When Did the Catholic Church Decide Priests Should Be Celibate?

Google Questions
tags: Catholic Church, priestly celibacy

Helen L. Owen was an intern at HNN.

Related Link Papyrus Referring to Jesus’ Wife Is More Likely Ancient Than Fake, Scientists Say 

The belief that religious figures should be celibate began long before the birth of Christianity. Ancient Druid priests were thought to have been celibate and Aztec temple priests were expected to remain sexually abstinent. Other pre-Christian sects mandated that the people chosen for their sacrificial offerings must be pure, meaning that they had never engaged in sex.

Jesus lived a chaste life and never married and at one point in the Bible is referred to as a eunuch (Matthew 19:12), though most scholars believe that this was intended metaphorically. The implication was that Jesus lived a celibate life like a eunuch.  Many of his disciples were also chaste and celibate. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, recommends celibacy for women:  "To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion." (1 Cor. 7:8-9) But the early Christian church had no hard and fast rule against clergy marrying and having children. Peter, a Galilee fisherman, whom the Catholic Church considers the first Pope, was married. Some Popes were the sons of Popes.

The first written mandate requiring priests to be chaste came in AD 304. Canon 33 of the Council of Elvira stated that all"bishops, presbyters, and deacons and all other clerics" were to"abstain completely from their wives and not to have children." A short time later, in 325, the Council of Nicea, convened by Constantine, rejected a ban on priests marrying requested by Spanish clerics.

The practice of priestly celibacy began to spread in the Western Church in the early Middle Ages. In the early 11th century Pope Benedict VIII responded to the decline in priestly morality by issuing a rule prohibiting the children of priests from inheriting property. A few decades later Pope Gregory VII issued a decree against clerical marriages.

The Church was a thousand years old before it definitively took a stand in favor of celibacy in the twelfth century at the Second Lateran Council held in 1139, when a rule was approved forbidding priests to marry. In 1563, the Council of Trent reaffirmed the tradition of celibacy.

Several explanations have been offered for the decision of the Church to adopt celibacy. Barry University's Ed Sunshine told Knight-Ridder that the policy was initiated to distinguish the clergy as a special group:"A celibate clergy became the paradigm of separation from the sinful world." A.W. Richard Sipe, a former priest and author of Sex, Priests and Power: The Anatomy of Crisis (1995), told Knight-Ridder that the"question at the time was who is the final power -- the king or the church. If [the church] could control a person's sex life, it could control their money, their employment, their benefice." Garry Wills suggested in Under God that the ban on marriage was adopted to lift the status of priests at a time when their authority was being challenged by nobles and others.

Protestants early on took exception to celibacy, arguing that it promoted masturbation, homosexuality and illicit fornication. Martin Luther singled out masturbation as one of the gravest offenses likely to be committed by those who were celibate."Nature never lets up," Luther warned,"we are all driven to the secret sin. To say it crudely but honestly, if it doesn't go into a woman, it goes into your shirt." American Protestants in the 17th century, fearful of radical religious sects like the Shakers that celebrated celibacy, came out foursquare against the practice.

The Roman Catholic Church's position today is derived from the Council of Trent. Celibacy is considered an important part of the priesthood, a sign of a priest's commitment to God and service. Today, though, there are some exceptions to the rule of unmarried clergy. Anglican ministers who were already married when they joined the Catholic Church are allowed to remain married if they choose to join the priesthood.

The Catholic Church distinguishes between dogma and regulations. The male-only priesthood is Catholic dogma, irreversible by papal decree. The ban on marriage is considered a regulation. As Knight-Ridder put it,"That means the pope could change it overnight if he wished."

The first modern scholar to make a comprehensive study of church celibacy was Henry Charles Lea over a century ago. Lea, a Protestant critical of the Catholic Church, closed his long book with the following statement:

"We may be on the eve of great changes, but it is not easy to anticipate a change so radical as that which would permit the abolition of celibacy. The traditions of the past must first be forgotten; the hopes of the future must first be abandoned. The Latin church is the most wonderful structure in history, and ere its leaders can consent to such a reform they must confess that its career, so full of proud recollections, has been an error."


Henry Charles Lea, An Historical Sketch of Sacerdotal Celibacy in the Christian Church (J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1867). (To access an online edition of the book, published by MOA (Making of America) click here (allow several minutes to download the text).

Erik R Seeman;"'It is better to marry than to burn': Anglo-American attitudes toward celibacy, 1600-1800, Journal of Family History (October, 1999 ).

Michele Prince, Mandatory Celibacy in the Catholic Church - A Handbook for the Laity (Pasadena, CA: New Paradigm Books, 1992).

Stefan Heid, Celibacy in the Early Church (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1997).

Peter Brown, The Body and Society - Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1988).

Celibacy in the Catholic Church: The Catholic Bishops' Conference of India website, http://www.cbcisite.com/.

Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, April 26, 2002 (as published by South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Donald George Losey - 8/3/2010

read 1 Timothy 4:1-3
1Ti 4:1 Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons,
1Ti 4:2 through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared,
1Ti 4:3 who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.

