Often it is held that celibacy does not have a decisive role within the priesthood. It is generally known that the Council in Trullo in 691 introduced the practice of the Eastern Churches that bishops are chosen from amongst the religious, whereas priests can be married, with families, provided that they have been married before ordination. If the wife of an Orthodox priest dies, he must remain a widower, even if he still has small children under his care. This requirement assures that the priest as he stands by the altar must not think about a second marriage, nor is he to be viewed by the faithful as a potential candidate for marriage.  

This discipline is followed today by the Catholic Eastern Churches and also in respect to former Anglican married clergymen, who have become Catholics and have been ordained as Catholic priests. The Catholic Church recognizes the dignity and validity of Eastern-rite married priests. Even though it is difficult to find examples of them among the canonized saints, it is known that in 2001 Pope John Paul II beatified in Lviv three Ukrainian martyr priests, who had been married and had had children after ordination. Celibacy in the Western Church is said to have been introduced only with the Gregorian Reform, that is, in the 11th and 12th centuries. 

Recent historical studies of (primarily of such authors as Cochini,1 Stickler,2 Heid,3 Cholij,4 Winkelmann5) have shown that this common interpretation assigning the introduction of priestly celibacy to such a late date is incorrect. It is of course known that in antiquity priests and bishops were chosen among married men. Some of the apostles were married, some early popes were the sons of previous popes, and it is known that deacons were married. 

Since in antiquity people generally married young, probably around the age of 17, and since there were no minor and major seminaries, when there was a need to appoint a priest or a bishop in a city, he was chosen from among the responsible, mature, married Christian laity. If only a celibate were to be chosen, this would mean that there would have been no candidates available. 

The married priest or bishop, however, — and this has been discovered by recent historical research — was bound from the moment of his ordination to refrain from sexual activity with his wife. In the known cases of renowned Christian figures who were the children of priests, it turns out they were born before their fathers were ordained. According to this logic, the daughter of St. Peter, who supposedly was called Petronilla, was born before Peter was called to be an apostle. 

There is more source material on this ancient discipline from the Christian East than from the West. But, as the centuries proceed, there is more evidence, and the canonical rulings concerning this discipline became more specific. The wife of a priest or bishop was respected as such. The priest or bishop had to support her financially, even when she was sent to a convent. 

From the moment of the ordination, their mutual bond was treated as a brotherly and sisterly relationship. 

In cases of priests who broke the rule and had children with their own wives after ordination, something that the Council of Clermont in 535 described as “an incest of sorts,”6 they were subject to canonical penalties imposed not only upon them but also upon their wives. 

In 390, in Carthage in North Africa, there was a local synod that gave an explanation of this ancient discipline. The synod was attended by only a handful of bishops. Its decision however, was remembered and quoted by many following councils, although the Council of Trullo, which released eastern married priests from the obligation of marital continence, quoted Carthage erroneously and based itself on a claim that a certain Paphnutius, the bishop of Upper Thebes, had defended at the earlier council of Nicaea the marital rights of priests. This information had been given by the Byzantine historian Socrates, who wrote a century after the Council of Nicaea. It is now known, due to the historical research of an East-German Lutheran historian Friedhelm Winkelmann that the story of Paphnutius is apocryphal, and so the Trullo Council erred in its historical judgment. 

At the Synod of Carthage, at the end of the fourth century, Bishop Genethlius declared:  

It is fitting that the holy bishops and priests of God as well as the Levites, i.e., those who are in the service of the divine sacraments, observe perfect continence — continentes esse in omnibus — so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God — quo possint simpliciter quo a Domino postulant impetrare; what the apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us endeavor to keep.  

The bishops then declared unanimously:  

It pleases us all that bishop, priest and deacon, guardians of purity, abstain from [conjugal intercourse] with their wives — etiam ab uxoribus se abstineant —, so that those who serve at the altar may keep a perfect chastity.7  

The requirement that bishops, priests and levites, who serve the divine sacraments be continent, was presented by this Synod not as a novelty, but as an ancient tradition, taught by the apostles, which the Synod declared is to be maintained. From other sources it is known that this discipline did not generate controversies, so it certainly had the backing of a known tradition. Taking these recent historical discoveries into account, which are contrary to the common opinion, Pope Benedict XVI in the Christmas meeting with the Roman Curia on Dec. 22, 2006, said that the tradition of priestly celibacy dates back to times close to the apostolic period. 

