That virginity is good I do agree. But that it is even better than marriage, this I do confess. And if you wish, I will add that it is as much better than marriage as Heaven is better than Earth, as much better as angels are better than men.” (The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. 2: 1116)
In this context of exalting chastity, St. Athanasius the Great in his Apologia ad Constantium 33 (c. 357) writes: “The Son of God, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, having become man for our sakes, and having destroyed death, and delivered our race from the bondage of corruption, in addition to all His other benefits bestowed this also upon us, that we should possess upon earth, in the state of virginity, a picture of the holiness of Angels. Accordingly such as have attained this virtue, the Catholic Church has been accustomed to call the brides of Christ. And the heathen who see them express their admiration of them as the temples of the Word. For indeed this holy and heavenly profession is nowhere established, but only among us Christians, and it is a very strong argument that with us is to be found the genuine and true religion.”
Tertullian, speaking of women who, instead of choosing a husband, have preferred a virginal life: “They prefer to be wedded to God. To God their beauty, to God their youth (is dedicated). With Him they live; with Him they converse; Him they "handle" by day and by night; to the Lord they assign their prayers as dowries; from Him, as oft as they desire it, they receive His approbation as dotal gifts. Thus they have laid hold for themselves of an eternal gift of the Lord; and while on earth, by abstaining from marriage, are already counted as belonging to the angelic family.” (CCL 1, 377; Ad uxorem, 1, 4); and speaking about virgins, he says that they are “brides of Christ” (De virg. vel., 16, 4: “Nupsisti enim Christo, illi tradidisti carnem tuam, illi sponsasti maturitatem tuam,” (CCL 2, 1225); De res., 61, 6: “virgines Christi maritae” (CCL 2, 1010).
The reforms of the Middle Ages
Although it has already been proven that absolute and perpetual priestly chastity is a biblical, apostolic and patristic teaching that cannot be denied by any Christian, the Catholic Church from the time of Christ had to confirm this teaching from time to time since impure factions of heretics or fallen away Catholics tried to reject or neglect this teaching in order to live out their unlawful lusts.
From the fifth century through the eleventh century, the Catholic Church firmly held to its law that all clerics in major orders were to observe perfect continence after ordination. In fact, over the course of these centuries, the Church actually increased its restrictions on married clerics. In 567, the Second Council of Tours ruled that any priest found in bed with his wife would be excommunicated for a year, and reduced to the lay state. In 653 the Council of Toledo prohibited clerics from having any type of public relationship with their wives or concubines. When the Frankish Church held its first reform synod in 743, it forbade any priest or deacon to live in the same house with any woman, including his wife. The Irish Penitentials of the sixth century, which were one of the earliest collections of disciplinary norms on clerical life of the middle ages or the medieval period, imposed strict penalties upon clerics who committed fornication or who engaged in conjugal activity after ordination. Similar ordinances for Anglo-Saxon lands could be found in penitential books of the eighth century. Bishop Chrodegang of Metz (d. 766) issued the Regula canonicorum, which required that his cathedral clergy, or canons, live in a community governed by a rule similar to those of religious orders. This practice, which was eventually adopted by many other dioceses, provided a practical alternative to the existing custom of allowing married clerics to live with their wives, making it easier for priests to live celibately.
It is therefore true to say that, during those centuries of crisis for clerical morals, the Church never lost sight of the ancient tradition concerning the law of celibacy. From her memory she constantly affirmed the prohibition of marriage for clerics in major orders and the duty of a vow of perpetual continence for those married before ordination, even at times when these laws were being flagrantly violated. Apart from evidence in the collections of disciplinary norms, this commitment is also attested to by the efforts of regional councils and diocesan synods. In France, for example, the Council of Metz (888) forbade priests to keep a woman in their homes; the Council of Rheims (909), noting the decadence in clerical conduct as regards continence, urged that association with women should be forbidden, and also cohabitation with them, both norms being related to the precept of continence. In Germany, the Council of Mainz (888) recalled that the prohibition on cohabitation with women prohibited cohabitation even with a wife living in continence whom the cleric had previously married, that is, it confirmed the prohibition of canon 3 of the Council of Nicea (325); the Council of Rheims (909), noting the decadence in clerical conduct as regards continence, urged that association with women should be forbidden, and also cohabitation with them, both norms being related to the precept of continence. This tendency was taken up by the 11th-century Gregorian Reform, which aimed at eliminating what it called “Nicolaitism” (the widespread violation of clerical celibacy and the practice of priests being married or having a mistress or concubine). It was one of the twin evils to be overthrown in the eyes of the reform movement of 11th century Rome, inspired by Pope St. Gregory VII. (The second evil practice was simony.)
