Thursday, September 19, 2013

Married priests, ritual purity, and priestly celibacy

While there is a good deal of reflection (some good, most bad) in the secular media, as well as in Catholic media, on the value and role of priestly celibacy in the Church, there is yet very little theological consideration of the topic.
Nearly every argument for or against priestly celibacy is related either to practical concerns (i.e. “we will get more priests,” or “they will not have time to care for family and parish”) or to devotional thoughts (i.e. “marriage is given by God to all,” or “an undivided heart”). Now, there is certainly something to be said for both practical and devotional points, but we must first consider something of the theology behind celibacy if we are to have any hope of discussing the topic intelligently.
Interestingly, the question of clerical continence for married priests and deacons may be of great aid in helping us to consider the doctrine behind the discipline of priestly celibacy.

Continence and Celibacy
To be clear on our terms:
“Celibacy” refers to the state of remaining unmarried by a vow or promise, or at least by an intentional and perpetual commitment.
“Continence” entails abstaining from sexual intimacy, even within married life. By “continence,” we refer to the practice of refraining from any sexual pleasures, even those which may be legitimate.
For a celibate, to be chaste requires being entirely continent. However, it is important to realize that even a married couple could be continent by refraining from the conjugal act and all sexual intimacies – living “as brother and sister.”
In this article, I want to discuss the question of clerical continence primarily, and only make a brief comment about clerical celibacy at the end.
Clerical continence for married priests
From the Code of Canon Law:
“Can. 277 §1 Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven, and are therefore bound to celibacy. Celibacy is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can more easily remain close to Christ with an undivided heart, and can dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and their neighbour.”
Dr. Ed Peters has offered extensive commentary on this canon, which can be found at his blog [here]. It is quite clear that, at least on the most obvious reading of this canon, all clerics (married deacons and priests included) are bound to observe perfect and perpetual continence.
It is no small thing that, as this canon was being inserted into the Code, any exception for married clerics was specifically rejected.
Though not interpreted in this most obvious way by (practically) anyone of any authority in the Church, the Law is strikingly affirmative of clerical continence even for married priests and deacons.
It is quite likely that, in the early Church, the married men who were chosen as priests lived perpetual continence. While I will not enter into the scholarship, I simply point to the superb work by Cardinal Stickler, The Case for Clerical Celibacy.
In other words, though it is true that many priests in the early Church were married, it is also true that there was an equally ancient discipline according to which married priests refrained from any sexual intimacy.
Thus, both by the current Law of the Church, and by the ancient tradition, there is much to be said for clerical continence even among the married clergy.
Theologically – Why continence?
Though few recognize it, the primary historical and theological reasoning for clerical continence has to do with ritual purity. Sexual union makes a man (and woman) to be ritually impure. However, this is not to say that sexual union need be sinful in any respect. Ritual purity is quite diverse from any question of sin.
When the tradition states that the conjugal act makes a man to be ritually unclean, there is yet no accusation of sin. Indeed, it is one of the great myths of the modern age to claim that the scholastic theologians thought that all sexual pleasure came from and led to sin. Not at all.
However, according to the general tradition of the Church, because the conjugal act makes a man to be ritually impure, it is not fitting that he offer the Holy Sacrifice or even approach the altar for Communion. For this reason, even in the East, married priests would abstain from such intimacy in the day(s) preceding the Divine Liturgy.
In the Latin Church of the West, this focus on ritual purity was a major factor in the movement toward priestly celibacy. Because the priest must minister at the altar of God, he ought to avoid all that renders him to be ritually impure – which means that he must avoid all sexual intimacy, and therefore embraces celibacy.
Furthermore, ever for the rare exception of a married priest in the West, because the very body of the priest is consecrated to God, it is thought to be unbecoming for that married priest to engage in the conjugal act, as this act is contrary to ritual purity. Furthermore, as the Latin Church encourages priests to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass daily, continence would be perpetual (if the priest desired to retain ritual purity for the Holy Mass).
Ritual Purity and Holy Communion
Discussing the related question of nocturnal emissions, St. Thomas Aquinas offers a good summary of the tradition regarding ritual purity – Whether the seminal loss that occurs during sleep hinders anyone from receiving Communion? (ST III, q.80, a.7 [here]):
“At the same time a sense of decency forbids Communion on two accounts. The first of these is always verified, viz. the bodily defilement, with which, out of reverence for the sacrament, it is unbecoming to approach the altar (and hence those who wish to touch any sacred object, wash their hands): except perchance such uncleanness be perpetual or of long standing, such as leprosy or issue of blood, or anything else of the kind. The other reason is the mental distraction which follows after the aforesaid movements, especially when they take place with unclean imaginings.”
