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The Faith of Our Fathers


The Faith of Our Fathers

XXX. Celibacy of the Clergy

The Church requires her Priests to be pure in body as well as in soul, and to "present their bodies a living victim, holy, well-pleasing unto God."[Rom. xii. 1.]

Our Savior and His Apostles, though recognizing matrimony as a holy state, have proclaimed the superior merits of voluntary continency, particularly for those who consecrate their lives to the sacred ministry. "There are eunuchs who have made themselves such for the Kingdom of Heaven's sake. He who can take it, let him take it."[Matt. xix. 12.] Our Lord evidently recommends here the state of celibacy to such as feel themselves called to embrace it, in order to attain greater perfection.

St. Paul gives the reason why our Savior declares continency to be a more suitable state for His ministers than that of matrimony: "He who is unmarried careth for the things of the Lord--how he may please God. But he who is married is solicitous about the things of the world--how he may please his wife--and he is divided."[I. Cor. vii. 32, 33.]

Jesus Christ manifestly showed His predilection for virginity, not only by always remaining a virgin, but by selecting a Virgin-Mother and a virgin-precursor in the person of St. John the Baptist, and by exhibiting a special effection for John the Evangelist, because, as St. Augustine testifies, that Apostle was chosen a virgin and such he always remained.

Not only did our Lord thus manifest while on earth a marked predilection for virgins, but He exhibits the same preference for them in heaven; for the hundred and forty-four thousand who are chosen to sing the New Canticle and who follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth are all virgins, as St. John testifies. (Apoc. xiv.)

The Apostle of the Gentiles assures us that he led a single life, and he commends that state to others: "I say to the unmarried, and to the widows it is good for them if they so continue, even as I."[I. Cor. vii. 8.]

There is no evidence from Scripture that any of the Apostles were married except St. Peter. St. Jerome says that if any were married they certainly separated from their wives after they were called to the Apostolate. Even St. Peter, after his vocation, did not continue with his wife, as may be inferred from his own words: "Behold, we have left all things, and followed Thee."[Matt. xix. 27.] Among "all things" must be reckoned the fellowship of his wife, for he could hardly say with truth that he had left all things if he had not left his wife. Our Savior immediately after enumerates the wife among those cherished objects, the renunciation of which, for His sake, will have its reward.[Ibid., xix. 29.]

St. Paul declares that "a Bishop must be sober, just, holy, continent."[Tit. I. 8.] And writing to Timothy, whom he had consecrated Bishop, he says: "Be thou an example to the charity, in faith, in chastity."[I. Tim. iv. 12.] In another place, he enumerates chastity among the virtues that should adorn the Christian minister: "In all things let us exhibit ourselves as the ministers of God in much patience, ... in chastity."[II. Cor. vi. 46.]

Although celibacy is not expressly enforced by our Savior, it is, however, commended so strongly by Himself and His Apostles, both by word and example, that the Church felt it her duty to lay it down as a law.

The discipline of the Church has been exerted from the beginning in prohibiting Priests to marry after their ordination. St. Jerome observes that "Bishops, Priests and Deacons are chosen from virgins or widowers, or, at least, they remain perpetually chaste after being elevated to the priesthood."[Ep. ad Pammach.] To Jovinian he writes: "You certainly admit that he cannot remain a Bishop who begets children in the episcopacy; for, if convicted, he will not be esteemed as a husband, but condemned as an adulterer."[Adv. Jovin., lib. 1.] Again he says: "What will the churches of the East, of Egypt and of the Apostolic See do, which adopt their clergy from among virgins, or if they have wives, they cease to live as married men."[Adv. Vigilantium.]

St. Epiphanius declares that "he who leads a married life is not admitted by the Church to the order of Deacon, Priest, Bishop or sub-Deacon."[Haeres. 59, c. 4.]

In the primitive days of the Church, owing to the scarcity of vocations among the unmarried, married men were admitted to sacred orders, but they were enjoined, as we learn from various canons, to live separated from their wives after their ordination.