Joel Schwartz - 8/7/2003

Does anyone know how to get in touch with Vatican wistleblower Richard Sipe??? Thanks in advance for any assistance in this regard--Js

Don Lester - 8/4/2003

I think this "man-made" rule is nuts. How can you say to a non-catholic married minister of another church, "If you join us and wish to become a priest , it's okay to keep your wife." BUT if your are a catholic you cannot become a priest and be married.

The church punishes it's own for being catholic. How stupid.
I am a catholic and I truly belive that one day common sense will prevail and a progresive Pope will bring the church to it's senses.

coritateacher - 4/8/2003

Just a correction to a year old message, for anyone else who stumbles into this: Bernard of Clairvaux was born (~1090)after Gregory VII died.(~1085) Bernard could not have told Gregory anything.. at least, not here on earth.

Tom stilwell - 2/27/2003


jan michael alano - 10/1/2002

why is it that priest are not allow to marry?

keith miller - 5/16/2002

Found it necessary to clarify a matter or two. My two questions posed regarding post-Resurrection and Mary Magdalene likely marriage, thus sexual intercourse (non-platonic relationship) with Jesus, really I must say derives not only from treatment by Phipps, but also, let it be said, interpolations and thinking on my own. At this point, based upon a passage from Was Jesus Married? (just reading tonight) must assert something, which has always been true and sadly. That is, as Phipps gives it, people I have the utterly mistaken notion of Jesus as a "kill-joy." Why this should be particularly dumbfounds me, except for fact I appreciate all too well, specifically that the same people obstinately refuse to recognize that though (as I believe Jesus had a divine dimension) he was ALSO fully human in every sense of the world and loved life. That is why Phipps could very rightly head chapter 3 of The Sexuality of Jesus with this "Jesus the Philogynist" (by the way see p. 67 of that chapter, which should have referred to in previous comment on likely marriage of Jesus with Mary Magdalene, as I suggested in my two questions). To conclude then regarding the "kill-joy" theme and the very positive attitudes of Jesus on married life (and I would think would prove he would never have rejected such for himself) the whole of that being antithetical to celibacy as some kind of purer condition for believers, in particular leaders of the Church. Why after now two thousand years can we NOT manage (with Jesus as shining example of invariably caring and more--loving--of women, and very probable marriage with Mary Magdalene, with all that would entail in and out of bed) to abandon the pernicious notions that sex between a man and woman when in love and respecting each other in mind and body (and especially in marriage) is less worthy to God than a celibate life? One further point, which I offer as my "clincher" on this whole matter of Jesus, his probable marriage, and his remarkably open-to-living (ethical though certainly) but in joy and fullness at same time, to wit--the first miracle performed by Jesus was at a wedding feast at Cana; and as the Gospel account gives it, the guests remarked, that wine, which Jesus transformed from water, was the best--normally opened first on such an occasion. You the reader tell me, if Jesus did not enjoy a good time and honor married life (perhaps above all in this our often "vail of tears") why did he choose a wedding banquet for performing the first of his miracles in Bible? Keith L. Miller

keith miller - 5/15/2002

Dear Helen, You would recognize my name, as frequent contributor, especially to HNN Teachers Edition. Before providing an argument or two for marriage IN FACT of Jesus to Mary Magadalene (very persuasive too for me) want to alert you, if HNN Editor not yet made available e-mail from me on this (other readers of this comment might note the following too), Mr. Shenkman told me he will definitely post in not too distant future an article by me on homepage of HNN titled SEXUALTY AND THE LIBERATION OF WOMEN: THOUGHTS PROMPTED BY ABUSES OF CELIBATE CLERGY. In that article I discuss some salient aspects of 3 books by William E. Phipps (no "crack-pot," as I prove in the text), titled as follows: WAS JESUS MARRIED?: THE DISTORTION OF SEXUALITY IN THE CHRISTIAN TRADITION (1970); THE SEXUALITY OF JESUS: THEOLOGICAL AND LITERARY PERSPECTIVES (1973); and INFLUENTIAL THEOLOGIANS WO/MAN (1981), see especially on that 3rd book, chapter 3 "Sexual Shame in Augustine" (pp. 61-80). On a matter of related interest, I first discovered Phipps (that marvelous thinker that he is on sexuality and the Bible) about 20 years ago, leafing through a few volumes of Journal of the American Academy of Religion at Wabash Valley College Library, Mt. Carmel, Illinois--a college within 4-college system, in which I was then teaching. Here is what "leaped out at me"--Phipps's article in JAAR, to wit--"The Plight of the Song of Songs," vol. 42 (March 1974). That article demolishes down to "foundation," so to speak, centuries-held notions/beliefs that Song of Songs a sympolic representation of Christ and Church as "bride." Utter nonsense, as Phipps proceeds to prove, I would think to any sane person. What the Song of Songs then is all about instead--a love song (and very erotic too in good many places, if read without "blinders" of long-held doctrine of churchmen, whom Phipps manages to point out well, were very "hidebound" about the sexuality of the human body and most assuredly having (or contemplating) the act of sex! Now, to conclude with two questions (by which I suggest in brief, arguments by Phipps in WAS JESUS MARRIED? for that founder of Christianity as husband of Mary Magadalene (NOT in any platonic way either)--(1) if there was not some very close, probable sexual relationship, between that man and woman, why is it Mary, according to the Gospels, arrived FIRST at tomb after Resurrection, looking for Jesus?; (2) why too of all those mentioned by Gospels at or near the tomb of Christ after Resurrection was Mary Magadalene the ONLY one of those people (man or woman), who reached out to him and/or actually touched him? Something more on this--Phipps would certainly know his Greek here (the original language of the New Testament) for he has Ph. D. in Biblical Criticism from St. Andrews, Scotland. Using that knowlege Phipps makes clear the King James Version of Bible has the Risen Lord render much too harsh a remark to Mary about touching him. Instead, Phipps makes excellent point that Jesus said rather something like this--"don't continue to cling to me." Which Phipps, with his knowledge of Greek, indicates is a phrase that includes a likely meaning even for act of sexual intercourse. So, Ms. Owen as fine a job as you did on your essay, must offer the above, along with the very positive evidence from Phipps, along with my own thinking, Jesus was NOT by any means (far from it) a eunuch! Would like to hear from you Helen by comment, especially as appreciate your posting of my essays at times (in your intern position for HNN). Cheers! Keith