The Angelic Doctor, following the tradition on the subject, maintains that a number of acts (some involuntary, others voluntary) cause ritual impurity: Nocturnal emissions, the conjugal act, and menstrual bleeding, to name a few. However, those bodily defilements which are long-standing need not hinder the reception of Communion, as this would cause grave harm to the soul which must not go a long time without the Sacrament.
St. Thomas points out that, just as the priest ought to wash his hands before offering the Mass, so too ought all who approach the altar have abstained from marital intimacy. The priest, even if he be married, more than any other would then be required to observe continence.
Setting aside ritual purity
Now, without entirely dismissing the historical importance of ritual purity, it is good to realize that there has been significant development within the Church’s tradition on this subject.
St. Thomas notes that St. Gregory the Great already maintained that neither the nocturnal emission nor even the conjugal act itself need necessarily hinder any from receiving Holy Communion. Thus, we see that concern for ritual purity can be set aside for a good cause.
Indeed, St. Alphonsus maintained that the conjugal act and the nocturnal emission, as well as any other form of bodily defilement, need not hinder a man (or woman) from receiving Communion.
St. Francis de Sales says much the same in Part I, Chapter 20 of an early edition of Introduction to the Devout Life:
“No one, therefore, should be debarred from Holy Communion by compliance in this matter, if their devotion causes them to desire it. In the primitive Church Christians communicated every day although they were married and blessed with children. … As to bodily maladies there are none which lawfully impede Communion, save such as cause frequent vomiting.”
Thus, it is clear that, even within the tradition of the Latin Church, ritual purity has gradually been set aside and the conjugal act is no longer seen as a ritual barrier to Holy Communion. While a certain concern for ritual purity was maintained, the discipline of requiring ritual purity for the celebration of the Mass or the reception of Communion has been greatly relaxed, so that the concern for ritual purity could be set aside for any good reason.
Today, there is scarcely any concern for ritual purity in relation to the reception of Communion or the offering of the Mass. Even celibacy itself is no longer presented by the Magisterium as being related to ritual purity.
If continence is mandatory for the priest to offer Mass …
If however, any would maintain the traditional discipline by which a period of continence would be mandatory (or at least strongly encouraged) for the priest to offer the Holy Mass, then he would also have to hold the same for any form of bodily defilement (excepting those which are of long duration).
Hence, if the conjugal act renders a married priest to be ritually impure and unable to offer the Mass, then so too would a nocturnal emission.
Furthermore, it would seem that such a one would have to further hold that ritual purity would be of importance for any who would approach the altar for Holy Communion. Thus, a woman would not be permitted to receive Communion on certain days, according to her monthly cycle.
Shall we really maintain a concern for ritual purity? Especially considering that St. Alphonsus and St. Francis de Sales (as well as St. Gregory the Great and, to some extent, even St. Thomas) set it aside quite readily?
If this concern for ritual purity be set aside, there will be little theological foundation for requiring continence of married priests or deacons.
Indeed, if a married man can receive Communion without observing a period of continence, there is no reason why a married priest could not offer the Mass. And, if a woman can receive Communion during her monthly period, there is no reason why a married deacon would have to observe a time of continence before assisting at Mass. If the nocturnal emission need not hinder a celibate priest from offering Mass, neither would the conjugal act keep a married priest from approaching the altar of God.
A final thought – On Priestly Celibacy
However, even if theologically there is no good reason to demand continence of married priests and deacons, there may still be good reason to maintain the general requirement of celibacy.
Would it not be possible that the real reason for celibacy is not related to ritual purity or to clerical continence, but rather to the hierarchical structure of vocations within the life of the Church? Might we not say that, as the clerical state is a higher and more perfect vocation than married life, it is unbecoming of a cleric to lower himself to marriage?
Thus, we would hold that theologically Sacred Orders is fittingly seen an impediment to marriage – so that a priest should not enter into marriage. However, we could still maintain that marriage need not be an impediment to the priesthood (at least not for all) – so that some married men could be ordained priests. Further, the exercise of marriage need not impede a married priest or deacon from performing his proper ministry.
Still, while allowing for certain exceptions to the norm, there could be good reason for generally choosing priests only from among those men who have chosen celibacy. Indeed, as the priesthood is such an exalted vocation, it is fitting that priests be consecrated to a higher state than that of the married.
Thus, the discipline of clerical celibacy would be effectively removed from any question of ritual purity (indeed, from the question of sexual intimacy and pleasure all together) and would be seen entirely within the context of the relative perfection of the priestly vocation and the proper ordering of states of life in the Church.

