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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 November 12, 2019

Without the burden of afflictions it is impossible to reach...

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November 12

 

Without the burden of afflictions it is impossible to reach the height of grace.
The gift of grace increases as the struggles increase.

St. Rose of Lima


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Saint of the day

SAINT OF THE DAY

St. Josaphat Kunsevich

“Kill the papist!” His mutilated body was dragged to the...

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St. Josaphat Kunsevich

John Kunsevich was born in Lithuania around the year 1580. His father, a burgess for a wealthy family, raised his son as a Catholic and instilled in him a great love for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. As a young man John spent much of his time learning Church Slavonic as he desired to assist and participate more fully in the divine worship that he loved so much. In 1604, he entered the Monastery of the Holy Trinity at Vilna taking the name Josaphat, and dedicated his life to uniting the Ruthenians with the Roman Church.

Josaphat was ordained a deacon and soon after, a priest, becoming widely known as a Catholic reformer. While retaining unity with Rome, Josaphat opposed the total Latinization of the Ruthenian peoples and the suppression of Byzantine traditions. He was beloved for his great sermons and preaching, eventually becoming abbot of the monastery in Vilna. By 1617, he was consecrated Bishop of Vitebsk, and after the death of the archbishop a year later, succeeded him. He immediately sought unity with Rome, and began to reinstate Catholic practices that had fallen into disuse. By 1620, he succeeded in the endeavor.

Soon after Josaphat’s great victory, however, his work began to unravel. Meletius Smotritsky, the Archbishop of Polotsk, claimed that Josaphat’s goal was to completely eliminate Byzantine traditions in the name of Catholic unity, and Latinize all Ruthenians. Meletius gained a number of followers and so frenzied was the agitation against him that a plan was contrived to kill Josaphat. As he walked to church for morning prayers, he was attacked by the group of Meletius’ followers. He was beaten and shot as his attackers cried, “Kill the papist!” His mutilated body was dragged to the river Dvina and carelessly thrown into the water.

St. Josaphat was canonized in 1867, the first saint of the Eastern churches to be officially canonized.

Weekly Story

WEEKLY STORY

Centuries ago, in Toledo, Spain, there lived a Cistercian nu...

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A Favor Granted

Centuries ago, in Toledo, Spain, there lived a Cistercian nun called Mary. Being at the point of death, the Blessed Mother appeared to her, and Mary said to her:

"Oh Lady, the favor you do me of visiting me at this hour emboldens me to ask you another favor, namely, that I may die at the same hour that you died and entered into heaven.”

"Yes," answered Mary Most Holy. "I will satisfy your request; you will die at that hour, and you will hear the songs and praises with which the blessed accompanied my entrance into heaven; and now prepare for your death."

When she had said this she disappeared.

Passing by Mary’s cell, other nuns heard her talking to herself, and they thought she must be losing her mind. But she related to them the vision of the Virgin Mary and the promised grace. Soon the entire convent awaited the desired hour.

When Mary knew the hour had arrived, by the striking of the clock, she said:

"Behold, the predicted hour has come; I hear the music of the angels. At this hour my queen ascended into heaven. Rest in peace, for I am going now to see her."

Saying this she expired, while her eyes became bright as stars, and her face glowed with a beautiful color.

From the Glories of Mary, by St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori.

Centuries ago, in Toledo, Spain, there lived a Cistercian nun called Mary. Being at the point of death, the Blessed Mother appeared to her,

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