the idea that chastity is impossible to observe. Thus, not only celibate continence is cast aside but also conjugal chastity and fidelity in marriage. Historically this happened with Eastern Orthodox schismatics, Protestants, Anglicans and others. The total or partial abolition of priestly celibacy either came together with or was preceded by permission to divorce.
Pseudo Arguments Against Celibacy
Actually there are many studies, some very recent, totally debunking this supposedly historic-canonical argument.
Let us cite three among the most important studies: Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, by Fr. Christian Cochini, S.J.(Ignatius, San Francisco, 1990); The Case for Clerical Celibacy, by Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler (Ignatius, San Francisco, 1995); Celibacy in the Early Church, by Fr. Stefan Heid, (Ignatius, San Francisco, 2000).
Early Church Tradition
Let us limit ourselves to the short yet substantial book by Cardinal Stickler, a well-respected Canon Law historian, expert on Roman Congregations, and former head of the Vatican Library.
He explains that both the apostolic and early Church did not require that a man be single or widowed in order to be ordained priest or designated bishop.
Since a large number of Christians were adult converts, (a typical example is Saint Augustine, who converted at 30), it was common for a married man to be ordained priest and made bishop. However, the Epistles of St. Paul to Titus and Timothy clearly state a bishop had to be a “man of only one woman” (I Tim 3:2; 3:12; Titus 1:6). According to the interpretation commonly adopted in the early Church (and attested to by the Fathers of the Church), a candidate could not be married more than once. Thus, a widower who remarried was ineligible.
Moreover, Church officials believed a person in those conditions would hardly have sufficient strength to halt marital relations and live under the same roof. Cardinal Stickler emphasizes that because of the mutually self-giving nature of matrimony; a separation would always take place only with the full consent the wife, who, for her part, would make a commitment to live in chastity in a community of women religious.
The Apostolic Tradition
Thus, in the Gospels, one reads that St. Peter asked Our Lord, “What about us? We left all we had to follow you.” The Divine Master answered: “I tell you solemnly, there is no one who has left house, wife, brothers, parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not be given repayment many times over in this present time and, in the world to come, eternal life” (Lk 18:28-30, cf. Mt 19:27-30; Mk 10:20-21).
Early Church Councils Reaffirm Practice
At the Council of the Church of Africa (390) and above all at the Council of Carthage, (419), which St. Augustine attended, similar norms were adopted. These councils recalled the ecclesiastical praxis of the obligation of perfect chastity, affirming that such praxis is of apostolic tradition.
Pope Siricius answering a specific consultation about clerical celibacy in 385 affirmed that bishops and priests who continue marital relations after ordination violate an irrevocable law from the very inception of the Church that binds them to continence.
Several other popes and regional councils, particularly in Gaul, present day France, continued to recall the tradition of celibacy and punish abuse.
St. Gregory VII (1073-85) when struggling against the intervention of the Holy Roman Emperor in church affairs, had to fight simony – the purchase of Church posts – and Nicolaitism – the heresy that preaches, among other things, priestly marriage.
Some mistakenly conclude that St. Gregory VII introduced the law of celibacy into the Church. Quite the contrary. What St. Gregory VII, and later the Second Lateran Council (1139) did was not to “introduce” the law of celibacy but simply confirm that it was in force and issue regulations for its observance. Since most recruiting for the priesthood was already among the unmarried, the Second Lateran Council forbade priestly marriage, declaring it null and void in the case of priests, deacons or anyone with a solemn vow of religion.
The Case of Paphnutius
Cardinal Stickler adeptly deals with the case. He points out that Eusebius of Cesarea, the Council’s historian, was actually present during the whole event. He makes no reference to any such protest, which he certainly would have noted had it really happened.
The story of Paphnutius only appears almost a century after the Council of Nicea in the writings of two Byzantine authors, Socrates and Sozomen. The first cites as his source his conversation as a young man, with an elderly man who claimed he was at the Council. The veracity of this story is questionable since Socrates was born more than fifty years after the Council. His interlocutor had to be at least seventy years old when he was born and practically in his nineties at the time of the supposed conversation.
The story of Paphnutius’ protest was also always held in suspicion because his
name was not on the roster of Fathers who came from Egypt to participate in the
Council of Nicea. This was affirmed by Valesius, editor of the works of Socrates
and Sozomen in the Greek Patrology of Migne.
Cardinal Stickler laments that historians of weight like Funk, at the end of the 19th century, accepted the story of Paphnutius as valid even as his contemporaries had already rejected it as false. One of the people responsible for spreading this error was the Frenchmen, E. Vacandard, through the prestigious Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique.
An Identity Crisis
Above all, the priesthood in the New Testament is a participation in the Priesthood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the High Priest. And, therefore, the priest has a mysterious and special bond with Christ, in whose name and by whose power he offers the bloodless sacrifice (in persona Christi). The most profound reason for priestly celibacy comes from this supernatural bond with the Savior.
The Cardinal points out that the main reason celibacy is in question today is because the clergy faces an identity crisis. Only by restoring the true identity of the priest, can the profound reasons for celibacy be understood and practiced.
crisis cannot be resolved by returning to “the origins of the Church,” a
solution proposed by proponents favoring married priests and their sympathizers.
Those origins would simply not allow them to cohabit with their wives and
continue to exert their priestly ministry.
© 2006 by the American TFP. All rights reserved.