WHY PRIESTS DON’T MARRY
Feljun B. Fuentes
AN OVERVIEW of the law of celibacy in the Catholic Church is truly valuable to a searching individual. The following, therefore, is a brief overview — based on researches on Church history — which traces the early beginnings, development, and present status of the Catholic Church’s law on celibacy.
The earliest known ordinance on the celibacy of the Catholic clergy can be traced to the Council of Elvira (c. 300-303 A.D.) near Granada, Spain. Canon 33 (of that council) imposed celibacy upon the three higher orders of the clergy (bishops, priests, and deacons). Those who continued living with their wives and begot children after ordination were deposed.
In a Roman council (386 A.D.), Pope Siricius (385-398 A.D.) passed a similar decree forbidding priests and deacons to have conjugal intercourse with their wives. This decree was implemented in Spain and other parts of Latin Church. Violation of the mandate deprived a candidate of the chance to be promoted to any higher grade. The law of celibacy became obligatory throughout the Western Church during the papacy of Leo the Great (440-461 A.D.)
In the Eastern Church (before the breach with the Roman Church), the law of celibacy was less strictly implemented than in the Latin Church. The Council of Ancyra (314 A.D.) in Galatia provided in canon 10 that deacons may marry if they declared no intention of living a celibate life at the time of their ordination or if they protest (after being ordained) that it is beyond their physical capacity to live a celibate life. There was then no law whatsoever forbidding a bishop to retain the wife to whom he was married prior to ordination. The Council of Caesaria (315 A.D.) in Cappadocia absolutely forbade a priest to contract a new marriage under penalty of deposition (canon 1).
Although the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) does not declare such a prohibition, it forbade members of the clergy to have any woman in their households since this may incite suspicion about their morality (canon 3). Females, relatives, however, are an exception.
Bertrand Conway, a Catholic writer, reveals in his book The Question Box that the Apostolic Constitutions (claimed to be the largest collection of ecclesiastical law which survived early Christianity) “forbade bishops, priests and deacons to marry after their ordination, but permitted them to keep their wives” whom they had married earlier.
The Council of Trullo (692 A.D.) finally adopted a stricter view of the law. It became a rule of moral conduct that a previously married individual must at once separate from his wife after being consecrated, that is, being made bishop. Though priests, deacons, and subdeacons are not allowed to take a wife after ordination, canon 13 emphasizes the right and duty to continue conjugal relations in already established marriages.
The First Lateran Council (1123 A.D.) held at Rome forbade marriage and concubinage among priests, deacons, subdeacons, and monks (canon 3 and 21). The keeping of women in the house unless sanctioned by the ancient canons, was equally prohibited. The Second Lateran Council (1139 A.D.) condemns and prohibits marriage and concubinage among those mentioned as well as among nuns (canon 6, 7, and 21).
Most recently, clerical celibacy caused and fomented disputes in the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). From documents on this council’s proceedings, we learn that the council sanctioned a married diaconate.
The law of celibacy is indeed a deeply-rooted, centuries-old ecclesiastical law of the Catholic Church. Its formal enactment occurred two centuries after the death of the Apostles of Christ. It is, according to Conway, neither a divine law, nor a natural law. Rather, it was a result of monastic influences: the monastic ideal became an obligatory law for the clergy.
Internal stability and balance of the Catholic Church today may best described by calling attention to the presence of two opposing forces — the conservatives and radicals. The radicals are fighting for optional celibacy as against compulsory celibacy. The conservatives, on the other hand, view such a stand as an ignominious surrender to “the fads of modernism.”
The popes are consistently adamant proclaiming and exhorting the clergy’s loyal and strict obedience to the law of celibacy. Pope Paul VI even released an encyclical, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, on June 23, 1967 to affirm the old law. At a meeting with Filipino priests and seminarians in Cebu City, Pope John Paul II, a recent visitor to the Philippines, reaffirmed the Church’s stand; thus:
“In the third place I wish to reflect with you on the value of a life of authentic priestly celibacy. It is difficult to overestimate the profound witness to the faith that a priest gives through celibacy. The priest announces the Good News of the kingdom as one unafraid to forgo the special human joys of marriage and family life in order to bear witness to his “conviction about things we do not see” (Heb. 11:1). The Church needs the witness of celibacy willingly embraced and joyfully lived by her priests for the sake of the Kingdom…” (L’Osservatore Romano, March 1981, p. 22)
Utilitarian considerations are the primary justification presented by the Catholic Church for her relentless support of the celibacy law. The Church believes that “to be entirely free to devote their whole lives to Christ and the salvation of souls,” priests must remain bachelors. Nevertheless, a priest’s “willingness” to “exclude the natural desire for family life to pursue the life of Christ without restrictions,” is open to question. The history of the Catholic clergy is curiously for scandals, particularly clerical concubinage, a fact that undoubtedly indicates a contradiction between a priest’s acceptance of the law and his ability and commitment to observe it.
The law of celibacy is imposed for one other reason. History has documented this ungenerous and apparently materialistic reason:
“…For example, new monastic orders which imposed stricter rules on the monks were founded. Then Pope Gregory VII (1073-85) decreed that the clergy was no longer allowed to marry. This change was intended to remove the temptation for a priest to use Church lands to support his family….” (Story of Nations, p. 188)
Very human and understandable responses to the unnatural law of celibacy include, as we have stated earlier, clerical concubinage. Today, however, in the wake of declarations by the popes that celibacy is “forever,” a new pattern of response to the law is fast becoming evident. More and more priests are becoming more vocal against the law, as shown by the excerpt from a news item below:
“For the second day in a row prelates in the synod of bishops aired their dissent with Vatican-imposed mandatory celibacy for priests. They also asked for a more equitable role for women in the church….” (Times Journal, 6 October 1974)
Those who cannot adhere to their vow of celibacy are at times driven to the difficult task of choosing between their vocation and their human nature. In many cases, the latter wins, and celibacy is thrown, not kept, forever:
“It was the Pope’s first public comment on celibacy since he ended a two-year freeze on granting dispensations from vows of priestly celibacy and issued new guidelines in October on handling such requests from priests. Nearly 5,000 priests reportedly have asked to leave the priesthood, many of them to marry.” (Times Journal, 6 November 1980)
The law of celibacy is the reason why priests do not marry. Yet since it is a law made by man and one contrary to man’s real nature, priests may not remain priests forever.—*
PASUGO GOD’S MESSAGE/MARCH-APRIL 1981/VOLUME 33/NUMBER 2/PAGES 12-13; 25
Bible Study Suggestion: If you have further questions, please feel free to visit the Iglesia ni Cristo congregation nearest you. A minister or an evangelical worker would be happy to answer any biblical question you have in mind.
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