700 Years of Clerical Celibacy in History

With the pope’s long awaited post-synodal exhortation not far away, we can be sure that the modernists will be taking their axes to the roots of the discipline of clerical celibacy. We will hear claims that clerical celibacy was introduced only in the 12th or 5th century and that it is not a discipline that can be traced back to the apostles. Before being bombarded with these outright lies and half-truths, it is important to learn the history of clerical celibacy so as to counter these arguments and preserve this sacred discipline.

St. Paul and Eusebius of Caesarea

St. Paul does not explicitly speak about clerical celibacy and in fact does mention bishops and deacons being married. In Demonstratio Evangelica, however,  Eusebius of Caesarea explains the origins of and purpose of clerical celibacy in light of these passages. By the late 3rd century or early 4th century, just before the Council of Nicaea, Eusebius notes that during this time, some tried to argue that as the priests of the Old Testament fathered children, it is appropriate for priests of the New Testament to do likewise. Eusebius explained the error of this reasoning when he wrote:

And this explanation of the ancient men of God begetting children cannot be said to apply to the Christians [i.e., Christian priests] to-day, when by God’s help through our Saviour’s Gospel teaching we can see with our own eyes many peoples and nations in city and country and field all hastening together, and united in running to learn the godly course of the teaching of the Gospel, for whom I am glad to say we are able to provide teachers and preachers of the word of holiness, free from all ties of life and anxious thoughts. And in our day these men are necessarily devoted to celibacy that they may have leisure for higher things; they have undertaken to bring up not one or two children but a prodigious number, and to educate them in godliness, and to care for their life generally. [i]

Anticipating that those who oppose clerical celibacy will point to St. Paul’s statement that bishops and deacons should be “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2, 12), he comments upon this passage, noting that it was not forbidden for priests to have children, but that after ordination they should practice celibacy. This shows that celibacy, if not mandatory, was the expected discipline from the time of the apostles:

“For a bishop,” says the Scripture, “must be the husband of one wife.” Yet it is fitting that those in the priesthood and occupied in the service of God, should abstain after ordination from the intercourse of marriage.” [ii]

2nd Century

As early as the second century, while we do not see evidence that clerical celibacy was an ecclesiastical rule, we see Tertullian extolling the virtues of celibate clerics and holding up clerical celibacy as the ideal:

How many men, therefore, and how many women, in Ecclesiastical Orders, owe their position to continence, who have preferred to be wedded to God; who have restored the honour of their flesh, and who have already dedicated themselves as sons of that (future) age, by slaying in themselves the concupiscence of lust, and that whole (propensity) which could not be admitted within Paradise!” [iii]

Council of Elvira

In 305 A.D., the Church in Spain held a synod at Elvira, under the direction of Hosius of Corduba, to discuss the breakdown of moral and disciplinary rules that had begun to affect the Church in the persecutions prior to Constantine’s reign.  Bishops from all across Spain attended this synod, and its canons applied to all of Spain [iv]. This synod promulgated 81 canons, mostly relating to ecclesiastical discipline. Canon 27 forbade any woman, excepting mothers, aunts, sisters, or consecrated virgins, to live under the same roof as a cleric [v], and canon 33 explicitly forbade any clerics to have conjugal relations:

It has seemed good absolutely to forbid the bishops, the priests, and the deacons, i.e., all the clerics engaged in service at the altar, to have [sexual] relations with their wives and procreate children; should anyone do so, let him be excluded from the honor of the clergy. [vi]

The canons of this council clearly indicate that many clerics at the time were married men; however, it even more clearly commands these married men to celibacy within their marriages. Cardinal Stickler notes that the canons in this synod were not new laws imposed upon the Church, but were codifications of previous tradition that was being violated [vii].

Councils of Ancyra and Neocaesarea

The next council that most people consider in the matter of clerical celibacy is that of Nicaea. However, there were two more important councils that discussed clerical celibacy before Nicaea. These were the Councils of Ancyra (c. 314) and Neocaesarea (c. 315). While the Council of Ancyra dealt primarily with how to treat repentant apostates, it also touched on the issue of clerical celibacy. Canon 10 of the Council of Ancyra states that deacons who marry after ordination “shall lose their deaconate” [viii]. The Council of Neocaesarea dealt with all manner of sexual and marital issues and touched on the issue of clerical celibacy. Canon 1 of the council states, “If a priest marry, he shall be removed from the ranks of the clergy” [ix]. While these were only local councils, and therefore not binding on the entire Church, they clearly show that the practice of clerical celibacy was well established even in the East at the beginning of the 4th century — even before Nicaea.