The basic motivation for priestly continence that was given by the Synod of Carthage was liturgical. It was noted that in the celebration of the sacraments the continence of the priests is said to have an impact on their prayer, so that they may simpliciter, directly, obtain what they are praying for. The continence of priests is therefore tied with their prayer of intercession, within their sacramental ministry. 

We have here an interpretation of priestly continence that is not sociological, practical, or political (the maintenance of celibate priests is cheaper, and not having families, they are less likely to succumb to political pressures and menaces), but it is viewed through the prism of that which is central in the identity and ministry of the priest — his sacramental ministry, that requires an interior purity for its spiritual fecundity. 

In the writings of the Fathers on this (and the studies of Father Cochini have brought to the fore many Patristic texts on this issue, including those of Pope Siricius, St. Jerome and St. John Chrysostom), there was no denial of the dignity and value of marriage and the transmission of life. In the face of heretics who were denying the role of marriage, the ancient Church defended its dignity and necessity. 

There was no suggestion that sexuality is intrinsically impure as the Manicheans held. Sexuality is a gift of God to be used as such within marriage. Priestly continence was viewed somewhat like the Eucharistic fast. Sexual activity engages not only on the body, but also the psyche, whereas the priest had to be focused directly upon God, so that simpliciter he would obtain from God the granting of his prayers. This does not of course mean that the ancient priest could not rejoice in the affective support of his family and children, who probably were grown up anyway by the time he was ordained. 

The prime attention of the priest however had to be centered directly upon God, and continence was a means for ensuring this. As the sources confirm, the validity of the sacraments celebrated by priests who were unfaithful to the discipline of priestly marital continence was not questioned. The sacraments were valid, but their fecundity requires the pure prayer of the priest. 

This discipline had a justification in biblical teaching. In the Old Testament, the priests did not approach their wives during the time that they were serving at the Temple. The priesthood of the New Covenant requires more. When Peter asked, “‘What about us?. . .We have left everything and followed you. . .’, Jesus said to him, ‘. . . Everyone who has left houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children or land for the sake of my name will be repaid a hundred times over, and also inherit eternal life’” (Mt 19:27-30). 

Or in Luke’s version: “There is no one who has left house, wife, brothers, parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not be given repayment many times over in this world and, in the world to come, eternal life” (Lk 18:28-30). 

Whereas St. Paul’s teaching that the bishop and presbyter “must not have been married more than once” (1 Tm 3:2; Tt 1:6) was interpreted as saying that the candidate must be a man who was a responsible husband and father and not an adulterer, a divorced man or a widower who could not live without a woman and so remarried. There was, therefore, hope that he would remain continent after ordination. 

St. Paul’s suggestion addressed to the laity, “Do not refuse each other except by mutual consent, and then only for an agreed time, to leave yourself free for prayer” (1 Cor 7:5), was compared by St. Jerome with the rule about elders who “must not have been married more than once” (Tt 1:6). He wrote:  

But if laymen are asked to abstain from relations with their wives for the sake of prayer, what should one [then] think of the bishop, of him who must be able to present spotless offerings to God every day, for his own sins and for those of the people?. . .That is why. . .the bishop especially — in a more pronounced way than lay people — must practice the chastity proper to his state, and, so to speak, priestly purity, so that not only will he abstain from impure acts, but his spirit, meant to consecrate the Body of Christ, will be freed from the whims of the eye and wanderings of the mind. . . . Let the bishop also practice abstinence: not only, as some think, with respect to carnal desires and embraces with his wife, but also with respect to all the troubles [that can agitate] the soul.8  

In accord with this logic after the Council of Trullo, which abolished the rule of priestly continence in the Eastern Churches, married priests ceased to celebrate the Eucharist every day. The memory of the role of marital continence in shaping the appropriate disposition for the celebration of the sacraments survived. If the priest had just engaged in sexual activity with his wife, this was deemed as preventing him from the celebration of the Eucharist. 

