The latest on clerical continence: Casa Santa Lidia

On clerical continence

I had not planned on posting anything on this subject, since this is not a good forum to tackle canonical issues, or any other serious issues, frankly, being a blog more of a personal not professional nature. But the exchanges on the topic of clerical continence in the blogopshere among Catholics in the last few days prompt me to offer my own remarks, all the more so since mine is the “other related thesis” mentioned in comment #9 here.


I am a canon lawyer who works in an archdiocese in the United States. I will not say more than that, as I do not want what I say to be seen as being part of my archdiocese’s official position on this issue, since it would be for our Archbishop to offer any kind of statement or catechesis to the faithful of this archdiocese on the Church’s celibacy discipline. My remarks are merely the product of my own years of research while a graduate student at one of Rome’s pontifical universities, and then over the course of the last year or so as I have been assembling my doctoral dissertation.
On average about once a week or every other week I wind up having to explain clerical celibacy and the ancient continence discipline to one or more persons or a group of people. I began my research even before I went to Rome to study canon law, but during my five years there I realized that most of my classmates (young priests, deacons and seminarians from all over the world) had no idea why they were celibate or about to promise celibacy for life, and could not explain celibacy when challenged on it (“There were married priests in the early Church, so why can’t priests get married now?” or similar questions for which they had no convincing answer).
The answer is one I’ve given many times: it was never the case that deacons or priests could get married, but that married men could become deacons or priests. Yes, there used to be married priests in the early Church, indeed there were married deacons, priests, bishops (such as St. Paulinus of Nola and his wife Therasia who together chose a life of abstinence after their only child died) and even popes (like Pope St. Felix III, by tradition the great-great grandfather of Pope St. Gregory the Great, and Pope Hadrian II, whose wife and daughter were abducted and murdered). However, what seems to have been lost along the way is that it never mattered whether these clerics were married or single at the time they were ordained to major orders (beginning with the diaconate, and for many centuries the subdiaconate) — since married or single, those who were ordained to major orders had to take upon themselves sexual continence for the rest of their lives. Hence the necessity of the wife’s consent. It was more than just the fact that her husband was embarking upon a new and demanding ministry that might make inroads on her time as well, but rather that it meant total continence for her too.
In the early Church it was not uncommon, in cities, for the deacon or priest to move into the bishop’s house, with his wife remaining at home or, from the 4th century onward, joining a group of devout women (or a community of nuns in later centuries). In rural areas a priest would often still live with his wife under the same roof, but it was usually considered a bit of a scandal if they continued to have children (cf. Pope St. Leo the Great). In 325 A.D., the First Council of Nicaea, canon 3, gives a list of women who could live clerics: “This great Synod has stringently forbidden any bishop, presbyter, deacon, or any one of the clergy whatever, to have a subintroducta dwelling with him, except only a mother, or sister, or aunt, or such persons only as are beyond all suspicion.” His wife was not on the list as the couple had already committed to continence. Other councils permitted an unmarried daughter to live with the cleric (if he had a daughter, then he may have had a wife still living — but she was not to live with him).
This followed the first legislation that we know of which addressed this issue, around the year 305, at the Council of Elvira (a town whose ruins lie outside of Granada in Spain). Canon 33 states: “Bishops, presbyters, deacons, and others with a position in the ministry are to abstain completely from sexual relations with their wives.”
It is a basic principle of canon law (as with most legal systems) that laws are not arbitrarily invented out of thin air, but rather enshrine or emphasize existing praxis, customs, or rules. Subsequent synods and councils, whether Ecumenical or regional or local, confirm this law from then on, until the 12th century, at the First and Second Lateran Councils, when the Church began to ordain only single men (later reinforced at Lateran IV in 1215 and then at Trent).
The New Testament origins of this discipline can be found in the Gospels (the “eunuch logion” and the list of things renounced in Matthew 19:29, Mark 10:29, and Luke 18:29 which specifically mentions giving up one’s wife), and in St. Paul (the once-married man as being suitable to become overseer {1 Tim. 3:2 and 3:12, Titus 1:6}, i.e., capable of assuming continence, as opposed to the man who remarried after being widowed being less likely to make the renunciation — St. Paul uses the same criterion for those to be enrolled as widows {1 Tim. 5:9} — and couples who are to leave themselves “free for prayer” {1 Cor. 7:5} which has great implications for those who would “pray always,” etc.).
There are sparse hints in texts of the second century of the existence of continence observances (“ἐγκρατεῖς περὶ πάντα” in St. Polycarp to the Philippians, or references in the Shepherd of Hermas and the Acts of Paul and Thecla, not by any means strictly Gnostic, though with some texts belonging to the Encratite movement), and clearer indications after 200 A.D. (Tertullian, Origen, the Hippolytus who railed against Pope Callixtus for ordaining men who had been married more than once, and other sources). Even in such early times the Church had a balanced view of conjugal life: the heretic Marcion was excommunicated in 144 A.D. for insisting that married catechumens who would not renounce marital relations should not be baptized. There are other examples from the third century as well which deserve attention from those just hearing about this topic for the first time (see reading list below).
Clerics in minor orders (porter, lector, cantor in the East, exorcist, acolyte) could marry, and in the Eastern Catholic Churches they still do (at least the non-monastics may, except in the Syro-Malabar and -Malankara Churches, which have celibate clergy). The formalization of the Eastern discipline of temporary continence for married higher clerics dates from the second “Trullan” council in 691-692. This temporary observance of continence, similar to that of the Levitical priesthood, is still the opening rubric of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom: “…he [the priest] is to abstain from the evening before.”* As much as people want to believe that the Eastern Churches always have the older observance, it is simply not the case.
Reading the comments posted on this issue, on The Deacon’s Bench blog or theAnchoress or any of the other blogs, it is evident that there is still an immense amount of confusion about this issue, as well as a truly breathtaking lack of knowledge not so much of canon law or theology or Scripture but basic Church history. The highly educated laity desired by Vatican II is still not yet realized, even 45 years after its closure. Most distressing of all is the apparent lack of interest in doing even a minimal amount of reading or research on the topic BEFORE commenting.
So here is a very minimal reading list, in addition to the article by Dr. Peters (I suspect the folks who are up in arms about this have not read the following):
The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy by Christian Cochini SJ (the book that changed my life)