Ten years after Neocaesarea, the Church again came to discuss the issue of clerical celibacy at the first ecumenical council in Nicaea in 325. At this council was Bishop Hosius of Corduba, who strongly advocated for mandatory clerical celibacy on behalf of all deacons, priests, and bishops (it is unclear whether he also advocated for celibate subdeacons) and proposed the same canons that had been promulgated at Elvira. The ecclesiastical historian Socrates Scholasticus notes that a certain Bishop Paphnutius also attended the council and spoke in opposition to Hosius [x]. He relates that Paphnutius defended conjugal relations between married clerics and their spouses and stated that only those unmarried men who had been ordained should refrain from contracting marriage and the conjugal rights attached to marriage. After Paphnutius’s speech, the Council stopped the discussion on mandatory celibacy and decided to leave the issue to individual bishops to decide [xi]. The council did, however, promulgate one canon that many have taken to mandate clerical celibacy. Canon 3 of Nicaea states:

The great Synod absolutely forbids, and it cannot be permitted to either bishop, priest, or any other cleric, to have in his house a subintroducta, with the exception of his mother, sister, aunt, or such other persons as are free from all suspicion. [xii]

Many, including Pope St. Gregory the Great, saw in this canon a proscription against conjugal relations for clerics. Cardinal Baronius was also of the view that the notable absence of “wife” among the list of subintroducta indicates that the intention of this canon was to forbid conjugal relations for all clerics [xiii]. The testimony of St. Epiphanius also indicates that this canon intended to mandate clerical celibacy when declaring that clerics who continued to father children by their wives do so “uncanonically” — i.e., against the law of the Church. Writing in approximately 374 (not even 50 years after Nicaea),  he states:

Since Christ’s incarnation, in fact, because of the priesthood’s superior rank, God’s holy Gospel does not accept men for the priesthood after a first marriage, if they have remarried because their first wife died. And God’s holy church observes this with unfailing strictness. (3) She does not even accept the husband of one wife if he is still co-habiting with her and fathering children. She does accept the abstinent husband of one wife, or a widower, as a deacon, presbyter, bishop and subdeacon [but no other married men], particularly where the canons of the church are strictly enforced.12 4,4 But in some places, you will surely tell me, presbyters, deacons and sub-deacons are still fathering children [while exercising their office.] This is not canonical, but is due to men’s occasional remissness of purpose, and because there is no one to serve the congregation. [xiv]

Regardless of the intention of Nicaea’s canon, after this time, the Greeks began to allow married men to become clerics and maintain conjugal relations with their wives (but not allow ordained clerics to marry). However, the Latin Church did not adopt the practice, and it can be demonstrated that the Latin Church maintained the discipline of clerical celibacy up until the present day.

Pope Siricius

In the late 4th century, Himerius, Bishop of Tarragona, sent Pope Damasus a letter in which he sought clarification, among other matters, regarding the discipline of clerical celibacy. Sadly, Pope Damasus died before he had a chance to respond. However, his successor Pope Siricius took on the responsibility and responded in 385 in his letter Dicrecta ad decessorem [xv]. In this letter he decried those clerics who had children by their wives, and, in much the same way as Eusebius of Caesarea, he condemned those who argued that the married priests of the Old Testament indicated that priests of the new law could similarly exercise conjugal rights with their spouses. In the following year, the Synod of Rome, under Siricius’s direction, promulgated nine canons, the ninth of which specifically forbade clerics to have conjugal relations with their wives after ordination [xvi]. Pope Siricius confirmed these rules in his letter Cum in unum and further stated that the synod did not create new disciplines, but rather sought to enforce existing disciplines that had been neglected [xvii]. This is further evidence that clerical celibacy was already well established in the 4th century.

St. Jerome

At about this time, in 393 or 394, St. Jerome in his letter to Pammachius wrote:

Therefore, as I was going to say, the virgin Christ and the virgin Mary have dedicated in themselves the first fruits of virginity for both sexes. The apostles have either been virgins or, though married, have lived celibate lives. Those persons who are chosen to be bishopspriests, and deacons are either virgins or widowers; or at least when once they have received the priesthood, are vowed to perpetual chastity. [xviii]

This is more explicit evidence of the apostolic roots of the discipline of clerical celibacy. It should also be noted that St. Jerome was well versed in the traditions of both the Eastern and Western Churches and makes no distinction between the discipline of East and West. In 406, St. Jerome further went on to note that clerical celibacy was the practice of the Western and Oriental Churches and decried priests living in conjugal relations in the Eastern Churches as breaking with tradition:

What is to become of the Egyptian Churches and those belonging to the Apostolic Seat, which accept for the ministry only men who are virgins, or those who practice continency, or, if married, abandon their conjugal rights? [xix]

Councils of Africa and Carthage

Next the Council of Africa in 390 promulgated a canon which was ratified in the Council of Carthage in 397 and inserted into the Codex Canonum Ecclesiae Africanae:

Bishop Epigonius … says: The rule of continence and chastity had been discussed in a previous council. Let it [now] be taught with more emphasis what are the three ranks that, by virtue of their consecration, are under the same obligation of chastity, i.e., the bishop, the priest and the deacon, and let them be instructed to keep their purity.