This discipline, it is true, was relaxed to some extent in favor of a portion of the clergy of the Oriental Church, who were permitted to live with their wives if they happened to espouse them before ordination; but, like the Priests of the Western Church, the Eastern clergy were forbidden to contract marriage after their ordination. It is important also to observe that the unmarried clergy of the East are held in much higher esteem by the people than the married Priests.

It cannot, indeed, be denied that at certain epochs of the Church's history, especially in periods of disordered society, there were too many instances of the violation of clerical celibacy. But the repeated violations of a law are no evidence of its non-existence. Whenever the voice of the Church could be heard it always spoke in vindication of the law of priestly chastity.

Let me now call your attention to the propriety and advantages of clerical celibacy.

First--The Priest is the representative of Jesus Christ. He continues the work begun by his Divine Master. It is his duty to preach the word, to administer the Sacraments, and, above all, to consecrate the Body and Blood of Christ and to distribute the same to the faithful. Is it not becoming that a chaste Lord should be served by chaste ministers?

If the Jewish Priests, while engaged in their turn in offering the sacrifice of animals in the Temple, were obliged to keep apart from their wives, should not the Priests of the New Law, who offer daily the sacrifice of the Immaculate Lamb, practice continual chastity?

If David and his friends were not permitted to eat the bread of Proposition till he had avowed that for the three preceding days they had refrained from women,[I. Kings xxi.] how pure in body and soul should be the Priest who daily partakes of that living Bread of which the bread of Proposition was but the type; and if the people at Mount Sinai were forbidden to come near their wives for three days before receiving the Law,[Exod. xix.] should not they whose office it is to preach the Law at all times abstain altogether?

Thorndyke, an eminent Protestant Divine, in his work entitled, Just Weights and Measures, makes the following observation: "The reason for single life for the clergy is firmly grounded, by the Fathers and canons of the Church, upon the precept of St. Paul, forbidding man and wife to depart unless for a time, to attend unto prayer (1 Cor. vii. 5). For, Priests and Deacons being continually to attend upon occasions of celebrating the Eucharist, which ought continually to be frequented; if others be to abstain from the use of marriage for a time, then they always."[Page 239.]

Second--Writers frequently discuss the secret cause of the marvelous success which marks the growth of the Catholic Church everywhere in spite of the most formidable opposition. Some ascribe this progress to her thorough organization; others to the far-seeing wisdom of her chief pastors. Without undervaluing these and other auxiliaries, I incline to the belief that, under God, the Church has no tower of strength more potent than the celibacy of her clergy. The unmarried Priest, as St. Paul observes (1 Cor. vii.), is free to give his whole time undivided to the Lord, and can devote his attention not to one or two children, but to the entire flock whom he has begotten in Christ Jesus, through the Gospel; while the married minister is divided between the cares of his family and his duties to the congregation. "A single life," says Bacon, "doth well with churchmen; for, charity will hardly water the ground where it must first fill a pool."[Essays, p. 17.]

Third--The world has hitherto been converted by unmarried clergymen, and only by them will it continue to be converted. St. Francis Xavier and St. Francis de Sales could not have planted the faith in so many thousands of souls if they were accompanied on their journeys by their wives and children. Of all the gems that adorn the priestly diadem, none is so precious and indispensable in the eyes of the people as the peerless jewel of chastity. Without this pearl the voice of a Hyacinth "becomes as sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal;" with it, the humblest missioner gains the hearts of multitudes.

Everybody is aware of the numerous conversions to Christianity effected by St. Francis Xavier in Japan in the sixteenth century. After the lapse of many years from the death of St. Francis, when a French squadron was permitted to enter the Japanese ports, a native Christian, named Peter, having learned that French Priests were on board, put their faith to the test by proposing to them these three questions: "Are you followers of the great Father in Rome? Do you honor Mary, the Blessed Virgin? Have you wives?" The French priests having satisfied their interrogator on these points, and especially on the last, Peter and his companions fell at the missioners' feet, exclaiming with delight: "Thanks, thanks! they are virgins and true disciples of our Apostle Francis."[Annals of the Propagation of the Faith, March, 1868.]

