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 Header-Tracing the Glorious Origins of Priestly Celibacy

Written by Luiz Sérgio Solimeo

 

Self-appointed reformers always arise in times of crises offering “brilliant” solutions that attempt to demolish the Church’s most venerable traditions.

Priestly celibacy, a glorious trait of the Latin Church, has been a constant target of these so-called reformers.

Curiously enough, abolishing priestly celibacy comes hand-in-hand with destroying the indissolubility of marriage. This is easy to understand since it is based on the idea that chastity is impossible to observe. Thus, not only celibate continence is cast aside but also conjugal chastity and fidelity in marriage. Historically this happened with Eastern Orthodox schismatics, Protestants, Anglicans and others. The total or partial abolition of priestly celibacy either came together with or was preceded by permission to divorce.

 

Pseudo Arguments Against Celibacy

The present sex scandals, so trumped up by the media, have served as a pretext to intensify the campaign against priestly celibacy. Sectors of the media, as well as organizations of married priests and liberal Catholics, are insisting on this matter.

In addition to pseudo-scientific arguments used to prove the impossibility of observing chastity, we often find the claim that celibacy is a purely disciplinary policy introduced only later in Church legislation. It can therefore be abolished. Others say that it should at least be made optional.

Actually there are many studies, some very recent, totally debunking this supposedly historic-canonical argument.

Let us cite three among the most important studies:

  • Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, by Fr. Christian Cochini, S.J.(Ignatius, San Francisco, 1990);
  • The Case for Clerical Celibacy, by Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler (Ignatius, San Francisco, 1995);
  • Celibacy in the Early Church,by Fr. Stefan Heid, (Ignatius, San Francisco, 2000).

 

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Early Church Tradition

Based on solid documentation, these authors show that although one cannot speak of celibacy in the strict sense of the word (not being married), it is certain that since apostolic times the Church had as a norm that men elevated to the deaconate, priesthood and the episcopate should observe continence. If candidates happened to be married — a very common occurrence in the early Church — they were supposed to cease, with the consent of their spouses, not only marital life but even cohabitation under the same roof.

Let us limit ourselves to the short yet substantial book by the late Cardinal Stickler (1910-2007), a well-respected Canon Law historian, expert on Roman Congregations, and former head of the Vatican Library.

He explains that both the apostolic and early Church did not require that a man be single or widowed in order to be ordained priest or designated bishop.

St Augustine PreachingSince a large number of Christians were adult converts, (a typical example is Saint Augustine, who converted at 30), it was common for a married man to be ordained priest and made bishop.

However, the Epistles of Saint Paul to Titus and Timothy clearly state a bishop had to be a “man of only one woman” (I Tim 3:2; 3:12; Titus 1:6).

According to the interpretation commonly adopted in the early Church (and attested to by the Fathers of the Church), a candidate could not be married more than once. Thus, a widower who remarried was ineligible.

Moreover, Church officials believed a person in those conditions would hardly have sufficient strength to halt marital relations and live under the same roof.

Cardinal Stickler emphasizes that because of the mutually self-giving nature of matrimony; a separation would always take place only with the full consent the wife, who, for her part, would make a commitment to live in chastity in a community of women religious.

 

The Apostolic Tradition

Among the Apostles, only Saint Peter is known to have been married due to the fact his mother-in-law is mentioned in the Gospels. Some of the others might have been married but there is a clear indication that they left everything, including their families, to follow Christ.

Thus, in the Gospels, one reads that Saint Peter asked Our Lord, “What about us? We left all we had to follow you.” The Divine Master answered: “I tell you solemnly, there is no one who has left house, wife, brothers, parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not be given repayment many times over in this present time and, in the world to come, eternal life” (Lk 18:28-30, cf. Mt 19:27-30; Mk 10:20-21).

 

Early Church Councils Reaffirm Practice


This brief overview does not allow us to look at the whole history of celibacy amply documented by Cardinal Stickler. Let us present some of the most outstanding cases. The Council of Elvira in Spain (310) dealt with priestly chastity (canon 33), and presented perfect continence as a norm that must be maintained and observed and not as an innovation. The lack of any revolt or surprise attested to its widespread practice.

At the Council of the Church of Africa (390) and above all at the Council of Carthage, (419), which Saint Augustine attended, similar norms were adopted. These councils recalled the ecclesiastical praxis of the obligation of perfect chastity, affirming that such praxis is of apostolic tradition.

Pope Siricius answering a specific consultation about clerical celibacy in 385 affirmed that bishops and priests who continue marital relations after ordination violate an irrevocable law from the very inception of the Church that binds them to continence.

Several other popes and regional councils, particularly in Gaul, present day France, continued to recall the tradition of celibacy and punish abuse.

