Celibacy and Continence in the Priesthood according to the Church Fathers – A Study of Greek East & Latin West


ordination of augustine

The scandals which have broken out in the Roman Catholic Church over the past decades, particularly since the Summer of 2018, have caused many scholars and analysts to ponder whether the rule on celibacy for the ordained clergy might be a cause for the the grave acts of sexual misconduct. However much there is a connection to be made or not made, I wanted to devote an extensive article on the rule on priestly celibacy (abstention from married life) and continence (abstention from sexual intercourse, but not necessarily marriage) in the early Church Fathers.  Before I venture to do that, I would be remiss if I did not point the reader to a post already published by Unam Sanctam Catholicam on the subject, which is devoted mainly to citations from the early Church fathers and councils on this important matter. What I offer here is less citation (although I add ones not provided by Unam) and more commentary and reflection, particularly how this phenomena developed in both Eastern and Western Christendom. Although it is not always mentioned, the rule of priestly celibacy was one of the issues separating the ecclesial centers of Byzantium and the Latin West during the time of the great schism. It would be, therefore, all the more beneficial to see how the practice began from the earliest centuries. 


It was some days before God’s presence descended upon Mount Sinai that the Lord God had instructed Moses to go and sanctify the children of Israel in preparation for His manifestation. He told Moses to give the Israelites two days to wash their clothes, to be ready for the coming of the Lord, and to “not come near your wives” (Ex 19:14-15). In the Book of the Prophet Samuel, when David asked the priest Abimelech for bread from the Temple for himself and his soldiers, Ambimelech responded saying, “There is no common bread on hand; but there is holy bread, if the young men have at least kept themselves from women” (1 Sam 21:1-4)This demand of periodic abstinence from conjugal relations and service unto the Lord can appear to be awkward to modern man. I was just told in a random conversation while sitting at a Denny’s restaurant by a lovely elderly Jewish lady that for a man to be with a woman is just flat out natural, and the context was immediately in light of the demand for priestly celibacy in Catholicism. But even the Old Testament, as we saw, shows witness to the unfitting association of conjugal relations and perfect consecration to God, even if it is for a period. Of course, the Priesthood in the Old Testament was tribal, and thus hereditary. It was the tribe of Levi that was set aside for priestly service in the Sinaitic legislation, and the career as priest went from Father to Son, with the likely exception of the Essene priests who inhabited places like Qumran. As such, priestly celibacy was just an impossibility in the Old Testament. Nevertheless, the priest was expected to observe continence during those times which he served in the Temple of God.

Given that the New Testament priesthood is not hereditary, and does not pass from Father to Son, would there be a development in the direction of permanent celibacy? That is certainly what we see in Church history since from the beginning of the Church, the rule of both Eastern & Western Christianity was absolutely no allowance for marriage for either deacons, presbyters, or Bishops. That means if you were ordained as a single man into any of the three major grades of holy orders, you were bound to celibacy for the rest of your life. That is a pretty significant development from Old to New Testament. Taking from the Jewish woman I spoke with, the question might still be raised as whether Greek Christianity, and not just Latin, has denied people to live naturally. How about those men who were ordained into holy orders as already married? Both East and West permitted the ordination of married men (although this was already discouraged from early on), but the West completely disallowed these men to have conjugal relations with their spouses from the moment of their ordination into orders going forward. As we shall see, there were Eastern voices in support of this, but it would not turn into a formal, binding, and canonical platform due to understandable reasons, although the crystallization of Eastern canonical tradition at the Council of Trullo (692) came somewhat close to Western discipline (see below).

Why disallow conjugal relations? Well, again, it goes back to that conception already borne witness to by the Lord in His appearing on Mt. Sinai. The people of Israel had to wash their clothes, separate from sin, and abstain from their wives? Why? Is not sexual intercourse within marriage natural, and therefore consistent with perfect righteousness? Ideally, this would have been the case since when God created man and woman, he created them and their descendants to dominate creation through the vehicle of sexual reproduction. However, since the fall of mankind in Adam, something drastically changed about the human condition which affected even the act of sexual intercourse within marriage. I do not have the space or the time to devote to an adequete treatment of the Patristic understanding of this, but one can access St. Augustine’s Marriage and Concupiscience . Of course, I can say that there is nothing *intrinsically* evil about the marital embrace (The book of Hebrews says marriage bed is undefiled), but my best bet is that the history of man has identified something about the intercourse event for which abstaining allows for a more perfect consecration unto God. This is seen in such short form when St. Paul abruptly says “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” (1 Cor 7:1). Of course, if you go read the context, St. Paul is not saying that having a wife or engaging in sexual intimacy is sinful. The Hebrew Proverb 18:22 states, “He who findeth a wife findeth a good thing“.  However, if you want to dive into a Patristic mindset, this snippet from a commentary by St. Jerome is quite striking. He writes:

If it is good not to touch a woman, it is bad to touch one: for there is no opposite to goodness but badness. But if it be bad and the evil is pardoned, the reason for the concession is to prevent worse evil. But surely a thing which is only allowed because there may be something worse has only a slight degree of goodness” (Contra Jovinianus, Book 1.7)

If we think from this paradigm, then it is no surprise then that the Lord required the priests of Israel to abstain from conjugal relations with their wives during the times of their service in the Temple, because even though finding a wife is a good thing, and even though the marriage bed is undefiled, there is something about not having a wife and not acting out in conjugal relations that makes one more fit for the service of God. There really is no way around this, for Paul himself states:

I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am;  but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry rembrandt_-_apostle_paul_-_wga19120than to burn with passionHe who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord—how he may please the Lord.  But he who is married cares about the things of the world—how he may please his wife.  There is a difference between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman cares about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she who is married cares about the things of the world—how she may please her husband. (1 Cor 7:8-9, 32-34)

It is abundantly clear from this that St. Paul understood that the married life, even as it is a gift from God (ibid v. 7), is a concession to the weakness of not being able to exercise self-control, and thus be more perfectly fit to serve God with a more perfect holiness in both body and spirit.

