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Clerical celibacy is the practice in various religious traditions, in which clergy adopt a celibate life, refraining from marriage and sexual relationships, including masturbation and "impure thoughts" (such as sexual visualisation and fantasies). Clerical celibacy is the rule for priests and bishops in the Latin Catholic Church and for bishops in Eastern Christianity. It has also been the historical norm for Anglo-Catholic priests.

Celibacy, continence and chastity

The meanings of the words "celibacy", "continence" and "chastity" in this context differ from the more or less synonymous meanings sometimes attributed to them in common speech. "Celibate" here means renouncing sex and marriage. "Continent" means refraining from any form of sexual intercourse. "Chaste" means conforming to sexual morality. Thus a married man having sex with his wife is chaste, but not celibate nor continent. An unmarried man having sex with anyone is neither celibate, continent nor chaste.

In the case of the Latin Church, the specific obligation of the clergy is continence. Celibacy is a consequence of this obligation. The Code of Canon Law states:

Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and therefore are bound to celibacy which is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and are able to dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and humanity.[1]

Permanent deacons, namely those deacons who are not intended to become priests, are, in general, exempted from this rule.[2] Permanent deacons are not allowed to remarry after the death of their first spouse.[3]


In some Christian churches, priests and bishops must remain unmarried, while in others, married men may be ordained as deacons or priests, but may not remarry if their wife dies. Since celibacy is seen as a consequence of the obligation of continence, it implies abstinence from sexual or romantic relationships. The Code of Canon Law prescribes:

Clerics are to behave with due prudence towards persons whose company can endanger their obligation to observe continence or give rise to scandal among the faithful.[4]

In some Christian churches, a vow of chastity is made by members of religious orders or monastic communities, along with vows of poverty and obedience, in order to imitate the life of Jesus of Nazareth. This vow of chastity, made by people not all of whom are clergy, is different from what is the obligation, not a vow, of clerical continence and celibacy

Celibacy not only for religious and monastics (brothers/monks and sisters/nuns) but also for bishops is upheld by both the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Christian traditions. In Latin Rite Catholicism, all priests must be celibate men, unless given special permission; but in most Orthodox traditions and in some Eastern Catholic Churches men who are already married may be ordained priests, but priests may not marry, whether for the first or second time, while bishops must be unmarried men or widowers. No Bishop is permitted to be married.

Neither the Catholic nor the Orthodox tradition considers the rule of clerical celibacy to be an unchangeable dogma, but instead as a rule that could be adjusted if the Church thought it appropriate.

Christian churches forbid castration, and the alleged self-castration of the theologian Origen was used to discredit him.

In orthodox practice of Buddhism, nuns and monks take a vow of continence, the violation of which (in theory, at least) results in immediate expulsion from the order, without need for administrative action. They are thus also bound to celibacy, although some orders, such as the Japanese Shin Buddhists, in particular, allow and even encourage married monastics.

Clerical continence in the Christian Church

First century

It is undisputed that the earliest Christian leaders were very largely married men. The mention in Mark 1:30 of Saint Peter's mother-in-law indicates that he had married. In 1 Corinthians 7:8 Paul the Apostle indicates that he was unmarried: either single or a widower.[5] In 1 Corinthians 9:5 he contrasts his situation with that of the other apostles who were accompanied by believing wives. Martin Luther held that the "loyal yokefellow" of Philippians 4:3 was Paul's wife,[6] an idea already found in Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History Book III, Chapter 30, which says Paul did not take his wife about with him "that he might not be inconvenienced in his ministry".

Some hold that married men who became clergy were expected to live in complete continence, refraining permanently from sexual relations with their wives.[7][8][9] They also conclude that, because of the exclusion of sexual relations, the members of the clergy were even then not entitled to marry.

