A very brief history of priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church
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The debate over married men becoming Catholic priests is an ancient one, stretching back to biblical times. As the debate resumes, one question always arises. What is the history of priestly celibacy?
LOS ANGELES, CA (California Network) - Ask anyone about the history of priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church and you'll likely get one of a few standard responses.
Jesus asked people to remain as He was and follow him. Or perhaps you'll get the answer that a wife would be a distraction for otherwise busy priests.
Regardless of which response, they're all usually inadequate.
The fact is, the history of celibacy in the Christian community does indeed stretch back to Jesus, St Paul, the early monks and many other Christians who forsook marriage in order to be more fully and completely dedicated to the Lord and His Bride, the Church. It is a prophetic vocation which is cherished in the Church for good reason.
The history of choosing only celibate men for ordination is spotty - with a lack of records in many places. There was inconsistency, with rules that varied from one region to another. The best anyone can do is offer what little evidence there is from the Bible, church history and Church documents.
Jesus Christ was celibate. Jesus never married, He had no children. Several of the Apostles were married, but by many accounts they left their families to follow Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul famously recommended celibacy in his First Letter to the Corinthians.
Saint Peter, the first pope, was married. In fact Jesus healed his mother in law. (See, Matthew 8:14 and Luke 4:38-40). A mix of people followed the apostles, some were married, some were not. Some were celibate and others not. There was no uniform rule.
In 304 AD, the first written requirement for those seeking ordination to remain celibate can be documented. Canon 33 of the Council of Elvira required all clergy to abstain "from their wives and not to have children." Some Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Christians give lesser credence to this council and the practice of ordaining married men to the order of deacon and priest has a long history in their ranks.
Emperor Constantine rejected a blanket ban on married men being ordained as priests in 325 at the Council of Nicaea. Some priests had wives, others did not.
For nearly a thousand years a patchwork of rules applied in various places, some allowing married men to be ordained, but only if they agreed to abstain from relations with their wives, and so on.
It wasn't until the medieval period that the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church began to require priestly celibacy. In the 11th century, Pope Gregory VII issued a decree requiring all priests to be celibate and he expected his bishops to enforce it. The decree stuck and celibacy has been the norm ever since in the Latin Rite.
Despite the decree, some priests and high ranking clergy, even popes, fell into sin. Sadly, some consecrated celibates engaged in sexual relations with women. That has nothing to do with the issue of celibacy and everything to do with the reality of sin. Understandably, such affairs were the cause of scandal when they became known and required repentance and amendment of life.
Today, Roman Catholic (Latin Rite) Catholics are celibate. In fact, the decision to remain celibate occurs before the ordination to the diaconate and cannot be changed. However, in the Eastern catholic Church, like the Orthodox Church, married men can be considered for ordination to the diaconate and to the priesthood. The decision to marry must be made before the first ordination, to the Diaconate, and cannot be changed. Bishops are chosen only from the celibate ranks.
However, today, some Roman Catholic are married. The most well-known exception are former Anglican priests who came into the full communion of the Catholic Church and were accepted to ordination as Catholic priests. They either came in through what was called the pastoral provision (instituted under Pope St John Paul II) or through the Ordinariate established by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
These are Catholic priests. They are not some lesser category. Some serve in the Latin Rite while others serve what is called the Ordinariate, a sort of flooating diocese for groups of former Anglican Christians who became Catholics. Of course, these men naturally kept their wives if they became Catholic priests. There was a dispensation from the celibacy requirement granted to them.
Roman Catholic Deacons are also allowed to be married at the time they are ordained. In both cases, married priests and married deacons who become widowed may not marry again afterwards and are expected to remain celibate.
Presently, there is discussion that the Catholic Church may consider an additional exception to the rule of priestly celibacy. In those regions where there are too few priests and people suffer without adequate access to the Sacraments, the Church may consider inviting married men into the priesthood, provided they are devout, proven and mature.
Or nothing may change at all.
Finally, not only priests are celibate. Celibacy is a beautiful response to a calling from the Lord. There are monks, nuns, religious and members of ecclesial movements who choose that vocation and live it as a vow, witnessing to the whole Church, as a sign of the kingdom of God.
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