Alfons Maria Stickler on Celibacy — with reference to the monk-bishop Paphnutius []

Clerical Celibacy: Concept and Method

Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler

From The Case for Clerical Celibacy

1. The first and most important prerequisite for a knowledge of the historical development of any institution is the proper understanding of the meaning of the concepts on which it is based. For ecclesiastical celibacy, we have a particularly clear and concise reference in the writings of one of the greatest of the Decretists–commentators on Gratian’s Decretum–who around 1140 collected and explained all the material concerning the juridical tradition of the first millennium of the Church. This Decretist is Huguccio of Pisa (d. 1210), who in his Summa on the Decretum, composed around 1190, began his treatment of celibacy with these words: “In hac Distinctione incipit (Gratianus) tractare specialiter de continentia clericorum, scilicet quam debent observare in non contrahendo martimonio et in noti utendo contracto.” [1]

A reading of this text clearly indicates a double obligation with respect to celibacy: not to marry and, if previously married, not to use the rights of marriage. In addition, it is clear that even in this period, namely, the end of the twelfth century, there were clerics in major orders who had been married prior to ordination. In fact we know from the Scriptures that the ordination of married men was a normal enough event. Saint Paul, in writing to his disciples Titus and Timothy, prescribed that such candidates could be married only once. [2] We know at least that Saint Peter was certainly married, since Peter said to his Master: “What about us? We left all we had to follow you.” To this, Christ responded (Saint Luke): “I tell you solemnly, there is no one who has left house, wife, brothers, parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not be given repayment many times over in this present time and, in the world to come, eternal life.” [3]

Here we clearly already have the first obligation of clerical celibacy, namely, the commitment to continence in the use of marriage after ordination. The real meaning of celibacy, which today is in general almost totally forgotten but which in the first millennium and beyond was well known, consists in this: complete abstinence with respect to the procreation of children even within the context of marriage. In fact all the first laws written on celibacy speak of this prohibition, that is, of the further procreation of children, a point which will be convincingly documented in the second part of this study. This indicates that, despite the fact that many clerics were already married before their ordination, they were nevertheless held to this particular obligation before they could he ordained. In the beginning, the actual prohibition to marry remained somewhat in the background. It emerged only later when the Church imposed the prohibition against marriage on those celibates from whom virtually all the candidates for sacred orders were exclusively recruited.

To complete this initial understanding of celibacy, which from the very beginning was correctly termed ”continence”, we must immediately note that married candidates could approach sacred orders and renounce the use of marriage only with the consent of their wife. The reason for this lies in the fact that, on the basis of the sacrament that had already been received, the wife had an inalienable right to the use of the valid (and consummated) marriage, which in itself was indissoluble. We will consider the complex problems that resulted from this renunciation in the second part of this work.

2. The second prerequisite for a correct understanding of the origins and development of clerical celibacy–which, given what has just been described, should he called sexual ”continence”–concerns the research method to be applied to this question. This is of particular importance given the number of opinions about the origins and first developments of the obligation to continence. Frequently they are the result of a flawed methodology in both their analysis and their explanation of the problem.

In the first place, it is necessary to underline that every area of study has what in general might be termed its own proper object and methodology, which are strictly connected to one another. It is also true that for related areas of study there are common rules that must be observed and applied in actual research. Thus, for example, in historical research, one cannot disregard the rules that are fundamental for a preliminary analysis of the sources and which in turn establish their authenticity and integrity and thereby their intrinsic value. In other words, how credible they are and what probative value can be assigned to them. Only on this basis can one then correctly consider and evaluate the evidence and assertions contained in the particular documents. Thus a proper hermeneutic and a correct interpretation of the sources can only be established on this basis: by taking into account their authenticity, integrity, credibility and particular worth.

In addition to these general methodological prerequisites, it is also necessary to apply, however, the specific method required in every particular field of research. Hence, a competent history of philosophy presupposes an adequate knowledge of philosophy; a history of theology, a knowledge of theology. Likewise, the history of medicine and mathematics requires a sufficient knowledge of these two sciences. Thus, for a history of law, a knowledge of law and of its particular and proper methodology is also clearly fundamental.

Given this, we need to be conscious of the fact that the history of celibacy implies, with respect to its content and development, an understanding of both the law of the Church and of Catholic theology. Therefore, in establishing a correct hermeneutic of the relevant historical evidence (documents and facts), serious consideration must be paid to the method proper to both canon law and theology. While at first sight these observations may appear somewhat abstract, I would like immediately to demonstrate their meaning and necessity by applying them to a concrete question relative to our study.

At the end of the last [19th] century, a well-known and somewhat heated discussion took place about the origins of clerical celibacy. Gustav Bickell, son of a lawyer and himself an orientalist, traced its origins to an apostolic rule by appealing above all to evidence from the East. Franz X. Funk, a well-known historian of the early Church, responded to Bickell claiming that this could not be affirmed since the first law on celibacy could be found only at the beginning of the fourth century. After a series of further exchanges in various articles on the question, Bickell made no reply, while Funk continued to publish his views without receiving any response from his adversary. He did receive, however, the significant agreement of other leading scholars, such as E. F. Vacandard and H. Leclercq. Their influence and authority in combination with their tendency to express their views in widely disseminated works helped to assure Funk’s theory an almost universal acceptance that endures even today.[4]

Taking into consideration what has been stated above concerning the need to follow clear methodological principles for this type of research, it must be pointed out that Funk, both in the development and presentation of his results, did not apply the general principles necessary for a critical study and appreciation of the sources. He accepted as one of his principal arguments against Bickell the spurious story of the monk-bishop Paphnutius of Egypt at the Council of Nicaea (325). This was surprising in such an eminent scholar, given the fact that even before Funk a critical appraisal of the sources had repeatedly concluded that this episode was false. This has also been confirmed by contemporary research, as will be seen when we return to the question in our discussion of the Council of Nicaea. Funk made a still greater error when he asserted that the official obligation to celibacy first began only with the appearance of a specific written law on the topic. The same mistake must also have been made by Vacandard, a historian of theology, and Leclercq, a historian of councils.