In 893, the ‘Statutes of Riculph, Archbishop of Soissons and his bishops’ state: “Neither bishop, priest, deacon, nor any cleric shall have a woman in his house...” Indeed, during the following centuries, the decrees of the Catholic Church on this matter maintained the biblical and apostolic teaching of clerical celibacy when compared to other “Churches” who tried to reject or ignore this teaching of the Church. In some dioceses, men could not receive Orders unless they made a formal vow of perfect chastity first. In the late ninth and early tenth centuries, several councils prohibited clerics from living with any women, including their wives.
Sadly, in the Middle Ages, abuses of clerical celibacy arose, which incited a strong reaction from the Church. The Synod of Augsburg (952), and the local Councils of Anse (994) and Poitiers (1000) all affirmed the rule of celibacy. In 1009, the Church Council of Egham in England cautioned: “We beg and admonish all ministers of God, especially priests, to cultivate chastity... They must surely know that a priest must not have a wife...”
The Council of Pavia (1022), which was convened by Pope Benedict VIII and St. Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor, mandated strict celibacy, banning clerical marriage and forbidding clergy to live with any women, including their wives. Clerics refusing to separate from their wives, including bishops, were to be laicized (to be deprived of their clerical ministry, although they remain ordained priests forever). The Council of Burgess (1031) ordered the wives of clerics to leave the towns where their clerichusbands lived. They also struck a blow against the hereditary priesthood by declaring that any children fathered after ordination were illegitimate and, therefore, ineligible to receive Orders. During the pontificate of Pope St. Leo IX (1049-54), synods in Rome and Mainz banned clerical marriage. Pope Victor II (1055-1057) continued Leo’s policy and on 4 June 1055 anathematized clerical marriage and unchastity. Pope Nicholas II (1059-61) convened a synod at the Lateran, which ordered the laity not to attend Masses said by priests who were living with their wives or concubines and which ordered the excommunication of clerics who had not yet complied with Leo IX’s directives. More importantly, the synod established the College of Cardinals and vested it with the authority to elect popes. By stripping the Holy Roman Emperor and his nobles of their power to appoint popes, this synod ended the most egregious example of lay investiture and greatly increased the power and authority of the papacy.
Nicholas II also made effective use of his legates, Cardinal Humbert of Silva, Archdeacon St. Hildebrand of Rome, and the indomitable monk, St. Peter Damian, in enforcing the decrees of his councils. Humbert crusaded tirelessly against clerical incontinence or “nicolaitism,” which had been condemned as a heresy in 1059. At the pope’s behest, Damian, who was also the Cardinal of Ostia, wrote several works that praised celibacy and that condemned unchaste clerics and their consorts. St. Hildebrand used his authority as the Archdeacon to reform the clergy of Rome and he also made trips abroad on behalf of the pope. Nicholas held other councils that repeated the decrees of the synod of 1059 and he wrote an encyclical on celibacy.
Nicholas II was succeeded by Alexander II (1061-73), who had to contend with the claims of the anti-pope Honorius II, and who did little to advance his predecessor’s agenda on clerical chastity. When Alexander died, Archdeacon St. Hildebrand was elected pope and took the name Gregory VII (1073-1085). The new bishop of Rome wasted no time in restarting the engine of reform. Although his bitter struggle over lay investiture with Emperor Henry IV took up much of his energy and ultimately resulted in his exile from Rome in 1080, Pope St. Gregory VII effectively combated clerical marriage up until then. He held several synods at the Lateran, including one in 1074, which required all clerics to make a vow of celibacy upon ordination and which prohibited lay people from attending Masses or receiving the sacraments from unchaste clerics. The synod of 1078 put the burden of enforcing clerical chastity upon the bishops, who would be suspended if they tolerated the behavior of unchaste clerics. The pope even enlisted the aid of abbots and nobles in bringing reluctant bishops to heel.
