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Origins of the Celibacy Rule

Q. When did the Roman Catholic Church begin to require celibacy before a man could be ordained a priest? Why? Doesn’t this suggest that marriage is inferior to celibacy? Why doesn’t the Roman Catholic Church allow a married clergy as do the Eastern Churches (Orthodox and Catholic)?

A. By itself, a decision to remain single could mean very different things (great selfishness, great generosity or inability to choose a spouse).

In Matthew 19:12, Jesus praises a celibacy practiced “for the sake of the Kingdom.” Optional, lifelong celibacy for men became more common with Egypt’s desert hermits in the third century. By the year 303, the Council of Elvira (southern Spain) had prohibited sexual intercourse between a married priest and his wife. By the mid-fourth century, marriage after ordination started to be prohibited.

There are various reasons—influence of cultic purity laws for Old Testament priests, possible conflict over inheriting Church property, the teaching of Jesus cited above and St. Paul’s teaching on celibacy (1 Corinthians 7:32-35).

The Orthodox Churches and Eastern Catholic Churches ordain married men as priests but select bishops from monks who have already made a lifelong promise of celibacy. A married priest who becomes a widower may not remarry.

The Second Lateran Council (1139) made celibacy mandatory for future priests in the Western Church.
In the last 40 years the Catholic Church has allowed some married, Protestant ministers to be ordained priests after they became Catholics. Most of these priests are not in full-time parish ministry.

In 1967, through his encyclical On Priestly Celibacy, Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s rule about this. Section 1579 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “accepted with a joyous heart celibacy radiantly proclaims the Reign of God.”

A Gospel-based celibacy does not devalue marriage; it is another way of serving the Lord. What matters most for both vowed celibates and married people is generous faithfulness.

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