Save for the permanent diaconate, a vow of clerical celibacy is mandated for all newly ordained priests and clergy members within the Catholic Church. However, this was not always the case. For the first thousand or so years of Catholicism, priests would commonly marry and have children. The first pope himself, Saint Peter, was married and most likely had children, and many who came after him also had children.

Last March, Pope Francis interviewed for the German magazine Die Zeit suggested that the Church may return to its early tradition by examining exceptions for married priests in isolated areas without clerical leadership. How did the priestly vow of celibacy evolve to be such an ingrained part of Catholic tradition?

There are many reasons why priests practice celibacy. The Code of Canon Law has to say that

“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.” – Can. 277 §1

One of the biggest acts of self sacrifice a priest is called upon to make is that of celibacy – forgoing spouse and children to be able to serve and have a relationship with his parishioners and God. When a priest is ordained, the Church becomes his highest calling. If he had a family and children, he would have less time to devote to his spiritual duties.

Celibacy has not only traditional, but biblical foundations as well. The sacrifice of spouse and family is for the sake of the Kingdom and for Christ.

Then Peter said, “We have given up our possessions and followed you.” He said to them, “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not receive [back] an overabundant return in this present age and eternal life in the age to come.” – Luke 18:28-30

Being ascending to the papacy, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in his Salt of the Earth interview saw the practice as based on Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew.

“Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage* for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.”” – Matthew 19:12

Historically, the first mention of celibacy in Church tradition comes from the Council of Elvira around the year 305. Canon 33 forbade clerics from have relations with their spouses, although it did not expressly forbid marriage.

“It is decided that marriage be altogether prohibited to bishops, priests, and deacons, or to all clerics placed in the ministry, and that they keep away from their wives and not beget children; whoever does this shall be deprived of the honor of the clerical office.”- Council of Elvira, Canon 33

It was not until around 800 years later that the First Lateran Council was convoked by Pope Calixtus II in 1123. At this council, marriage of the clergy was expressly forbidden, and any clergy currently married had to dissolve their marriage with penance.

“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.” – First Lateran Council, Canon 21

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Comments

21 COMMENTS

  1. I for one, have never agreed with this Canon law. Marriage is one example of what love and family are meant to be. Why wouldn’t you want to help set this example among your church ? I do not believe it takes anything away from your love and devotion to God…. It does however become a shining example of what God had said in the beginning, “Be fruitful and multiply”.
    This law is the very reason that I never became a priest, and I’m sure discourages many others from doing the same.

    • Maybe you should ask a married Latin Rite priest with a wife and young children the toll it takes to be a married Latin Rite priest who is a pastor of a parish. Even married Latin Rite priests think priests should be celibate.

  2. Why Do Catholic Priests Take a Vow of Celibacy in this article is not mentioned correctly it is generalized to all catholic priests this important question .Only the latin Rite catolic priests are unmarried man.The greak ,armenias and other Rite Catholic priests before sub -deaconate ordination can marryaccording to CCEO.
    Thank you

  3. I would just like to mention that it is not a vow that diocesan priests make, it’s just a technical clarification. They make a commitment of obedience to their bishop and to live a celibate life. The religious life professes vows.

  4. A few things to consider:

    1) Clerical celibacy was foreshadowed in the Old Testament.
    Temporary celibacy was required:
    – when the people came to meet God at the foot of Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19:15)
    – for clergy ministering in the temple. Lev. 15:16-18, 20:7, 22:4
    – for David and his men to receive the Bread of the Presence.

    In 1Samuel 21:4-7, David, asks the priest Ahimelech for bread for his men:
    “Now what do you have on hand? Give me five loaves, or whatever you can find.” But the priest replied to David, “I have no ordinary bread on hand, only holy bread; if the men have abstained from women, you may eat some of that.” David answered the priest: “We have indeed stayed away from women. In the past whenever I went out on a campaign, all the young men were consecrated—even for an ordinary campaign. All the more so are they consecrated with their weapons today!” So the priest gave him holy bread, for no other bread was on hand except the showbread which had been removed from before the LORD and replaced by fresh bread when it was taken away.”

    2) The tradition of celibacy and continence for married clergy is the clear and consistent teaching of the Church from the beginning:

    Innocent I (pope from 401-17): “This is not a matter of imposing upon the clergy new and arbitrary obligations, but rather of reminding them of those which the tradition of the Apostles and the Fathers has transmitted to us.”

    3) The priest offers the Eucharist, the sacrifice of Christ, ‘in persona Christi’ as the Bridegroom of the Church

    “The fact that Christ himself, the eternal priest, lived his mission even to the sacrifice of the Cross in the state of virginity constitutes the sure point of reference for understanding the meaning of the tradition of the Latin Church. It is not sufficient to understand priestly celibacy in purely functional terms. Celibacy is really a special way of conforming oneself to Christ’s own way of life. This choice has first and foremost a nuptial meaning; it is a profound identification with the heart of Christ the Bridegroom who gives his life for his Bride. Pope Benedict XVI, “Sacramentum Caritatis”

  5. I agree and yet disagree. A priest who is married may not only not give pastoral duties a half dedicated service but worse yet, his family. The parishioners are indeed like a family and vice versa. Neither can be given less devotion. But i dont agree that all Orders should be like that.