In the New Testament, while 1 Corinthians 7:32–33 ("The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife") is a locus classicus used in favour of sacerdotal celibacy, the statement in 1 Timothy 3:2–4 that a bishop should be "the husband of one wife" and "one who ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection" indicates that at that time married men could indeed become clergy. The interpretation of "the husband of one wife" is that the man to be ordained could not have been married more than once.[10]

The fourth-century Church Fathers Ambrose and Jerome pointed out that the passage in 1 Timothy did not conflict with the discipline they knew, whereby a married man who became a bishop was to abstain from sexual relations and not marry again: "He speaks of having children, not of begetting them, or marrying again";[11] "He 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."[12]

According to Epiphanius of Salamis, also of the fourth century, Nicholas, one of the Seven Deacons of Acts 6:1–6, noticed others being admired for their celibacy. To avoid seeming immoderately devoted to his beautiful wife and therefore inferior in his ministry, he renounced conjugal intercourse forever. While he was able to remain continent for a while, eventually his burning desire overpowered him. However, he did not want to be regarded as inconsistent or seen as taking his oath lightly. Instead of returning to his wife, he engaged in promiscuous sex and what Epiphanius termed "sex practices against nature". In this way, he started Nicolaism, an antinomian heresy which believed that as long as they abstained from marriage, it was not a sin to exercise their sexual desires as they pleased. Revelation 2:6 and 15 expresses hatred for the "works of the Nicolaitans".[13]

Second and third centuries

The North African Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225), writing of the apostles, indicated that he was obliged to believe that apart from Peter, who was certainly married, the apostles were continent.[14] In his De praescriptione contra haereticos, Tertullian mentioned continence as one of the customs in Mithraism that he claimed were imitated from Christianity, but does not associate it specifically with the clergy.[15]

The Didascalia Apostolorum, written in Greek in the first half of the third century,[16] mentions the requirements of chastity on the part of both the bishop and his wife, and of the children being already brought up, when it quotes 1 Timothy 3:2–4 as requiring that, before someone is ordained a bishop, enquiry be made "whether he be chaste, and whether his wife also be a believer and chaste; and whether he has brought up his children in the fear of God".[17]

There is record of a number of third-century married bishops in good standing, even in the West. They included: Passivus, bishop of Fermo; Cassius, bishop of Narni; Aetherius, bishop of Vienne; Aquilinus, bishop of Évreux; Faron, bishop of Meaux; Magnus, bishop of Avignon. Filibaud, bishop of Aire-sur-l'Adour, was the father of St. Philibert de Jumièges, and Sigilaicus, bishop of Tours, was the father of St. Cyran of Brenne.[18] No statement is made about whether they had children after becoming bishops or only before.

Fourth century

The fourth century saw instances in the West of canonical enactment of penalties for members of the clergy who did not observe continence.

The earliest known is that of the Council of Elvira (c. 306):

Bishops, presbyters, deacons, and others with a position in the ministry are to abstain completely from sexual intercourse with their wives and from the procreation of children. If anyone disobeys, he shall be removed from the clerical office.[19]

The Council of Nicaea, AD 325, decides 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[20] [* meaning a female human being].

In 387 or 390, or according to others in 400, a Council of Carthage decreed that bishops, priests and deacons abstain from conjugal relations, in accordance with a tradition dating from the Apostles:

It is fitting that the holy bishops and priests of God as well as the Levites, i.e. those who are in the service of the divine sacraments, observe perfect continence, so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God; what the Apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us also endeavour to keep... It pleases us all that bishop, priest and deacon, guardians of purity, abstain from conjugal intercourse with their wives, so that those who serve at the altar may keep a perfect chastity.[21]

Clerical continence is said to be of apostolic origin also in the Directa Decretal of Pope Siricius (10 February 385):

We have indeed discovered that many priests and deacons of Christ brought children into the world, either through union with their wives or through shameful intercourse. And they used as an excuse the fact that in the Old Testament—as we can read—priests and ministers were permitted to beget children. Whatever the case may be, if one of these disciples of the passions and tutors of vices thinks that the Lord—in the law of Moses—gives an indistinct license to those in sacred Orders so that they may satisfy their passions, let him tell me now: why does [the Lord] warn those who had the custody of the most holy things in the following way: "You must make yourselves holy, for I am Yahweh your God" (Lev 20:7). Likewise, why were the priests ordered, during the year of their tour of duty, to live in the temple, away from their homes? Quite obviously so that they would not be able to have carnal knowledge of any woman, even their wives, and, thus, having a conscience radiating integrity, they could offer to God offerings worthy of his acceptance. Those men, once they had fulfilled their time of service, were permitted to have marital intercourse for the sole purpose of ensuring their descent, because no one except [the members] of the tribe of Levi could be admitted to the divine ministry.[22]