But, wait. Does not Paul give as one of the qualifications for Bishop or Deacon that he be “the husband of one wife” (Titus 1:6). Not so, Paul elsewhere says to the unmarried that “it is good for them if they so remain even as I [i.e. celibate]” for, as we saw above,”..He who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please God” . Certainly, the statement of a man being “husband of one wife” was not, as some believe, endorsing the necessity of married men into the ministry, but rather ensuring the exclusion of men who had been re-married, particularly widowed men who re-married. On the face of it, this interpretation appears outlandish, but there is good grounds for it. The idea, frankly, was that a man who sought out marriage again after the death of his wife would be less qualified to be single-minded in his “service to the Lord“. How could it be that Paul in one place says that consecrated virginity makes one more fit for service unto the Lord in both body and spirit, that he desires all to be consecrated virgins as himself, and then insist on the requirement of the opposite for pastors and deacons? titian_-_polyptych_of_the_resurrection_-_virgin_annunciate_-_wga22786How could it be that, after defending marriage on the grounds of concession to human weakness and lack of self-control, that he would make that very course of life which diminishes a more whole-hearted devotion to God obligatory to the ministers of Christ’s church? An alternative reading appears far more reasonable: seeking out a second marriage after the death of one’s spouse (or perhaps after being abandoned under the Scriptural privilege – for example, 1 Cor 7:15) was a sign that there is an admitted lack of “self-control” , and the need for fleshly satisfaction to maintain that control; and this was thought to render someone, generally speaking, unfit for the single-minded devotion required for ministers in the Church. The same rule was obligatory for candidates for the office of deacon (1 Tim 3:12). Although the Scripture does not explicitly teach this, there is a substantial witness in the early Church that the Apostles mandated (if there were exceptions in the minds of the bishops, I don’t know of any source to substantiate) absolute continence from their ordination forward. If that was the case, a man who married again after being a widow would be setting himself up for failure by taking on a vow of perfect and perpetual continence; hence, the qualification “husband of one wife“.

In addition,  monasticism, particularly in the East, was a driving motivation for many to live out celibate lives. However, even long before the widespread growth of monasticism, we see strong evidence of priestly celibacy as an ideal and example. Tertullian (160-220) writes, “How many you see in sacred orders who have embraced continence, who have preferred to be wedded to God!” (Exhortation to Chastity, 13). Certainly, celibacy is here painted as the ideal, even if by free choice rather than compulsion. But in the discussion of priestly celibacy and continence, it is precisely there between what is done by free choice versus what is held out as obligatory policy that merits our interest here.



Pope St. Callistus I

One of the first instances we get of this idea of obligatory continence for clergyman is in the writings of St. Hippolytus of Rome (170-235), whose Refutation Against Heresies makes space to mockingly criticize Pope St. Callistus (160?-222) for allegedly allowing men of the clergy to marry after their ordinations without being degraded or punished. He writes describing the “abusive laxity” (whether it is true, I am not certain) of the Pope:

If also, however, any one who is in holy orders should become married, Callistus permitted such a one to continue in holy orders as if he had not sinned. And in justification, he alleges that what has been spoken by the Apostle has been declared in reference to this person: ‘Who are you that judges another man’s servant?‘ ” (Book 9.7)

What St. Hippolytus here implies, i.e. it is the rule for unmarried clergy to remain unmarried by compulsion, would be the view of both Eastern and Western Christianity then and even up unto this day. Again,  that aspect gets entirely missed in light of the fact that many Eastern priests are married both back then and nowadays. That is because their discipline allows men who are already married to be ordained. This allowance was discontinued in the West certainly by 1322 by Pope John XXII, even though it had been strongly endorsed from the beginning. However, if you are ordained as unmarried, the binding obligation is for one to remain unmarried. Again, the stress is on one’s single-minded purity and devotion to God, and how the married life can pose an obstacle to this. It is for this reason that it would be odd for Protestants to appeal to Eastern Orthodoxy as a witness to the permission of married priests. Protestants would think it is extremely dubious to insist that ordained men cannot marry afterwards their ordinations. And yet, there it is in the canons of the Eastern churches.

The first Conciliar effort to solidity perpetual priestly continence was in Elvira, Spain (305 AD), and this Council ruled that ministers in all three grades of holy orders must maintain continence. We know that periodic continence is not being spoken of, since the prohibition also excludes child bearing. The evidence of a child within the home of a priest, deacon, or Bishop and his wife was evidence to indict and sentence the following penalty:

It has seemed good to absolutely forbid the bishops, the priests, and the deacons, i.e., all the clerics in the service of the sacred ministry, to have relations with their wives and procreate children; should anyone do so, let him be excluded from the honor of the clergy.” (Canon 33)

Note that by forbidding “relations with their wives” and the procreation of children, this is referring to married clergy, and yet they are required to never engage in conjugal relations without the pain of laicization.

