The true history of celibacy

According to some reports, the next synod may touch on the question of ordaining married men. If we are to have such a debate, it should be based on fact, not fantasy.

You will sometimes hear people say that priests could be married up to the 12th century. Others say that celibacy was imposed on the clergy by Gregory VII or that celibacy was promoted “because they hated the body”. These are familiar statements, but they are all untrue.

The history is complicated, but well documented in studies such as Stefan Heid’s Celibacy in the Early Church. Yes, indeed, during the first millennium it was perfectly regular for married men to be ordained deacon or priest, but they had to separate from their wives beforehand.

Technically not celibacy, but continence: sexual abstinence by formerly married men. They never pretended they had not been married. Their wives enjoyed status, and their children often followed them into the ministry. The sons, incidentally, could be ordained to minor orders before their teens, up to acolyte.

It was never forbidden for acolytes to marry, and still be clerics, and they easily found employment as clerks. We seem to have forgotten that minor orders existed (they were reformed in 1972), but many “married clergy” were in minor orders, who often decided later to proceed to major orders – though only if their wives were happy about it.

True, we know little of the early period, though St Peter boasted, “we have left our homes and followed you”, when Our Lord commended leaving house or wife (Luke 19:28-9), and St Paul says bishops must be “self-controlled” (Titus 1:8; in Greek “continent” or “abstinent”). But from the 4th century, legislation, and writings of popes and bishops, make it clear that they believed the discipline of clerical continence went back to the Apostles.

From then onwards, there are innumerable decrees of local councils, circulated throughout the Church. It would be tedious to record them all, and councils only needed to repeat the law because it was not always kept. (I discovered all this while preparing for my little book on community life among pastoral clergy, Vita Communis, which was published by Gracewing in 2009.) Continue reading


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