St Gregory the GreatSaint Gregory VII (1073-85) when struggling against the intervention of the Holy Roman Emperor in church affairs, had to fight simony – the purchase of Church posts – and Nicolaitism – the heresy that preaches, among other things, priestly marriage.

Some mistakenly conclude that Saint Gregory VII introduced the law of celibacy into the Church. Quite the contrary. What Saint Gregory VII, and later the Second Lateran Council (1139) did was not to “introduce” the law of celibacy but simply confirm that it was in force and issue regulations for its observance. Since most recruiting for the priesthood was already among the unmarried, the Second Lateran Council forbade priestly marriage, declaring it null and void in the case of priests, deacons or anyone with a solemn vow of religion.

 

The Case of Paphnutius

The main argument of those who deny the apostolic tradition of priestly continence comes from an incident during the first Council of Nicea (325). Paphnutius, a bishop from Egypt, was reported to have protested in the name of tradition when the Conciliar Fathers tried to impose priestly continence. Because of his protest, the Council is said to have refused to impose such continence.

Cardinal Stickler adeptly deals with the case. He points out that Eusebius of Cesarea, the Council’s historian, was actually present during the whole event. He makes no reference to any such protest, which he certainly would have noted had it really happened.

The story of Paphnutius only appears almost a century after the Council of Nicea in the writings of two Byzantine authors, Socrates and Sozomen. The first cites as his source his conversation as a young man, with an elderly man who claimed he was at the Council. The veracity of this story is questionable since Socrates was born more than fifty years after the Council. His interlocutor had to be at least seventy years old when he was born and practically in his nineties at the time of the supposed conversation.

The story of Paphnutius’ protest was also always held in suspicion because his name was not on the roster of Fathers who came from Egypt to participate in the Council of Nicea. This was affirmed by Valesius, editor of the works of Socrates and Sozomen in the Greek Patrology of Migne.

However, Cardinal Stickler claims the decisive argument against the Paphnutius story comes from the second Council of Trullo (691). During this council of the Eastern Church, the Council Fathers, under pressure from the Emperor, allowed matrimony for priests (not for bishops) — going against the tradition both in the East and West. These same Fathers failed to present the testimony of Paphnutius to justify their break with the tradition of priestly continence even though they had everything to gain by doing so. Instead of citing Paphnutius, they sought to justify their position, never recognized by the Western Church, by invoking the Council of Carthage.

However, this Council clearly ruled in defense of the apostolic tradition of continence. Thus, they resorted to falsifying its decrees, a fact even schismatic historians now recognize.

Cardinal Stickler laments that historians of weight like Funk, at the end of the nineteenth century, accepted the story of Paphnutius as valid even as his contemporaries had already rejected it as false. One of the people responsible for spreading this error was the Frenchmen, E. Vacandard, through the prestigious Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique.

 

First Council of Nicea

 

An Identity Crisis

Finally, Cardinal Stickler argues that the reason for priestly celibacy is not a functional one. Unlike the Old Testament, where the priesthood was merely a temporary function received by way of inheritance, the priesthood in the New Testament is a vocation, a calling that transforms the person and confiscates him entirely. He is a sanctifier, a mediator.

Above all, the priesthood in the New Testament is a participation in the Priesthood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the High Priest. And, therefore, the priest has a mysterious and special bond with Christ, in whose name and by whose power he offers the bloodless sacrifice (in persona Christi). The most profound reason for priestly celibacy comes from this supernatural bond with the Savior.

The Cardinal points out that the main reason celibacy is in question today is because the clergy faces an identity crisis. Only by restoring the true identity of the priest, can the profound reasons for celibacy be understood and practiced.

This identity crisis cannot be resolved by returning to “the origins of the Church,” a solution proposed by proponents favoring married priests and their sympathizers. Those origins would simply not allow them to cohabit with their wives and continue to exert their priestly ministry.

Let us hope that, with the help of grace, the true identity of the Catholic priest will be restored soon so that all the present-day madness may come to an end.

 


 

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Quote of the day

DAILY QUOTE for April 2, 2020

Do not grieve over the temptations you suffer. When   ...

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April 2

Do not grieve over the temptations you suffer.
When the Lord intends
to bestow a particular virtue on us,
He often permits us first to be tempted by the opposite vice.
Therefore, look upon every temptation as an invitation
to grow in a particular virtue and
a promise by God that you will be successful,
if only you stand fast.

St. Philip Neri


My Mother, I will stand with you on OCTOBER 10, 2020

Saint of the day

SAINT OF THE DAY

St. Francis of Paola

Francis explained that the lives of kings are in the hands o...

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St. Francis of Paola

Born in Paola, a small town in Calabria, Francis’ parents were humble, industrious people, dedicated to the service of God. Childless after several years of marriage, the couple prayed earnestly for a son, and when, at last a boy was born to them, the grateful parents named him Francis after the Poverello of Assisi.