Saint Hilary of Poitiers (315–68), a Doctor of the Church, was a married bishop and had a daughter named Apra, who was baptized together with her father, when he and his wife became Christians. Among Popes of the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries, the father of Pope Damasus I (366–84) was a bishop. Pope Felix III (483–92), whose father was almost certainly a priest, was the great-great-grandfather of Pope Gregory I the Great (590–604). Pope Hormisdas (514–23) was the father of Pope Silverius (536–37).[18] No statement is given on whether, among these, the children in question were born when their fathers were still laymen.

Thus, in the West, during the patristic era and into the early Middle Ages, clerical celibacy (i.e. being unmarried) was not in force; but a cleric was obliged by canon law and, it was claimed, by a custom dating from the Apostles, to be continent and have no sexual relations even with his wife.

As for the East, the Greek ecclesiastical historians Socrates and Sozomen, who wrote a century after the event, reported that the First Council of Nicaea (325) considered ordering all clergy to put away their wives, which would have been more severe than merely refraining from conjugal relations, but the Council was dissuaded by Paphnutius of Thebes.[23]

Canon 3 of this Council forbade clerics in major orders to have any women in their households except their mothers, sisters or aunts. Centuries later, attempts were made in the West to interpret this as a prohibition of having a wife.

A leading participant in the Council, Eusebius of Caesarea, wrote: "It is fitting that |those in the priesthood and occupied in the service of God, should abstain after ordination from the intercourse of marriage."[24]

Epiphanius of Salamis (died 403) accused the heretics whom he called "Purists" of "mixing up everyone's duty":

They have assumed that what is enjoined upon the priesthood because of the priesthood's preeminence applies equally to everyone. They have heard, "The bishop must be blameless, the husband of one wife, continent; likewise the deacon and the presbyter", but not understood the limitation of the ordinances. … She (God's holy church) does not accept the husband of one wife if he is still co-habiting with her and fathering children. She does accept the abstinent husband of one wife, or the widower, as a deacon, presbyter, bishop and subdeacon, [but no other married men], particularly where the canons of the church are strictly observed. But in some places, you will surely tell me, presbyters, deacons and sub-deacons are still fathering children [while exercising their office.] This is not canonical, but is due to men's occasional remissness of purpose, and because there is no one to serve the congregation.[25]

Similar evidence of the existence in the fourth-century East, as in the West, of a rule or at least an ideal of clerical continence that was considered to be canonical is found in Epiphanius's Panarion, 48, 9 and Expositio Fidei, 21. Synesius (died c. 414), who refused to be bound by the obligation, knew that, if made a bishop, he was expected to live in continence with his wife.[26] One of the accusations against Antoninus, Bishop of Ephesus, in his trial before John Chrysostom was that "after separating from his married wife, he had taken her again".[27] In his note on this phrase, the translator Herbert Moore says: "According to the 'Apostolic Canons', only the lower orders of clergy were allowed to marry after their appointment to office; the Council in Trullo ordered that a bishop's wife should retire to a convent, or become a deaconess; that of Caesarea, that if a priest marries after ordination he must be degraded. For Antoninus to resume relations with his wife was equivalent to marriage after ordination. It was proposed at the Council of Nicaea that married clergy should be compelled to separate from their wives, but the proposal was rejected; though it was generally held that the relations of bishops with their wives should be those of brother and sister."

Fifth to seventh centuries

In saying that "in certain provinces it is permitted to the readers and singers to marry",[28] of the Council of Chalcedon (451) suggests that, in other provinces, not only bishops, priests, deacons and subdeacons, but even those in the lower orders of readers and singers were at that time not permitted to marry.