Christological Motivation for Priestly Celibacy 

Recent historical discoveries brought to light after Vatican II may be of help in the contemporary renewal of the priesthood. They point toward the deepest motivation of priestly celibacy and to the specific nature and quality of sacerdotal prayer. Celibacy required today in the Western Catholic Church (with some exceptions made for married former Anglican or Protestant clergymen, who have been ordained as priests in the Catholic Church) and the marital continence of married priests of antiquity are not an indispensable element of the validity of the priesthood, but they may be described as a discipline having a biblical, apostolic and doctrinal basis. 

A reflection in faith into the deep meaning of this discipline can be of use. The penetration of the mystery of the priesthood and its spiritual fecundity requires a focusing on the truth of faith itself. That truth is not based on the scientific research of historians, but the results of that research can direct that focus. They can with greater clarity bring out the respect of the Church for the mystery of faith, but that truth of faith stands on the revealed mystery alone. (Similarly the teaching of the Councils is not based on human science, historical or exegetical, but on the rule of faith. And so, the discovery that the fathers of particular councils had a limited historical or scientific perspective, does not question the validity of the rule of faith given by them.) 

The teaching of Vatican II and of the post-conciliar magisterium does not bring back the discipline of the ancient Church on priestly continence for those Catholic priests who had been ordained while being married. The dignity and validity of such priests (Eastern and occasionally Western) and of their ministry is not questioned, even if they have fathered children after ordination. Presbyterorum Ordinis, No. 16a, however, declares that continence in view of the kingdom of God is “a special source of spiritual fecundity in the world.” But this continence is “not demanded by the very nature of the priesthood.” 

Exegetical and historical arguments that were brought forward to show this are, as is seen today, of dubious validity, but these are linked only through an “as is apparent,” so they are presented as a manifestation and not as a direct proof. 

Also the present practice of occasionally ordaining married men is a sign of the essential distinction made between the nature of the priesthood and celibacy. That this distinction is made means that celibacy is secondary in respect to the priesthood itself. It is the priesthood of Christ and not the priest’s celibacy that is the prime reference for the intelligibility of the priesthood in the Church. The argumentation, therefore, that is brought forward by Vatican II in favor of celibacy refers not to the nature of priesthood but to the “suitability — convenientia” of celibacy (PO, No. 16b) and its being “so fitting — tam congruum (PO, No. 16c), in view of the identity and mission of the priest. 

This suitability is seen primarily, not from a sociological and pastoral point of view, but from the perspective of the spiritual fecundity of the priests, who are “consecrated to Christ by a new and exceptional reason [and] adhere to him more easily with an undivided heart” (PO, No. 16b). Celibacy is defended therefore primarily with Christological, ecclesiological, eschatological and, only then, pastoral reasons. 

Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (1967) followed the Council’s teaching. He stressed however with greater force the various arguments in favor of celibacy’s suitability for the priesthood and its spiritual fecundity, developing the Christological, ecclesiological, eschatological and pastoral reasons. In No. 24, he recalled the words of Lumen Gentium, No. 42, that celibacy has always been considered “as a symbol of, and stimulus to, charity.” In No. 29, he perceived celibacy as strengthening the sacrificial dimension of the Eucharist, in which the priest, acting in the person of Christ, “unites himself most intimately with the offering, and places on the altar his entire life, which bears the marks of the holocaust.” 

The gift of celibacy entails offering to God “that which is worthy of both the giver and the receiver” (No. 50). The fecundity of the priesthood is viewed through the prism of the priest’s union with Christ in his sacrificial prayer and gift of self, but no suggestion is made that the lack of the specific type of gift of self that is entailed in celibacy would in some way question the priesthood itself. 

John Paul II in his apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis moved slightly forward. While declaring that the discipline of celibacy is a law of the Church, he insisted upon the theological motivation of that law. “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” (PDV, No. 29). There is therefore a “link” between celibacy and priestly ordination. 