The rationale for this mandatory perfect continence is revealed at another Council held in Arles approximately ten years later (314), and it ruled the following:

Moreover, concerned with what is worthy, pure, and honest, we exhort our brothers in the episcopate to make sure that priests and deacons have no [sexual] relations with their wives, since they are serving the ministry everyday. Whoever will act against this decision will be deposed from the honor of the clergy.” (Canon 29)

So we see that the daily priestly service requires the clergy to be perfectly continent, even if married. This parallels the concern of the Lord when He instructed Moses to consecrate the people of Israel before He descended upon the mountain by commanding them to abstain from their wives, as well as the periodic continence of the Levitical priests when they served in the Temple. Apparently, there is, in the mind of God, something about sexual intimacy, at least in the fallen world, which is not fittingly associated with priestly service unto the Lord.

On the other hand, during a Council right around the same time as that one held in Arles is the one held in the city of Ancyra (314), which is located in Asia Minor, and thus Eastern. The following is said with regard to deacons:

Those who have been made deacons, declaring when they were ordained that they must marry, because they were not able to abide as they were, and who afterward married, shall continue in the ministry because it was conceded to them by the bishop. But if they were silent on the matter, undertaking at their ordination to abide as they were, and afterward proceeded to marry, they shall cease from the diaconate” (Canon 10)

So we see here that this Synod permitted deacons to live out the married life (and presumably, one with conjugal relations, since the premise is they cannot maintain the control of a celibate) even after ordination, but this allowance comes in the form of a concession to weakness. A young man who aspires to the office of deacon, and who doesn’t realize that he will struggle very much with celibacy, and is ordained without the allowance from the bishop, will have to live out his diaconate in perfect celibacy and continence, and if he did not, he was removed from the office of deacon. Thus, even in the East, there is this special canonical stricture forbidding even deacons to marry after they are ordained, unless they have a special dispensation (as noted). This would also mean that the East, at this Synod, reflected the same concern over sexual intimacy and the ancient mind on one’s consecration to God. For why would it be normally obligatory for deacons to remain celibate if they are unmarried at the time of their ordination if it were not because the duty associated with the office mandated a celibate life? Either way, we do see here a difference in policy in the East, despite the share in concern for one’s continence in the clerical life. Moreover, it will become clear below that this diaconal concession was not granted elsewhere.

The early Church historian, Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339), tells us the following with regard to the celibacy of priests even in the face of the Scripture:

‘For a bishop’,  says the Scripture, ‘must be the husband of one wife’. Yet it is fitting that those in the priesthood and occupied in the service of God, should abstain after ordination from the intercourse of marriage. To all who have not undertaken this wondrous priesthood, Scripture almost completely gives way, when it says: ‘Marriage is honorable, and the bed undefiled, but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge‘”. (Demonstratio Evangelica, Book 1.9)

At the Council of Nicaea, we read:

The great Synod has stringently forbidden any bishop, presbyter, deacon, or any one of the clergy whatever, to have a subintroducta (unmarried woman typically cohabiting with a clergyman with no intimate engagement) dwelling with him, except only a mother, or sister, or aunt, or such persons only as are beyond all suspicion” (Canon 3)

This canon says nothing about forbidding wives to cohabit with their ordained husbands, but it has been interpreted (see Hefele) historically with the background that so many clergy had chosen the life of celibacy that it became widespread that a subintroducta would accompany him in the same dwelling, though with no physical intimate relationship. This obviously could be a near occasion of sin, and so the Council forbids it completely, except females for whom that sort of sin cannot be fathomed such as a mother, sister, aunt, or persons “beyond all suspicion“. Whatever the merits of that interpretation are, we know the East permitted deacons and presbyters to cohabit with their wives. As alluded to already, the Council of Trullo (692), which is accepted as Ecumenical by the Chalcedonian-Orthodox, states that  “lawful marriage of men who are in holy orders be from this time forward firm, by no means dissolving their union with their wives nor depriving them of their mutual intercourse at a convenient season” (Canon 13). There it is plain as day that priests and deacons can have conjugal relations and bear children in the East. However, the same canon goes on, “..For it is meet that they who assist at the divine altar should be absolutely continent when they are handling holy things, in order that they may be able to obtain from God what they ask in sincerity”. There again goes the underlying principle behind abstinence from sex when associating with sacrificial service to God. But we must not stop there. The same Council ruled in canons 12/48 that Bishops, set aside priests and deacons, *cannot* cohabit with their wives at all. This is also plain as day: the East obliged Episcopal continence. The consequences of breaking this rule were deposition. Granted, this is the 7th century formulation, and so I am skipping ahead here quite a bit (as you will see below). Nevertheless, here in the East, bishops who were ordained as single-men were under the universal ban against marriage for one, but even those bishops who were ordained as married are under this complete prohibition of conjugal relations, and a separate housing for their wives. From what I can tell, this doesn’t represent the universal tradition of the East prior to the 7th-century, but we can say that the Council of Trullo certainly solidified Eastern praxis and discipline on the matter. [7] (If the reader knows of any sources in this regard, please message me . Thank you kindly).