Magisterial teaching on the primacy of celibacy
Because I know that there are some who will object to statements like “celibacy is a higher calling that married life” or “consecrated virginity is a more perfect vocation than marriage,” I offer magisterial statements to the same effect:
Pope John Paul II , Vita Consecrata, no. 32: “As a way of showing forth the Church's holiness, it is to be recognized that the consecrated life, which mirrors Christ's own way of life, has an objective superiority. Precisely for this reason, it is an especially rich manifestation of Gospel values and a more complete expression of the Church's purpose, which is the sanctification of humanity. The consecrated life proclaims and in a certain way anticipates the future age, when the fullness of the Kingdom of Heaven, already present in its first fruits and in mystery,[62] will be achieved and when the children of the resurrection will take neither wife nor husband, but will be like the angels of God (cf. Mt. 22:30)”
Pope Pius XII, Sacra Virginitas, no. 32: “This doctrine of the excellence of virginity and of celibacy and of their superiority over the married state was, as we have already said, revealed by our Divine Redeemer and by the Apostle of the Gentiles; so too, it was solemnly defined as a dogma of divine faith by the holy council of Trent, and explained in the same way by all the holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church."
Council of Trent, pg. 225: "If anyone saith that the marriage state is to be preferred before the state of virginity, let him be anathema." [...]  "writing to the Corinthians, [Paul] says: I would that all men were even as myself;  that is, that all embrace the virtue of continence...A life of continence is to be desired by all.”


Maolsheachlann said...

This is very interesting. Popular discussion of the subject tends to be consequentialist, revolving around the expected consequences of removing (or keeping) the requirement of celibacy. The notion of exalting virginity as an excellence without thereby degrading marriage or sex is a difficult one to convey. Those quotations from the two Popes and the Council of Trent are very useful, although unfortunately the discussion rarely even gets that far.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Erlenbush, thank you very much for the theology behind the discipline. This is a very informative article.

- said...

A very interesting article, providing much food for thought. As you said, it is important to discuss the theology behind the discipline first, before considering the implications as to what might follow from changing it ...

Irenaeus of New York said...

This was on some old study material. I thinks it was paraphrased from Catholic Encyclopedia-

Celibacy is the renunciation of marriage for the more perfect observance of chastity. It is an ancient apostolic practice recommended by Christ himself. Jesus clearly praises those who, "for the sake of the kingdom of God", give up marriage. He adds: "he who can accept it, let him accept it"(Mt. 19:12). Perhaps even more compelling than the words of Jesus Christ was the life He led as the perfect model of celibacy and chastity. From early on, the Church was personified as a Virgin Bride, the pure Body of Christ, the Virgin Mother, and it was fitting that a virgin Church be served by a virgin priesthood. Among Jews, the priesthood was hereditary and accomplished through generation. But in the Church, as an antithesis to this, the priestly character was transmitted by the Holy Spirit through sacrament. Virginity is therefore a special prerogative of the Christian priesthood. Yet, even in the Jewish Dispensation, it was obligatory that a priest be continent while serving in the Temple.

Anonymous said...