The finality of the ordination is said to consist in the configuration of the priest with Christ, the head and spouse of the Church, and celibacy is a forceful way of expressing that configuration. 

Even though, in accord with the Council’s Presbyterorum Ordinis, celibacy is not directly said to enter into the nature of the priesthood, it is presented as rooted in that configuration with Christ, which is essential in the priesthood. It may be concluded that either there is something more than a mere suitability of priestly celibacy here, or the Christological argument is brought to the fore within that suitability, above the other arguments, eschatological, ecclesiological or pastoral. 

All further comments of Pastores Dabo Vobis on celibacy flow from the basic premise of configuration with Christ in the priesthood. The Church wants to be loved by the priest with that same total, exclusive love by which Christ loves the Church. Celibacy is therefore a gift of self to the Church “in and with Christ” (PDV, No. 29). 

Charity, being a supernatural love, the love of God that is infused in the souls of Christians, has to be lived out as directed to Christ first. Only then can that love become “a source, criterion, measure and impetus for the priest’s love and service to the Church” (PDV, No. 23). The salutary efficacy of the priest’s ministry depends upon his greater or lesser human receptivity and participation in the action of Christ himself (PDV, No. 25). 

Celibacy, like virginity, bringing out the primary significance of chastity, which ensures that sexuality is lived out as an authentic manifestation and service to the love of communion and interpersonal gift, is therefore “a singular sharing in God’s fatherhood and in the fruitfulness of the Church” and so also an eschatological witness (PDV, No. 29). Obviously the practical living out of Christ’s love in celibacy, in particular in a social context, in which sexuality is treated as something banal, requires a deep life of prayer, asceticism and the reception of the sacraments (PDV, Nos. 29, 44). 

Benedict XVI in Dec. 22, 2006, meditating on Psalm 16 (15):5 stressed the theocentric and not merely practical motivation of celibacy (that could even be interpreted as a sign of egoism). He concluded his reflection by rejecting the current positivist thinking that reduces God and grace only to the rank of an idea. Celibacy is a sign that the grace of God is real. To offer one’s entire life to God, giving up sexual activity, one must be based on something more serious than just a fleeting idea. 

The Prayer of the Priest 

The grace of God cannot be felt, but it is real, and when it is accepted in faith, it can change a life. In conclusion, therefore it can be noted that the teaching of the recent magisterium of the Church veers toward a definitely theocentric and Christocentric interpretation of celibacy. 

A perception of the significance of celibacy that takes into account the recent discovery of the discipline of priestly continence among married priests of the Patristic period may lead to a deeper reflection on the specific quality of the prayer of the priest and its importance. The Council of Carthage of 390 tied the continence of married clerics with the quality of their priestly prayer. The concern was that their prayer is to be fruitful, so that the priests would directly obtain what they were praying for. 

This discipline, therefore, has to be interpreted in union with the theology of priestly prayer. Sexual activity — not only sinful, extra-marital or pornographic, but also justified marital sexual activity — draws the attention of the emotions and the imagination, making the perseverance and purity of the total gift of self to God in faith and charity difficult, although not impossible. There is therefore a congruity but not an absolute necessity between continence and the priesthood. 

In the love of charity, the two focuses of love, toward God and toward the neighbor have to be in a Chalcedonian relationship — they have to be distinct and unmixed. It is the same supernatural love of charity that extends to God and to the neighbor, in which the neighbor is loved in view of God. Being a friend of God, we befriend all those who are the friends of God, whether in fact, or only potentially, desiring ultimate happiness in God for them all. 

The loving of the friend in view of God is not the same however as loving God directly. If the two focuses of love become mixed, then what is declared to be a love of God can easily become an idolatrous love of concrete individuals, with no direct focus on God. If one falls into the trap of thinking that one loves God above all, or even uniquely by loving people, then a concrete person may become an idol, screening God and preventing the deepening of the friendship of love with God. Celibacy or the continence of the married clergy of antiquity assures the primacy of the love of God within the charity of the priest, which then as a consequence draws with it the loving of people in view of God. 

