Priestly Celibacy: Apostolic Tradition, not a ‘Mere Discipline’

There are numerous indicators that the October 6-27 Synod on the Amazon will have as one of its effects the dismantling or mitigating of the Latin Church’s ancient discipline of priestly celibacy. At least that is what is being claimed in numerous quarters. Proposed as an ad hoc remedy to the pastoral situation in the Amazon — so the thinking goes — the camel’s nose of a married priesthood will securely place itself under the tent and eventually undo the bi-millennial tradition of priestly celibacy in the Church.

Exceptions, whatever their reasons, have a way of becoming the “new normal” to progressivist clerics.

That tradition, make no mistake, is not a matter of mere discipline. A discipline it is, yes, but it is also a tradition of apostolic origin. Very weighty scholarship supports this claim (cf. Alfons Cardinal Stickler, The Case for Clerical Celibacy, and Christian Cochini, S.J., The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy.) Therefore, it is not a matter of indifference, for it is a thing that touches at the very heart of the Christian priesthood.

Those who argue against the celibate priesthood speak of the absence of written laws on the matter in the early Church, and then, when laws do come about to address the question, mention is made of married deacons, priests, and even bishops. Case closed.

Or is it?

The fact is that custom was the Church’s first canon law. Being an institution steeped in tradition from her earliest days (cf. II Thess. 2:14), she simply went on doing what she always did. Such customs had the force of law. Legal historians will acknowledge that this description of custom as law conforms to the Roman legal traditions that the Church herself inherited and used for her own sacred purposes. English common law and modern legal positivism are alien to the Church’s legal tradition, and are therefore a poor lens through which to view these matters.

When laws actually begin to be codified concerning the priesthood, marriage, and celibacy, what do we see? Evidence that completely overturns the arguments of the enemies of the celibate priesthood. There is no doubt, for it is a matter of historical fact, that married men were ordained to the priesthood in the early Church. Such was the case with some of the Apostles, including Saint Peter (an old joke has it that the Catholic Church was founded on Peter while Protestant sects were founded on Peter’s Mother-in-Law). The question is not whether they were married, but whether they continued to live more uxorio with their wives. And the answer to that question is a resounding no. When regional councils in Spain (Elvira) and Roman Africa (Hippo and Carthage) addressed the issue, the inflexible rule laid down was that once a man was ordained to the diaconate (some extended it down to the sub-diaconate), a married man could no longer have children or live in marital intimacy with his wife. His wife would be provided for by the Church — sometimes entering a convent, sometimes, not — but nevermore could the couple avail themselves of the use of matrimony. The same discipline was explicitly laid down by a succession of contemporary popes.

In other words, while the men were still married sacramentally and were not previously celibate, they were now required, first by the law of custom and then by written law dating at least from the late fourth century, to live a life of absolute continence, i.e., celibacy. Call that a “married priesthood” if you will, but it is certainly not what is generally meant by those words today.

Interestingly, in these early texts of popes and councils, aside from the apologia that priestly celibacy was apostolic in origin, the explanation as to why deacons, priests, and bishops ought to be completely continent was that they served at the altar — and therefore “handled” the sacred Mysteries, i.e., the Body and Blood of Our Lord, in the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar. And it is this that gives us the beginnings of a theology of priestly celibacy, which itself follows on the ancient praxis.

But before I explore that question a bit further — the theology of priestly celibacy — let me address another objection of an historical nature to celibacy: While the Western discipline and canonical tradition concerning celibacy is easy to document as continuous, there is a contrary tradition that began in the Christian East, and that tradition eventually received the force of law in 692. Therefore, so the argument goes, priestly celibacy is merely a discipline that can be changed by positive law.

But the matter is not so cut-and-dried, and that for several reasons.

The break in continuity with the apostolic tradition of the celibate priesthood in the East was an abuse. The earlier Eastern tradition, the same as the West because sharing the same apostolic origin, was powerfully witnessed by many Eastern Fathers, including Saint Epiphanius of Salamis (310-404). Canon law in the Eastern Church was slower to develop and the abuse was never corrected (as abuses were corrected in the West, hence the above mentioned councils). In fact, the abuse eventually became enshrined in law in a regional council of the East that was never approved by the Pope, the famous Quinisext Council, or Trullan Council in 692. Those names deserve explanation: The first is owning to its being a sort of canonical follow-up to the fifth (quintus) and sixth (sextus) Ecumenical councils, which did not promulgate disciplinary canons; the second name comes from the fact that it met in the massive domed hall (troulos) of the Byzantine Imperial Palace in Constantinople.

While this council was a mixed bag of good and bad, it was rejected by the pope of the day, Saint Sergius I (reigned 687-701), who was himself an Easterner, being of Syrian origin brought up in Palermo, Sicily, long part of magna Graecia,” greater Greece, and was therefore Greek in its culture and liturgy (even today there are Byzantine Catholics in these areas of the Italo-Albanian Greek Rite). Saint Sergius said of the Council in Trullo that he preferred “to die rather than consent to erroneous novelties.” Quite the kerfuffle ensued when the Pope rejected certain of the Trullan canons; the Emperor Justinian II ordered him arrested. But the plan was, thank God, thwarted, thanks to the good men of the militia of the Exarchate of Ravenna, who probably did not want the Exarch to repeat the folly of the martyrdom of Pope St. Martin I (649-654), which took place roughly forty years earlier.