Dear Father,

An organized, thoughtful presentation. I would only like to suggest that it seems to me that the good of ritual purity is not the only one protected by continence and celibacy. By way of brief suggestion, I would point to the Biblical witness (as seen at the end with Trent), including the injunction from the lips of our divine Lord,as well as the eschatological dimension. These also remain and may have just as likely been the good sought and protected by this Apostolic discipline. Finally, may I dare to point out that, if indeed this is an Apostolic discipline, valued for 2,000 years, is it not a constituent element of the Church, notwithstanding the contrary discipline of the East?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

While I do agree that these are all good devotional thoughts, I would insist that it is not exactly theologically accurate to say that the priest is married to the Church ... rather, it is the bishop who is "married" to the local Diocese (hence he wears a ring and, according to the ancient tradition, is not moved from diocese to diocese -- hence, also, a diocese can have only one bishop [the modern practice of auxiliaries being a rather strange practice, but even here they are "married" to suppressed dioceses]...

Further, I would note that most of this devotional thought does well to show why celibacy is a higher calling -- but it does not directly connect it to the priesthood or to priestly service (until we add that Holy Order is a lofty vocation and a particular excellence is fittingly demanded [as I state in the article])...

But the mere fact that celibacy makes us to imitate Christ more perfectly and to think more about heaven does not directly connect it to the priesthood -- in fact, it connects celibacy to religious life.
However, I do agree with your points, and I think that the final thoughts I give in the article allow celibacy to be connect to the priesthood.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Anonymous, 5:26pm ... please use a pseudonym.

Well, theologically, I think that celibacy could change -- however, it does seem to be so strongly connected to the episcopacy that I do not believe that this could change (from the perspective of tradition, etc) ... further, I really doubt that celibacy could be completely set aside even for priests (because of the strong tradition of connecting the two together, at least in some fashion [like not allowing married priests to re-marry if their wife dies])....

Lynda said...

There is something very right about avoiding sexual relations for a period prior to reception of Our Lord in the Eucharist. Just as we ought not to eat for a substantial period before reception. Mental, physical and spiritual preparation for the Holy Eucharist is necessary and our whole selves ought to be focused on the Lord for a time prior to Holy Mass.

Daniel Andrews said...

Were you aware of this survey article on the history of celibacy in the Church and Patristics?

Irenaeus of New York said...

Thanks Father Ryan. I agree. Sorry, but I could not identify where it said the priest was married to the Church. Did "serving" imply this?

Irenaeus of New York said...

Some scripture that was highlighted for this topic from John Salza's site:

Isa. 56:3-7 - Eunuchs who are obedient will have a special place in the kingdom of heaven.

Jer. 16:1-4 - God tells the prophet Jeremiah not to take a wife or have children.

Mt. 19:11-12 - Jesus says celibacy is a gift from God and whoever can accept it should accept it.

Mt. 19:27 - Peter had a family before Christ chose him. He gave up all things to follow Jesus, thereon living continently.

Mt. 19:29 - Jesus says those who give up children for the sake of His name(in order to serve him) will receive great rewards and eternal life.

Mt. 22:30 – Jesus says there are no marriages in heaven. Priests live out that heavenly consecration to God on earth.

1Cor. 7:1 – Paul says that it is well for a man not to touch a woman as practiced by our priests.

1Cor. 7:7 - Paul says celibacy is a gift from God and wishes all who can be celibate like himself, do so.

1Cor. 7:27 - Paul teaches a better way where priests/religious do not seek marriage. The better way is celibacy.

1Cor. 7:32-33, 38 - Paul recommends celibacy for full-time ministers in the Church.

1Tim. 3:2 - Paul says bishops must be married only once(as opposed to more than once) in speaking of widowers. This was not a marriage requirement but a limit. (I have read that to be part of the Sanhedrin meant marriage was a requirement. So some say Paul was widowed, and therefore called himself celibate since he was no longer married at the time of the epistle.)

1Tim. 4:3 - Paul says avoid evil doctrines that forbid marriage. Catholics exalt marriage to a sacrament. Our priests are giving up one good(marriage and kids) for a greater good(a more perfect unity with God).

2Tim. 2:3-4 - Paul says soldiers should avoid civilian pursuits. Paul is speaking of the celibate priesthood. Thinking of the Roman military collar.

