As pointed out many times, there is much interlocking  of religious issues and pro-life issues even if one doesn’t at first see the connection.  One such interrelationship is clerical celibacy, now almost constantly under attack in the anti-life media.

Many people – even a good number of Catholics today – have become confused. They now believe that obligatory celibacy for priests in Roman Christianity is simply a man-made law – much like the former meatless Friday ruling, or the current law that bishops hand in their letter of resignation on their seventy-fifth birthday, or the prescription that Cardinals 80 years or older can no longer vote in conclave to elect a new pope. These are samples of Church “discipline,” that is, rules and administrative regulations which may change according to time, place and situations.

People today talk about “dropping celibacy” in favour of married priests, as if this were just a simple administrative matter.  They are amazed that the Popes continue to assert that obligatory clerical celibacy must be maintained.

Again, others describe this insistence as nothing more than a conservative hang-up, something that can be changed easily, if only the right progressive person comes along.  As the dissenting American Catholic theologian Richard McBrien put it to the Toronto Star before he arrived to address the CCCC (Coalition of Concerned Canadian Catholics) on May 2, “The Pope’s restorationist agenda is temporary and will die with him.”

Contrary to the above sentiments, one may safely declare that nothing of that kind will happen. The ruling on celibacy has been a constant feature of Christianity, traces its origins to the days of the Apostles and finds its source and strength in the Lord Jesus Himself.


Jesus was celibate for the sake of the Kingdom; so were His mother, the Virgin Mary, and his foster father, Joseph.

Jesus’ love of God the Father was all-consuming.  In obedience to the Father, he willingly sacrificed his life:  “God loved the world so much that he gave his only son.” (Jn 3:16) and “I lay down my life for my sheep” (Jn 10:15).

In the course of achieving this total gift of self for the spiritual benefit of mankind, Jesus chose virginity as his state of life and detachment from all the passing things of this world, no matter how beautiful or loving they might be, including marriage.

Ever since, men and women have imitated their Lord: “anyone who loses his life for my sake, shall find it” (Mt 16:25) and “there are eunuchs who have made themselves that way for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.  Let anyone accept this who can” (Mt. 19:12).

From the beginning the knowledge was passed on that Mary, the Mother of the Lord, although married, was “ever-virgin” (solemnly confirmed by the Second Council of Constantinople, 553-554 A.D.) as was Joseph, Jesus’ foster father.

Among the apostles, John and Paul were in the position to adopt the example of the Lord.  It was only natural that from then on an increasing number of their successors followed in their footsteps.

Married priests

But in the beginning the same Church also ordained bishops and priests from among married men, as witnessed by St. Paul when he mentions that presiding elders and deacons “must not have been married more than once” (1 Tim 3:2; 3:12; Titus 1:6). But candidates for the priesthood who were married were obliged to live celibate lives or, as it was then called, in perpetual continence.

The term celibate as understood today, means not being married.  It began to acquire that meaning only some five hundred years ago when in the Latin rite the long process begun with the Lord Himself  became the only norm for Catholic priests.

But it must never be forgotten that celibacy in the sense of perpetual continence for married priests also dated from Apostolic times.  As mentioned already, Mary and Joseph adopted that way of life.

From Apostolic times all priests, including the married ones, were supposed to be “celibate,” that is, all were required to practise  continence. For the unmarried clergy it was simply a self-understood virtue.  For married priests it meant abstaining from the use of marriage contracted earlier.

This also meant that no married man could be ordained without the explicit consent of his wife and that the wife, in turn, could expect a just maintenance from the Church and a settlement that excluded the danger of incontinence.

Furthermore, while the Church ordained men who were married, she did not allow marriage after ordination, be it for the unmarried or for widowers.

In other words, there were two kinds of celibacy which together formed the approved tradition: celibacy in the strict sense, that is, not being married; and celibacy in the wide sense, that is, being married but living in perpetual continence after ordination.

The clear and explicit testimony of what may be called the first written law on celibacy in the wide sense of the word occurs at the beginning of the fourth century with the Council of Elvira in Spain in 305.  This Council called for the continence of all priests.  Canon 33 states expressly that all ecclesiastics in the sacred ministry (bishops, priests and deacons) must abstain from the use of marriage contracted before being ordained.  The Council also recalls what it designates as the “traditional” obligation of continence, which included abstaining from marriage both before and after ordination.

New Studies

Recently two historical studies have become available which review these matters:  The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy by the French Jesuit priest Christian Cochini, and Clerical Celibacy in the East and the West by Roman Cholij, a British-born Catholic priest of the Byzantine Ukrainian rite.

Cochini concludes, after a rigorous examination of early documents and customs, that the early Church from the time of the Apostles, maintained a law of celibacy as a strict requirement of priesthood.

Father Cholij’s detailed research on the early Councils shows that Eastern Christianity’s married clergy represents the innovation, while the battle for celibacy in the Latin Church in the West represents the ancient traditional discipline, not the other way around as is often thought.

Development in the East

Only when the Apostolic tradition of celibacy (not married) and continence (married but no marital relations after ordination) had fallen into disuse in the Eastern Empire, and had been almost forgotten there, did Emperor Justinian II of Constantinople demand from the Council of Trullo (691  A.D.) a self-serving concession permitting marriage.  But even then the Eastern practice insisted on periodic continence, that is, forbidding priests to celebrate Mass within a certain number of hours (days, in fact) of their last marital indulgence.

The Council of Trullo was not recognized by Rome as “ecumenical” and its novelty was not accepted as anything more than a permitted deviation from the ideal.


It is this ideal that the Popes have continued to defend.  It was expressed once again by Pope Paul VI at the 1971 International Synod in Rome, for example, when he stated:

“The essential reason for celibacy is to be found in the truth which Christ revealed when speaking of renunciation of marriage for the sake of God (Mt. 19.2ff) and which St. Paul proclaimed when he wrote that each person has his or her own gift from God:  “I should like every one to be like me, but everybody has his own particular gift” (1 Cor. 7:8).”

“Celibacy, said the Pope, is precisely such ‘a gift from the Spirit.’  The priest renounces the kind of fatherhood proper to married man and seeks another fatherhood and….motherhood, as described by St. Paul: ‘My dearest children…I begot you in Christ Jesus’ (Cor. 4:15-16), and again, ‘I must go through the pain of giving birth to you all over again….’(Gal. 4:19).”

It is foolish and farfetched to think that the Catholic Church will abandon this tradition when it has fought to promote and develop it for almost 2,000 years.

One more point:  Today, in exceptional circumstances, the Church ordains married men, usually converts, who are not required to submit to the conditions outlined above.

Father de Valk is editor of this publication.  He is a Catholic priest and a member of the religious Congregation of St. Basil.