    Some Orders in fact may even benefit from having a married priest.

    A lot of things about Canon law could use a change. It’s time that the Church stopped its institutional mind set to a more open a congregational co-operative body.

    I’m strong in my will do the the works of Christ but feel I that if I were to ever pursue my childhood intention of joining the priesthood, I will be unable to care for the least in our midst as freely and as unbiasedly as i do now.

  6. This is a perfect example of isogesis not exogesis when it comes to the Biblical support. In others words, the RCC has celibacy so now let’s go into the Scriptures and support it. This is a man-made law and is. Ecoming more and more irrelevant. There’s many other dimensions, like power and control that also highlight its history. Celibacy could be an option for certain priests, but not the requirement. There’s little support for it historically, Biblically and psychologically.

  7. The Old Covenant priesthood is a type of the New Covenant priesthood instituted by Jesus at the Last Supper. We know that the reality is always greater than the type. Jesus emphasized this with his “something is greater here, than …” statements.

    The sections in Numbers and Leviticus describing the consecration of Aaron, his sons and the Levites reveal the degree of holiness and purity Yahweh required of those consecrated to his service. Especially relevant to this discussion are the passages in Leviticus 16 that describe how the priest is to prepare and what he is to wear when offering a sacrifice of expiation.

    The point is that the New Covenant priest offers a sacrifice infinitely greater than the animal sacrifices of the Old Covenant. In this light, Jesus’ words are understandable: For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.” Matt 19:12

  8. Celibacy is not the essence of priesthood. Why not make it optional? Those who prefers to marry should have limited functions.

    • Continence is an essential aspect of the priesthood… all evidence suggests that it is part of The Tradition. The discipline is that usually today the Church chooses unmarried men to be priests. However, married or not, priest (because there are married Latin rite priests) or deacon… the Tradition suggests that we ought not marry (deacons can not remarry if their wife dies) after orders nor engage in the marital act.

  9. I am new to making comments, so I apologize before I start, if I offend anybody because that is not my intent. I understand, and could be wrong, that the reason for the requirement is because of all the corruption that was going on at the time with Kings, Queens, Bishops and priests. They were marrying and promoting their children into powerful positions in the State and Church. The way around this was to prevent priests from passing on property and wealth to their children instead of the church by requiring celibacy. I would hope for the sake of the future church , we have moved beyond those problems. We should allow married priests in order to grow the church and encourage vocations. Otherwise, we are heading for extinction as a faith tradition.

  10. This a priest’s response in general to the things listed above: First know that there are many books out there that helps to shine light on this subject. My words can’t be nearly as good as the words of Fulton Sheen who spoke well of priestly celebacy. Here we go — The undivided heart of the priesthood, and the conformity to Christ who was himself chaste and the definition of love are important for the identity of each priest. We are one with Christ in a unique way. Union in our celebrate state that we to can be United to the Church. Fruitfulness is not limited to physical offspring, but the kingdom we often pray for is populated through a spiritual fruitfulness. Priests are to be exemplars of those who are spiritual fathers hence we are called Father. Our task holds many similarities to physical fatherhood. The undivided heart of a priest is a reflection of Heart of Christ who didn’t have Children or a wife. The priest comes in the person of Christ making the sacrifices he made and reflecting him in every way possible. Some seem to ignore Christ’s own celibacy or that many apostles traveled extensively the rest of their lives leaving their families behind pretty much taking upon themselves a celibate state. Most of the apostles died horrific deaths for the sake of the kingdom leaving behind families. The Church learns from Her history which encountered nepotism, infidelity and divorce in priests prior to celibacy was instituted. Among bishops in both east and west the Church has maintained the requirement for celibacy. We priests are heroic in a culture and society so consumed by lust and perversity to accept GOD’S CALL to follow Him where there is no place to lay his head. To all my brother priests stay strong and fight the good fight. To others thanks for your support in living the life of celebacy. I think the more incompatible promise we make as priests to married life is obedience. That is a whole other areticle lol. A few last stray comments and questions to ponder… Just because some might want the priesthood doesn’t mean they are called to be a priest. Who is it that calls a man to the priesthood? Who is it that sets the pattern for what a priest should be like? A bit of scripture to reflect on… Mt. 26:31 “You will all fall away because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’” In ~1,984 years, the devil has not changed his tactics. He is attacking the priests. With no priests there will be no Eucharist.

  11. I think the article needs to be revised to single out the Roman rite Catholics (and perhaps other Catholic rites) as ones particular among the Catholic Church who require celibacy of its priests. Such is not necessarily the situation of those priests in the Eastern rites, many of which permit certain priests to marry; yet they are no less Catholic.

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