Rev. 14:4 – Those consecrated to virginity are honored in heaven.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Ryan. please confirm that you are saying that all married Permanent Deacons should practice continence?

Ben of the Bayou said...

Dear Father,

Perhaps you have moved on by now, but I wanted to expand ever so briefly on my earlier comment (I am the anonymous of before). What I meant to say is well expressed by Ireneaus, with whom you agreed. Indeed, I think that this is precisely why celibacy (or better, continence) for priesthood (including both presbyter and episcopos) cannot change. First, because the priesthood of the Bishop and the priesthood of the priest (presbyter) is the same. Second, because the priest, by his nature as alter Christus (in contradistinction to the religious) must be the icon in the Church of the Virgin Christ, spouse of the Virgin Church. Since a man cannot have two brides, neither can the priest.

Thank you for your thoughtful reply and article.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Anon 10:56am,
Please use a pseudonym.
No, I have not said that they must observe continence ... in fact, the whole point of the article is to say that there is no theological reason why the married priest or deacon would have to be continent in order to serve at the altar.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Ben of the B,
The Bishop has a new sacramental character given at his ordination (at least this seems to be the consensus) ... so there really is a difference between the priest and the bishop.
The bishop has the fullness of Holy Order and is the Vicar of Christ in his diocese -- but the priest is not the Vicar of Christ in his parish (at least not in anything like the way that the bishop is for the Diocese)

Honestly, if you take the "marriage" analogy really strong ... saying that the priest is married to the Church and can have only one bride ... wouldn't this mean that the Church is married to the priest and can have only one husband? Therefore, since the bishop is married to the diocese and since each parish is truly under the headship of the bishop, then the bride can have only one husband? ... thus, there could be no priests in a diocese, but only the one bishop who would be the husband of the one bride.

You see, only the bishop is married to the Church ... not the priest.
By celibacy, he is given wholly to Christ, not made the husband of the Church.

Does that make sense?

Zuzanna said...

Rome has allowed former Lutheran and Episcopalian clergy, who convert and are married, to be ordained as RC priests. However, as their vows in the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony preceded their vows in the Sacrament of Holy Orders, these men are not able to serve as the Pastor of a parish. Their first responsibility is to their wife, and secondly to the parish. As an ordinary priest(not sure of the term) takes vows of celibacy at ordination, I have often heard it said that he is married to his flock... a true shepherd (pastor).

Ed Peters said...

"Indeed, if a married man can receive Communion without observing a period of continence, there is no reason why a married priest could not offer the Mass."

This claim is, as a matter of logic, true only if the ONLY reason for continence could be "ritual purity". What is another reason for the law on continence were adduced? What if, say, the priest's role in confecting the Eucharist were different than the layman's role in receiving it? Which, of course, it is. While I don;t have to prove a "reason" for a law in order to prove what a law requires, I am personally less persuaded that "ritual purity" is, in fact the best reason for c. 277, and that a better reason for the law lies elsewhere.

Ben of the Bayou said...

Father Erlenbush,

Trying to respect the rules of your blog, I will try to be brief. First, let me say thank you again for thoughtfully engaging the point. Second, may I say that (not surprisingly) Dr. Peters has made the point I was originally making and has done so more clearly. I thank him.

Finally, ad rem. I do not accept that the Bishop receives a new character in his consecration, at least not what St. Thomas and Trent mean by character. Against an unnuanced reading of LG on this point, I point to the Nota Previa attached to Ch. 3, which explians the power received by the Bishop in a fundamentally different way than the power which depends on character. I do accept that the Bishop has a power which the priest does not. I do accept that the Bishop has the fulness of Holy Orders, but I distingush Holy Orders as sacrament and Orders as Office. The Bishop's fulness is in office, not in sacrament. If it were, it would be impossible to assert the unicity of the ministerial priesthood (i.e. the one priesthood of Christ made present by His sacramental configuration of the soul of the chosen instrument, a Catholic man). There being but one priesthood, there is one Priest and one Bridegroom, but who is made manifest in different supposita instrumentally.

May I finsih by pointing out that your way of conceiving the priesthood would replace the offering of the Sacrifice as the primary power of the Sacramental configuration and, furthermore, that manner of construing Bishops would still end with the problem of having as many Bridegrooms as there are Bishops.