Gregory VII’s motives were threefold. First and foremost, they were moral, since he rightly considered that clerical marriage was adultery. Secondly, they were material – a celibate clergy would not have possessions to pass on to their children and thus property would be inherited by the Church. Thirdly, they were political: a celibate clergy would be subject only to the Pope and would therefore not have dealings with the world.
During the struggle to gain control over the priesthood, Pope St. Gregory VII finally gave his ultimatum in 1074 by declaring that no man could be ordained without first pledging himself to celibacy: “The Church cannot escape from the clutches of the laity unless priests first escape from the clutches of their wives.” (Citing the authority of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:33-34). Thus, if a married clergyman did not separate from his wife, he was to be deposed. After this ultimatum other synods and local councils passed similar legislation. By the year 1080, when St. Gregory VII was forced into exile, strict clerical celibacy was becoming the accepted practice throughout the Catholic Church. In 1089 Pope Urban II (1088-1099) ordered that married priests who ignored the celibacy laws was to be imprisoned for the good of their souls and that all clerics who continued to live with their wives were to be removed from office. If, after being warned by a bishop, clerics did not comply, the pope gave secular rulers permission to make slaves of clerical wives. In 1095, the Council of Piacenza passed a resolution outlawing the marriage of priests. Pope Callistus II (1119-1124) presided over the First Lateran Council which decreed that clerical marriages were invalid, fought simony and concubinage of the clergy, ended the lay investiture crisis, and decreed that it was adultery for bishops to forsake their see for marriage.
These decrees culminated in the reforms of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, which reaffirmed the holy law of clerical celibacy as the undisputed law and practice of the Catholic Church. Although Pope St. Gregory VII (1073-85) is credited with carrying out the reforms that effected this change, the popes and councils who preceded him laid the groundwork of his program, which also included ending the abuses of simony and lay investiture.
Still, the Gregorian programme for reform was not without opposition. The opponents of reform presented their own arguments, not only at the practical but also at the theoretical level. Their main argument was a scriptural one drawn from the Old Testament, which not only allowed priests to marry but mandated marriage to perpetuate the priestly caste. They also drew on the episode of Paphnutius whom, they claimed, opposed the idea of requiring absolute continence from married clerics at the Council of Nicea (325). As for the East, the Greek ecclesiastical historians Socrates (c. 380-439) and Sozomen (c. 400-450), who wrote a century after the event, reported that the First Council of Nicaea considered ordering all married clergy to refrain from conjugal relations, but the Council was dissuaded by Paphnutius of Thebes. As the story goes, he is alleged to have risen during the Council to protest any plan to impose a discipline of total continence on married clerics, suggesting that it be left to the decision of the particular Churches. The argument runs that his advice is supposed to have been accepted by the assembly. The well-known Church historian, Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-340), who was present at the Council and sympathetic to the Arians, does not make any reference to this episode. It is first recorded by the 5th century Greek historian Sozomen. There are several arguments against the authenticity of this episode, but the most telling one is that the Eastern Church itself, which should have had a great interest in it, either did not know of it or, because the Eastern Church leaders were convinced that it was false, did not have a record of it in any official document it used. None of the polemical writers on clerical celibacy made use of it, nor did the Council of Trullo (691) refer to it. And given the polemical tone of Trullo it would have served its purpose well to have referred to it if it was true. The story of Paphnutius was used against the Gregorian reform, and this was why Pope St. Gregory VII, at the Synod of Rome in 1077, condemned the episode as one of the two most important falsifications used by the opponents of the reform (cf. Cholij, Clerical Celibacy in East and West, pp. 78-92, and Stickler, The Case for Clerical Celibacy, pp 62-65). This means that the historical value of the Paphnutius incident at Nicea is rejected by Rome.
