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The Directa and Cum in unum decretals of Pope St. Siricius

Among the many statements of the early Church on the topic of sexual continence and celibacy, the Directa and Cum in unum decretals of Pope St. Siricius (c. 385) stands out among them all, since it directly confirmed that clerical sexual abstinence was an apostolic practice that must be followed by the ministers of the universal church.

In the Directa, the Pope dealt with clerics (deacons, priests, and bishops) that were still living with their wives and having children. Priests were justifying this by referring to the traditions of the Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament. Pope St. Siricius was emphatic that clerical continence belonged to immemorial, even apostolic, tradition. He declared that the priests of the Old Law had been under a duty to observe temporary continence when serving in the Temple, but that the coming of Christ had brought the old priesthood to completion, and by this fact the duty of temporary continence had become an obligation to perpetual continence.

Pope St. Siricius (384-398) epistle “Directa ad Decessorem” was promulgated in the year 385 A.D. This epistle dealt with the Celibacy of the Clergy, and it excommunicated all priests who dared to defile themselves with sexual acts with their wives, and prescribed that they all were banned from celebrating the heavenly mysteries of Our Lord:

Pope St. Siricius, Directa (# 7), February, A.D. 385: “Let us talk now about the very holy clerical Orders. As your Charity advises us, we see that in your provinces they are trampled underfoot and confused, with great prejudice to the honor due to religion. It has come to the point where we must say with Jeremiah: "Who will turn my head into a fountain, and my eyes into a spring for tears, so that I may weep all day, all night for all the dead out of the daughter of my people?" (Jer 8:23) … We have indeed discovered that many priests and deacons of Christ brought children into the world, either through union with their wives or through shameful intercourse. And they used as an excuse the fact that in the Old Testament—as we can read—priests and ministers were permitted to beget children.

“Whatever the case may be, if one of these disciples of the passions and tutors of vices thinks that the Lord—in the law of Moses—gives an indistinct license to those in sacred Orders so that they may satisfy their passions, let him tell me now: why does [the Lord] warn those who had the custody of the most holy things in the following way: "You must make yourselves holy, for I am Yahweh your God" (Lev 20:7). Likewise, why were the priests ordered, during the year of their tour of duty, to live in the temple, away from their homes? Quite obviously so that they would not be able to have carnal knowledge of any woman, even their wives, and, thus, having a conscience radiating integrity, they could offer to God offerings worthy of his acceptance. Those men, once they had fulfilled their time of service, were permitted to have marital intercourse for the sole purpose of ensuring their descent, because no one except [the members] of the tribe of Levi could be admitted to the divine ministry.

“This is why, after having enlightened us by his coming, the Lord Jesus formally stipulated in the Gospel that he had not come to abolish the law, but to bring it to perfection; this is also why he wanted the beauty of the Church whose Bridegroom he is to shine with the splendor of chastity, so that when he returns, on the Day of Judgment, he will find her without stain or wrinkle (Eph 5:27), as his Apostle taught [Apostolic Tradition]. It is through the indissoluble law of these decisions that all of us, priests and deacons, are bound together from the day of our ordination, and put our hearts and our bodies to the service of sobriety and purity; may we be pleasing to our God in all things, in the sacrifices we offer daily. "People who are interested only in unspiritual things can never be pleasing to God", says the Chosen Vessel. "Your interests, however, are not in the unspiritual, but in the spiritual, since the Spirit of God has made his home in you" (Rom 8:8-9).

“But those, who contend with an excuse for the forbidden privilege, so as to assert that this has been granted to them by the Old Law, should know that by the authority of the Apostolic See they have been cast out of every ecclesiastical office, which they have used unworthily, nor can they ever touch the sacred mysteries, of which they themselves have deprived themselves so long as they give heed to impure desires. And because existing examples warn us to be on our guard for the future should any bishop, priest, or deacon be found such, which henceforth we do not want let him now understand that every approach to indulgence is barred through us, because it is necessary that the wounds which are not susceptible to the healing of warm lotions be cut out with a knife.” (St. Siricius 384-398, The Primacy of the Roman Pontiff, From the epistle "Directa ad decessorem" Feb. 10, 385, On The Celibacy of the Clergy; Denzinger 89)