Needless to say, the rule or ideal of clerical continence was not always observed either in the West or in the East, and it was because of violations that it was from time to time affirmed. Emperor Justinian I (died 565) ordered that the children of priests, deacons and subdeacons who, "in disregard of the sacred canons, have children by women with whom, according to sacerdotal regulation, they may not cohabit" be considered illegitimate on the same level as those "procreated in incest and in nefarious nuptials".[29] As for bishops, he forbade "any one to be ordained bishop who has children or grandchildren".[30]

Canon 13 of the Quinisext Council (Constantinople, 692) shows that by that time there was a direct contradiction between the ideas of East and West about the legitimacy of conjugal relations on the part of clergy lower than the rank of bishop who had married before being ordained:

Since we know it to be handed down as a rule of the Roman Church that those who are deemed worthy to be advanced to the diaconate or presbyterate should promise no longer to cohabit with their wives, we, preserving the ancient rule and apostolic perfection and order, will that the lawful marriages of men who are in holy orders be from this time forward firm, by no means dissolving their union with their wives nor depriving them of their mutual intercourse at a convenient time. Wherefore, if anyone shall have been found worthy to be ordained subdeacon, or deacon, or presbyter, he is by no means to be prohibited from admittance to such a rank, even if he shall live with a lawful wife. Nor shall it be demanded of him at the time of his ordination that he promise to abstain from lawful intercourse with his wife: lest we should affect injuriously marriage constituted by God and blessed by his presence.[31]

The canon mistakenly claims that the canon of the late-fourth-century Council of Carthage quoted above excluded conjugal intercourse by clergy lower than bishops only in connection with their liturgical service or in times of fasting. The Council of Carthage excluded such intercourse perpetually and made no distinction between bishops, priests and deacons.[32]

There have been no changes since then in the discipline of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which for bishops, priests and deacons excludes marriage after ordination, but allows, except for periods before celebrating the Divine Liturgy, conjugal relations by priests and deacons married before ordination, and requires celibacy and perpetual continence only of bishops.

Eleventh and twelfth centuries

In 888, two local councils, that of Metz and that of Mainz, prohibited cohabitation even with wives living in continence. This tendency was taken up by the eleventh-century Gregorian Reform, which aimed at eliminating what it called "Nicolaitism",[33] that is clerical marriage, which in spite of being theoretically excluded was in fact practised,[34] and concubinage.

The First Lateran Council (1123), a General Council, adopted the following canons:

Canon 3: We absolutely forbid priests, deacons, and subdeacons to associate with concubines and women, or to live with women other than such as the Nicene Council (canon 3) for reasons of necessity permitted, namely, the mother, sister, or aunt, or any such person concerning whom no suspicion could arise.
Canon 21: We absolutely forbid priests, deacons, subdeacons, and monks to have concubines or to contract marriage. We decree in accordance with the definitions of the sacred canons, that marriages already contracted by such persons must be dissolved, and that the persons be condemned to do penance.[35]

The phrase "contract marriage" in the first part of canon 21 excludes clerical marriages, and the marriages that the second part says must be dissolved may possibly be such marriages, contracted after ordination, not before. Canon 3 makes reference to a rule made at the First Council of Nicaea (see above), which is understood as not forbidding a cleric to live in the same house with a wife whom he married before being ordained.

Sixteen years later, the Second Lateran Council (1139), in which some five hundred bishops took part, enacted the following canons:

Canon 6: We also decree that those who in the subdiaconate and higher orders have contracted marriage or have concubines, be deprived of their office and ecclesiastical benefice. For since they should be and be called the temple of God, the vessel of the Lord, the abode of the Holy Spirit, it is unbecoming that they indulge in marriage and in impurities.
Canon 7: Following in the footsteps of our predecessors, the Roman pontiffs Gregory VII, Urban, and Paschal, we command that no one attend the masses of those who are known to have wives or concubines. But that the law of continence and purity, so pleasing to God, may become more general among persons constituted in sacred orders, we decree that bishops, priests, deacons, subdeacons, canons regular, monks, and professed clerics (conversi) who, transgressing the holy precept, have dared to contract marriage, shall be separated. For a union of this kind which has been contracted in violation of the ecclesiastical law, we do not regard as matrimony. Those who have been separated from each other, shall do penance commensurate with such excesses.[36]