Subsequent Later Reforms and the History and Reason Behind the Great Western Schism
St. Peter Damian (1007-1072), Doctor of the Church and cardinal-bishop of the diocese of Ostia, Italy, said that, since the Virgin Mary delivered the infant Jesus, only virgin priests ought to bring Him forth on the Eucharistic altar (Peter Damian, On the Dignity of the Priest). Damian taught that any married priest who had marital intercourse with his wife “became impure and his impurity contaminated every liturgical action he performed, sullied the sacred vessels that he touched, and defiled the sacred words that he spoke.” (Peter Damian, Against the Intemperate Clerics, Chapter 4). While some who refuse to accept the Church’s teaching in this regard might object that St. Peter the Apostle himself was married, (although there is nothing in the Bible or Tradition that says that he performed the marital act after his ordination) Peter Damian affirms St. Jerome’s condemnation of forbidden sexual activity of the clergy, declaring that, “Peter washed away the filth of marriage with the blood of his martyrdom.” (St. Peter Damian, On the Perfection of Bishops)
In truth, Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself tells us in The Revelations of St. Bridget that St. Peter Damian’s teaching is perfectly right in this regard and that the martyrdom of St. Peter and St. Paul was conformed to how they lived and how much they loved their flesh in this life: “Peter and Paul died for the sake of righteousness, although Peter died a more painful death than Paul, for he loved the flesh more than Paul; he also had to be more conformed to me through his painful death since he held the primacy of my church. Paul, however, inasmuch as he had a greater love of continence and because he had worked harder, died by the sword like a noble knight, for I arrange all things according to merit and measure. So, in God’s judgment it is not how people end their lives or their horrible death that leads to their reward or condemnation, but their intention and will.” (Our Lord speaking to St. Bridget, The Revelations of St. Bridget, Book 3, Chapter 19)
Peter Damian showed that married priests betrayed their high calling because “they lived as married men, amid the reek and screams of sniveling brats, side by side with a smirking, randy wife, [and] bedeviled by daily temptations to unclean thoughts, words, and deeds.” (St. Peter Damian, Against the Intemperate Clerics, Chapter 7)
Cardinal Humbert, one of St. Peter Damian’s contemporaries, was Pope St. Leo IX’s apostolic delegate to the Eastern Church in Byzantium (present-day Istanbul). Condemning the Eastern Church for allowing the impurity of a married priesthood, Humbert depicted the Eastern Rite priests in these words: “Young husbands, just now exhausted from carnal lust, serve the altar. And immediately afterward they again embrace their wives with hands that have been hallowed by the immaculate Body of Christ. That is not the mark of true faith, but an invention of Satan.” Because of various reasons (in addition to the impious practice mentioned above by Cardinal Humbert), on 16 July 1054, during the celebration of the liturgy, Humbert excommunicated his host, Eastern Patriarch Michael, by placing a Papal Bull of excommunication of the Patriarch on the high altar of the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia. Michael reciprocated by “excommunicating” Latin Church leaders for permitting “irregularities” such as prohibiting the marriage of priests. The tragic split between the Eastern “Orthodox” Church – which is a sensual, condemned and heretical sect as we have seen from the Bible and Apostolic Tradition – and the Western (and Eastern) Catholic Church, which is the one and only true Christian Faith, dates from that year, and it has never been healed since that time. So because of the Eastern Schismatics’ obstinacy and inordinate love of this fleeting fleshly pleasure, in addition to their other obstinate rejections of various other doctrines of the Catholic Church, they have sadly denied and rejected Christ and the faith in the process.