At age thirteen Francis was placed in the Franciscan friary of S. Marco where he learned to read and where he began to tread the austere life he was later to live.

Two years later, after a pilgrimage to Assisi and Rome, and with his parents’ consent, Francis retired to a remote location by the sea where he lived in a cave. Before he was twenty, he was joined by two others who also sought a life of prayer in solitude. With help from some neighbors, they built for themselves three cells and a chapel where they sang the divine praises.

Seventeen years later a church and monastery were built on the spot for them with the approval of the bishop of Cosenza. The hermits were so beloved of the people that the whole countryside joined in the work.

Penance, charity, humility. This trinity formed the foundation of Francis of Paola’s rule, which was particularly austere. In addition to the vows of obedience, poverty and chastity, he imposed a fourth binding them to observe a perpetual Lent, abstaining not only from meat, but also from eggs and milk products.

The community received Papal approval in 1474, and in 1492 from being called Hermits of St. Francis of Assisi, they became the “Minims” from their founder’s desire to be known as the least (minim) in the kingdom of God.

Francis of Paola became universally renowned as a wonderworker and prophet. In 1481, King Louis XI of France, who was slowly dying, sent a messenger to the saint begging him to hasten to France to heal him. Francis only acquiesced at the command of the Holy Father to whom the monarch ultimately appealed. At the French court the king fell on his knees before the humble hermit begging for his healing. Francis explained that the lives of kings are in the hands of God and have their appointed limits; prayer should be addressed to God. Ultimately, changed in heart, the king died resignedly in the saint’s arms. In gratitude, his son, Charles VIII, became a great sponsor of the Order.

Francis spent twenty-five years in France and died there on Good Friday of the year 1507 at the age of ninety-one. He was canonized in 1519.

Weekly Story

WEEKLY STORY

I turned to God, but God seems to remain deaf to me. Why is...

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Why Doesn't God Answer My Prayer?

Question:  I pray and pray, but I feel as if God is not listening. We always had a good, peaceful family life, but these last years have been tough. We don’t seem to be getting along and our finances have taken a turn for the worse.

I am so anxious about this situation that, not having anyone to turn to, I turned to God.

But God seems to remain deaf to me. Why is that? In addition, what do I say to certain people, agnostics and atheists, who laugh at prayer, saying it is nonsensical and only a figment of the imagination with no real value?

Answer:  God is faithful to His promises, and God promised to answer our prayers. “And I tell you, ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Luke 11:9–10).

If God promises to answer our prayers, He will do so infallibly. But in prayer there are two sides: he who asks and He Who gives.

Our part is to ask. How must we ask?

Saint Alphonsus Liguori, a Doctor of the Church, teaches in his book Prayer, the Great Means of Salvation that prayer must be persevering and humble.

So many times we hear people saying: “Oh, I used to ask God for this and that and the other, but He never gave it to me. Now, ten years later, how glad I am that He didn’t!”

One thing is certain: God will not fail to answer a humble and perseverance prayer. Whether He chooses to grant what we ask immediately or make us wait, we must trust that He, regardless of appearances, is doing us good. What we think is good and what He thinks is good may be two different things: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways My ways” (Isa. 55:8), but here is where we must abandon ourselves to His beneficent will. Our part is to be patient, calm and, above all, faithful, because this is the time for testing and later will come the time for full enjoyment.


Answering Atheists and Agnostics
As for atheists and agnostics, their skepticism proceeds from the fact that they, respectively, deny God’s existence or deny men’s capacity to know God.

In this case, we can only express our regret over their ignorance of this Supreme Being, our omnipotent Creator and loving Savior.

We may direct them to a few sources that may help in their search for the truth of His existence. Atheism and agnosticism can only be sustained in ignorance or ill will because the evidence of God’s existence is overwhelming.

Moreover, God will not hide Himself from those who seek Him sincerely and unconditionally.

Another consideration pertaining to non-believers is this: If God were to grant us absolutely everything we ask at a moment’s notice, such people might start believing purely out of self-interest.

They would look at God as a wand-wielding wizard. And God Our Lord is infinitely more than that. He wants us to know, love, and serve Him for Himself so that He can treat us as children and heirs and grant us unending happiness in Heaven.

"My impression is that the Rosary is of the greatest value not only according to the words of Our Lady of Fatima, but according to the effects of the Rosary one sees throughout history. My impression is that Our Lady wanted to give ordinary people, who might not know how to pray, this simple method of getting closer to God."  Sister Lucia, one of the seers of Fatima.

 

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I turned to God, but God seems to remain deaf to me. Why is that? In addition, what do I say to certain people, agnostics and atheists,

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