The circumstance leading the Roman Pontiff to write about clerical continence, as this document shows, was the news coming from Spain: many clerics belonging to major Orders in those provinces went on living with their wives and having children. He was distraught by such news because they were grave violations of what was the indisputable teaching of the Church. Hence his intervention, the purpose of which was not to promulgate new regulations, but to reinstate those that should never have been broken. Siricius also learned from Himerius that those clerics were attempting to justify their behavior through Scripture, which is why he also uses Scripture. Some people are saying that the Old Testament, in particular the rules of Leviticus, authorized marriage for the Levites. Yes, indeed, he retorts, but married priests were under the obligation of temporary continence when serving in the temple. Now the priesthood of Christ brought the old priesthood to perfection. And by this very fact the obligation of continence became an obligation to perpetual continence. If the priests of the Old Law had to abstain periodically from intercourse with their wives “so that, with a conscience radiating integrity, they could present to God offerings worthy of his acceptance”, as Pope St. Siricius affirms, the ministers and priests of Jesus Christ in the New Law who offer sacrifice daily, a sacrifice far superior to that of Jerusalem, can only be pleasing to God through perfect and perpetual chastity.

According to Wikipedia: “The Directa… became the first of a series of documents published by the Magisterium that claimed apostolic origin for clerical celibacy and reminded ministers of the altar of the perpetual continence required of them. It is known that the First Ecumenical Council which took place at Nicaea included in its legislation a discipline of the priesthood known as clerical ‘continence’ or celibacy. This was the requirement of all priests and bishops to refrain from sexual contact with their wives or with any other woman. Thus, for a married man to become a priest, his wife had to agree to abstain from all sexual relations. This discipline added to the legislation of various councils, particularly the Council of Elvira, the date of which cannot be determined with precision, but believed to have been in the first quarter of the fourth century, in Spain.”

In the Cum in unum decretal, sent to the different ecclesiastical provinces in 386, Pope St. Siricius refers to the various Pauline texts (cf. Tit 1:15; 1 Tim 3:2; 1 Cor 7:7; Rom 8:8-9) as the scriptural foundation for the Church’s teaching on ecclesiastical celibacy, and in doing so gives an authoritative interpretation of the Pauline phrase, unius uxoris vir, or unius uxoris virum “a husband of one wife” found in 1 Timothy 3:2. Besides, Pope St. Siricius himself later presented the norms of this text at the Council of Rome of A.D. 386. If Timothy and Titus are to choose bishops, priests or deacons among “men married once only”, this does not mean that after ordination they can continue with their conjugal life.

Here the Pope first formulated an objection that the expression unius uxoris vir of 1 Timothy 3:2, some said, specifically guaranteed the bishop the right to use marriage after sacred ordination. Pope St. Siricius answered by giving the stipulation’s correct interpretation: “He (Paul) was not speaking of a man who might persist in the desire to beget children (non permanentem in desiderio generandi dixit); he was speaking about continence which they had to observe in future (propter continentiam futuram).” It is thus interpreted as a requirement to guarantee the future continence that the candidate for orders will be asked to practice. In other words, a man who had remarried after his first wife died could not be considered as a candidate for ordination, since the fact of his remarriage would indicate an inability to live the life of perpetual continence required of clerics in major orders. This fundamental text was repeated a number of times subsequently. For the decretal Cum in unum of Pope Siricius, cf. Ep. V. c. 9 (PL 13, 1161 A); it is also found in the African Council of Theleptis (A.D. 418): Conc. Thelense (CCL 149, 62): French trans.: Cochini, op. cit., p. 32; see also the two letters of Pope St. Innocent I (A.D. 404-405) to the bishops Victricius of Rouen and Exuperius of Toulouse: Ep. II, (PL 20, 476 A. 497 B; Cochini, op. cit., pp. 284-286). Africa, Spain and the Gauls thus take direction as indicated by the Popes.

The legislation of Pope St. Siricius in 385 and 386, and the canons of the Council of Carthage (390), claim apostolic origin for the lex continentiae (law of continence). It is worth noting that these are not the claims of mere individuals but are the view of those who carried hierarchical responsibility in the Church. In Carthage it was the unanimous view of the whole African episcopate which declared “ut quod apostoli docuerunt, et ipsa servavit antiquitas nos quoque custodiamus” (what the Apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us also endeavour to keep). In Rome Pope St. Siricius was conscious of placing himself in the line of the same living tradition with his predecessors as bishops of the See of St. Peter.