Let us rewind a bit and get back to the Council in Nicaea (325). We know there was an attempt by the bishops to enforce absolute clerical continence upon all three ranks of holy orders. The Greek historian Socrates informs us that Paphnutius, bishop of Upper Thebes, who was a miracle-worker and had lost one eye in the Imperial persecution prior, stood up to share his mind at the Council. The historian writes:

Paphnutius having arisen in the midst of the assembly of bishops, earnestly entreated them not to impose so heavy a yoke on the ministers of religion: asserting that ‘marriage itself is honorable, and the bed undefiled’; urging before God that they ought not to injure the Church by too stringent restrictions. ‘For all men,’ said he, ‘cannot bear the practice of rigid continence; neither perhaps would the chastity of the wife of each be preserved’: and he termed the intercourse of a man with his lawful wife chastity. It would be sufficient, he thought, that such as had previously entered on their sacred calling should abjure matrimony, according to the ancient tradition of the Church: but that none should be separated from her to whom, while yet unordained, he had been united. And these sentiments he expressed, although himself without experience of marriage, and, to speak plainly, without ever having known a woman: for from a boy he had been brought up in a monastery, and was specially renowned above all men for his chastity. The whole assembly of the clergy assented to the reasoning of Paphnutius: wherefore they silenced all further debate on this point, leaving it to the discretion of those who were husbands to exercise abstinence if they so wished in reference to their wives. Thus much concerning Paphnutius.” (Ecclesiastical History Book 1.11)

Now, before this gets blown out of proportion, we must recall that the Council of Nicaea was mainly an Eastern council, and so the disciplines of absolute continence were still enforced as a matter of canon in the West (c.f. Elvira, Arles, and what follows). In any case, the heroic Paphnutius does bear witness to the rule of absolute celibacy upon the men who are unmarried when they are ordained as “according to the ancient tradition of the Church“. That much is extremely significant, for it once again signifies that the married clergy are allowed periodic seasons of sexual activity by way of concession, albeit the demand for periodic continence are kept when handling priestly service in the house of God. For if a married and sexually active clerical life were just as good and profitable as the celibate clerical life, the latter would have never become obligatory once the door of opportunity for it closes upon ordination for those ordained when they are unmarried. The significance is quite clear.

Now, while Socrates was there describing events in the 4th-century, he gives us another testimony which is far more contemporary to the time of his writing (5th-century, 445 AD). He states:

” I myself, also, learned of another custom in Thessaly. If a clergyman in that country, after taking orders, should sleep with his wife, whom he had legally married before his ordination, he would be degraded. In the East, indeed, all clergymen, and even the bishops themselves, abstain from their wives: but this they do of their own accord, and not by the necessity of any law; for there have been among them many bishops, who have had children by their lawful wives, during their episcopate. It is said that the author of the usage which obtains in Thessaly was Heliodorus bishop of Tricca in that country; under whose name there are love books extant, entitled Ethiopica, which he composed in his youth. The same custom prevails at Thessalonica, and in Macedonia, and in Greece.” (ibid 5.22)

Socrates writes from 5th-century Greece, and so his all-embracing statement that all clergymen in the East abstain from their wives is quite interesting, to say the least. Call it an option all you wish, that report is nevertheless indicative of what I’ve been calling attention to in regard to the outstanding ideal of the priestly vocation. Of course, this is not surprising to read about in the 5th century since, as we saw, by the time the Council of Trullo came, it was quite uncontroversial to oblige absolute Episcopal continence.

Despite this witness of that holy warrior of God Paphnutius at the Nicaean council, there are prominent voices from the East which sing the same tune as the West, and I’m convinced it would just be downright irresponsible to fail mentioning.



St. Epiphanius of Salamis

For example, St. Ephiphanius of Salamis (310-403), a scholarly defender of orthodoxy, who was termed by St. Jerome as the Pentaglossis (5-tongued, due to his fluency in Hebrew, Syriac, Egyptian, Greek, and Latin), and who authored of the one of the early compendiums of heresies known up to his time entitled Panarion, wrote the following regarding the rule of perpetual continence for the order of the clergy:

In point of face a call to the holy priesthood of God, since the coming of Christ and because of the exceeding greatness of the honor of the priesthood, is not approved for those who, after a first marriage, and their wife having died, enter upon a second marriage. And this the holy Church of God has kept watch over unfailingly and strictly. But even one who is husband of one wife, if she is still living and still bearing children, is not approved; but after one marriage, if a husband keep continent or, if his wife has died, he remain a widower, he may be approved as both deacon and presbyter and bishop and subdeacon, especially where the ecclesiastical canons are precise” (Panarion 59, De Fide, 21.7)

Now, this is ironic. It would appear that, here, from an Eastern witness, no less, there is something even stronger than the Elviran and Arletine canons requiring perpetual continence. St. Epiphanius goes so far as to say that if a man has a wife who is still bearing children, he is not fit for holy orders at all.

cyril_of_jerusalemSt. Cyril of Jerusalem, another heavy hitter, in his 12th Catechetical instruction, argues that a priest who fulfills his office faithfully abstains from a wife (we aren’t told if it is abstinence from marriage altogether, periodic continence, nor perpetual), then certainly the Lord Jesus would be a celibate:

“For it became Him who is most pure, and a teacher of purity, to have come forth from a pure bride-chamber. For if he who well fulfills the office of a priest of Jesus abstains from a wife, how should Jesus Himself be born of man and woman?” (Lecture 12)



St John Chrysostom

St. John Chrysostom comments on the passage of Scripture where St. Paul speaks to one of the qualifications of a man to be a candidate for bishop as being “husband of one wife”:

“If then he who is married cares for the things of the world, and a Bishop ought not to care for the things of the world, why does he say the husband of one wife? Some indeed think that he says this with reference to one who remains free from a wife [i.e. widows]. But if otherwise, he that has a wife may be as though he had none.  For that liberty was then properly granted, as suited to the nature of the circumstances then existing. And it is very possible, if a man will, so to regulate his conduct. For as riches make it difficult to enter into the kingdom of Heaven, yet rich men have often entered in, so it is with marriage.” (Homily on 1 Tim #10)

However one interprets this passage, what is clear is that Chrysostom understands the difficulty of a married Bishop attaining the Kingdom of Heaven is akin to a rich man entering the kingdom of heaven. This already takes of line of reasoning contrary to modern times. Moreover, Chrysostom states that the possible allowance of married Bishops in the times of St. Paul’s writing was due to the circumstances which required it then. The implication is still that he who is an ordained Bishop but married should live as though he was not married. Even so, he concedes the possibility of regulating one’s conduct so as to attain heaven even as a married Bishop. No further details given as to whether this includes conjugal relations or not, since even just the mere “care” of a wife was seen as obstructing the single-minded devotion to God.

