Is priestly celibacy discipline or doctrine?

September 20, 2013
Source: District of the USA

Is priestly celibacy just a matter of discipline or is it also doctrinal? This article briefly presents the Church's constant practice and teaching concerning the Priesthood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Behind this innocent question there lurks the concept that if priestly celibacy is not totally a doctrinal matter, then it is pretty much up for grabs as some heated minds are all too ready to exact from the comments of Pope Francis.

Priestly celibacy is a current issue

In the past few years, especially during the reign of Pope Benedict XVI, the issue of priestly chastity has risen to the forefront.

For example in 2008, this matter came up as a sidebar in the reception of wholesale Anglican parishes joining the Catholic Church. Their canonical status “unique in the universal Church” foresees the “ordination as Catholic priests of former married Anglican priests.” But for “historical and ecumenical” reasons, episcopal consecration of married men is not authorized in the Catholic Church, any more than it is in the Orthodox Churches.

At about the same time, the French Bishops’ Conference in Lourdes dealt with the crisis of vocations. They finally became aware of the contemporary “religious indifference.” But is this not the consequence of having “buried” or hidden the visibility of the priesthood (supposedly for “pastoral reasons”) through priests’ adoption of secular clothes, language and habits of secular life? Is religious indifference not due (at least in part) to a lack of separation from the world and thus caused by the clergy itself in the name of “openness to the world”? And in a world which has liberated all taboos, is it surprising that the soul consecrated to God will lose its balance if it makes little of the simplest rules of prudence?

Targeted attacks have been fairly consistent against the Holy Father on the pedophile issue. The simplistic reasoning for this is that they want to impose upon public opinion in order to achieve the abrogation of consecrated celibacy is: Catholic priests are pedophiles because they are celibate. Or, in more sensational terms: clerical celibacy is a crime because it is responsible for the criminal actions of the pedophile priests which the Church has tried to silence. The pope himself is therefore an accomplice because he intends to keep the Catholic clergy in this crime-provoking celibacy. In this attack, George Weigel also sees the implications of Catholic sectors that pursue a revolution “never yet realized: the diminution of the authority of the bishops, the ordination of women, the end of celibacy.”

It is not surprising that the media, and the revolutionary forces behind them, want to force the issue on the occasion of a random speech by the newly appointed Secretary of State, Archbishop Parolin.

A little history on priestly celibacy

Before we come to the magisterial and theological texts on the matter, it may be useful to review the facts themselves as they have unfolded during the long history of the Church.

We begin by understanding that if the Jewish priesthood was married according to the Law, nevertheless the exercise of this priesthood demanded these men to preserve continence for the duration of their priestly function at the Temple.

With the establishment of the New Covenant, “Our Lord Himself who became man wished to give the example of celibacy. He surrounded Himself with virgin souls, Mary, Joseph and John, those closest and dearest to Him.”[1] And although He chose some married men, like St. Peter, among His Apostles, we do not hear of their wives anymore and the New Testament suggests rather that, like St. Paul, having left everything to follow Christ, they preserved continence after the founding of the Church.

In Ad Catholici Sacerdotii Fastigium, Pius XI, explains that:

...the first written legislation dates from the Council of Elvira in Spain (circa 300 AD), which presupposes a still earlier unwritten practice. This law only makes obligatory what might in any case almost be termed a moral exigency that springs from the Gospel and the Apostolic preaching."

By the end of the 4th century, celibacy was already applied to the subdiaconate. This has caused some authors to consider it an unwritten tradition of apostolic origin.[2]

Since then, Church law has been fairly consistent and has seen in Holy Orders an absolute impediment to matrimony. After the decadence of the early Middle Ages, the Second Council of Lateran (1139 AD) declared that such a marriage would be invalid in the Western Church.

The Latin and the Greek discipline

Perhaps the best way to see how the Western and Eastern churches differ in this matter is to examine the two articles St. Thomas Aquinas dedicated to this question of celibacy.

In his Supplement to the Summa (q. 53, art. 3), he asks whether the reception of major holy orders prevent matrimony. In other words, can someone already a subdeacon become married? The answer for both the East as well as the West is simply negative. St. Thomas concedes that this rule is based on the ordinance or discipline of the Church, but he adds a suitable reason for this. Those who are in holy orders handle the sacred vessels and the sacraments: wherefore it is becoming that they keep their bodies clean by continence [Isaias 52:11].

But, unlike the Latins who have the vow of perfect chastity attached to the major holy orders (subdeacon, priesthood and episcopacy), for the Greeks, these holy orders do not include the vow of continence. Hence, they do not forbid the use of marriage already contracted: for a priest can use marriage contracted previously, although he cannot be married again.