The Fathers and Early Writers of the Church confirms that priests must be completely chaste

The Fathers of the Church also insisted that clerics remain chaste. Theologically, in the first four centuries of the Church’s history, the validation of clerical continence is grounded on the Pauline teaching, linking it to the perpetual availability for service at the altar and a greater freedom for prayer. Being permanently in God’s presence, and because of the importance given to prayer, praise and adoration, the minister of the New Covenant ought not to care for the things of the world nor have the leisure needed to fulfill the responsibilities of married life.

In his treatise, On the Duties of the Clergy (c. 391), St. Ambrose of Milan (340-397) vehemently rejected the idea that married clerics should be allowed to have conjugal relations just because the priests of the Old Testament did. To the married clergy who, “in some out-of-the-way places”, claimed, on the model of the Old Testament priesthood, the right to father children, he recalled that in Old Testament times even lay people were obliged to observe continence on the days leading to a sacrifice, and commented: “If such regard was paid in what was only the figure, how much ought it to be shown in the reality!” (De officiis ministrorum or On the Duties of the Clergy, I, 258). Yet more sternly he wrote: “He [Saint Paul] spoke of one who has children, not of one who begets children.” “habentem filios dixit, non facientem” (St. Ambrose, Epistle LXIII, 62; Ep. extra coll).

One can clearly see in the writings of St. Ambrose that the requirement that priests, whether married or celibate, should be continent was the established law of the Church. Priests “should live in a state of perpetual continence” since they served at the altar all their lives. Ambrose admonished his priests to “continue in a ministry which is unhampered and spotless, one which should not be profaned by conjugal intercourse.” (On the Duties of the Clergy, I, 50)

The Didascalia Apostolorum, written in Greek in the first half of the 3rd century, mentions the requirements of chastity on the part of both the bishop and his wife, as well as the requirement that he brings up his children in the fear of God, when it quotes 1 Timothy 3:2-4 as requiring that, before someone is ordained a bishop, enquiry be made “whether he be chaste, and whether his wife also be a believer and chaste; and whether he has brought up his children in the fear of God”.

The specific tradition of the Church also confirms that the Apostles lived in this way. St. Clement of Alexandria (150-215) who thus lived very near in time to the Apostles, taught that the Apostles, after their calling by Our Lord to the ministry, took their wives with them not as women with whom they had marriage relations, but as sisters in purity and honesty: “But the latter [the Apostles], in accordance with their particular ministry, devoted themselves to preaching without any distraction, and took their wives with them not as women with whom they had marriage relations, but as sisters, that they might be their fellow-ministers in dealing with housewives. It was through them that the Lord’s teaching penetrated also the women’s quarters without any scandal being aroused.” (The Stromata or Miscellanies, Book III, Chapter VI, Section 71)

When we come to the question of what was the practice of Our Lord Jesus Christ’s first followers in this matter of clerical chastity, there would likewise be but little if any reasonable doubt. For while of the Apostles we have it recorded only of Peter that he was a married man, we have it also expressly recorded that in his case, as in that of all the rest who had “forsaken all” to follow Our Lord, the Lord himself said, “Every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake shall receive an hundred fold and shall inherit eternal life.” (Matt. 19:29; Lk. 18:29) Mark 10:29 records the same incident, but while “wife” is mentioned among the things “left,” no “wife” is found among the things gained.

St. Jerome, referred in Against Jovinianus to marriage prohibition for priests when he argued that Peter and the other apostles had been married, but had married before they were called and subsequently gave up their marital relations (Aduersus Jovinianum I, 7. 26 (PL 23, 230C; 256C).

There can be no doubt that St. Paul in his epistles allows and even contemplates the probability that those admitted to the ranks of the clergy will have been already married, but distinctly says that they must have been the “husband of one wife,” (1 Tim. 3:2 and 12; Titus i., 6) by which all antiquity and every commentator of gravity recognizes that digamists (more than once married) are cut off from the possibility of ordination, but there is nothing to imply that the marital connexion was to be continued after ordination. For a thorough treatment of this whole subject from the ancient and Patristic point of view, the reader is referred to St. Jerome. (Cf. Hieron, Adv. Jovin. Lib. I. Confer also the In Apolog. pro libris Adv. Jovin.) We will be quoting only a few passages from St. Jerome further down.