If we are left wondering just what Chrysostom believed about a Bishop who carried out conjugal relations with his wife, a story bears the worth of mentioning. In the Dialogue on the Life of Chrysostom (Ch. 14-15) the author, most likely Palladius of Galatia, records how Chrysostom presided over a trial which accused a certain Antoninus, Bishop of Ephesus, of 7 crimes, one of which was that, “after separating from his married wife, he had taken her again and had children born to him by her“. Now, by “separating” is meant the commitment of a married man to separate from his wife upon entering into the office of Bishop (i.e. often entailing the Bishop living in quarters different than his wife). When Chrysostom accepted the hearing of the charges, the bishops present at the Council said the following of each charge: “Without doubt, each single point of each single count is impious, and forbidden from every point of view by the sacred laws“. Long story short, the trial never could finally condemn Antoninus for a few different reasons, but the most important one is that Antoninus died before sufficient witnesses could be provided. All in all, the point worth attention is that during the late 4th-century of Eastern law in both Constantinople and Ephesus, a Bishop who, upon his ordination, had separated from his wife, only to thereafter re-engage in conjugal relations, was deemed a crime against the sacred laws of the Church. Of course, this is not at all surprising since, as we saw, the Trullan canons reflect this. But, at least for me, it still complicates things since Socrates spoke of bishops being able to have children during their episcopate, and thus conjugal relations.



Pope St. Sircius

In the late 4th-century, Pope St. Siricius (384) wrote a decretal to the Bishop of Tarragona (in Spain), Himerius, on several disciplinary issues, and in one place he clearly mentions that priests are to remain perpetually celibate, even if married. What is so significant about this decretal is the harsh language it uses to prohibit the allowance of conjugal relations for any of the clergy who are married. It is truly jaw-dropping:

“For we learned that many priests and deacons of Christ, long after their ordination, have produced offspring both from their own wives and even through filthy liaisons, and defend their sin with this excuse, that it is read in the Old Testament that the opportunity to procreate was given to priests and ministers….Let him speak to me now, whoever is an addict of obscenities and a teacher of vices. If he thinks that here and there in the law of Moses the restraints of indulgence are relaxed by the Lord for sacred orders, why does He admonish those to whom the Holy of Holies was committed saying: “Be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy”?… Why indeed were priests ordered to live in the temple, far from their homes, in the year of their service? Just for this reason: so that they could not engage in physical contact even with wives, and that shining in integrity of conscience they might offer acceptable service to God. The period of service having been completed, use of wives was permitted to them for reason of succession alone, because no one from a tribe other than of Levi was directed to be admitted to the ministry of God….Whence the Lord Jesus, when he enlightened us by his advent, testified in the Gospel that he had come to fulfill the law not to destroy it. And he wished thus that the figure of the Church, whose bridegroom he is, radiate with the splendor of chastity, so that on the day of judgment when he comes again he can find her without stain and blemish, just as he taught through his Apostle. All we priests and deacons are bound by the unbreakable law of those sanctions, so that from the day of our ordination we subject our hearts and bodies to moderation and modesty in order that in every respect we might please our God in these sacrifices which daily we offer….And because a considerable number of those of whom we speak, as your holiness reported, lament that they lapsed in ignorance, we declare that mercy should not be denied to them, with this condition: if henceforth they strive to conduct themselves continently, they should continue as long as they live in that office which they held when they were caught, without any advancement in rank. But those who lean on the excuse of an illicit privilege by asserting that this was conceded to them in the old law, let them know that they have been expelled by the authority of the apostolic see from every ecclesiastical office, which they used unworthily, nor can they ever touch the mysteries which ought to be venerated, of which they deprived themselves when they were obsessed with obscene desires. And because present examples forewarn us to be vigilant in the future, any bishop, priest, and deacon henceforth found in this situation–which we hope will not happen–should understand right now that every avenue of forgiveness from us for himself is blocked, because it is necessary that wounds which do not respond to the medication of a soothing compress should be excised with a knife.” (To Himerius of Tarragona ; PL 13, 1132)

Now, doubtless, these are serious words. One cannot but help to see a difference in tone on this question between East and West already by this time, notwithstanding the accusation of breaking the sacred canons by Antoninus under St. Chrysostom. Although, at least we can say that the idealism of at least perfect continence is nonetheless roughly agreed on both sides. Nevertheless, here is a 4th-century Pope issuing threats of deposition and excommunication for failing to adhere to the laws of the Church prohibiting conjugal relations for all three major grades of holy orders.