Pax et bonum,


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

To the point -- many bishops being married to the Church does not cause the problem of many bridegrooms... namely, the Bishop is not "married" to the Church generally, but to the Diocese.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Dr Peters,

I have not been able to find anything in the Fathers or Scholastics which links continence to anything other than ritual purity.

While it is true that there is some concern for impure thoughts which may follow upon sexual relations (or the nocturnal emission), this is very clearly NOT the real concern of the theologians who always emphasize that the real problem is that the priests must handle sacred vessels and therefore must be ritually pure.

St. Thomas (as a good example of the general tradition) states that priests must be celibate (and married priests continent) for the same reason that the priests wash their hands before Mass -- namely, ritual purity.

Now, I certainly am greatly persuaded (as a personal opinion) by what you have written regarding the interpretation of the Law -- though I am no lawyer and really have no strong opinion on the legal question.

HOWEVER, when it comes to your comment above, I would like you to actually give another reason for continence rather than simply stating "perhaps there is another reason" -- at least, if you are going to disagree with my theological point, you should do more than speculate that there could be some other possible theory (without even giving a hint as to what that other possible theory could possibly be).

As I say, however, I do not disagree with your articles -- my question is theological, not legal.
AND I do thank you for your insightful work on this subject! +

Ben of the Bayou said...

Dear Father,

Ah, yes. This was a separate issue I was leaving aside. However, since you have taken it up, so will I. While there is no doubt that the Bishop is "wedded" to his one Diocese, he is so only inasmuch as he is making present the one Bridegroom. Similarly, the Diocese is a "Church" in a derivative sense, being a concrete instantiation of the one New Israel, the one community of salvation. When we say *the* Church, do we not mean something more than some sort of moral union of a group of local(ized) "Churches"? At least, I am well convinced by Ratzinger against Kasper that the one universal Church has both temporal and ontological priority. If you can agree with Ratzinger on this, then the fundamental ecclesiological vision that seems to stand behind your comments, as well as the theological conception of the unicity of the Sacerdotium, would seem to need modification. Finally (and I also mean this to be my last comment), if this line of argument is valid and cogent, which I reasonably believe it to be, then we would now be provided with at least one other good (other than ritual purity), and perhaps one more essential, that is obtained only through priestly continence: to wit, the robust understanding of the sacerdos (Bishop and Priest) as alter Christus and therefore as Bridegroom.



Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I do not see how you move from the unicity of the Sacerdotium to the bishop and priest both being bridegroom ... certainly, St Thomas (who held unicity) did not hold that the priest was married to the Church (but only the bishop).

I just don't see it in the tradition.

However, that being said, I think that your argument is a fine devotional (and perhaps even theological) argument -- so long as we see it only as an argument leading to a certain fittingness and not to an absolute necessity.

HOWEVER, my point is to say that we can (and should) defend celibacy, but not for the traditional grounds.
Thus, even following your reasoning, we set ritual purity aside.

AND, if your argument is only a matter of what is fitting -- and it is certainly most fitting for a priest to be celibate -- then it still does not mandate continence for married priests.

I myself hold that celibacy is fitting (from the superiority of Order), but I hold this to be only an argument to what is fitting.

In any case, I do not mean to deny Ratzinger's points ... I only insist that the Bishop is Vicar of Christ to his diocese, and wed to his diocese, in a way that a priest is not (neither to the Church in general nor to his particular parish).

Peace! +

Ed Peters said...

Hi Father! I recognize your respect for the legal argument on continence. My point was a narrower one, simply to show that, as a matter of logic, your syllogism on the (lack of) need for continence did not persuade, so, my suggesting that another explanation might account for the law did not need to prove what that other explanation was, only that it might exist.

I tread lightly as to what that other explanation for the law might be (for people are soooo ready to abandon law if THEY don't see why it's there, and my speculation on theo explanations might not persuade, and might interfere with folks' ability to follow my narration of the law), but, since you ask, I am thinking that the continence law has been there, all along, to protect the nuptial characteristics of priesthood/Mass. But I leave that to better minds than mine.

Best, edp.

Anonymous said...