Commenting on the “husband of one wife” clause, Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-340) writes: “It is fitting, according to Scripture, ‘that a bishop be the husband of an only wife.’ But this being understood, it behooves consecrated men, and those who are at the service of God’s cult, to abstain thereafter from conjugal relations with their wives.” (Demonstratio Evangelica, I, 9)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 313-386), in his Catechetical Lectures XII:25, writes: “For it became Him who is most pure, and a teacher of purity, to have come forth from a pure bride-chamber. For if he who well fulfils the office of a priest of Jesus abstains from a wife, how should Jesus Himself be born of man and woman? "For thou," says He in the Psalms, "art He that took Me out of the womb" (Psalm 22:9; 21:10). Mark that carefully, He that took Me out of the womb, signifying that He was begotten without man, being taken from a virgin’s womb and flesh. For the manner is different with those who are begotten according to the course of marriage.”

Several popes of the patristic era also issued decrees upholding clerical continence. Pope St. Siricius (384-99), who wrote the earliest extant papal legislation on this matter, insisted that bishops, priests, and deacons must practice perpetual rather than periodic continence since they must be ready to say the liturgy or perform the sacraments at any time. He affirmed that continence had an eschatological dimension, “pointing to the completion of the kingdom, to a time when marriage will be no more.” Similarly, Pope Leo I (440-61) upheld the rule that married clerics observe continence after ordination while Pope St. Gregory I (590-604) prohibited bishops from ordaining subdeacons who would not vow to live in perpetual chastity. The decrees of these popes show two things. The first is that clerical continence, or celibacy defined in its broad sense, was the law and practice of the universal Church and was not just a law of some of the local churches. The second is that some clerics were not obeying the law. Even at this early time in the Church’s history, it was becoming apparent that clerical continency was of apostolic origin.

St. Epiphanius of Salamis (c. 315-403), born in Palestine and consecrated bishop of Constantia in Cyprus, condemns all forms of encratism (the "Encratites", which means the "self-controlled", were an ascetic 2nd century sect who forbade marriage and counseled abstinence from meat) but the Saint nonetheless insists that priests themselves are required to live continently, as regulated by the apostles. Priestly continence is observed, he maintains, wherever the ecclesiastical canons are adhered to, human weakness and the shortage of vocations being inadequate reasons for clergy to contravene the law of the Church.

St. Epiphanius, the monk-bishop well known for his “zeal for the monastic life” and who had close ties with the Church of Rome, was thus in agreement with the other Fathers who promoted priestly continency for clerics, including subdeacons: “Holy Church respects the dignity of the priesthood to such a point that she does not admit to the deaconate, the priesthood or the episcopate, nor even to the subdeaconate, anyone still living in marriage and begetting children. She accepts only him who if married gives up his wife or has lost her by death, especially in those places where the ecclesiastical canons are strictly attended to.” (Panarion, 59, 4; cf. The Catholic Encyclopedia, "Celibacy of the Clergy", Vol. 3, 1908). St. Epiphanius, Father of the Church, further wrote: “It is the Apostles themselves who decreed this law [of celibacy].” (Panarion, 48, 9; cf. The Catholic Encyclopedia, "Celibacy of the Clergy", Vol. 3, 1908)

Similar evidence of the existence in the 4th-century East, as in the West, of a law of clerical continence that was considered to be canonical is found in Epiphanius’ Expositio Fidei, 21.

In Against Vigilantius (406), St. Jerome condemned bishops who refused to ordain unmarried men as deacons, pointing out that this contradicted the practice of the churches of Egypt and Rome, which ordained only unmarried men or married men who had taken a vow of continence:

“What would the Eastern Churches do? What would (those of) Egypt and the Apostolic See do, they who never accept clerics unless they are virgins or continent men, or if they had had a wife, (accept them only) if they give up matrimonial life...” (Adversus Vigilantium, 2)

He also said:

“What do the churches of Egypt and the Orient do? They choose clerics who are virgins or continent; and if they have a wife, they cease to be husbands.” (Adversus Vigilantium, 2)

St. Jerome states a well-known fact: a married man was not ordained unless the two spouses had mutually consented to a life of perpetual continence.