The ancient discipline requiring continence of married clerics, not being in itself a truth of faith, points to the mystery of the Eucharist and the spiritual fecundity of the prayer of the celebrant. That this prayer of intercession has a spiritual efficacy augmented by the quality of the priest’s prayer, his total gift of self and his generous identification with Christ is a truth of faith, even though this truth, it seems, has not been formulated precisely in the form of a dogmatic statement. 

The ways of expressing the priest’s identification with Christ through the following of the Church’s disciplinary rules that are subject to change are secondary toward the truth of faith itself about the priest’s identification with Christ. There are also other disciplinary rules apart from the ancient rule of continence of married priests and the present rule of celibacy, such as the disciplinary rules concerning Mass stipends offered to priests that also point to the truth of faith about the spiritual efficacy of the priest’s prayer as he celebrates the Eucharist. And these disciplinary rules too are not a truth of faith, but they point to it. They invite priests to be attentive to the quality of their prayer as they celebrate the Eucharist. 

The consecration through celibacy mentioned by Vatican II (PO, No. 16b), the joining through celibacy with the gift laid on the altar mentioned by Paul VI (SC, No. 29), and the link between celibacy and priestly ordination and the priest’s configuration with Christ mentioned by John Paul II (PDV, No. 29) can be elucidated through the distinction made by Aquinas between two types of offerings that he termed oblatio and sacrificium

Oblatio is the generic term meaning a gift offered to God.9 Sacrificium refers to a gift offered to God to which something is done. The animals offered were slain and burnt. The bread is broken, blessed and eaten.10 In the Mass Christ offers himself in an un-bloody manner as a sacrifice to God, and this being reminiscent of the sacrifice of the cross is represented in the separate consecration of the bread into the Body of Christ and the wine into the Blood of Christ that was shed.11 

In reflecting upon priestly celibacy and the marital continence of the priests of antiquity we could maybe, therefore, conclude that the married priest through his personal gift of self and practical charity offers an “oblation” that joins him to Christ’s gift that is made present on the altar, whereas the celibate or married but continent priest who includes in his gift to God the gift of his chaste sexuality offers something more, a “sacrifice” that configures him to Christ’s sacrifice. 

The Eucharist has its principal meaning in respect to the heavenly Father, to whom, through the celebration of the priest, Christ’s sacrifice is offered, and that is why the value of the Eucharist is not restricted to the pastoral needs of the faithful who need to be ministered to.12 The Eucharistic sacrifice, celebrated at times without the faithful, by the priest alone, in which he offers himself together with Christ to the heavenly Father, has a profound sacramental significance. When the priest unites himself with Christ in a total gift of self that includes the gift of his sexuality, his configuration with Christ’s gift of self is deeper. 

When the priest, therefore, hears about celibacy being ridiculed and when he meets with suggestions of a banal misuse of sexuality, he needs to interpret his exclusion of sexual activity, his concern for a pure life, the custody of his emotional sensibility and the assuring that his human contacts would be unequivocal, which are a part and parcel of the identity of Western Catholic priests, not only as a counter-cultural reaction to the hedonistic world around him, nor as a merely pragmatic solution that is conducive to pastoral ministry, or to community life in the case of religious priests, but above all as a way of ensuring a deeper configuration with Christ. 

The identification with the sacrifice of Christ, made present in the Eucharist and strengthened through the personally accepted celibacy, may lead to the recuperation of that fecundity of priestly prayer focused directly on God that the bishops gathered in Carthage had in mind, and to an openness to the spiritual paternity that comes with growth in charity. 

The quality of the priest’s identification with Christ does not have an impact on the validity of the celebrated sacraments, but it does have an impact on their fecundity. And also infidelity in the sexual sphere of celibate priests does not make the sacraments celebrated by them invalid, but it does wound the quality of the priest’s prayerful encounter with God. Whereas the Church urgently needs the full fruitfulness of priestly prayer because it is only by the power of God that flows from the Paschal Mystery and is renewed on the altars that the Church is renewed. 