But it is a matter of history that the Papacy tolerated this altered discipline in the East, and I do not contest that fact. It is noteworthy though that the Trullan discipline in the matter is not what modern advocates of a married priesthood would want. And to the degree that this is so, the mitigated discipline of Quinisext is a confirmation, in broad contours anyway, of the traditional argument for priestly celibacy.

According to the Quinisext Council, a bishop cannot be married — or at least he cannot live as a married man more uxorio. Today, in Uniate Eastern Churches as well as the separated Orthodox communions, this is still respected, and bishops are selected from the monastic (celibate) clergy, or else from married priests whose wives have died or been put away. This is important because it tells us that in the bishop, the man who possesses “the fullness of the priesthood,” absolute continence — celibacy — is strictly obligatory.

Further, a priest may not serve the Divine Liturgy (Byzantine language for “say Mass”) the day after he has had intimate relations with his wife. In other words, the Old-Testament discipline that, as long as a man was serving his turn at the altar he was to keep away from his wife, was made the norm in the Christian East. This Old-Testament discipline had explicitly been rejected in the West, and by popes, owing to the fact that the priest of the New Testament is to offer the divine sacrifice daily, while the priests of the Old Testament served short terms at the altar, there being many priests and only one Temple. This discipline governing their use of matrimony is why married priests of the East often do not celebrate the divine Mysteries daily.

What modernist advocate of Episcopalian-style “married priests” wants that? It might be argued that continence in marriage is more difficult than outright celibacy.

So we see that on these two counts — absolute celibacy for bishops and temporal continence for priests of the second rank — the mitigated discipline of the Eastern Churches points to the apostolic discipline of a priesthood that abstains from marriage.

Given what was said earlier about deacons, it is very clear that what Pope Paul VI did in instituting a permanent diaconate that includes married men living more uxorio was not a “revival,” but a new thing. The respected Canon Law professor, Dr. Edward Peters, insists that married deacons are canonically obliged to continence. (Many object to his thesis, I know, but Dr. Peters at least highlights an inconsistency between accepted practice and ecclesiastical legislation, something that reflects the actual break in historical continuity with tradition.) Deacons, be it remembered, are major clerics who handle the sacred Mysteries. They touch the chalice at the traditional solemn Mass. The arguments given at Elvira, Hippo, Carthage, and elsewhere would therefore apply equally to them.

Because my words will likely be scrutinized by many and twisted by some, let me be clear: I am not in a position to judge married deacons who disagree with Mr. Peters and who live accordingly, and I do not judge them. The Church must address the issue at some point. Neither do I look askance at Eastern Rite priests who are married, nor any other analogous clerics (such as Anglican Ordinariate clergy). In defending the venerable apostolic tradition, I have no intention to cast aspersions on anyone — excepting only those who want to dismantle that tradition which in the Latin Church has been so faithfully kept. These men are doing the work of Satan; they should be opposed.

Theologically, the priest stands in persona Christi. This is especially so when he stands at the altar to confect the Eucharist, uttering the words of institution not in his own name, but in Christ’s: “This is MY Body… This is MY Blood.” All men are in the image of God; all the baptized are in the image of Christ; but the priest is in persona Christi Capitis, in the person of Christ the Head, the Divine Bridegroom who is chastely espoused to His Church. Not only that, but he is a man given over full-time to the work of prayer and sanctification. A common argument of an a fortiori variety used in defense of priestly celibacy is that if Saint Paul recommends (I Cor. 7:5) that the married lay faithful practice periodic continence that they may “give themselves to prayer,” how much more ought the priest be continent — he who daily serves at the altar, prays the divine office, frequently baptizes and shrives sinners.

A priest’s “fatherhood” is real, and it is totally spiritual in character. This is why he must have an “undivided heart,” so that he may, like Saint Paul, beget children in Christ by the Gospel (by contrast, the Apostle says of the married man that “he is divided”). The priest begets offspring in his own chaste espousals to the Church, which he has espoused as one uniquely configured to Christ the Head, who Himself sanctifies His Bride, the Church in a chaste sacramental union. As Christ the Bridegroom is joined in a spiritual wedlock with His Bride, so too is the ministerial priest; it therefore behoves him to live in perpetual continence and chastity.

Just as the Church has four marks, heretical and schismatic sects have certain marks. One of them is a hatred for purity and celibacy. The sixteenth-century revolutionaries jettisoned celibacy to marry, as Luther simulated matrimony with the Cistercian nun, Katharina von Bora (the marriage was invalid owing to his vows as a friar, her vows as a nun, and his priesthood!). The Anglican schismatics similarly did away with priestly celibacy. In the nineteenth century, both the Polish Nationals and the Old Catholics did the same. The list could be lengthened, but the point is made.

Let us who belong to the true Church hold fast to this certain apostolic tradition of priestly celibacy. And may Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Eternal High Priest, have mercy on the Church!