Bishop Genetlius says: As was previously said, it is fitting that the holy bishops and priests of God as well as the Levites, i.e., those who are in the service of the divine sacraments, observe perfect continence, so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God; what the apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us also endeavor to keep.

The bishops declared unanimously: It pleases us all that bishop, priest and deacon, guardians of purity, abstain from [conjugal intercourse] with their wives, so that those who serve at the altar may keep a perfect chastity. [xx]

What is notable about this canon is that it states that the discipline of celibacy was one taught by the apostles and practiced in antiquity, thereby showing the apostolic roots of the discipline. As further evidence, the Council of Carthage in 419, at which sat the illustrious St. Augustine, decreed in canon 25:

As we have dealt with certain clerics, especially lectors, as regards continence with their wives, I would add, very dear brothers, what was confirmed in many synods, that the subdeacons who touch the sacred mysteries, and also the deacons, priests and bishops, in conformity with the ordinances concerning them, will abstain from their wives “as if they did not have one”; if they do not do so, they will be rejected from any ecclesiastical function. As to the other clerics, they will be compelled to do so only at an advanced age. The whole synod said: What your holiness has regulated in justice, we confirm because it is worthy of the priesthood and pleasing to God. [xxi]

At this council, the papal legate Faustinus approved the decrees and canons, showing that Rome itself acknowledged the discipline of clerical celibacy and its apostolic roots.

Pope Innocent I

At the beginning of the 5th century, the bishops of Gaul sought clarification from the Holy See regarding several matters including the obligation of continence in priests.  Pope Innocent I responded in his letter Dominus Inter:

Here is what has been decided, first of all, with regard to bishops, priests and deacons: those who have the responsibility of the divine sacrifice, and whose hands give the grace of baptism and consecrate the Body of Christ, are ordered by divine Scripture, and not by ourselves, to be very chaste; the Fathers themselves had ordered them to observe bodily continence. Let us not omit this point but explain the reason for it: how would a bishop or a priest dare teach continence to a widow or a virgin, or yet [how would he dare] exhort [spouses] to the chastity of the conjugal bed, if he himself is more concerned about begetting children for the world than begetting them for God? This is why we read in sacred Scripture regarding these three ranks of ministers of God are under the obligation to observe purity; it is obvious that this is always a necessity for them; they must either give baptism or offer the sacrifice. Would an impure man dare soil what is holy when holy things are for holy people? It was thus that [the priests of the Old Testament] who offered sacrifices in the temple rightly stayed there without going out during the entire year they were on duty and had nothing more to do with their homes. As to the idolaters, when they dedicate themselves to their impieties and immolate [sacrifices] to the demons, they impose on themselves continence with regard to women and also endeavour to keep themselves pure from [certain] foods; and you would ask me if the priest of the living God, who must offer spiritual sacrifices, must be constantly purified, if he must, in his whole flesh, be concerned about the flesh? If commixture is defiling, it is obvious that the priest must be ready to carry out his celestial functions — he who has to supplicate on behalf of the sins of others — so that he himself not be found impure. If the lay people are told: “Leave yourselves for prayer” (1 Cor. 7:5) these men who put themselves first at the service of human procreation might have the title of priests, but they cannot have that dignity[.] [xxii]

This forceful statement not only reinforces the discipline of clerical celibacy, but further notes its origins in sacred Scripture and apostolic traditions and explains the reasons behind it. Pope Innocent I would reinforce these views a further three times throughout his pontificate in letters to Victricius of Rouen, Exuperius of Toulouse, and Maximus and Severus of Calabria [xxiii].

Popes Ss. Leo the Great and Gregory the Great

In 456, Pope St. Leo the Great also weighed in on the matter, when in a letter to Rusticius of Narbonne he wrote:

The law of continence is the same for the ministers of the altar, for the bishops and for the priests; when they were [still] laymen or lectors, they could freely take a wife and have children. But once they have reached the ranks mentioned above, what had been permitted is no longer so. This is why, in order for [their] union to change from carnal to spiritual, they must, without sending away their wives, live with them as if they did not have them, so that conjugal love be safeguarded and nuptial activity be ended. [xxiv]

In the late 6th or early 7th century, Pope St. Gregory the Great reaffirmed the teaching of the Council of Nicaea by prohibiting unauthorized women and clerics from living under the same roof. Cardinal Stickler notes that the pope interpreted the canon of Nicaea to mean that no women, except mothers, aunts, and sisters, could live with a cleric, and that this specifically excluded wives from the list of those permitted to live with clerics.[xxv] This is in accordance with Cardinal Baronius’s interpretation and the statement of St. Epiphanius.