Similarly, in Against Jovianius (393) he upheld the superior dignity of celibacy and virginity. Here he argued that allowing clerics to have conjugal relations would mean that marriage was on par with virginity, but since the latter was clearly superior, it could not be lawful for priests to touch their wives:

“Nor did they lay down rules for continence, nor hint at virginity, nor urge to fasting, nor repeat the directions given in the Gospel to the Apostles, not to have two tunics, nor scrip, nor money in their girdles, nor staff in their hand, nor shoes on their feet. And they certainly did not bid them, [Matthew 19:21] if they wished to be perfect, go and sell all that they had and give to the poor, and "come follow me." For if the young man who boasted of having done all that the law enjoins, when he heard this went away sorrowful, because he had great possessions, and the Pharisees derided an utterance such as this from our Lord’s lips: how much more would the vast multitude of Gentiles, whose highest virtue consisted in not plundering another’s goods, have repudiated the obligation of perpetual chastity and continence, when they were told in the letter to keep themselves from idols, and from fornication, seeing that fornication was heard of among them, and such fornication as was not "even among the Gentiles." But the very choice of a bishop makes for me. For he does not say: Let a bishop be chosen who marries one wife and begets children; but who marries one wife, and has his children in subjection and well disciplined. You surely admit that he is no bishop who during his episcopate begets children. The reverse is the case— if he be discovered, he will not be bound by the ordinary obligations of a husband, but will be condemned as an adulterer. Either permit priests to perform the work of marriage with the result that virginity and marriage are on a par: or if it is unlawful for priests to touch their wives, they are so far holy in that they imitate virgin chastity. But something more follows. A layman, or any believer, cannot pray unless he abstain from sexual intercourse. Now a priest must always offer sacrifices for the people: he must therefore always pray. And if he must always pray, he must always be released from the duties of marriage. For even under the old law they who used to offer sacrifices for the people not only remained in their houses, but purified themselves for the occasion by separating from their wives, nor would they drink wine or strong drink which are wont to stimulate lust. That married men are elected to the priesthood, I do not deny: the number of virgins is not so great as that of the priests required. Does it follow that because all the strongest men are chosen for the army, weaker men should not be taken as well? All cannot be strong.” (St. Jerome, Against Jovinianus, Book I, Section 34, A.D. 393)

In his Letter to Pammachius, Ep. 48.10 (c. 393), St. Jerome further wrote: “A mother before she was wedded, she remained a virgin after bearing her son. 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 bishops, priests, and deacons are either virgins or widowers; or at least when once they have received the priesthood, are vowed to perpetual chastity. Why do we delude ourselves and feel vexed if while we are continually straining after sexual indulgence, we find the palm of chastity denied to us? We wish to fare sumptuously, and to enjoy the embraces of our wives, yet at the same time we desire to reign with Christ among virgins and widows. Shall there be but one reward, then, for hunger and for excess, for filth and for finery, for sackcloth and for silk? Lazarus (Luke 16:19-25), in his lifetime, received evil things, and the rich man, clothed in purple, fat and sleek, while he lived enjoyed the good things of the flesh but, now that they are dead, they occupy different positions. Misery has given place to satisfaction, and satisfaction to misery. And it rests with us whether we will follow Lazarus or the rich man.” (The Letters of St. Jerome, Letter 48, To Pammachius, Section 21)

St. Jerome, one of the Four Great Western Doctors of the Church, also testified: “Priests and deacons must be either virgins or widowers before being ordained, or at least observe perpetual continence after their ordination... If married men find this difficult to endure, they should not turn against me, but rather against Holy Writ and the entire ecclesiastical order.”

St. Jerome, To Pammachius (c. 393 A.D.): “See my express declaration that marriage is allowed in the Gospel, yet that those who are married cannot receive the rewards of chastity so long as they render their due one to another. If married men feel indignant at this statement, let them vent their anger not on me but on the Holy Scriptures; nay, more, upon all bishops, presbyters, and deacons, and the whole company of priests and levites, who know that they cannot offer sacrifices if they fulfill the obligations of marriage.” (The Letters of St. Jerome, Letter 48, To Pammachius, Section 10)

So, while some priests did break their vow of celibacy the Church never approved of that. It was considered a disgrace for a man that was married before he became a priest to beget children with his wife after ordination.