This Council thus declared clerical marriages not only illicit though valid, as before, but invalid ("we do not regard as matrimony"). The marriages in question are, again, those contracted by men who already are "bishops, priests, deacons, subdeacons, canons regular, monks and professed clerics". And later legislation, found especially in the Quinque Compilationes Antiquae and the Decretals of Gregory IX, continued to deal with questions concerning married men who were ordained legally. In 1322 Pope John XXII insisted that no one bound in marriage—even if unconsummated—could be ordained unless there was full knowledge of the requirements of Church law. If the free consent of the wife had not been obtained, the husband, even if already ordained, was to be reunited with his wife, exercise of his ministry being barred. Accordingly, the assumption that a wife might not want to give up her marital rights may have been one of the factors contributing to the eventual universal practice in the Latin Church of ordaining only unmarried men.[37]

However, although the decrees of the Second Council of the Lateran might still be interpreted in the older sense of prohibiting marriage only after ordination, they came to be understood as absolute prohibitions, and, while the fact of being married was formally made a canonical impediment to ordination only with the 1917 Code of Canon Law,[38] the prohibition of marriage for all clerics in major orders began to be taken simply for granted.[18] The Second Lateran Council is thus often cited as having for the first time introduced a general law of celibacy, requiring ordination only of unmarried men.

Sixteenth century

While the eleventh-century Gregorian Reform 's campaign against clerical marriage and concubinage met strong opposition,[39] by the time of the Second Lateran Council it had won widespread support from lay and ecclesiastical leaders.

New opposition appeared in connection with the Protestant Reformation, not only on the part of the Reformers, but also among churchmen and others who remained in union with the see of Rome. Figures such as Panormitanus, Erasmus, Thomas Cajetan, and the Holy Roman Emperors Charles V, Ferdinand I and Maximilian II argued against it.

In practice, the discipline of clerical continence meant by then that only unmarried men were ordained. Thus, in the discussions that took place, no distinction was made between clerical continence and clerical celibacy.

The Reformers made abolition of clerical continence and celibacy a key element in their reform. They denounced it as opposed to the New Testament recommendation that a cleric should be "the husband of one wife" (see on 1 Timothy 3:2–4 above), the declared right of the apostles to take around with them a believing Christian as a wife (1 Corinthians 9:5) and the admonition, "Marriage should be honoured by all" (Hebrews 13:4). They blamed it for widespread sexual misconduct among the clergy.[40]

Against the long-standing tradition of the Church in the East as well as in the West, which excluded marriage after ordination, Zwingli married in 1522, Luther in 1525, and Calvin in 1539. And against what had also become, though seemingly at a later date, a tradition in both East and West, the married Thomas Cranmer was made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533.

The Council of Trent considered the matter and at its twenty-fourth session decreed that marriage after ordination was invalid: "If any one saith, that clerics constituted in sacred orders, or Regulars, who have solemnly professed chastity, are able to contract marriage, and that being contracted it is valid, notwithstanding the ecclesiastical law, or vow; and that the contrary is no thing else than to condemn marriage; and, that all who do not feel that they have the gift of chastity, even though they have made a vow thereof, may contract marriage; let him be anathema: seeing that God refuses not that gift to those who ask for it rightly, neither does He suffer us to be tempted above that which we are able" (canon 9).

