|Saint Jerome, an early propoinent of clerical |
celibacy. This statute stands in front
of St Catherine's Church, Bethlehem
In the Apostolic and sub-apostlic eras (33 AD-100 AD) celibacy was a highly admired but not required virtue for Christians of whatever status or ministry in the Church. This was rooted in several saying of Jesus recorded in the Gospels and in the writings of the apostles, most notably Paul. We do not know the marital status of any of the apostles except Peter who had been married, though as it is his mother-in-law and not his wife who is mentioned (and she is never mentioned) in the text whether he was married or a widower at the time of his encounter with Christ is not known. It is generally taken from his writings in favor of remaining unmarried that Paul was not a married man, though there is a tradition going back as far as Eusebius that he was married but did not bring his wife with him on his missionary journeys. The author of 1 Timothy says that a bishop should be married but once and have control over his children. This text would indicate that married men became priests and bishops (in the sub-apostolic Church the distinction between these two ministries was not as precise as it is today). However, by the fourth century Church fathers such as Jerome and Ambrose—neither of whom were married and Ambrose was a bishop, Jerome was not) were claiming that while married men had become bishops in the early Church they were obligated to refrain from conjugal intimacy (aka sex) with their wives once having assumed the office. This is not anywhere in the scriptural text or any other source I know of from the first century so I am not inclined to think it holds up historically. On the other hand, the oral tradition could have conveyed this condition through the two centuries separating these Fathers of the Church from the authorship of 1 Timothy.
More likely an explanation for this interpretation, however, is the fact that in those two intervening centuries a very negative attitude towards human sexuality had begun to develop in the Christian community. Tertullian (160-220), though himself married, wrote against sexual relations, and Origen (184-253) went so far as to castrate himself taking the admonition of Jesus that should an organ of the body be an occasion of sin, it should be cut away and cast off. We also get in this period, the 3rd and 4th centuries, the rise of monasticism and its discipline of celibacy. Indeed the number of men (and to a far lesser extent, women) who embraced the monastic life in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt in the late third and throughout the fourth centuries cannot be over estimated; certainly fourth century monastics in the eastern Mediterranean and north Africa would number over a hundred thousand and possibly three or four times that number. As Christianity spread and monasticism spread from the deserts of Egypt and Syria-Palestine to the metropolitan centers of the Empire and westwards as far as Iberia and even Ireland, celibacy became linked with holiness in the Christian mind. It became a frequent, but not universal, practice to choose a bishop from among the monks, and thus the celibates. Nevertheless, the vast majority of clergy and even bishops were married men throughout this period.
Sometime in the first decade of the fourth century (probably in 306 AD) nineteen bishops and twenty-four priests along with an unknown number of deacons and laity gathered at Elivra (modern day Granada) in southern Spain to discuss needed legislation for the Church in Baetica (modern day southern Spain). They passed legislation prohibiting Christians from marrying Jews or pagans socializing with Jews as an attempt to keep the Christians apart and distinct from non-Christians. They also forbad a bishop to reconcile to the Church a person who had been excommunicated by another bishop. Also it was forbidden to give communion to those who had lapsed from the faith during the recent persecution of the Emperor Diocletian, even when the lapsed person was dying. The Council forbad the use of images in churches. And finally it declared that bishops, preists, and deacons, even those married, were to abstain from sexual relations under threat of being deposed from their ministries.
At the very end of the fourth century a Council of North African bishops meeting at Carthage made the same ruling for the North African Church. In 385 Pope Siricius responded to those who claimed that since the priests of the Old Law had been permitted marriage and having children, priests of the New Covenant also had this right by reminding those critics of celibacy that because the Priesthood of the Old Law depended on being a descendent of Aaron, it was necessary for priests to beget children in their bloodline, but that the Priesthood of Christ demanded continence.
Hilary of Arles convoked the Synod of Orange (France) in 441 and like the Elivra Synod it dealt with a wide variety of ecclesiastical issues including unction of the sick, right of asylum and, once again—celibacy which it mandated for all the higher clergy (bishops, priests, and deacons). It also cited a synod of bishops at Turin in Northern Italy which had apparently mandated celibacy in 401.
These various synods were all local and did not have universal jurisdiction. There was a proposal for clerical celibacy at the Council of Nicea (325), the first Ecumencial Council, but it was rejected at the insistence of one Paphnutius who himself was celibate but who felt that mandatory celibacy would place too heavy a burden on many priests and be an occasion for them to fall into sin. Nevertheless many of those at the Council felt that once a man had assumed the duties of the altar, married or not, he should practice continence and one of the canons implies that the clergy, married or single, should live celibate lives.In the end, all this legislation had little effect. Priests and even bishops were still chosen from among the married and had families. In the Eastern reaches of the Empire, it was the norm for parish priests to be married and have a family, though they were expected to refrain from sexual intimacy with their wives for a period of time, usually one to three days, before celebrating the Eucharist. In the West—especially in the reaches of northern Europe where rural clergy were normal farmers Monday through Saturday and assumed the vestments for Mass on Sundays before heading back to the plow on Monday, marriage and family were almost as much an economic necessity for the priest as for any other man whose farming demanded help in the fields at sowing and harvest. The monks practiced celibacy—and hopefully (at least for the most part) chastity as well—but there was a radical division between the monastic clergy in their abbeys among their books and long ceremonies and the parish clergy whose life was not so different from their parishioners .
More to come on this topic.