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History of Priestly Celibacy: did the East abandon the original tradition?
Question from Matt on 5/30/2004:

Hello Anthony;

I was reading in H.W. Crockers III book "Triumph" pg 57 about the Council of Nicea "The council also clarified various items of Church discipline, the most iteresting of which, in light of modern controversies, was the Church's strengthing of the practice of celibacy. The third canon of the Nicene Council prohibits all clergy from living with woman unless they are blood relatives... Thus the discipline of Celibacy, which was in use, if not mandatory, from the days of the Apostles, entered cannon law from at least the beggining of the fourth century, though it was not always enforced."

Question is: were Eastern Priests Celibate at one time? From my undestanding the first seven Ecumenical councils were largely Eastern affairs? If so, when did this practice change and why? Did the Eastern church ammend somehow the 3rd cannon of Nicea or does it just ignore it? Did priestly celibacy play a role in the split between East and West in 1054?

Second Question:

Did the Pope declare the First Seven Ecumenical councils to be "Ecumenical"?

Thank you in advance

God Bless,


Answer by Anthony Dragani on 6/2/2004:


Canon 3 of the Council of Nicaea reads:

"The great Synod has stringently forbidden any bishop, presbyter, deacon, or any one of the clergy whatever, to have a subintroducta dwelling with him, except only a mother, or sister, or aunt, or such persons only as are beyond all suspicion."

This particular canon was introduced to prevent clerics from engaging in scandalous activities. The very term "subintroducta" indicates a woman who is living as his personal disciple, under the pretense of piety. Apparently some clerics would bring these young women into their homes, and mentor them in something other than the Christian faith.

Several years ago I undertook an extensive study of clerical celibacy in the ancient Church. My findings conclusively demonstrate that at that the time of the Council of Nicea most of the clerics in both the Eastern and Western Churches were married men. However, a movement began in the Western Church during the fourth century to promote clerical celibacy, beginning with a canon ascribed to Council of Eliva. But it took many centuries for this to become the norm in the West. In the East no such legislation was ever promulgated, although the Council in Trullo did eventually legislate mandatory celibacy for bishops.

Of course ultimately this question is a moot point. What matters is the current legislation in the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II has laid down the law for Eastern Catholics:

373. Clerical celibacy chosen for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and suited to the priesthood is to be greatly esteemed everywhere, as supported by the tradition of the whole Church; likewise, the hallowed practice of married clerics in the primitive Church and in the tradition of the Eastern Churches throughout the ages is to be held in honor. (Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches)

Sadly, in recent decades what I regard to be historical revisionism has gained ground in some Catholic circles. In order to defend the legitimate discipline of mandatory celibacy in the West, some Catholic authors have argued that mandatory celibacy was an apostolic tradition, demanded by Christ, that the Eastern Churches have abandoned! This view has been popularized in many recent books, and is finding a strong following. While it certainly is praiseworthy for the Latin Church to defend it's discipline, this should not be done at the expense of truth and historical accuracy.

I wrote an article on this very topic for Eastern Churches Journal. You can find my article online at the following link:

My article is entitled "Is Mandatory Clerical Celibacy an Apostolic Tradition?"

God Bless, Anthony


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