St. Jerome

St. Jerome (347-420), commenting on the Virginity of Mary and the Lord Jesus, speaks to the expectations of the clergy in his own day:

Therefore, as I was going to say, the virgin Christ and the virgin Mary have dedicated in themselves the first fruits of virginity for both sexes. The apostles have either been virgins or, though married, have lived celibate lives. Those persons who are chosen to be bishops, priests, and deacons are either virgins or widowers; or at least when once they have received the priesthood, are vowed to perpetual chastity (Letter to Pammachius 48.21)


” If married men feel indignant at this statement, let them vent their anger not on me but on the Holy Scriptures; nay, more, upon all bishops, presbyters, and deacons, and the whole company of priests and levites, who know that they cannot offer sacrifices if they fulfil the obligations of marriage” (ibid 48.10)

Here, Jerome bears witness to the qualifications and conditions to be a candidate for holy orders. In the first place, either virgins or widowers are qualified, and thereafter vow unto perpetual celibacy, or, if they are married, vow to cease all conjugal relations to perpetual abstinence. This is a pretty significant statement, since Jerome was well known and long traveled, not to mention his scholarly pre-eminence.

But the very choice of a bishop makes for me. For he does not say: ‘Let a bishop be chosen who marries one wife and begets children’; but ‘who marries one wife, and has his children in subjection and well disciplined’. You surely admit that he is no bishop who during his episcopate begets children. The reverse is the case — if he be discovered, he will not be bound by the ordinary obligations of a husband, but will be condemned as an adulterer. Either permit priests to perform the work of marriage with the result that virginity and marriage are on a par: or if it is unlawful for priests to touch their wives, they are so far holy in that they imitate virgin chastity. But something more follows. A layman, or any believer, cannot pray unless he abstain from sexual intercourse. Now a priest must always offer sacrifices for the people: he must therefore always pray. For even under the old law they who used to offer sacrifices for the people not only remained in their houses, but purified themselves for the occasion by separating from their wives, nor would they drink wine or strong drink which are wont to stimulate lust. That married men are elected to the priesthood, I do not deny: the number of virgins is not so great as that of the priests required. Does it follow that because all the strongest men are chosen for the army, weaker men should not be taken as well? All cannot be strong. If an army were constituted of strength only, and numbers went for nothing, the feebler men might be rejected. As it is, men of second or third-rate strength are chosen, that the army may have its full numerical complement.” (Against Jovinianus, Book 1.34)


St. Ambrose of Milan

St. Ambrose of Milan (340 – 397) makes a comment concerning the chastity of the ordained clergy which assumes perfect continence as obligatory, and even reaches back into the Old Testament, like we have done, in order to show that sexual activity and priestly service in God’s house are not practical. He even goes so far as to say that the ministerial office is defiled by conjugal intercourse. He writes:

But ye know that the ministerial office must be kept pure and unspotted, and must not be defiled by conjugal intercourse; ye know this, I say, who have received the gifts of the sacred ministry, with pure bodies, and unspoiled modesty, and without ever having enjoyed conjugal intercourse. I am mentioning this, because in some out-of-the-way places, when they enter on the ministry, or even when they become priests, they have begotten children [i.e. they are sexually active with their wives after ordination]. They defend this on the ground of old custom, when, as it happened, the sacrifice was offered up at long intervals. However, even the people had to be purified two or three days beforehand, so as to come clean to the sacrifice, as we read in the Old Testament.  They even used to wash their clothes. If such regard was paid in what was only the figure, how much ought it to be shown in the reality! Learn then, Priest and Levite, what it means to wash your clothes. You must have a pure body wherewith to offer up the sacraments. If the people were forbidden to approach their victim unless they washed their clothes, do you, while foul in heart and body, dare to make supplication for others? Do you dare to make an offering for them?” (On the Duties of the Clergy 1.50.258)


St. Augustine & St. Ambrose

To no surprise, St. Augustine can use the perfect continence of the clergy as an example to follow for even married men. He writes:

“Therefore we say to them: Look now, suppose the forceful entreaties of the people should oblige you to assume their office [i.e., or clerics], would you not carry out the obligations of chastity, once they were assumed? ….For if many of God’s ministers have accepted what has been imposed quite suddenly and unexpectedly in the hope that they will shine with great brilliance in Christ’s inheritance, how much more should you avoid adultery and live continently, not out of fear that you may shine less brilliantly in the kingdom of God but that you may burn in the Gehenna of fire” (On Adulterous Marriages, 2, 22 taken from Sacraments of Healing and of Vocation, by Fr. Paul F. Palmer, SJ pg. 74; as far as I know, both books on Adulterous Marriages can be found in English in Treatises on Marriage and Other Subjects in the 27th Vol. of The Fathers of the Church series)

In a work which had been largely doubted as to its acclaimed Apostolic origin, the Apostolic Constitutions (375-390) were nevertheless held in high regard with regard to ecclesiastical legislation. In its 8th book, we read the following canon under Ecclesiastical Canons of the Same Holy Apostles:

“Of those who come into the clergy unmarried, we permit only the readers and singers, if they have a mind, to marry afterward.” (Canon 27)

In primitive times, it was common to refer to readers, singers, acolytes, porters, lectors, and exorcists are members of the lower clergy. This canon implies that the only members of the clergy in this wider sense which are allowed to marry after being ordained are the readers and singers.


St. Augustine of Hippo

Towards the end of the 4th-century, at the Council of Carthage (390), which canons were approved afresh in a great Council in the same city in the year 418, the bishops of North Africa ruled absolute abstinence from conjugal union for all three ranks of holy orders. Again, the Old Testament Levitical example of periodic continence

When at the past council the matter on continency and chastity was considered, those three grades, which by a sort of bond are joined to chastity by their consecration, to wit bishops, presbyters, and deacons, so it seemed that it was becoming that the sacred rulers and priests of God as well as the Levites, or those who served at the divine sacraments, should be continent altogether, by which they would be able with singleness of heart to ask what they sought from the Lord: so that what the apostles taught and antiquity kept, that we might also keep.” (Canon 3)

The next canon reads:

Faustinus, the bishop of the Potentine Church, in the province of Picenum, a legate of the Roman Church, said: It seems good that a bishop, a presbyter, and a deacon, or whoever perform the sacraments, should be keepers of modesty and should abstain from their wives. By all the bishops it was said: It is right that all who serve the altar should keep pudicity from all women.” (canon 4)

Again, another clear shadow of what was to become one of the issues making it on the bull of excommunication in Constantinople in 1054. The West, including many in the East, would see the mandate for perpetual continence for married clergy to be an Apostolic tradition. That is very significant.


