The History of priestly Celibacy

From Catholic Encyclopedia

The History of Celibacy

In the history of clerical celibacy conciliar legislation marks the second period during which the law took definite shape both in the East and in the West. The earliest enactment on the subject is that of the Spanish Council of Elvira (between 295 and 302) in canon xxxiii. It imposes celibacy upon the three higher orders of the clergy, bishops, priests, and deacons. If they continue to live with their wives and beget children after their ordination they are to be deposed

At any rate the synods of the sixth and seventh centuries, while fully recognizing the position of these former wives and according them even the formal designation of bishopess, priestess, deaconess, and subdeaconess (episcopissa, presbytera, diaconissa, subdiaconissa), laid down some very strict rules to guide their relations with their former husbands. The bishopess, as a rule, did not live in the same house with the bishop (see the Council of Tours in 567, can. xiv). For the lower grades actual separation does not seem to have been required, although the Council of Orléans in 541, can. xvii, ordained: “ut sacerdotes sive diacom cum conjugibus suis non habeant commune lectum et cellulam”; while curious regulations were enforced requiring the presence of subordinate clergy in the sleeping apartment of the bishop, archpriest, etc., to prevent all suspicion of scandal (see, e.g., the Council of Tours, in 567), canons xiii and xx). A good deal seems to have been done at the beginning of the Carolingian epoch to set things upon a more satisfactory footing. To this St. Chrodegang (formerly the chancellor of Charles Martel, and after 742 Bishop of Metz), contributed greatly by his institution of canons. Those were clergy leading a life in common (vita canonica), according to the rule composed for them by St. Chrodegang himself, but at the same time not precluded by their hours of study and prayer from giving themselves like ordinary secular priests to the pastoral duties of the ministry. This institution developed rapidly and met with much encouragement. In a slightly modified from the Rule of St. Chrodegang was approved by the Council of Aachen, in 816, and it formed the basis of the cathedral chapters in most of the diocese throughout the dominions of Charlemagne.

Present position
With regard to the law of celibacy and its canonical effects in the Western Church at the present day, only one or two points can be briefly touched upon. For the details the reader must be referred to such a work as that of Wernz “Jus Decretalium”, II, 295-321. Clerk in minor orders, as already stated, as free to marry, and by such marriages they forfeit the privilegia canonis and the privilegia fori only in part, provided they observe the required conditions (cf. Decreta Conc. Trid., Sess XIII, cap. vi); though in our day such observance is practically impossible; but they are incapable of being promoted to sacred orders unless they separate from their wives, and make a vow of perpetual continence. Further, if as clerks they held any benefice or ecclesiastical pension, these are at once forfeited by marriage, and the become incapable of acquiring any new benefice. Historically there has been some little variation of practice with regard to married clerks, and the severe measures enacted in their regard by Pope Alexander III were subsequently mitigated by Boniface VIII and the Council of Trent. As regards ecclesiastics in sacred orders (i.e. the subdiaconate and those that follow), the teaching of both theologians and canonists alike, for many centuries past, has been unanimous as regards the facts, though some little divergence has existed regarding the manner of explaining them. All are agreed that the subdeacon in presenting himself of his own free will for ordination binds himself by a tacit vow of chastity (Wernz, IV, n. 393), and that this even constitutes a diriment impediment in view of any subsequent marriage. The idea of this votum annexum seems to be traceable in one form or another as far back as the time of Gregory the Great. Although the opposition to the law of celibacy frequently took the form of open agitation, both in the earlier Middle Ages and again at the Reformation period, only one such movement calls for notice in modern times. This was an association formed principally in Würtemberg and Baden in the early part of the nineteenth century to advocate the mitigation or repeal of the law of celibacy. The agitation was condemned by an Encyclical of Pope Gregory XVI, on 15 August, 1832, and no more permanent harm seems to have resulted than the publication of a certain amount of disaffected literature, such as the pretentious but extremely biased and inaccurate work on compulsory celibacy by the brothers Theiner, a book which at once prohibited by authority and repudiated by Aug. Theiner before he was reconciled to the Church.

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