Every historian of law knows (as Hans Kelsen, one of the most authoritative legal theorists of this century, has clearly affirmed) that an identification between law in the general sense and norms (rules, statutes) is mistaken, ius et lex. Law (ius) is any obligatory legal norm, whether it be established orally or handed on by means of a custom or already expressed in writing. A norm (lex), on the other hand, is any regulation established in a written form and legitimately promulgated.

It is a particular characteristic of law, explained in every history on the topic, that the origin of every legal system consists in oral traditions and in the transmission of customary norms which only slowly receive a fixed written form. Thus it was only after centuries and for various sociological reasons that the Romans formulated in writing the law of the Twelve Tables. The German peoples only compiled their popular juridical system and customs in written form after many centuries of their actual existence. Up to that time, their law was unwritten and was handed on orally. No one would thereby affirm that, on this basis, their law (ius) was not obligatory and that its observance was left to the free will of the individual.

Like the legal system of any large community, that of the early Church consisted for the greater part in regulations and obligations which were handed on orally, particularly during the three centuries of persecution, which made it difficult to fix them in writing. On the other hand, the Church, to a greater degree than other new societies, had written elements of law from the very beginning. Evidence of this can be found in Scripture. Saint Paul in his Second Letter to the Thessalonians (2:15) wrote: “Stand firm, then, brothers, and keep the traditions that we taught you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” Without doubt we are dealing here with obligatory regulations which had been given, as is said explicitly, not only in writing but also handed on orally. Anyone, therefore, who claims that only those norms are obligatory which have been written down fails to do justice to the cognitive method proper to the domain of legal history.

Further, in considering the correct method to arrive at an understanding of the theological foundations of clerical continence, one must give explicit consideration to the fact that alongside the disciplinary and hence juridical material, we are also dealing with a charism which is intimately connected with the Church and with Christ. This clearly implies that the theological foundations can be understood and analyzed only in the light of revelation and of theological reflection.

It is now known that medieval theology gave little independent study to subjects connected with the law and discipline. Rather, it made its own the discussions and the conclusions of the classic canonists, who were flourishing in this period, especially through the work of the glossators. The historians of medieval theology have explicitly identified this phenomenon, [5] and a glance at the works of the greatest of the medieval scholastics, Saint Thomas Aquinas, obviously confirms their findings. This is surely the principal reason why clerical celibacy or continence has not been satisfactorily studied by theology itself, that is, by following its own proper method based on revelation and its sources. True, this lacuna has already been partially filled, but a far more profound understanding of the theological foundations for our subject is urgently required. This all-too-justified demand will be accommodated in the final part of this work.


[1] [In this section (Gratian) begins specifically to treat the clerical celibacy, i.e.. which clerics are bound to observe in not contracting marriage and in not exercising the rights of marriage.] Dist. 27, dict. introd. ad v. quod autem. See Studia Gratiana, ed. by J. Forchicili and Alfons M. Stickler, vols. 1-3 (Bologna, 1953ff.)

[2] 1 Tim 3:2 and 3:12; Titus 1:6.

[3] Mt 19:27-30; Mk 10:20-21; Lk 18:28-30.

[4] Gustav Bickell, “Der Cölibat eine apostolische Anordnung”, in: Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie 2 (1878): 26-64. Id., “Der Colibat dennoch eine apostolische Anordnung”, in: Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie 3 (1879): 792-99. Franz Xaver Funk, “Der Cölibat keine apostolische Anordnung”, in: Tübinger theologische Quartalschrift 61 (1879): 208-47. Id., “Der Cölibat noch lange keine apostolische Anordnung”, in: Tübinger theologische Quartalschrift 62 (1880): 202- 21. Id., “Cölibat und Priesterehe im Christlichen Altertum”, in: Kirchengeschichtliche Abhandlungen und Untersuchungen 1 (1897) 121-55. Elphège-Florent Vacandard, “Les Origines du célibat ecclésiastique”, in: Études de critique et d’histoire religieuse, 1st ser. (Paris, 1905; 5th ed.: Paris, 1913), 71-120. Id., art. “Célibat”, in: Dictionnaire de théologie catholique 2 (Paris, 1905): 2068-88. Henri Leclercq, “La Législation conciliaire relative au célibat ecclésiastique”, in the extended French edition of Conciliengeschichte, by Carl Josef v. Hefele, vol. 2, part 2 (Paris, 1908), appendix 6, 1321-48. Id., art. “Célibat”, in: Dictionnaire d’Archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie 2 (Paris, 1908): 2802-32.

[5] Cf. Arthur Michael Landgraf, “Diritto canonico e teologia nel sec. XII”, in: Studia Gratiana 1:371-413.

Cardinal Alfons Maria Stickler was a member of numerous international academic organizations. He was a consultor to many Congregations of the Roman Curia, was a member of the preparatory commission for the Second Vatican Council, a peritus to three of the Council Commissions, and a member of the commission for the preparation of the new Codex Iuris Canonici. He died at the age of 97 on 12 December 2007.


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