Also consider that all of the most important figures in the church were celibate, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, John the Baptist, (Peter after his ordination) Paul, and the rest of the Apostles in accordance to the Tradition of the Church, etc.

Pope St. Innocent I (401-417 A.D.) wrote in the same vein: “This is not a matter of imposing upon the clergy new and arbitrary obligations, but rather of reminding them of those which the tradition of the Apostles and the Fathers has transmitted to us.”

St. John Chrysostom (c. 347-407), adds: “If then "he who is married cares for the things of the world" [1 Corinthians 7:33], and a Bishop ought not to care for the things of the world, why does he say the husband of one wife? Some indeed think that he says this with reference to one who remains free from a wife. But if otherwise, he that has a wife may be as though he had none [1 Corinthians 7:29]. For that liberty was then properly granted, as suited to the nature of the circumstances then existing. … "Having his children in subjection with all gravity" [1 Timothy 3:4]. This is necessary, that an example might be exhibited in his own house. For who would believe that he who had not his own son in subjection, would keep a stranger under command? "One that rules well his own house" [Ibid]. Even those who are without say this, that he who is a good manager of a house will be a good statesman. For the Church is, as it were, a small household, and as in a house there are children and wife and domestics, and the man has rule over them all; just so in the Church there are women, children, servants. And if he that presides in the Church has partners in his power, so has the man a partner, that is, his wife. Ought the Church to provide for her widows and virgins? So there are in a family servants, and daughters, to be provided for. And, in fact, it is easier to rule the house; therefore he asks, "if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the Church of God?" [1 Timothy 3:5]” (Homily X on First Timothy, 1 Timothy 3:1-7)

St. Augustine participated in the Council of Carthage (419) where the general obligation to continence for major clerics had been repeatedly affirmed and traced back to the apostles and to a constant tradition. In his treatise De conjugiis adulterinis (396) he asserted that even married men who were unexpectedly called to enter the ranks of the major clergy, and were ordained, were obliged to continence. In this they became an example to those laymen who had to live separated from their wives and who therefore were more liable to be tempted to commit adultery (no. 2, 22: PL, 40, 486).

Synesius, Bishop of Ptolemais (died c. 414), of the Libyan Church, knew that he is expected to live in continence with his wife if made a priest-bishop (Epistle 105 ca. 410) (he was still a layman at the time of his ordination), and Palladius the historian reports that a synod presided over by St. John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople in the year 400, condemned Antoninus, Bishop of Ephesus, for doing what was forbidden by the ‘holy laws’ including resuming common life with his wife: “after separating from his married wife, he had taken her again” (The Dialogue of Palladius concerning the Life of St. John Chrysostom, chapter XIII). In his note on this phrase, the translator Herbert Moore says: “According to the ‘Apostolic Canons’, only the lower orders of clergy were allowed to marry after their appointment to office; the Council in Trullo ordered that a bishop’s wife should retire to a convent, or become a deaconess; that of Caesarea, that if a priest marries after ordination he must be degraded. For Antoninus to resume relations with his wife was equivalent to marriage after ordination. It was proposed at the Council of Nicaea that married clergy should be compelled to separate from their wives... though it was generally held that the relations of bishops with their wives should be those of brother and sister.”

Church laws and writings of this era not only affirm the requirement of clerical continence, even if it was not always followed in practice, they also reflect a sophisticated theology of the priesthood. Ritual purity requires only periodic abstinence, which was sufficient for the priests of the Old Testament, who offered animals in sacrifice to God. However, since the priests of the New Testament offer the Holy Victim, Jesus Christ, in sacrifice to the Father, they are, as St. Ambrose pointed out, called to a more radical and perfect purity than that of their Hebrew predecessors. Furthermore, the holiness of the clerical office demanded absolute purity. Their daily ministry included not only the Mass, which was offered every day in many places, but also the administration of the sacraments and the practice of praying constantly on behalf of the Church. Finally, celibacy gave an eschatological dimension to the priesthood, pointing to the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Tertullian at the beginning of the third century, reminds the clergy that monogamy (marriage with only one person at a time) is not only the teaching of the Church but also a precept of the Apostle (Ad uxorem, 1, 7, 4 (CCL 1, 381)). It thus dates back to apostolic times. Furthermore, he insists on the fact that, in the Church, not a few believers are not married, that they live in continence and that some of them belong to ‘ecclesiastical orders’ (De exhort. cast., 13, 4 (CCL 2, 1035)). Now, the men and women who live like this, Tertullian goes on, “have preferred to marry God” (Deo nubere maluerunt); (Ibid., cf Ad uxorem, 1, 4, 4).

