Thursday, June 07, 2007

To marry or not: For Catholic priests, that is not the question

Redlands Daily Facts
Article Launched: 06/07/2007

Note: This article was interesting to me because the writer is a professor of history and religion at Riverside Community College and a married priest -- a former Episcopalian priest who was received into the Roman Catholic priesthood in the Inland diocese (Riverside and San Bernardino, CA) in 2005 under the Pastoral Provision. He is married to Sarah O'Brien and the couple have two children. Interestingly, one of Fr. Elder's reasons for converting to Catholicism was that his wife was Catholic.

In an earlier
article in The Press-Enterprise describing his own experience, Fr. Elder notes that there have been historical precedents to the Pastoral Provision. He said that "after the French Revolution, Catholic priests who had been forced to marry were allowed to rejoin the priesthood without leaving their families. And, after World War I, married German Lutheran priests were also allowed to convert and become Catholic priests without abandoning their spouses."

Q: I read somewhere that the early church fathers were all married men. Was that true? If so, what prompted the change to celibacy and when did it take place - and why? As one of the few married priests in the world, and with the paucity of men entering the priesthood, do you think you represent the future?

A: Today's question came to me by e-mail from a local radio station, and so let me give a quick reply before a more thoughtful discussion: no and no. But I am asked this set of questions rather a lot. It is a very controversial issue and there are whole Web sites, some better informed than others, which discuss the issue.

Celibacy in the clergy was common in the early church but it was not mandatory for a long while. It is an axiom among Protestants and evangelicals today that marriage must have been the rule for clergy and celibacy the exception, and it is equally axiomatic among Catholic writers that celibacy was the norm and marriage was the exception.

Certainly both existed but we do not have records to prove what was the more common. Paul the apostle tells us that he was single, but he also adds that Peter was married. (I Corinthians 9:5) But we certainly cannot say that they "all" were married or single. For the cultural reasons listed below, as a historian, I believe married priests were present, but not common in the early church.

It is certainly a fact that there were once married clergy, whatever their numbers, but they faded away. When we look at the age of the church fathers in the fourth century and beyond, men such as Athanasius, Basil, John Chrysostom, Augustine and Jerome were almost all single. There were exceptions, however. St Gregory of Nyssa, as late as the fourth century, was married at one time, but he is the exception.

The earliest known rule of mandatory celibacy of the clergy was issued at the Council of Elvira in A.D. 306, when clergy in what is now Spain were ordered to be single under pain of deposition. A similar proposal was made at the universal ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325, but this was rejected and not put into canon law. In 386 Pope Siricus ordered the Roman clergy to be celibate, but the fact that the decree had to be reissued by Pope Innocent I after A.D. 402 suggests that the earlier decree might not have been completely obeyed.

Leo the Great, after his election in A.D. 440, had to repeat the command yet again but went on to add the priests' wives were not to be put away, but thoughtfully added that they live as brother and sister. Soon after this, bishops in Gaul began to require married men and their wives to take vows of celibacy if the men were to be ordained, and many of the women were sent to convents. After this there were repeated attempts to stamp out clerical marriage in the West, and the Second Lateran Council in 1139 ended the debate by decreeing that any marriage of a priest was invalid.

It is worth noting that this rule of celibacy was imposed in Western Christianity and not the east. In the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches and in the Orthodox Church even today, married men may become priests, although never bishops, and if a priest's wife dies, he must remain single. In the West, every couple of centuries or so, a few married men are given papal approval to be ordained, but they are very few in number, and the same rule of the Eastern Church applies to them about never being able to remarry. I make a point of seeing that my wife takes her daily vitamins.

Why was this rule of celibacy common in antiquity and mandatory in medieval times? There are many reasons, of which the imitation of Christ is not the least. Another factor in antiquity was the profound influence of Platonic philosophy on early Christianity, which taught that the material and physical world were always inferior to the spiritual world. With the rise of Christianity in Roman times, this Platonic view was translated by the church into the dimension of human sexuality. In later centuries, the Protestant reformers would regard the influence of Greek philosophy as a danger which could corrupt the biblical faith and they rejected celibacy wholesale. Luther had some particularly crisp things to say about monasticism.