The celebration of the Eucharist (besides preaching and the leading of the community) is the main task of the pastor. This means the offering of the sacrifice of Christ in the Mass, and this is its prime moment, more important than the social gathering of the faithful. 

When the sacrificial, sacramental dimension of the Mass was shelved in the awareness of the priests and faithful, when the physical causality of the sacraments was forgotten and replaced only by their moral causality,13 the prime stress fell on the catechetical, or social, or sometimes artistic dimension of the liturgy. This shifting of emphases has emptied the Churches. 

If the liturgies are only occasions to meet with the priest and listen to him, or occasions to meet with one another, the point of the liturgy disappears. If either the priest or the community is in the center, very soon the faithful are bored. There are so many other people, who are more intelligent, wittier, more interesting than the priest. There are so many other occasions to enjoy being in a crowd that may be more moving than a liturgy. The watching of a football game in a stadium or the participation in a concert or music festival, as distinct from watching it on TV, or listening to a recording gives a sense of belonging to a mass of people that for many is attractive. Also, it is possible to deepen one’s knowledge, even religious knowledge by reading a book, without necessarily being preached to. 

But in the Eucharistic liturgy, it is neither the crowd nor the teaching offered that are central. The Mass, through the prayer and sacrifice of the priest that ties with the sacrifice of Christ, is a moment of true, sacramental union with God, and this spiritual encounter has an objective supernatural fecundity. Where this moment ceases to be central in the liturgies, in the prayerful awareness of the priests themselves, and as a result in the spiritual experience of the faithful, the liturgies become boring and the churches empty. 

Once the awareness of the priest’s identification with Christ in His paschal mystery that is made present on the Eucharistic altar will become central in the mind and heart of the priest, and then of the faithful, it will become clear that, since the priest is configured through his sacramental ordination with Christ, this bears also on his preaching. He offers therefore not his own teaching, but that which the Church has received from Christ and transmits faithfully ever since the times of the apostles. 

The priest is to be a witness, not to himself but to the power of Christ’s grace, received in faith. This means that there will always be a certain discrepancy between the priest’s own moral life and the teaching that he offers, but this is not a sign of hypocrisy. The honest authenticity of the priest does not require of him that he speaks only when he himself is an ideal example of evangelical morality. 

It requires of him the transmission of the ethos that he has received and his belief that this ethos can be a realistic program of life, not on the basis of the example of the priest, but on the basis of grace that flows from the cross of Christ. The priest has thus no right to reduce his teaching to the level of his own sinfulness. He is to teach the faith in its plenitude, as he has received it, even though he himself is struggling in his weakness to be faithful to the teaching that he transmits. In the face of the salutary truths, just as much as any other individual he is a sinner needing repentance and the healing grace of Christ. TP 


1Christian Cochini, S.J., The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990). 

2Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler, The Case for Clerical Celibacy: Its Historical Development and Theological Foundations, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995). 

3Stefan Heid, Celibacy in the Early Church: The Beginnings of a Discipline of Obligatory Continence for Clerics in East and West, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990) 

4Roman Cholij, Clerical Celibacy in East and West, (Leominster: Fowler Wright, 1988). 

5Friedhelm Winkelmann, “Die Problematik der Enstehung der Paphnutiuslegende,” Studien zu Konstantin dem Grossen und zur byzanitinischen Kirchengeschichte, (Chester, 1993), No. 17. 

6Can. 13, cf. Cochini, p. 339. 

7Corpus Christianorum, 149, p. 13. 

8Commentariorum in epistolam ad Titum I (vv. 8-9), PL 26, 603b-4°, quoted in Cochini, p. 238-9. 

9S. Th., IIa-IIae, q. 85, a. 3, ad 3 

10S. Th., IIa-IIae, q. 85, a. 3, ad 3 

11In Matth., c, 26, l. 4 

12S. Th., IIIa, q. 82, a. 10 

13S. Th., IIIa, q. 62, a. 1, ad 2 

FATHER GIERTYCH, O.P., a Polish Dominican, currently serves in the Vatican as the Theologian of the Papal Household. He teaches at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas “Angelicum” in Rome. He has published several books in moral theology (in Poland).