Celibacy in the Early Church by Stefan Heid
Clerical Celibacy in East and West by Roman Cholij (and this fine article)
Priestly Celibacy Today by Thomas McGovern
The Case for Clerical Celibacy by Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler
The Theology of Priestly Celibacy by Stanley L. Jaki
These works will answer all the questions and confused statements I have read so far in the blog comments. There are a few books out there which deny there was an early continence discipline (such as the one by Heinz-Jürgen Vogels, Zölibat: eine Gabe, kein Gesetz) but I do not find them convincing next to the incomparable and unchallenged scholarship of the great Father Cochini or the meticulous work of Father Heid or Roman Cholij. I want to emphasize the “unchallenged” aspect of these works: no one has offered a meaningful and thorough scholarly rebuttal to these authors (and no, Roman Cholij has not “renounced” his position or repudiated his own book).
The issue of whether or not celibacy or continence is “unnatural” is ridiculous: human beings, alone among all living species, are the only ones who can choose to not reproduce (or rather, procreate) — to abstain from sexual relations for one reason or another — and so, far from being “unnatural,” continence is instead uniquely human. The issue of loneliness among celibate clergy is, on the other hand, quite serious. But as for marriage being a supposed “cure” for this, I myself as a single person have observed that some of the loneliest people I’ve ever known are married or in long-term relationships. I would like to see all the people who fret about the loneliness of celibate clergy in their empty rectories routinely invite their parish priests over for Sunday lunch after Mass, or for one or two evenings a week for supper with the family, or to get together with other parishioners to inquire and make sure that their pastor, their Father, does not find that he is alone at a time when he does not want to be.
No one is suggesting that in the Latin Church married clergy and their wives suddenly “take the pledge.” I think all that Dr. Peters is asking for is a clarification (for which I would be grateful as well) as to why this immemorial discipline vanished without comment at the time the permanent diaconate was “restored” (there was no “permanent diaconate” in the early Church: “permanent” and “transitional” as terms applied to the diaconate are of recent origin — there was only “the diaconate” which some men stayed in for life, while others went on to become priests — one cannot “restore” something which did not exist, in the strict sense). One might have hoped for some such comment inSacrum Diaconatus Ordinem or Ad Pascendum. Something to the effect of “and now, for the first time in the history of the Church, married men may be ordained to major orders without any change or modifcation of their married life,” or some such statement. But nothing was said.
Here’s someone who thinks Dr. Peters is pursuing this topic almost out of a kind of prurience, a judgment which I find to be quite rash:
I am amazed at this statement, but not surprised. Here is a Biblical scholar seemingly caught off guard, to the point of making him sound defensive. Perhaps (and I know I’m really reaching here, but it’s the only thing I can come up with) because he is a a Mennonite, he may have difficulty understanding that it is not the Catholic Church or Dr. Peters who have “trouble with sex,” but rather humanity, marked by original sin, which most certainly does (which includes clergy, married or not). This debate seems to have struck a nerve with those who are married. I know several married people who were convinced that Vatican II leveled the playing field and declared virginity and marriage to be equal. Imagine their surprise when they actually read Optatam Totius, one of the last documents of the Council, the fruit of its mature reflection, which states that while those in training for the priesthood should appreciate the dignity of Christian marriage, “they should recognize the greater excellence of virginity consecrated to Christ.” (10.) As Father Jaki pointed out in his book on celibacy, the “new theologians” who describe marital love as “the rose-strewn high-road to the highest virtue” are being very modern indeed. (p. 166)
I am no theologian or Biblical scholar, but to me it seems to be a difference not between “good” and “better,” but between “good” and “very good,” words which are not used lightly in the Scriptures. Marriage has always been highly valued by the Church (and is a Sacrament), and virginity and continence even more highly. Is that not enough? To be highly valued? Yes, there have been times when marriage was not as highly valued in the Church in one part of the world or another (I am thinking of my mother’s Catholic ancestors in Ireland, where cultural factors led some people to think of conjugal relations with a more than a hint of shame).
I have never met a married permanent deacon I did not think was a splendid asset and a blessing to the Church (actually, I can think of two who may not have been completely splendid, but that’s only two in 30 years. UPDATE: I’ve met a third…). As the USCCB website says:
I know many parishes which, if they were to lose their deacons, would be all but shuttered within weeks. Likewise, some of the finest and holiest priests I have ever met are married converts from Anglicanism who have been ordained Catholic priests.
So, if everyone could just take a deep breath and sit down to read just the first few chapters of Fr. Cochini’s book (or even Fr. McGovern’s book as a primer, which is available online here), I think they would be more at peace and less upset or anxious about the ancient observance of married continence. After all, part of the efforts of the Church before, during, and after Vatican II was to try to recover some of the beauty of the early Church and its practices. Most notable among these were things like removing some of the “medieval accretions” from the liturgy and restoring the chalice to the laity at Mass, though I bet that many people today would balk at other beautiful practices of the early Church, such as rising before dawn to sing a hymn to Christ, lengthy fasts, public penances which lasted for years, men and women on separate sides of the assembly, and women having to cover their heads — this last one also seems to have slipped though the cracks after Vatican II.
There is a great deal more, but it is not possible to do full justice to so complex a subject as this in, of all things, blog format. There are a number of principles at work here, teased out from the writing of the Fathers, or from the development of the liturgy, such as qui sacramenta contrectant, and other keys to understanding clerical continence which are more difficult for non-specialists to understand (avoiding digamy propter continentiam futuram, the early concept of the clerus, etc.). This issue, which embraces Scripture, history, theology, canon law, anthropology, sociology, and other areas, cannot be fully understood in the equivalent of an electronic sound-bite. Like most things of importance, it requires effort — putting in the time to make up for never having seriously studied Greek or Latin or Syriac, or patristics or ecclesiology, or dogmatic theology or sacramental theology or moral theology, or years of canon law (which is more than the 1917 and 1983 Codes, but rather stretches back to the earliest days of the Church), or the history of the Roman Empire, the history of the Councils, the history of the papacy, etc. Once again, these things take time, and a fair amount of effort. I know we Americans have a strange aversion to reading history, but for those who want to participate in a serious way in this conversation, there’s no time like the present to hit the books.
A final word about the “gift” of celibacy. I would assume that many, though not all, of those who enter religious life (a monastic community, or a community with an “active” apostolate, such as the Dominicans or Jesuits), as well as a fair number who go into the diocesan priesthood, have some sort of special “gift” from God, something which lets them live with great ease and serenity a life of continence as unmarried persons in the chastity appropriate to their vocation. There are also vast numbers of single people who do not belong, or feel called to belong, to a religious community, and who may not even be single entirely by choice. Most of them live as single people “in the world” and have jobs and friends and hobbies, but perhaps not a special “gift” of celibacy. Gift or no gift, however, they too are called to live a life of chastity in total continence as a simple duty of their state in life, as are the married persons who are suddenly widowed** or who because of unavoidable separation or illness must also switch to living lives of total continence even without a special “gift.” It used to be taught in catechism classes that if we are faithful, if we pray, then God will surely not fail to give us all the graces necessary for our state in life. I personally believe it is still true.
Just a personal note in closing: if people are going to engage in discussion of canon law, they should at least spell it correctly. It’s canon law, not cannon law, no matter how much I wish at times it could be.
* From The Sacred and Divine Liturgy of our Holy Father John Chrysostom. Synod of the Hierarchy of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Basilian Press, Toronto, 1988, p. 9. I don’t know if it is observed, nor do I necessarily care. But it is still “on the books,” literally.
** And this applies in a special way to married permanent deacons and married priests who become widowers and who are forbidden to marry again, the current canon prohibiting marriage to major clerics being the only vestige of the ancient continence discipline, since why would such a married cleric who loses his wife not be able to marry again if no restrictions were placed on his married life before — unless he had already made (or was supposed to have made) the definitive renunciation?