It also decreed, concerning the relative dignity of marriage and celibacy: " If any one saith, that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity, or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony; let him be anathema."[41]


Rules on celibacy differ between different religious traditions and churches:

  • In Latin-Rite (Western) Catholic churches, married men may (since the time of the Second Vatican Council in 1965) be ordained deacons, but may not be ordained priests or bishops, nor may one marry after ordination. Since the start of the pontificate of Pope Pius XII (1939–1958), exceptions may be allowed for married Protestant ministers or Anglican priests who convert to Catholicism and wish to become priests in the Catholic Church, provided their wives consent. The Roman Catholic Church considers Protestant and most Anglican ordinations invalid, while recognizing Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and some Anglican ordinations as valid. In some cases, laicized Catholic priests are allowed to marry by special dispensation. Additionally, dispensations can be granted for deacons whose wives have died to marry a second time.
  • In Eastern Orthodox Churches, and Eastern Catholic Churches (which latter are in full communion with Rome), married men may be ordained deacons or priests, but may not be ordained bishops, and one may not marry after ordination. The Oriental Orthodox churches and the Assyrian Church of the East follow the same rules that hold in the Eastern Orthodox Church, with the exception of the Armenian Apostolic Church, which permits ordained deacons to marry. While some incorrectly believe all Orthodox bishops must be monks, in fact, according to church law, they simply may no longer be living with their wives if they are to be consecrated to the episcopacy. (The canons stipulate that they must also see to their wives' maintenance, for example Canon 12 of the Quinisext Council.) Typically, the wife of such a man will take up the monastic life herself, though this also is not required. There are many Orthodox bishops currently serving who have never been tonsured (formally initiated) to monastic orders. There are also many who are tonsured monastics but have never formally lived the monastic life. Further, a number of bishops are widowers, but because clergy cannot remarry after ordination, such a man must remain celibate after the death of his wife.
  • Churches of the Anglican Communion have no restrictions on the marriage of deacons, priests, bishops, or other ministers. Early Anglican Church clergy under Henry VIII were required to be celibate (see 6 Articles), but the requirement was eliminated by Edward VI. Some Anglo-Catholic priestly orders require their members to remain celibate, as do orders of all brothers and sisters.
  • Most Protestant traditions have no restrictions on the marriage of ministers or other clergy, except that in some circles divorced persons may not serve as pastors, and in practice the majority of pastors are married.
  • In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Mormon tradition, all worthy men can become priests. Regardless of whether they become priests, strict abstinence from all sexual behavior is universally applied to all men (and women) until they marry. Gay men must always be celibate and continent. Priesthood may be suspended in the event of unchaste conduct. Generally only married men are called to be bishops.
  • Judaism has no history of celibacy for its leaders, rabbis or kohens. Before the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, priests, kohens, and Levites were required to practice continence (abstain from sexual intercourse with their wife) before and during their time of service at the temple. They were permitted to resume marital relations after completing their service. Some community functions are, as a rule, filled only by married men. However, as in Islam, marriage is encouraged for everyone.
  • In Islam, lifelong celibacy or "monkery" is forbidden. Marriage is encouraged for everyone.
  • The traditions of monasticism within Buddhism require celibacy. Several cultures, however, have revised this and now have forms of married lay teachers, who are distinct from the celibate clergy.

Modern Roman Catholic Church

See main article: Clerical celibacy (Catholic Church).

Celibacy is represented in the Roman Catholic Church as having apostolic authority. Theologically, the Church desires to imitate the life of Jesus with regard to chastity and the sacrifice of married life for the "sake of the Kingdom" (Luke 18:28–30, Matthew 19:27–30; Mark 10:20–21), and to follow the example of Jesus Christ in being "married" to the Church, viewed by Catholicism and many Christian traditions as the "Bride of Christ". Also of importance are the teachings of St. Paul that chastity is the superior state of life, and his desire expressed in I Corinthians 7:7–8, "I would that all men were even as myself [celibate]—but every one has his proper gift from God; one after this manner, and another after that. But I say to the unmarried and the widows. It is good for them if they so continue, even as I."

Practically speaking, the reasons for celibacy are given by the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 7:7–8; 32–35: "But I would have you to be without solicitude. He that is without a wife is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God. But he that is with a wife, is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife: and he is divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin thinketh on the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit. But she that is married thinketh on the things of this world how she may please her husband. And this I speak for your profit, not to cast a snare upon you, but for that which is decent and which may give you power to attend upon the Lord without impediment."