A significant and often unmentioned fact is that the medical knowledge of the Graeco-Roman world was rather eccentric by modern standards. It was a widespread belief among secular and pagan Roman doctors that regular sexual activity made men gradually more weak and stupid as time went on. Their colorful reasons for this medical opinion are not appropriate for a family newspaper, but in point of fact, Roman doctors advised gentlemen to sleep with their wives not more than once a month.

Even active-duty soldiers in the Roman army were forbidden to marry until the third century A.D., and this permission was granted by Septimus Severus only because he was short on legionaries and he wanted the troops to breed more. In most of the period of the late Republic and the Empire, Caesar wanted a lean, mean fighting machine on the Rhine frontier. This caution about sexuality was probably absorbed by the early church.

This historical background should not obscure the fact that celibacy has benefited the Catholic Church over the centuries, whatever its short-term challenges. A monastic clergy kept learning and literature alive for a thousand years in medieval times, and the Bible itself would have been lost were it not for the celibates of the church. Single missionaries have been dispatched to the far reaches of the globe in the past four centuries, which made Catholicism the largest church in the world and took the word of faith to many who might not have heard it.

Generations of poor Americans, often immigrants at the bottom of the social spectrum, were educated by armies of selfless religious sisters. Even today the role of celibate religious sisters should not be disrespected or underestimated. When one of my very secular friends complained to me that Catholicism had no role for women, I could make only one reply, which any priest would see the point of. I said, "Who do you think is running the machine today?"

I could never say that a single clergy was the only model of ministry. But, I would have to add, it has much good over time.

It is the task of theologians to advise us on how the church ought to be run in the future. It is the task of bishops to tell us how it will be run now.

And it is the vocation of historians to say how it has run in the past. I am the latter. So I called upon my friend, the Rev. Dr. Paul Granillo, pastor of the Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church in Redlands and a doctor of canon law. I put the question to him, that, given the Pastoral Provision, will there be a change in the policies of the church in the future, i.e. married priests? He replied, "The Pastoral Provision is an exception to the rule of celibacy, and represents no change to mandatory celibacy for priests in the Roman Catholic Church."

Then why does Rome allow a tiny number of exceptions to the rule? Father Paul replied, "The Pastoral Provision exists because of the close historical and sacramental ties between the Latin Church and the Anglican Communion and the desire of the Latin Church to acknowledge those ties and provide a place for those Anglican men who feel called to the Roman Catholic Priesthood."

So to answer the original question with a negative, I do not think a change is coming. If a change were in the works, Father Paul would know of it.

As for me, I work for a kind Irish religious sister, and I have a wife, a daughter and two little cats. These five females manage to keep this priest well in line with the policies of the church.

Gregory Elder, a Redlands resident, is a professor of history and humanities at Riverside Community College. You can write to him at Professing Faith, P.O. Box 8102, Redlands, CA 92375, or send e-mail to


Sophia Kugeares said...

While researching my Master's Thesis on Images of the Virgin Mary, I had occasion to compare the practices and policies of the first 800-1000 years of the early church and have learned that the Western [Rome] Church, demanded celebacy of its priests for the various reasons that you mentioned but most importantly for economic reasons. It was in order to prevent the loss of land and property of priests, bishops and archbishops, through inheritance to their sons and sometimes, even daughters.

The Eastern Church did not favor this practice. This caused some animosity between the Latin speaking West and the Greek speaking East. The conflict between West and East escalated while both factions were proselytizing and converting pagans in Eastern Europe, namely Bulgaria, and thereabouts. This was probably most notable in the 8th, 8th and 10 centuries. I believe Hugh Trevor-Roper, Robin Lane Fox, and Karen Armstrong, among others would concur.

The fact that Eastern Orthodox Clergy allow marriage for priests, yet maintain celebacy rules for those who wish to rise in rank to Archbishop, Bishop, Metropolitan, Patriarch, and Archimandrite, speaks for itself. Prior to ordination, a man must be married, and THEN take his final vows and be ordained. There are options.

I was quite surprised when Pope John Paul did not reinstate the married clergy; especially after, realizing that in some communist Eastern European countries, Catholic priests had "gone underground" by marrying, yet maintaining their cleric status, [baptising children, marrying couples, and probably performing funeral and other rites. They did this, as I understand it, in order to evade the athiestic Communist system.

Sophia Manoulian Kugeares
Clearwater, FL

Ron Riedell said...

Sophia, I would be interested in reading you thesis on "Images of the Virgin Mary" Secondly what we the sources you used for the data on celebacy?