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Priestly Celibacy: Unnatural? Or . . . Supernatural? The Faith Of The Early Christians

January 25, 2014 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


Part 5

It is a very comfortable position for the defenders of sola Scriptura to wish to interpret it according to their own criteria. In so doing, they pick and choose verses here and there to justify their views. God’s first commandment to mankind, “Be fruitful and multiply,” seems to be the “dogma” against celibacy. But they fail to see the context, the hints in the Old Testament pointing to a future celibacy, the difference between commandment and counsel, the teachings of Jesus Himself and especially of St. Paul, who explicitly recommends celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.
One could ask them this simple question: How did the early Christians understand the counsel of celibacy? It is easy for any Tom, Dick, and Harriet today to issue his or her own individual interpretation of this or that Bible verse, but what did the early Christians believe about it? They who laid down their lives for Jesus Christ? They were martyred right, left and center, crucified, burned alive, eaten by wild beasts, beheaded, flayed alive, starved to death, every kind of cruelty was done to them — and their faith was unshaken.
Their fidelity is to be both admired and imitated. Now, what did they believe about celibacy?
If anyone were to compare their beliefs with those of today’s denominations, safely preaching on television or behind pulpits, it would not take much soul-searching to prefer the faith of the early Christians!
I will quote only those writers who lived before the Council of Carthage (AD 397) when the Canon of the New Testament as we know it today was definitely accepted by the Catholic Church, and all the other books then in wide circulation were considered as apocryphal. That makes the New Testament a distinctively Roman Catholic collection of books. Poor Martin Luther came up with his “canon” way too late — well over 1,000 years too late.
St. Jerome, who translated the whole Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, wrote: “The virgin Christ and the virgin Mary have dedicated in themselves the principle of virginity for both sexes. The apostles were either virgins or remained continent after their marriages. Those persons chosen to be bishops, presbyters, or deacons are either virgins or widowers; or certainly, having once received the priesthood, they remain forever chaste” (Letter to Pammachius, AD 392-393).
The bond of absolute celibacy is regarded by the Fathers of the Church as a kind of spiritual marriage which weds the soul to Christ. Some of them consequently go so far as to place any violation of chastity by a consecrated soul on a par with adultery.
For instance, St. John Chrysostom, one of the greatest Gospel preachers of all times, explaining that a priest who leaves the priesthood to get married commits adultery, wrote: “I do agree with you that marriage is legitimate. For it is written, ‘marriage is honorable, and the marriage-bed is undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge’ (Heb. 13:4). But it is no longer possible for you to preserve the legitimate conditions of marriage. For if a person who has been joined to the heavenly Bridegroom afterwards deserts Him and joins himself to a woman, the act is adultery even if you call it a myriad times over; or rather, it is much worse than adultery as God is better than man. Do not be deceived by anyone’s saying, ‘God has not forbidden marriage.’ I know that as well as you. He has not forbidden marriage; but he has forbidden adultery, which is what you are contemplating” (to the fallen Theodore, monk who wanted to become a lawyer and marry).
St. Epiphanius explains the Church teaching of celibacy for the priests who had been married:
“In point of fact a call to the holy priesthood of God, since the coming of Christ and because of the exceeding greatness of the honor of the priesthood, is not approved for those who, after a first marriage and their wife having died, enter upon a second marriage. And the holy Church of God has kept watch over this [discipline] unfailingly and strictly. But even one who is husband of one wife, if she is still living and still bearing children, is not approved; but after one marriage, if a husband keep continent or, if his wife has died, he remain a widower, he may be approved [for all degrees of the priesthood]” (Panacea Against All Heresies, AD 374-377).
Tertullian, in his The Demurrer Against the Heretics, written around the year AD 200, referring to the heresy of Mithraism, comments on the various forms of plagiarism of Catholic practices made by its adherents, and writes: “What must we say to limiting his high priest to a single marriage? He too has his virgins, he too has his celibates.” Celibacy was such a common practice among Christians that the heretics practiced it too, in order to appear to be like the Christians.
St. Justin Martyr lived in the second century and was the first great apologist, defender of the Christian faith against the paganism of Rome. He wrote: “Many men and women of sixty and seventy years of age have been inspired since childhood by the teaching of Christ to keep themselves intact” (Apologia I pro Christ, C.15; P.G. VI, 349).
St. Augustine, like St. Paul, was a great convert whose teachings inspired Christians for many centuries. He wrote: “Attend upon the Lamb, because the Lamb’s flesh, too, is virgin flesh. . . . You have good cause to attend upon Him wherever He goes, by virginity of mind and body. What is attendance but another name for imitation? For Christ suffered for our sakes, and left you His own example, as the Apostle Peter says, ‘You were to follow in His footsteps’” (St. Augustine, De Sancta virginitate, c. 22; P.L. XL, 407).
The priest is called to follow in Christ’s footsteps in every aspect he is able to. The height of the Imitatio Christi involves living a life of virginity or celibacy: “If priests and religious, and all who are in any way consecrated to the service of God, observe perfect chastity, they do so because their Divine Master remained a virgin for the duration of His life on earth” (Pius XII, encyclical Sacra Virginitas).

No Protests

Not only individual scholars wrote in defense of celibacy, but also the Church councils maintained the same salutary discipline inspired by St. Paul. As early as the year 300, still during persecution times, the discipline of clerical celibacy was proclaimed by the Council of Elvira:
Canon 33: “It is determined that bishops, presbyters, and deacons, or all clerics stationed in the ministry, are to restrain themselves completely and are to keep themselves away from their wives and are not to beget children. Anyone who does beget children is to be expelled from the honor of the clerical state.”
It should be noted that there are no historical records about any revolt, complaint, protest, petitions, sit-ins, or marches coming from marriage-minded clergy or laity against that council. Celibacy was already so common among the clergy that the Council of Elvira dealt with the remaining exceptions of married men being ordained to the priesthood.
Shortly thereafter, the Council of Neocaesarea, held between the years 314-325, determined that “if a presbyter has married a wife, let him be removed from the ranks. But if he has fornicated or committed adultery, let him be thrust out completely and let him subject himself to penance” (canon 1).
The discipline of priestly celibacy is part and parcel of the Christian understanding of the grandeur of the priestly state, as demonstrated by Sacred Scripture, the faith of the early Christians, and early councils. Among the Eastern Catholic Rites there are both celibate and married clergy, but bishops are never married, not even among the separated Orthodox churches. But they constitute a very small minority compared to the Latin Rite.

+    +    +

(Raymond de Souza is director of the Evangelization and Apologetics Office of the Winona Diocese, Minn.; EWTN program host; regional coordinator for Portuguese-speaking countries for Human Life International [HLI], president of the Sacred Heart Institute and a member of the Sovereign, Military, and Hospitaller Order of the Knights of Malta. His web site is:

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