While Tertullian commented with admiration upon the number of those in sacred orders who have embraced continence, Origen seems to contrast the spiritual offspring of the priests of the New Law with the natural offspring begotten in wedlock by the priests of the Old (In Levit. Hom. vi, no. 6).

Other testimonies to be taken into special account include Origen (d. ca. 253) (23rd homily on Numbers, 6th homily on Leviticus), Ephraem Syrus (Carmina Nisibena, 18 and 19 (ca. 363)), and the Syriac Doctrina Addei (ca. 400).

Origin (c. 185-254), Homily 23 on Numbers 28:1-29:39, 3:1-2: “Since therefore we have the laws for feasts in hand and the present words concerns this subject, let us diligently investigate the order of the feasts in order to be able to conclude from these orders and from the rite of sacrifices how each one can prepare a feast for God by his own actions and by his holy manner of life. Well, the first feast of God is the one called "perpetual." (cf. Num 28:6) For a command is given concerning these morning and evening sacrifices, which are offered perpetually and without any interruption whatsoever. Thus, when he commands the rites of the feasts, he does not come first of all and immediately to the Passover feast, nor to the feast of Unleavened Bread, nor to that of Tabernacles, nor to the others about which commandments are given; but he has recorded this one first, in which he commands a perpetual sacrifice to be offered. The reason for this is so that each one who wants to be perfect and holy may know that it is not merely now and then that one must celebrate a feast for God, but at other times, there is no need to celebrate a feast. On the contrary, always and perpetually the just person should celebrate the feast day. For the sacrifice that is commanded to be offered perpetually, both in the morning and in the evening, indicates this, that in the law and the prophets, which point to the morning time, and in the teaching of the gospel, which points to the evening time, that is, to the evening of the world, it points to the coming of the Savior, it persists with a perpetual intention. So it is of these kinds of feasts that the Lord says: "And you will observe my feast days." Thus it is a feast day of the Lord, if we offer him a sacrifice perpetually, if "we pray without intermission," (1 Thess 5:17) so that "our prayer may ascend like incense in his sight in the morning, and the lifting up of our hands may become an evening sacrifice to him." (Ps 141:2) So this is the first celebration of a perpetual sacrifice, which must be fulfilled by worshipers of the gospel in this manner that we have explained above.

“… I fear to say something that is given to be understood based on the apostolic sayings, least I seem to cause grief in some people. For if "the prayer of the just is offered like incense in the sight of God, and the lifting up of hands is his evening sacrifice," (cf. Ps 141:1-2) but the apostle says to those who are married: "Do not deprive one another, except by consent for a time, that you may be free for prayer, and again be unto this very thing," (1 Cor 7:5) it is certain that the perpetual sacrifice is impeded in those who serve conjugal needs. This is why it seems to me that the offering of a perpetual sacrifice [such as in the priesthood and the religious life] belongs to that one alone who has pledged himself to perpetual and continual chastity.”

Origin, Homily 6 on Leviticus, 2-3: “But let us see, perhaps, since we said in the preceding this kind of clothing (Lev 6:10-11; 16:4) was seen as a sign of chastity, where they seem either to cover the tights or to restrain the kidneys and loins (Eph 6:14), I say, perhaps, not always in those, who then [in the Old Law] were priests, does it say these parts are restrained. For sometimes concessions were granted concerning the posterity of the race and the succession of offspring. But I would not introduce such an understanding for the priests of the Church [in the New Law], for I see something else suggested in the mystery.