I Corinthians 9:5 is sometimes cited by those opposed to celibacy, as the verse is often rendered as referring to the Apostles carrying "wives" with them. However, the Greek word for "wife" is the same word for "woman". The Early Church Fathers including Tertullian, Jerome, and Augustine state the Greek word is ambiguous and the women in I Corinthians 9:5 were women ministering to the Apostles as women ministered to Christ (cf. Luke 8:1–3), and were not wives.[42] They even went as far as to assert they left their "offices of marriage" to follow Christ and to preach.[43]

Celibacy for priests is a discipline in the Roman Catholic Church, not a doctrine: in other words, a church regulation, but not an integral part of Church teaching. It is based upon the life of Christ and his celibate way of life. However the first pope, St. Peter, as well as many subsequent popes, bishops, and priests during the church's first 270 years were in fact married men, and often fathers. The practice of clerical continence, along with a prohibition of marriage by men once they were ordained a deacon, priest or bishop, is traceable from the time of the Council of Elvira. This law was reinforced in the Directa Decretal (385) and at the Council of Carthage in 390. The tradition of clerical continence developed into a practice of clerical celibacy (ordaining only unmarried men) from the eleventh century onward among Latin Rite Catholics and became a formal part of canon law in 1917. This law of clerical celibacy does not apply to Eastern Catholics. Until recently, the Eastern Catholic bishops of North America would generally ordain only unmarried men, for fear that married priests would create scandal. Since Vatican II's call for the restoration of Eastern Catholic traditions, a number of bishops have returned to the traditional practice of ordaining married men to the presbyterate. Bishops are still celibate and normally chosen from the ranks of monks.

In the Latin Rite exceptions are sometimes made. After the Second Vatican Council a general exception was made for the ordination as deacons of men of at least thirty-five years of age who are not intended to be ordained later as priests and whose wives consent to their ordination.[44] Since the time of Pope Pius XII individual exceptions are sometimes made for former non-Catholic clergymen.

Because the rule of clerical celibacy is a law and not a doctrine, exceptions can be made, and it can, in principle, be changed at any time by the Pope. Nonetheless, both the present Pope, Benedict XVI, and his predecessor, spoke clearly of their understanding that the traditional practice is unlikely to change.

See also

  • Roman Catholic Church sex abuse allegations
  • Clerical marriage practice of marriage after ordination.


