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BRIEF HISTORY
OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH




 

CELIBACY IN THE HISTORY OF THE CHURCH 

The history of celibacy is the history of Christianity. In the beginning, married men were allowed to be ordained priests due to the circumstances of time and place, wherewith the first converts to Christianity were probably married couples who, in their zeal, attained holiness and, therefore, would really make good priests. St. Peter was an example of this. 

But the unwed, whom St. Paul exhorted to remain single, who sought ordination were required to remain celibates, as shown by the example of St. John the Evangelist.

The married who aspired to be ordained priests were exhorted to aim at celibacy, after all, all married Christians were exhorted to do this. Most of the debates on celibacy were focused on this: whether the previously-married man who is ordained may keep his wife or not. And both the Eastern and the Western practice was that they should not keep their wives, i.e. they must separate. Though, in practice, especially in remote areas, this was not observed. The debate was never on whether the priest should be a celibate or not.

St. Paul's exhortation, "Bishops and deacons must have one wife." is restrictive, not injunctive, i.e. St. Paul was not saying that Bishops should marry; but that if a bishop was already married, he should have only one wife.

The Teaching of the Church is clear. Everyone is called to be a virgin, which included celibacy; and married laymen were encouraged to separate from their wives and become celibates for the sake of of God's kingdom. And we are talking of laymen, not priests.

The practice of receiving previously married men into the priesthood was stopped as early as the time of St. Epiphanius, wherein the Church declared that no married man was to be admitted to the diaconate, priesthood and Episcopate. Only married men who had been widowed or had agreed with his spouse to separate were allowed for ordination. And this is the practice of the Church until now.

St. Clement spoke of married priests but, again, these were those who were married before ordination. Paphnutius objected to celibacy as being too rigorous but, again, only for those already married before ordination. Written documents in England seem to show that most priests were married; but the word used was 'clerics' and not 'priests'. Clerics, a word referring to minor orders, really can marry. But in the 15th century, it was clear in England that wives of priests were called concubines.

In 295 and 302, this traditional teaching of the Church took the form of a conciliar decree in the Council of Elvira. It decreed that those who were already bishops and priests were to remain celibates; and the code of Justinian prohibited the consecration to the Episcopacy of married priests.

In 692, the Council of Trullo imposed the traditional doctrine that priests and bishops must observe celibacy; and those married before ordination must eventually separate from their wives. Priests and deacons in the East were allowed to live with their wives; but, in the West, Sts. Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome and Hilary were of one mind that priests must observe continence.

At the Council of Tours in 567, priests married before ordination were expressly forbidden to live with their wives. And by 747, Pope Zachary included the subdiaconate to those who must observe celibacy.

Observe that celibacy was not a doctrine that developed in the Church and  formalized in the Middle Ages. It was a fully developed doctrine from the beginning of the Church, observed by all Christians and merely formalized  for priests during the 7th century.

 

 

 

 

 

(12-06-02)

 

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