St. Leo the Great

Pope St. Leo the Great (400-461), in his letter to Anatasius of Thessaloniki (recall what Socrates states about the churches in Thessaloniki above), states the following:

For although they who are not within the ranks of the clergy are free to take pleasure in the companionship of wedlock and the procreation of children, yet for the exhibiting of the purity of complete continence, even sub-deacons are not allowed carnal marriage: that both those that have, may be as though they had not , and those who have not, may remain single. But if in this order, which is the fourth from the Head , this is worthy to be observed, how much more is it to be kept in the first, or second, or third, lest any one be reckoned fit for either the deacon’s duties or the presbyter’s honourable position, or the bishop’s pre-eminence, who is discovered not yet to have bridled his uxorious desires.” (Letter 14.5)

In a reply letter to Bishop Narbonensis of Gallia concerning questions on discipline, St. Leo repeats the question sent and follows with his answer:

“Concerning those who minister at the altar and have wives, whether they may lawfully cohabit with them?

Reply. The law of continence is the same for the ministers of the altar as for bishops and priests, who when they were laymen or readers, could lawfully marry and have offspring. But when they reached to the said ranks, what was before lawful ceased to be so. And hence, in order that their wedlock may become spiritual instead of carnal, it behooves them not to put away their wives but to have them as though they had them notwhereby both the affection of their wives may be retained and the marriage functions cease.” (Letter 167.3.3)

Portrait of Pope Gregory I

St. Gregory the Great

So difficult this law of continence could be that St. Gregory the Great could share the following story regarding a certain priest:

“I must not forget to mention an account related to me by the Abbot Stephen, whom you know very well. He died in Rome not long ago. According to him, there was in the province of Nursia a certain presbyter who ruled the Church entrusted to him in great fear of the Lord. From the time when he received his ordination he loved his presbyteress as a sister, but avoided her like the enemy, and never allowed her to come near him. Never permitting himself on any occasion to visit her, he cut himself off absolutely from all familiar communion with her…After a long life in which he had spent forty years in the priestly ministry he was taken with a severe fever and lay at the point of death. When his wife saw him lying there half-dead and with all his bodily strength wasted away she put her ear to his face to catch the least sound of breathing. Aware of her presence, he gathered all his strength and with the little breath he had left he rasped out in a hoarse whisper, ‘Get away from me, woman! The fire is still smoldering! Take away the tinder! (Dialogues 4.12; taken from Jurgens Vol 3 page 319).


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Patriarch Michael Cerularius (1054)

As the Church moved into the 7th to 11th centuries, growing tensions between Greek East and Latin West become very apparent in the historical literature, and this finally became formal in a tragic break beginning in 1054, which would then have a domino effect creating the large and general schism between Byzantium and the West. Time and space forbid going into the details over the goings on prior to Pope St. Leo IX’s sending of Cardinal Humbert to Constantinople (see here for more info), but I thought it worth sharing a tidbit from the confrontation between the Roman legates, led by Humbert, and Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople as it relates to this subject of clerical celibacy.

For those of you who are familiar, the bull of excommunication that was laid atop the main altar of Hagia Sophia Cathedral just as the service was about to begin included a number of accusations of heresies and abuses by “Michael, falsely called Patriarch, and his followers“, and one of them stated the following:

“..The Nicolaites permit and defend marriage of the holy altar” (Readings in Christianity, by Robert E. Van Voorst, pg. 123)

Here, Humbert accuses the Patriarch of Constantinople of permitting carnal misconduct for married clergy.

And then, when Cerularius found the chance to write up a condemnatory response, he wrote the following towards the Cardinal, leaving aside the See of Rome or the Pope since Michael and his council did not perceive the bull to have come from Rome:

Nor do they [Roman legates] want to fully understand that God the Creator in an appropriate way created woman, and he decreed that it was improper for men to be alone…we continue to observe inviolate the ancient canons of the Apostolic perfection and order, and wish to affirm that the marriage of ordained men should not be dissolved and they should not be deprived of having sexual relations with their wives, which from time to time is appropriate. So if anyone is found worthy of the office of deacon or subdeacon, he should not be kept from this office and he should be restored to his lawful wife in order that what God has himself ordained and blessed should not be dishonored by us, especially since the Gospel declares ‘Those whom God has joined together, let not man put asunder’. If someone then dares against the apostolic canons to remove anyone of the clergy who is a presbyter, deacon, or subdeacon, depriving him of his lawful bond with his wife, let him be excommunicated” (ibid, 124)

Of course, the Latin West, as we saw, had already canonized the penalty of laicizing any members of the three major grades of holy orders if they were found practicing conjugal relations at least going back to the late 2nd century with the witness of St. Hippolytus, the early 4th century at the latest with the witness of the Council of Elvira and Arles. We even saw that many Eastern fathers were behind this. The decretal of Pope St. Siricius (384), in fact, makes the bull of excommunication by Humbert look like a wet noodle.  What about the witness of the Greek historian Socrates who reported in the 5th-century that the clergy in Thessaloniki, Macedonia, and Greece suffer the penalty of being degraded from orders if they perform conjugal relations after their ordinations? If Cerularius was intended on saying that Humbert’s position was heretical, then the force of that accusation backwards onto the whole West, including Saints of Byzantine devotion, will have a dreadful consequence. Regardless of that, Cerularius was correct that the East had taken the Trullan canons are the crystallization or codification of Eastern praxis, and those canons permit deacons and presbyters to engage in conjugal relations, though not Bishops.