The reforms of the eleventh century were finalized in the twelfth century by the
Ecumenical and infallible First Lateran Council (1123), which proclaimed that after a cleric was ordained a subdeacon, deacon, or priest, he could not validly marry or live with his wife, and that the marriages of all higher clerics were invalid. The First Lateran Councilwas held during the pontificate of Pope Callistus II, and was “for various important matters of the church”, as Callistus himself says in the letter of convocation. Canon 7 declared: “We absolutely forbid priests, deacons or subdeacons to live with concubines and wives, and to cohabit with other women, except those whom the Council of Nicaea permitted to dwell with them solely on account of necessity, namely a mother, sister, paternal or maternal aunt, or other such persons, about whom no suspicion could justly arise.” Canon 21 declared that any marriages contracted of clerics and the chaste servants of Christ were void: “We absolutely forbid priests, deacons, subdeacons and monks to have concubines or to contract marriages. We adjudge, as the sacred canons have laid down, that marriage contracts between such persons should be made void and the persons ought to undergo penance.”
At the Synod of Clermont in 1130 Pope Innocent II decreed that marital intercourse was incompatible with holy men and their holy actions. The pope said that: “since priests are supposed to be God’s temples, vessels of the Lord and sanctuaries of the Holy Spirit… it offends their dignity to lie in the conjugal bed and live in impurity.”
Repeating the decrees of the First Lateran Council, the Ecumenical Second Lateran Council (1139) decreed in Canon 6: “We also decree that those who in the subdiaconate and higher orders have contracted marriage or have concubines, be deprived of their office and ecclesiastical benefice. For since they should be and be called the temple of God, the vessel of the Lord, the abode of the Holy Spirit, it is unbecoming that they indulge in marriage and in impurities.” Canon 7: “Following in the footsteps of our predecessors, the Roman pontiffs Gregory VII, Urban, and Paschal, we command that no one attend the masses of those who are known to have wives or concubines. But that the law of continence and purity, so pleasing to God, may become more general among persons constituted in sacred orders, we decree that bishops, priests, deacons, subdeacons, canons regular, monks, and professed clerics (conversi) who, transgressing the holy precept, have dared to contract marriage, shall be separated. For a union of this kind which has been contracted in violation of the ecclesiastical law, we do not regard as matrimony. Those who have been separated from each other, shall do penance commensurate with such excesses.”
Thus the infallible decrees of the First and Second Lateran Councils made it clear once and for all—and especially to those contraveners in the Christian world that opposed and still oppose the Apostolic and Biblical teaching of clerical celibacy in the New Testament and in the New Law—that this teaching indeed was true and biblical and that henceforth, all clerics had to remain perfectly chaste if they wished to be spotless and lawful and pure ministers of Our Lord Jesus Christ. While it has already been proved that all deacons, priests and bishops of the Church must live totally and perpetually chaste from the time of their ordination and that this is indeed the teachings of the Bible and the Apostles, from that time onward, the law and practice of the Church concerning strict celibacy was made more firm.
And later legislation, found especially in the Quinque Compilationes Antiquae and the Decretals of Gregory IX, continued to deal with questions concerning married men who were ordained legally. In 1322 Pope John XXII insisted that no one bound in marriage—even if unconsummated—could be ordained unless there was full knowledge of the requirements of Church law. If the free consent of the wife had not been obtained, the husband, even if already ordained, was to be reunited with his wife, exercise of his ministry being barred. Accordingly, the assumption that a wife might not want to give up her marital rights may have been one of the factors contributing to the eventual universal practice in the Latin Church of ordaining only unmarried men.
One further word on the canonical legislation of the Middle Ages. On various occasions, in penitential books, it is said that for a married priest to go on having sexual relations with his wife after ordination would be an act of unfaithfulness to the promise made to God. It would be an adulterium since, the minister now being married to the Church, his relationship with his own wife “is like a violation of the marriage bond” (Stickler, L’évolution... (ut supra), p. 381). This weighty accusation against a lawfully wedded man only makes sense if something is left unexpressed because it is well-known, i.e., that the sacred minister, from the moment of his ordination, now lives in another relationship, also of a matrimonial type — that which unites Christ and the Church in which he, the minister, the man (vir), represents Christ the bridegroom; with his own wife (uxor) therefore “the carnal union should from now on be a spiritual one”, as St. Leo the Great said. (Ep. ad Rusticum Narbonensem episc. Inquis. III: Resp. (PL 54, 1204 A): «ut de carnali fiat spirituale coniugium».)