Fr Gabriel Burke C.C. said…
Thanks for this wonderful post.
If Dr Peters is correct. would there be grounds for annulment of Orders due to lack of discretion?
20 January 2011 03:37
Casa Santa Lidia said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
20 January 2011 06:44
Casa Santa Lidia said…
LOL!! if only…..or, how about canon 1098? O:)
20 January 2011 06:46
Casa Santa Lidia said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
20 January 2011 19:43
Casa Santa Lidia said…
Anon. (sorry, but I don’t publish Anons)
No, what it means is that there are large numbers of priests, deacons, layfolk (and…maybe some bishops) who have not heard of this before. And what THAT means, is that the people who are commenting on the other blogs, and a fair number seem to be clerics, have only minimally ever read the Fathers (actually probably only St. Augustine) or never bothered to read each of the Ecumenical Councils (maybe only Vatican II, which is a shame if only because most of the other 20 are really short and easy to read!), or never took the time to sit down and figure out where the Latin Church celibacy discipline came from and why married “permanent” deacons were seemingly exempted from it while priests are not. Sure, you could blame seminary formation, but all of us — smart, adult, faithful Catholics that we are — are supposed to be deepening our faith and our knowledge of the Church on our own too, no? Not waiting for someone to spoon-feed it to us? It does baffle me, the lack of initiative — like many people who leave university and never pick up a book again (maybe for pleasure, but not for study) I think it is the same with us after our catechism classes or for those leaving seminary. Time for study is a factor, of course. But to have only the fuzziest bits of information about the Church before the last few decades now seems to be very common. I think that we Catholics tend to think “I’m Catholic; of course I know the Church!” — but there’s no “final exam” as it were, no way to test what I do and do not know. And so at each moment of my life as a Catholic I have felt that I know pretty much all there is to know, or at least enough. Or rather, this was the case for me until a few years ago, when I went to Rome to study canon law. Now the Church appears to me as an Everest that is always appearing around each corner I turn…there’s always more, and it always seems somewhat out of reach, as if I will never truly be able to know everything. But when we love someone, we want to know everything about that person, no? So that keeps me going. O:)
20 January 2011 19:48
Raphaela said…
Thank you for this post and for shedding much light and no heat at all on the issue. My reading list is already too long, but I very much fear I’ll be adding to it from the works you list here… 🙂
25 January 2011 02:16