Eventually, fidelity to the canonical tradition for perpetual continence, especially the celibate ideal, was in a great measure lost. Infidelity of the priestly vocation to celibacy and continence was a sign of moral degradation. In response to this, several reform attempts were made, but it would have to wait until the Gregorian Reform in the 11th-century that a successful stand was made against incontinence in holy orders. From that point forward, there was no disputing the need for celibacy in the priesthood. That is, of course until the Reformation of the 16th-century. Martin Luther, looking backwards to the universal practice of Christianity states this:

Now it is certainly obvious that these human laws forbidding the marriage of priests are really not laws of man but of the devil. (Critique of the “spiritual order of pope and bishops, falsely so called” taken from ‘What Luther Says’, compiled by Ewald M. Plass, 890)martin_luther_w


If the Pope had brought about no other calamity than this prohibition of marriage, it would be sufficient to stamp him as the anti-Christ, who is rightly called the man of sin and the son of perdition and the abomination so much sin and perdition have come of this one prohibition” (ibid 890)

Of course, Protestantism would carry this line of Luther and overturn the centuries of celibacy as a high calling of God for many souls in the Church.




We can see that as early as the late 2nd-century or early 3rd-century , marriage for clergyman and the allowance of conjugal relations between the clergy and their wives was understood by at least some to be contrary to Church rules, and that to violate this would be to sin against the discipline of the Church (Hippolytus). This rule of perpetual continence was not universal, since we have the witness of the Council of Nicaea (Paphnutius) which turned down the attempt of the bishops to draw an ecumenical prohibition. Despite that, we have many important voices in the East which nevertheless endorsed this rule as if it were the tradition of the Church (Epiphanius, Cyril, Eusebius, Socrates). Moreover, by the late 7th-century, the Eastern churches made a solid canon forbidding Bishops (not deacons and presbyters) who were married at their ordination into holy orders from, not only conjugal relations, but even to live in the same quarters as their wives. That is not to say that this rule was invented in the 7th-century, since, according to a reliable source (Palladius), St. John Chrysostom presided over a trial in the late 4th-century wherein bishops were ready to press charges against a Bishop for bearing children post-ordination. At the same time, another reliable source (Socrates) reports that Eastern bishops in the 5th century (and prior) were known to have blamelessly borne children after their ordination. Where we see no variance is in the West as testified by great Saints, Councils, Canons, and Doctors of the Church. And what makes their testimony unique is that they often appealed to Apostolic tradition as the ground for such perpetual prohibition against conjugal relations for the married members of the major orders of the clergy. With that said, both Latin West and Greek East held fast to the universal ban on the allowance of bishops, presbyters, and deacons to marry if they were unmarried upon entering orders (even at the level of subdeacon, unless, as the Council of Ancyra specified, there was a dispensation from the Bishop at the time of his ordination), and from at least the 7th-century forward, both East and West are unified on the absolute prohibition of conjugal relations between Bishops and their wives. Therefore, there can be a tendency to exaggerate the differences between the Latins and the Greeks on this whole discussion, especially when examining the rift in 1054. Nevertheless, by the time  Humbert places that bull of excommunication on the altar of Hagia Sophia, the Trullan (692) allowance of deacons and priests to have conjugal relations with their wives at appropriate times was starkly opposite to the unchanging Western praxis since as far back as the Council of Elvira (305). It goes without saying, also, that this all is contrasted with the convictions of the Protestant Reformers beginning with Martin Luther, and it is to no surprise that such skepticism of the long standing views on virginity, monasticism, and clerical celibacy led to opening the door for divorce and re-marriage, as well as breaking the vows of consecrated virgins. In modern days, most Protestants never have the idea cross their mind unless they are confronted with an oddity in either Catholicism or Eastern Christians.

Thus far, I’ve refrained from giving my own personal opinion on which practice is the best; and for good reason, since it is none of my business to rule on the question, and I must defer to the Catholic Church for the answer. However, I will say this – The Eastern churches tended to allow for more laxity, and for reasons which just seem to be far more understandable given the weakness of the flesh, while the West seems to have always held a single-minded determination to enforce the ideal of continence, celibacy, and virginity. Could we pin point the current sex-abuse crisis on the Catholic Church’s intolerance of married or sexually active clergy? I don’t think so, and if there was a connection, then why is it that we don’t see a more massive crisis on this matter going back into the 4th, 5th, 6th, or 7th centuries? Or how about the shared rule by both East and West of absolute Episcopal continence for at least the 1300+ years? Therefore, I don’t think the solution to our problem will be found in the direction of undoing all of these ancient customs.


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3 thoughts on “Celibacy and Continence in the Priesthood according to the Church Fathers – A Study of Greek East & Latin West

  1. Great article a very compelling and erudite argument why you should never be a priest and those with absolutely no vocation and various impediments should fill the vacuum. Fr. Deacon Kevin….Please God help Your Church! Forgive my sarcasm….not really

  2. Pingback: Celibato e Continência de Acordo com os Padres da Igreja – Um Estudo do Oriente Grego e do Ocidente Latino – Apologistas da Fé Católica

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