St. Thomas inquires further in his Supplement (q. 53, art. 4) whether matrimony is an impediment to holy orders. Can someone in the bonds of marriage become a priest? The answer here is yes. The Council of Elvira affirms that clerics already married must practice continence, and this led immediately to the practice of priestly celibacy.

Perhaps the reader will raise the question: why is there a difference between these two positions? Are not holy orders as much opposed to marriage as marriage to holy orders? How can a married man become a priest whereas the priest cannot marry?

St. Thomas answers that matrimony is a human contract, but holy orders is a sacramental consecration by God. Hence matrimony may be impeded by a previous reception of a holy order, so as not to be a true marriage. On the other hand, holy orders cannot be impeded by marriage (so as not to be a legitimate reception of a holy order) because the power of the sacraments is unchangeable, whereas human acts can be impeded.

We may sum up St. Thomas’ mind thus. As the clerical state is a higher and more perfect vocation than married life, it is unbecoming of a cleric to lower himself to marriage. Thus, we must hold that theologically, sacred orders are fittingly seen as an impediment to marriage—so that no priest may validly enter into marriage. However, we may still maintain that marriage need not be an impediment to the priesthood—so that some married men may be ordained priests. But in this matter, because the Latin Church includes an implicit vow of perfect chastity for the clergy in major holy orders (which cannot be broken by mere human power), a married clergy is not allowed in the Western Church (i.e., in general, as opposed to an extraordinary situation as the Church has traditionally acceded—such as the case of a married Lutheran pastor who converts to the Faith and shows signs of a priestly vocation).

We must also keep in mind that, even for the Greeks who allow the ordination of married men, no one will be consecrated a bishop unless he be celibate. And it is interesting to hear of the Eastern Church leaders themselves speak of the problems they have with their married clergy, as it occurred in the Roman Synod of Bishops in 2005. While Ukrainian bishops recalled the need to keep a ratio of 50% non-married priests because, below this, it would be impossible to maintain an efficacious apostolate as the married clergy are too busy and cannot dedicate sufficient time to religious studies. Another Eastern bishop raised the spectrum of priests going through divorce: what do you do with them?

Magisterial teaching on the primacy of celibacy

The Church has constantly taught the excellence and primacy of virginity and consecrated life against the enemies of the vows. The consecrated life mirrors Christ’s own way and anticipates the future age, when in the Kingdom of Heaven, the children of the resurrection will be like the angels of God (cf. Mt. 22:30). Here are a couple of texts by way of illustration.

  • Pope Pius XII, Sacra Virginitas, no. 32: “This doctrine of the excellence of virginity and of celibacy and of their superiority over the married state was, as we have already said, revealed by our Divine Redeemer and by the Apostle of the Gentiles; so too, it was solemnly defined as a dogma of divine faith by the holy council of Trent, and explained in the same way by all the holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church.”
  • Council of Trent (Denzinger 980): “If anyone saith that the marriage state is to be preferred before the state of virginity, let him be anathema.” [...] “writing to the Corinthians, [Paul] says: I would that all men were even as myself; that is, that all embrace the virtue of continence... A life of continence is to be desired by all.”

The wise words of a missionary bishop

Archbishop Lefebvre was well aware of the powerful voice of the priestly and religious virginity over souls. A young parishioner of his, now Archbishop Zoa of Yaoune, said that as a child, he raised doubts about the celibacy of priests. But when it saw it in practice, he confessed: “That religion is God’s religion.” The missionary goes on:[3]

What an example for married people to see the priest practice the virtue of chastity, of virginity! It is an example Christians need in order to help them practice this virtue of chastity in their own marriage.

The profound reason for consecrated priestly celibacy is the same reason for which the most Blessed Virgin herself remained a virgin. It was just and fitting that she remain a virgin because she had carried our Lord in her womb. The priest also brings God to earth by the words which he pronounces at the consecration. He has such a closeness to God, who is a spiritual Bing, a Spirit above all, that it is good and just and eminently fitting that the priest be a virgin and remain celibate.

(Celibacy) is a magnificent honor for the Church, an honor which we have to guard like a treasure. No other religion asks such a thing of its ministers, and you notice that of all those who have left the Church—all of the heretics, the schismatics—all or most of them have entered into the bonds of marriage. It is the honor of the Church to have maintained celibacy for her priests, for what other priests can say that they carry in their hands the body, the blood, the soul and the divinity of Jesus Christ? Is it surprising then that the Church would ask her priests not to share their heart, not to have any other love than our Lord Jesus Christ?"


1 Archbishop Lefebvre, in Priestly Holiness, p.150; STAS Editions, Winona 2011.

2 Christian Cochini, SJ, The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, Ignatius Press 1990, p.249.

3 Archbishop Lefebvre, in Priestly Holiness, p.148-156 passim.