Other Councils and Synods

In the 5th and 6th centuries, there followed a string of little known synods and councils that confirmed the discipline of clerical celibacy in the Western Church.

In 461, the Church of Gaul gathered at Tours for a synod to discuss sexual relationships among the clergy. Canon 1 of this synod exhorted priests to chastity, and canon 2 relaxed “the ancient rule” that priests who continue conjugal relations with their wives after ordination are to be excommunicated. It merely revoked the sentence of excommunication but continued to forbid those priests from celebrating or assisting at Mass [xxvi]. The fact that the holy fathers of Gaul referred to this discipline being ancient is further proof of its roots in the earliest times of the Church. Following this, at a council in Agde in 506, it was decreed that if a deacon return to conjugal relations with his wife after ordination, he is to be deposed [xxvii].

Next, in 535, the Synod of Clermont declared:

If anyone is ordained deacon or priest, he must not continue matrimonial intercourse. He becomes a brother of his wife. As, however, some, inflamed by desire, have cast off the girdle of the warfare [of Christ], and have returned to matrimonial intercourse, it is ordained that such must lose their dignity for ever. [xxviii]

In the Synod of Orleans (538), clerics were forbidden to have conjugal relations with their wives, and any bishop allowing this was to be suspended [xxix]. The same was also declared in the second Synod of Tours in 567 [xxx], the Council of Auxerre in 578 [xxxi], and the first Synod of Macon in 581 [xxxii].

Synod in Trullo

The largest split in the disciplines of the Eastern and Western Churches regarding clerical celibacy occurred after the Council in Trullo in 692 (sometimes referred to as the “Quinisext” Council), when the Greek bishops convoked a synod ostensibly as a continuation of the Third Council of Constantinople, which had made no disciplinary canons. In this council the Greeks produced 102 canons, many relating to clerical conjugal activity, and wished to impose them on the universal Church. In Canon 13, they asserted that any cleric who attempts to prevent a married cleric from conjugal union with his wife was excommunicated [xxxiii]. Emperor Justinian II sent these acts to Rome to be ratified; however, Pope Sergius refused, stating that he would rather die than consent to their errors [xxxiv]. In response, Justinian II sent troops in an attempt to kidnap Pope Sergius to force him to assent to the impious canons; however, they failed [xxxv]. These canons were not accepted by the universal Church but did become the discipline of the Byzantine Church [xxxvi].

There are countless more references to clerical celibacy in the innumerable synods and councils of the Church in the centuries since Trullo, such as Lateran II and Trent. However, ample proof has already been offered to show that the Church has espoused the discipline of clerical celibacy since the earliest times. Regardless of what comes from Pope Francis’s exhortation, clerical celibacy is the tradition of the Church, and we must fight to defend this sacred and apostolic tradition.

[i] Eusebius of Caesarea, Demonstratio Evangelica Bk. I Ch. IX.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Tertullian, Letter to His Wife, Ch. 13.

[iv] Hefele, A History of the Christian Councils Vol. I p 132.

[v] Ibid p148.

[vi] Ibid p150.

[vii] Cardinal Stickler, Alphonso, The Case for Clerical Celibacy (Ignatius Press.1st ed, 1993) p23.

[viii] Hefele, V. I, p210

[ix] Ibid p243.

[x] Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History Bk. I Ch. 11.

[xi] Hefele, V. I, p436.

[xii] Ibid p379.

[xiii] Baronius, Ann. 58. in Hefele V. I, p437.

[xiv] St Epiphanius, Panarion 59, 4.

[xv] Denzinger, 89.

[xvi] Hefele, V. II p387.

[xvii] Stickler, p30.

[xviii] St. Jerome, Letter to Pammachius Ch. 21.

[xix] St. Jerome, Against Vigilantius Ch. 2.

[xx] Stickler, p23-24.

[xxi] Ibid p27.

[xxii] Cochini, Christian, Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy (Ignatius Press, 1st ed, 1990) 14-15.

[xxiii] Stickler, p33.

[xxiv] Ibid p34

[xxv] Ibid. p35.

[xxvi] Hefele, V. IV p10.

[xxvii] Ibid pp78-79.

[xxviii]Ibid pp191-192.

[xxix] Ibid p205.

[xxx] Ibid p392.

[xxxi] Ibid p413.

[xxxii] Ibid p404.

[xxxiii] Hefele, V. V p226.

[xxxiv] Ibid pp237-240.

[xxxv] Paul the Deacon, History of the Langobards Bk. VI, Ch. XI.

[xxxvi] Hefele, V. V p242.

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