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History of Priestly Celibacy
Question from Alexis Mazzocco on 6/17/2007:

A Catholic friend informed me that the reason for priestly celibacy in the Western Church is that the Church was losing land in the Middle Ages when priests died and their sons inherited Church land. This doesn't sound right to me. Is this true? Thanks!

Answer by Matthew Bunson on 6/24/2007:

No, the institution of the discipline of celibacy was not some invention to protect property.

There was a time when priests of the Latin rite were permitted to marry. During the early Church the laws against celibacy were not in place, but there is considerable debate as to whether married priests were ever common. Over time, celibacy was promoted among the first hermits and cenobites and was supported by Church authorities. The first important declaration by Church authorities in favor of celibacy was made first by the Council of Elvira in 305 in Spain.

This was followed by the Councils of Galatia and Cappadocia in 315, and the highly influential First Council of Nicaea (325) at which it was decided to accept the prohibition of marriage after ordination. While affirmed by the Roman council in 386 and in other assemblies, celibacy was not universally recognized in the West until the eleventh century and the Gregorian Reform. At the Synod of Sutri (1074) convened by Pope Gregory VII (r. 1073-1085), priests were not allowed to marry and married men were declared ineligible for ordination. From the time following Gregory's pontificate, the Church remained absolutely firm on the rule, despite secular pressure to relax it and the demands of the leaders of the Reformation that clergy should be permitted to wed. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) reaffirmed that celibacy was mandatory, as did the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

The reasons are not rooted in money or property. Rather, they reflect what the Second Vatican Council declared: “the whole priestly mission is dedicated to that new humanity which Christ, the conqueror of death, raises up in the world through His Spirit. This humanity takes its origin ‘not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God’ (Jn. 1:13). Through virginity or celibacy observed for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, priests are consecrated in a new and distinguished way. They more easily hold fast to Him with undivided heart. They more freely devote themselves in Him and through Him to the service of God and men” (Presbyterorum Ordinis, No. 16).

Pope John Paul II declared in Pastores Dabo Vobis, a Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation: "It is especially important that the priest understand the theological motivation of the Church's law on celibacy. Inasmuch as it is a law, it expresses the Church's will, even before the will of the subject expressed by his readiness. But the will of the Church finds its ultimate motivation in the link between celibacy and sacred ordination, which configures the priest to Jesus Christ the head and spouse of the Church. The Church, as the spouse of Jesus Christ, wishes to be loved by the priest in the total and exclusive manner in which Jesus Christ her head and spouse loved her. Priestly celibacy, then, is the gift of self in and with Christ to his Church and expresses the priest's service to the Church in and with the Lord. "For an adequate priestly spiritual life, celibacy ought not to be considered and lived as an isolated or purely negative element, but as one aspect of the positive, specific and characteristic approach to being a priest. Leaving father and mother, the priest follows Jesus the good shepherd in an apostolic communion, in the service of the People of God. Celibacy, then, is to be welcomed and continually renewed with a free and loving decision as a priceless gift from God, as an 'incentive to pastoral charity' (Presbyterorum Ordinis, 16) as a singular sharing in God's fatherhood and in the fruitfulness of the Church, and as a witness to the world of the eschatological kingdom. To put into practice all the moral, pastoral and spiritual demands of priestly celibacy it is absolutely necessary that the priest pray humbly and trustingly, as the Council points out: 'In the world today, many people call perfect continence impossible. The more they do so, the more humbly and perseveringly priests should join with the Church in praying for the grace of fidelity. It is never denied to those who ask. At the same time let priests make use of all the supernatural and natural helps which are now available to all.'(Presbyterorum Ordinis, 16) Once again it is prayer, together with the Church's sacraments and ascetical practice, which will provide hope in difficulties, forgiveness in failings, and confidence and courage in resuming the journey. [Pastores Dabo Vobis, 29.]

There are at present married priests in the Church. One group is comprised of converts to the Church from the Anglican Church. The other is the clergy of the Eastern Catholic Churches. The latter priests follow specific norms, in keeping with legislation enacted by the Synod of Trullo in 692 and still in force. Candidates for holy orders in the Eastern Churches may marry before becoming deacons and may continue in marriage thereafter. Marriage after ordination is forbidden. Additionally, bishops of Eastern Catholic Churches are unmarried.

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