“For in the Church, the priests and teachers can beget sons [in a spiritual sense], just as that one [St. Paul] who said, "My little children, for whom I am again in travail until Christ is formed in you." (Gal 4:19) And again in another place he says, "Although you have myriad teachers in Christ, but not many fathers. For I begat you in Christ Jesus for the gospel." (1 Cor 4:15) Therefore, these teachers of the Church, in procreating such generations, sometimes use the binding of the thighs and abstain from begetting [spiritual] generations, since they find such hearers in whom they know they could not have fruit [by their preaching]. Finally, also in the Acts of the Apostles, it is related concerning some of these that "we could not speak the word of God in Asia." (cf. Acts 16:6) That is, they had put on the tight covering and preserved themselves that they not beget sons, for certainly these were such hearers in whom both the seed would die and could not have offspring. Thus therefore, the priests of the Church, when they see incapable ears or when they encounter counterfeit hypocritical hearers, let them put on "the apron," let them use "the thigh covering," (cf. Exod 28:42)...”

St. Ephrem the Syrian (c. 306-373), The Nisibene Hymns, Hymn XVIII: “1. O thou who art made priest after thy master, the illustrious after the excellent, the chaste after the grave, the watchful after the abstinent, thy master from thee has not departed; in the living we see the deceased: for lo! in thee is his likeness painted; and impressed upon thee are his footprints, and all of him shines from all of thee. R., Blessed be He Who in His stead has given us thee!

“2. The fruit wherein its tree is painted, bears witness concerning the root. Hitherto there has not failed us, the savour of his sweetness. His words thou showest forth in bodily act, for thou hast fulfilled them in deed. In thy conversation is painted his doctrine, in thy conduct his exposition, in thy fulfilment his interpretation. R., Blessed be He Who has made thy lustre to excel!

“… 12. That he should purge his mind, and cleanse also his tongue; that he should purify his hands, and make his whole body to shine; this is too little for the priest and his title, who offers the Living Body. Let him cleanse all himself at all hours; for he stands as mediator, between God and mankind. R., Blessed be He Who has cleansed His ministers!

St. Ephrem the Syrian, The Nisibene Hymns, Hymn XIX: “1. Thou who answerest to the name of Abraham, in that Thou art made father of many; but because to Thee none is spouse, as Sarah was to Abraham,—lo! Thy flock is Thy spouse; bring up her sons in Thy truth; spiritual children may they be to Thee, and the sons be sons of promise, that they may become heirs in Eden. R., Blessed be He Who foreshowed Thee in Abraham!

“2. Fair fruit of chastity, in whom the priesthood was well pleased, youngest among Thy brethren as was the son of Jesse; the horn overflowed and anointed Thee, the hand alighted and chose Thee, the Church desired and loved Thee; the pure altar is for Thy ministry, the great throne for Thy honour, and all as one for Thy crown. R., Blessed be He Who multiplied Thy crowning!

“3. Lo! thy flock, O blessed one, arise and visit it, O diligent one! Jacob ranged the flocks in order; range Thou the sheep that have speech, and enlighten the virgin-youths in purity, and the virgin-maids in chastity; raise up priests in honour, rulers in meekness, and a people in righteousness. R. Blessed be He Who filled Thee with understanding!

“… 13. Hearken to the Apostle when he saith, to that virgin whom he had espoused; I am jealous over you with jealousy, with a jealousy verily of God, not of the flesh but of the spirit. Be jealous therewith thou also in pureness, that He may know what she is and whose she is. In thee may she cherish, and in thee may she love, Jesus the Bridegroom in truth. R., Blessed is he whose zeal is holy!

“14. As are her masters, so are her manners: for with the teacher that lags a laggard is she, and with him that is noble, excellent is she. The Church is like unto a mirror, for according to the face that gazes into it, thus does it put on the likeness thereof. For as is the king so also his host, and as is the priest so also his flock; according as these are it is stamped on them. R., Blessed be He Who stamped her in His likeness!

“15. Without a testament they departed, those three illustrious priests; who in Testaments used to meditate, those two Testaments of God. Great gain have they bequeathed to us, even this example of poverty. They who possessed nothing the blessed ones, made us their possessions; the Church was their treasure. R., Blessed is he who possessed in them his possessions!

In the East, this tradition of exalting virginity over marriage was exemplified by St. John Chrysostom: “Marriage was not instituted for wantonness or fornication, but for chastity.” He also said: “




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