Could you explain how celibacy is superior to the married state when marriage is a sacrament and celibacy is not.

gsk said...

Dear Father: I am surprised by your insistence that priests are not married to the Church, for I understand that they all participate in the Priesthood of Christ, the Bridegroom. I speak widely (to women) and explain that this mystical dimension is an important reason why women cannot be priests, for to do so would attempt a same-sex union, which would be sterile. Rather, women are called to live as icons of the Bride in myriad ways depending on their state in life, their gifts, and their means. I think the nuptial backdrop to reality (properly understood) is quite important-- especially now, when androgyny and promiscuity are so much in vogue.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Anon 12:40pm,
Please use a pseudonym, and I'd be happy to respond.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

As far as devotional thought goes, I am more than happy to consider the idea of priest as bridegroom ... however, I just don't see that theology in the Fathers and Doctors of the Church.

It is there for the bishop, but I don't see it for the priest.

However, I will admit that, once we have celibacy, the idea of priest as married to the Church fits very well -- however, I don't see it as a particularly effective way of arguing to celibacy (since, after all, priests really can be married).

This is another point -- women really cannot possibly be priests, but priests really can be married (even by dispensation, a priest could be married after ordination).

Harry said...

Thank you, Fr., for delving into this topic. I have been curious for a long time about the theological foundations of the ongoing juridical argument over clerical celibacy. The three modern authors recommended on the subject, Stickler, Cochini, and Heid, don't address it much, save for one enigmatic quote from Pope Damasus I in Cochini. Instead they strive to show the only the Apostolic origin and universality of the practice in the Church. Of course, they have many detractors. Dr. Peters restricts himself to the issues of Law in his many writings on the subject, and this discussion is the first time I have seen him discuss the theology of the issue at all. For those of us who follow this debate closely, this is bigger news than anything the Pope said this week. ;-)

So, if it is possible, Fr., could you do a second post on this subject, and quote the sources of tradition you are alluding to? Those of us who are not patristics scholars would be grateful. Dr. Peters, could you please continue to engage the theological side of this issue here? I am interested to hear all of your opinion since, as you are more aware than anyone, most of your opponents on your sites and in other fora speak at cross purposes to you, making theological arguments against your legal ones. I'm really interested to know what you think about their theological arguments, even if they have nothing to do with the legal issue.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I will happily engage the topic further!
However, I will be in Rome for the next two weeks and unable to post articles ... so it will have to wait a while.

I would note that those excellent sources you quoted give the theology of celibacy almost exclusively along the lines of ritual purity (at least, as I recall) -- especially Stickler.

Peace and good! +

Marco da Vinha said...

What exactly is "ritual impurity"?

Anonymous said...


This is indeed an important topic, and I thank you for your comments, as well as the important questions proposed by Harry.

A good foundation for understanding the theological foundations for priestly celibacy and continence is provided in an essay written by Fr. Ignace de la Potterie, and which is found on the Vatican website: "The Biblical Foundations of Priestly Celibacy." After establishing some solid scriptural foundations, he then looks at some patristic sources. Of special interest is the patristic interpretation of "man of one wife" ('unius uxoris vir': 1 Tim 3:2). The Fathers discover an ecclesiologial-nuptial meaning for priestly celibacy-continence through this Scriptural passage.

Most recently there has been a deepening of the Catholic theological understanding of priestly celibacy, mostly through the impetus of Paul VI in his magisterial "Sacerdotalis Caelibatus," wherein he broaches celibacy according to a threefold dimension: Christological, Ecclesiological, and Eschatological. It is an important teaching document, but has been all but forgotten, it seems.

Thanks. Oremus pro invicem.

Fr. Gary Selin

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Fr Selin,
It is a great document! I don't have it in front of me (and cannot recall the details) ... but I seem to remember that the idea of continence being connected with the unius uxori vir was not yet established even in the early scholastics -- does the document not say that even in St Thomas' biblical commentary on that passage there is not yet a connection with celibacy and continence? Even if there is a sense of the priesthood having a marital meaning, it was not yet connected to continence?

You probably remember it better than I! I do hope that readers will look to that document!