Comment - 5/2/2002

Relative to when Catholic clergy embraced
celebecy that was an excellent tracing of the evolution of the practice
in the Catholic church save for one additional detail relating to the
encyclical which set the course in the 11th century. Frederick C.
Dietz, who was in his day the most preeminent Tudor/Stuart scholar in
America and one of the outstanding scholars on earlier English history
contended that a deal was struck between Pope Clement and William the
Conqueror to forbid the clergy to marry in a political deal intended to
prevent the clergy from having progeny to whom they could pass on
property which both the church and state covetted.
Edward M. Bennett Professor Emeritus Washington State University

Daniel Mulholland - 5/1/2002

As a consequence of the Union of Brest in 1594 between Orthodox and Catholics, the Uniate clergy were free not only to follow Orthodox liturgy but obliged parish priests to marry, as had been the case among Orthodox Christians.

Dr. Mario D. Mazzarella - 5/1/2002

The reform movement of the Cluniac monks, which began in the late 10th century and which reformed a western Church badly in need of it, pressed for clerical celibacy. It became popular and was supported by many ordinary believers. Many a priest, in France for instance, was compelled to repudiate his wife, not without much suffering. Interestingly, the decree of Gregory VII on clerical celibacy was opposed by St. Bernard of Clairveaux, himself a . Bernard warned Gregory that barring honorable marriage would introduce concubinage and a host of other evils. He was correct. See the excellent History of the Reformation by the late (Fr.) John P. Dolan.

Oh, yes. One more thing: I do not believe that anyone has ever averred that Jesus was a literal eunuch. His comment that, "There are those who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven," (Matthew 19:12) has commonly been taken as an invitation to voluntary celibacy--except for poor Origen, who took it literally, an action which probably kept him off the calendar of saints. Nice man, but you don't want people to practice EVERYTHING he did.

Chuck Abdella - 5/1/2002

A good article, but several other important historical points ought be made:

1) It was indeed Gregory VII (1073-1085) who was the 1st to require celibacy and it is vital to know that Gregory is one of the few popes to be drawn from the monastic orders. Before his elevation, Gregory was a monk named Hildebrand and thus possessed a bias in favor of chastity not necessaily shared by his contemporaries

2) 1139's dictate (and indeed Gregory's earlier one threatening excommunication) likely was not widely followed. Clerics simply changed "wives" to "housekeepers" and "children" to "nieces/nephews." Trent and the threat of the Reformation led to de facto celibacy for the first time.

3) More important than Anglican converts are the Eastern Rite Catholic clergy who are not converts, but are permitted to marry in the same way that Eastern Orthodox priests are.

4) Finally, an all-male priesthood has been the tradition for the life of the church and is certainly doctrine, but it is not dogmatic, i.e. essential teaching which cannot be reversed.

Mr. Charles Abdella
Instructor of History

James Lindgren - 5/1/2002

The rationales for celibacy seem incomplete, given the history recounted. The author writes:

"In the early 11th century Pope Benedict VIII responded to the decline in priestly morality by issuing a rule prohibiting the children of priests from inheriting property. A few decades later Pope Gregory VII issued a decree against clerical marriages."

Yet none of the rationales offered by experts here mention preventing inherited power or money. Clergy were central to most communities, relatively rich and powerful in many cases. To be allowed to pass down this wealth, power, and position to sons who might not merit it might have been seen as both unfair and counterproductive to the church's viability.

The history recounted suggests that concerns about inherited wealth, power, and position should probably be added to the list of rationales. This rationale has little relevance today--though other rationales might.

James Lindgren
Northwestern University