Pioneer magazine

Tradition and Priesthood

Pope Benedict XVI is frequently described in the media as “giving his backing to the tradition of celibacy in the priesthood”, to quote one newspaper. This description of the Pope’s position implies not only his support for the present legislation of obligatory celibacy for the Roman Catholic priesthood but also that he accepts that this legislation has a solid basis in Christian tradition. While scholarly discussion of the history and theology of this complex issue is best carried on in journals that specialise in these matters, aspects of the question are of general interest.

Obligatory celibacy
Celibacy in the priesthood is frequently described as obligatory. Since the word ‘obligatory’ has the connotation of something imposed on the unwilling, it is not surprising that celibacy itself often suffers a bad press. This is especially true in a world which places such a high value on individual freedom. Yet even the most ardent advocate of personal freedom will concede that it has its limits in human affairs. For instance, few people complain about the ‘obligatory’ dimension of marriage, a more basic vocation in life than priesthood. It has been a tradition of humanity from time immemorial that marriage is ‘obligatory’ for all men and women who wish to consummate their love and raise a family. A similar dynamic is operative in a vocation to priesthood. For those men called to act in persona Christi (in the person of Christ) and carry out in the Church some of the salutary, sacramental actions that he entrusted to his apostles, there is a long-standing requirement in Catholicism that they live a type of quasi-solitary existence on the model of Jesus himself. This is the tradition to which the Pope is ‘giving his backing’.

What does the tradition contain?

Traditions are handed down from one generation to the next. One of the most important ways that this happens is by simply doing what we have seen those before us do, by repeating their actions. Written documents can help throw light on the meaning of these actions with their origins in a remote past. Such documents are usually hard to come by. As this is the case with the tradition of clerical celibacy we have to make the most of the few documents we have. An important one of this kind, although not the earliest, comes from a Church Council held on June 16th, 390 at Carthage in North Africa where there was an impressive flowering of Christianity until it was swept away by the meteoric rise of Islam in the seventh century. The Bishops, on that occasion, came to what we would consider an extraordinary conclusion with this decree: “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 perfect chastity”. It was their own, not other peoples’ wives that the bishops were talking about. Bishop Genethlius who chaired the meeting added that “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 for from God; what the apostles taught and antiquity itself observed, let us also endeavour to keep”.

In passing this decree at Carthage those fourth century bishops were approving a self-denying ordinance that affected them personally since they were, by-and-large, married men. The main basis for their decision was, as they said “what the apostles taught and antiquity itself observed”. They assumed that the apostles could not have passed on something so demanding had they not learned it directly from the Master himself.

A Married Clergy

No historian, Catholic or other, has ever tried to argue that married men were not accepted for Ordination to the priesthood. The first priests, with few exceptions, were married men. According to tradition John was the only one of the Twelve who was not married. In that era marriage was, in effect, ‘obligatory’ for all male adults except those who were not compos mentis. Being unmarried and childless around the time Jesus was on earth was such an object of shame that in Sparta, for instance, the unmarried had no civil rights and were given menial tasks while in Rome they had to pay special taxes and were deprived of parental inheritance. Given this situation, it is hardly surprising that single men were a rarity and that priests should only be recruited from among the married. One of these was Peter himself since the Gospels refer to his mother-in-law who was cured by Jesus and provided a meal for all of them. What was expected of these men once ordained to priesthood is another question.

At Carthage and at other very early Councils, the bishops articulated their belief that a man had to cease having conjugal relations with his wife on receiving Holy Orders. They considered that this was an implication of Peter’s statement that he and the other apostles had ‘left all’ to follow Jesus. Both they and their wives were expected to live in what was called ‘perfect continence’. This is technically different from celibacy. The original meaning of celibacy is ‘unmarried, single’, which these men were not. The French word, celibataire, for instance, means unmarried but does not necessarily exclude what in modern parlance is described as being sexually active. In trying to live up to the demands that ‘perfect continence’ makes on human nature, the early Church Fathers believed that they were being faithful to “what the apostles taught and antiquity itself observed”. As successors of the apostles they considered that this teaching and practice constituted a norm from which they could not deviate.

This tradition has been accepted by all the predecessors of Benedict XVI on the See of Peter, even those whose personal lives left much to be desired. One of the results of the growth of monasticism was an increase in the numbers of young men opting for celibacy/continence at an early age. In time, this cohort came to constitute a pool sufficiently large to provide personnel for the ranks of the clergy. It was this development that obviated the need for the demanding sacrifice from happily married couples which was the norm in the early centuries.


Bernard J. McGuckian, SJ