  1. Canon 277 §1
  2. "The prescripts of canons ... 287 §2 do not bind permanent deacons unless particular law establishes otherwise" Canon 288
  3. [1]
  4. canon 277 §2
  5. The Story of the Early Church
  6. Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod: Wife of the Apostle Paul
  7. Roman Cholij, Priestly celibacy in patristics and in the history of the Church.
  8. BONIVENTO, Cesare. Priestly Celibacy. Ecclesiastical Institution or Apostolic Tradition?; Thomas McGovern,Priestly Celibacy Today; Cochini, Christian, The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, Ignatius Press (October 1990). ISBN 0-89870-951-2, ISBN 0-89870-280-1.
  9. Celibacy in the Early Church: The Beginnings of Obligatory Continence for Clerics in East and West, Stefan Heid, p. 15; Anthony Zimmerman, Celibacy Dates Back to the Apostles
  10. Celibacy in the Early Church: The Beginnings of Obligatory Continence for Clerics in East and West, Stefan Heid, trans. Michael J. Miller
  11. Ambrose, Epistle LXIII, 62
  12. Jerome, Against Jovinianus, I
  13. Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent: Vol. III. trans. Fred Kramer, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1986, p. 150, "Second Topic, Concerning the Celibacy of Priests", chapter IV, "History of the Celibacy of Priests from the Time of the Apostles Down to Our Times".
  14. On Monogamy, chapter VIII
  15. "Habet et uirgines, habet et continentes" (It too has virgins, it too has continent people)—De praescriptione contra haereticos, XL, 5
  16. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2005, art. Didascalia Apostolorum
  17. Didascalia Apostolorum, chapter IV (ii, 2) (emphases added)
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 John W. O'Malley, Some Basics about Celibacy
  19. Council of Elvira, canon 33
  20. "Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. XIV, The Canons of the 318 Holy Fathers Assembled in the City of Nice (sic), in Bithynia.". Early Church Fathers. Retrieved 2006-05-08. 
  21. The Canons of the CCXLII Blessed Fathers Who Assembled at Carthage, canon III
  22. Epistola Decretalis Papae Siricii, VII. De clericis incontinentibus
  23. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2005, art. "Paphnutius".
  24. Demonstratio Evangelica, book 1, chapter 9
  25. Panarion, 59, 4 (English translation by Frank Williams, II, p. 105.)
  26. Epistle 105
  27. The Dialogue of Palladius concerning the Life of St. John Chrysostom, chapter XIII
  28. Canon 14
  29. Code of Justinian, 1.3.44
  30. Code of Justinian, 1.3.41
  31. Canon XIII
  32. "What is said in this canon, that the council of Carthage orders priests to abstain from their wives at prescribed periods, is a misunderstanding of the decree, caused either by malice or by ignorance. This canon is one of those adopted by the Fifth Council of Carthage held in the year 400, and it is decreed that subdeacons, deacons, priests, and bishops shall abstain from their wives, following the ancient statutes, and shall be as though they had them not. The Greek version of this canon has rendered the Latin words priora statuta by these, idious horous, which may mean 'fixed times': for the translator read, following another codex, propria for priora. Be this as it may, the Fathers of the Trullan council supposed that this obliged the clergy only to continence at certain fixed times, and were not willing to see that it included bishops as well" (Comment by Fleury on canon 13 of the Council in Trullo)
  33. Cf. Peter Damian, Letters
  34. For the situation in England, see E. Deanealy, Sidelights on the Anglo-Saxon Church (1962:134–36); Nancy Partner, "Henry of Huntingdon: Clerical Celibacy and the Writing of History" Church History 42.4 (December 1973:467–475); "Gregorian reform in action: clerical marriage in England, 1050–1200", Cambridge Historical Journal 12.1 (1956:1–21). The cases mentioned largely concern, not clerical celibacy, but clerical continence.
  35. The Canons of the First Lateran Council, 1123
  36. The Canons of the Second Lateran Council, 1123
  37. Roman Cholij: Priestly celibacy in patristics and in the history of the Church
  38. Canon 987
  39. "Otto, the bishop of Constance, refused to enforce with his own clergy Gregory VII's directives regarding clerics and women. When Bishop Altmann of Passau tried, on the contrary, to implement the reforms, the clergy attacked him and with the help of imperial troops drove him out of his diocese. A cleric, probably Ulrich, the bishop of Imola, took up his pen about 1060 in a defense of clerical marriage that assumed conjugal relations after the ordination of the spouse. Ulrich's 'Rescript' influenced other writings in the same vein that continued to appear into the 12th century" (John W. O'Malley, Some Basics about Celibacy).
  40. Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV,12,23–28 .
  41. canon 10
  42. Tertullian, On Monogamy: "'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 stone way (as they did) when accompanying the Lord."
  43. Jerome, Against Jovinianus, Book I: "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."
  44. Canon 1031 §2


  • E. Vacandard, "Les origines du célibat ecclésiastique", in Études de Critique et d'Histoire Religieuse (1906:69–120)
  • Charles A. Frazee, "The origins of clerical celibacy in the Western Church", Church History 41 (1972:149–67).
  • Cochini, Christian, The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, Ignatius Pr. (October 1990). ISBN 0-89870-951-2, ISBN 0-89870-280-1.
  • Rose, Michael S., Goodbye, Good Men: How Liberals Brought Corruption Into the Catholic Church, Regnery Publishing, Inc. (June 25, 2002). ISBN 0-89526-144-8. Reviewed here [2]
  • Jack Goody 1983 The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press); translated into Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese. review: [3]
  • Grisar, Hartmann, Luther, 6 vols., London, K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & co., ltd, (1913–17). Online from the Internet Archive. See vol. 3, ch.xvii, (pp. 241–273), On Marriage and Sexuality.
  • Lea, Henry Charles, History of Sacerdotal Celibacy, Houghton Mifflin, 1867.

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