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7 responses to “The latest on clerical continence: Casa Santa Lidia

  1. What are the resaons for saying that ‘Roman Cholij has not “renounced” his position or repudiated his own book’? I’ve seen arguments that say he has. Thank you.

    • Father Brian Van Hove

      Can you produce a printed reference to your assertion?

      • Please refer to SyroMalankara #33, 64,75, 177 at Catholic Answers/Apologetics
        Thread: “If priestly celibacy is not a dogma, why can’t it be changed?
        Not being able to copy anything on to here is very restricting.

      • Father Brian Van Hove

        “…..he now defends the legitimacy of the Eastern practice of a married priesthood.”
        Fine. We are not talking about marriage or celibacy but about continence. Canon 277
        is about continence for all clerics.

  2. Here are the assertions:
    May 2, ’14, 2:44 am
    SyroMalankara #33
    As to quoting Cholij, he officially renounced his priesthood to marry and disavowed his books as inaccurate.
    [In thread “Why is priestly celibacy not Dogma. It can be changed!”]

    May 7, ’14, 12:42 am
    SyroMalankara #164 (page 11)
    Do you have any sources other than Cochini, Stickler, and the now-retracted-Cholij?

    May 8, ’14, 1:10 am
    SyroMalankara #175 (Page 12)
    Throughout this section he draws upon the research of Roman Cholij. In fact Cardinal Stickler wrote the introduction to Cholij”s book, Clerical Celibacy in East and West. As an Eastern Catholic priest who argued against the antiquity of the Eastern discipline, Father Cholij earned the positive attention of some Roman prelates.[38] It should be noted that in recent years Cholij”s thinking on this issue has developed significantly, and he now defends the legitimacy of the Eastern practice of a married priesthood.

    May 8, ’14, 1:27 am
    SyroMalankara #177 (p 12)
    An Eastern Catholic Married Clergy in North America: Recent Changes in Legal Status and Ecclesiological Perspective
    by Roman M.T. Cholij, published in Eastern Churches Journal, Summer 1997

    In the article, Cholij breaks with his previous views and upholds the right of Eastern Churches to have a married clergy without papal interference. Previously, he had held to a view that Rome had the authority to approve or deny the Eastern tradition as it was considered to have been developed improperly while the Eastern Churches were in schism. Therefore, he had believed, Rome could either tolerate the Eastern tradition or legitimately forbid it. Many who cite Cholij’s earlier writings on mandatory priestly celibacy are not aware of his change of views. The reversal of his view can be seen here:
    From pp. 49-50:
    My comment: Long quotes are made

  3. Correction, Father:
    The Catholic Answers Forum is “Traditional Catholicism” NOT “Apologetics”.

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