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Dear Father. The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy by Christian Cochini, S.J. makes a convincing case that it was Luther who revived the arguments in favor of married priests and that a Theological Commission of Trent (17 members) thoroughly investigated the question unanimously agreed the ancient discipline must be maintained.

Says Fr Cochini Though they bear the mark of their time, these expositions of the theologinas at the Council of TRent remain valid today insofar as they review practically all the classical objections that have been formulated throughout history against ecclesiastical celibacy (and continence).

I do not understand the desire to abandon this discipline unless a specific reason can be cited for man often forgets - or does not even know in the first place- rational reasons for ancient traditions.

Of course, that our High Priest was continent and because Holy Writ witnesses that they left everything to follow Him (Matt 19:27) and because ecclesiastical tradition began with the Apostles, are all reasons enough not to change.

And the conservative inclination is summarised in the pithy - If it is not necessary to change it is necessary not to change

Stohn said...

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

It is ironic that many clergy are starting to argue in favor of married priests as the Church has fewer and fewer priests but, as Fr. Cochini pointed out (p 250) All the values connected with chastity are undermined....convents are emptying, nuns and monks are getting married (4th century)....All in all, this is not the progression of a movement in favor of continence but rather a protest against it.

The more things seem to change...

Pam H. said...

''...if you take the "marriage" analogy really strong ... saying that the priest is married to the Church and can have only one bride ... wouldn't this mean that the Church is married to the priest and can have only one husband?" No, because the priest is serving in the person of Christ, and it is Christ who is the only "husband" of the Church. Any other reading is superficial.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Dear Stohn. The link you posted to has a passionately argued polemic that is nonethelesss less than fortrgiht

A.D. 692.
Introductory Note.
The Canons with the Ancient Epitome and Notes.
Excursus to Canon VI., On the Marriage of the Clergy.

From the fact that the canons of the Council in Trullo are included in this volume of the Decrees and Canons of the Seven Ecumenical Councils it must not for an instant be supposed that it is intended thereby to affirm that these canons have any ecumenical authority, or that the council by which they were adopted can lay any claim to being ecumenical either in view of its constitution or of the subsequent treatment by the Church of its enactments.
It is true that it claimed at the time an ecumenical character, and styled itself such in several of its canons, it is true that in the mind of the Emperor Justinian II., who summoned it, it was intended to have been ecumenical. It is the that the Greeks at first declared it to be a continuation of the Sixth Synod and that by this name they frequently denominate and quote its canons. But it is also true that the West was not really represented at it at all (as we shall see presently); that when the Emperor afterwards sent the canons to the Pope to receive his signature, he absolutely refused to have anything to do with them; and it is further true that they were never practically observed by the West at all, and that even in the East their authority was rather theoretical than real.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Erlenbush,

You might be interested to know that there is ongoing debate in the Russian Orthodox Church over the requirements for holy communion. A draft decree on the matter has been publicized to elicit comments from the public before the Russian Council of Bishops takes it up next year. Among other things the draft decree affirms the need for everyone -- married priest or lay - to abstain from sexual intercourse a day before communion, and affirms the temporary exclusion from communion of women who are menstruating. Strict fasting requirements are reaffirmed - fasting from midnight for everyone from the age of 3, before communion, and if communion is in the evening the fast is 6 hours. The concept of ritual purity is alive and well in the Orthodox East.

- Easterner

Paridell said...

"If however, any would maintain the traditional discipline"

Methinks this should read:

"If, however, many"

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

"If, however any would maintain"
as in ... "If, however, anyone would maintain" ... indeed, there certainly are not "many" who would maintain the traditional discipline - but if there is anyone who would ...

Bella said...


A diocesan priest does not take a vow of celibacy. He makes a promise to his bishop and to his bishop's successors to remain chase and obedient, however, he is paid a salary. Priests who are members of orders, e.g., a Franciscan or a Dominican, take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

This is devotional and not theological (and I am a theology student!), however, I believe that a priest who remains chaste draws the entire Church closer to God with him, just as a priest who breaks his promise - or vow - cannot, until he has atoned, draw the Church closer to God. However, I am aware that the purity of the one celebrating the Mass, consecrating the bread and wine, giving absolution, does not diminish the sacrament.

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