A contemporary writer has wittily remarked that "perhaps the most ardent admirer of hymeneal rites would cheerfully admit that he could not conceive St. Paul or St. John starting on a nuptial tour, accompanied by the latest fashions from Athens or Ephesus, and the graceful brides whom they were destined to adorn. They would feel that Christianity itself could not survive such a vision as that. Nor could the imagination, in its wildest moods, picture the majestic adversary of the Arian Emperor attended in his flight up the Nile by Mistress Athanasius, nor St. John Chrysostom escorted in his wanderings through Phrygia by the wife of his bosom arrayed in a wreath of orange-blossoms. Would Ethelbert have become a Christian if St. Augustine had introduced to him his lady and her bridesmaids?"[Marshall, Comedy of Convocation]

We frequently hear of unmarried Bishops and Priests laying down their lives for the faith in China and Corea and imprisoned in Germany. Heroic sacrifices such as these are, however, too much to be expected from men enjoying the domestic luxury and engrossed by the responsibility of a wife and children.

But does not St. Paul authorize the marriage of the clergy when he says: "Have we not power to carry about a woman, a sister, as well as the rest of the Apostles?"[I. Cor. ix. 5.] The Protestant text mistranslates this passage by substituting the word wife for woman. It is evident that St. Paul does not speak here of his wife, since he had none; but he alludes to those pious women who voluntarily waited on the Apostles, and ministered to them in their missionary journeys.

It is also objected that the Apostle seems to require that a Bishop be "the husband of one wife."[I. Tim. iii. 2.] The context certainly cannot mean that a Bishop must be a married man, for the reason already given, that St. Paul himself was never married. The sense of the text, as all tradition testifies, is that no candidate should be elected to the office of Bishop who had been married more than once. It was not possible in those days always to select single men for the Episcopal office. Hence the Church was often compelled to choose married persons, but always with this restriction, that they had never contracted nuptials a second time. They were obliged, moreover, if not widowers, to live separated from their wives.

Others adduce against clerical celibacy these words of St. Paul: "In the last times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to spirits of error, ... forbidding to marry."[I. Tim. iv. 1-3.] This passage, however, alludes to the Ebionites, Gnostics and Manicheans, who positively taught that marriage is sinful. The Catholic Church, on the contrary, holds that matrimony is not only a lawful state, for those who are called to embrace it, but that it is also a Sacrament, and that the highest degree of holiness is attainable in conjugal life.

Some go so far as to declare continency impracticable. Our dissenting brethren in the ministry are so uxoriously inclined that, perhaps, for this reason they dispute the possibility, as well as the privilege, of Priests to remain single. But in making this assertion they impugn the wisdom of Jesus Christ and His Apostle, who lived in this state and recommended it to others; they slander consecrated Priests and nuns, and they unwittingly question the purity of their own unmarried sisters, daughters and sons. How many men and women are there in the world who spend years, nay, their whole lives, in the single state? And who shall dare to accuse such a multitude of incontinency?

Nor should any one complain of the severity of the law of clerical celibacy, since the candidate voluntarily accepts the obligations after mature consideration.

Finally, it cannot be urged against celibacy that it violates the Divine precept to "increase and multiply;" for this command surely cannot require all marriageable persons to be united in wedlock. Otherwise, bachelors and spinsters would also be guilty of violating the law. The number of men and women consecrated to God by vows of chastity form but an imperceptible fraction of the human family, their proportion in the United States, for instance, being only one individual to about every four thousand. Moreover, it is an incontrovertible fact that the population increases most in those countries in which the Catholic clergy exercise the strongest influence; for there married people are impressed with the idea that marriage was instituted not for the gratification of the flesh, but for the procreation and Christian education of children.

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