On Understanding Priestly Celibacy: A Suggestion

The Offerings of Melchizedek, James Tissot (1836-1902).

Discussion has recently arisen about priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church. Such discussion is not new. This time the discussion involves a pope, Pope Francis. The discussion springs from an interview with Eugenio Scalfari (published in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica on July 13, 2014). The same day, Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J., the director of the press office of the Holy See, publicly stated that the precise formulations of the Pope, as found in the article, cannot be attributed with certainty to the Pope.

This discussion about priestly celibacy was the occasion of an article published on July 19, 2014, by Sandro Magister, on his English-language website: www.chiesa.espressonline.it. Magister is an Italian journalist who has covered the Holy See for many years. Magister reported on an article published in the Italian newspaper, Il Foglio, on July 16, 2014. The article was written by Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, who has presided over the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences for more than 20 years. In the article, the cardinal gave a brief summary of priestly celibacy in both the Western and Eastern Churches until the Gregorian Reform of the 11th century. The present note will give a brief sketch of Cardinal Brandmüller’s summary in which he states, in regards to the statement by Scalfari, that priestly celibacy in the Church began 900 years after Christ. The note will then venture to make a suggestion about the significance of priestly celibacy in the light of Sacerdotalis caelibatus (On the Practice of Priestly Celibacy), the encyclical of Blessed Pope Paul VI issued on June 24, 1967.

In his summary, Cardinal Brandmüller rehearses the reasons why he believes that the practice of priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church goes back to Jesus himself. Brandmüller quotes Matthew 19:20, Mark 10:29, and Luke 18:29-30, as indications where priestly celibacy is implied. Brandmüller notes that Jesus addressed these words, not to “the masses,” but rather to those whom he “sends out.”

Brandmüller also adduces Luke 8:1-3, where a number of pious women are said to have accompanied Jesus and “the twelve” Apostles. The fact that Jesus allowed these women to accompany himself and “the twelve” would seem to indicate a deliberate break, imposed by Jesus, between the Apostles and their wives. Jesus, when alone, would seem not to normally speak with women (cf. John 4:27). This suggests that the text from Luke implies a fixed usage for the group of disciples when Jesus was with them.

In 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6, Paul says that bishops must have only “one wife.” As subsequent Catholic tradition shows, this is best understood as meaning that they should have been married only once. The context shows that the reason for this is that remarriage (normally after children have been born) would indicate a lack of self-control. Ordination to the priesthood, subsequent to marriage, could take place only if the couple promised to forego marital relations.

The conundrum among Pauline texts is 1 Corinthians 9:4-6, where an “apostle” (such as Paul is himself) has the right to be accompanied by an adelphê gynê, literally, a “sister wife,” as other Apostles did. This Greek phrase is normally translated as “Christian wife” (this is the interpretation favored by Brandmüller) or simply “wife.” But there seems no good reason not to translate it as “sister wife” in the sense that the Apostle lives with his accompanying wife as a sister, i.e., as a celibate. The result, interpreted in the light of subsequent practice with regard to married clergy, would be the same, but the “sister wife” translation is more graphic.

The above interpretations are contested, of course, but taken as a whole, especially in the light of subsequent usage as regards married clergy, they make defensible sense and a good argument, against the introduction of celibacy 900 years after Christ.

The post-apostolic age, as contained in various texts, indicated a modification in this practice of New Testament times as regards married clergy. As Brandmüller puts it: “The original form of celibacy, therefore, allowed the priest or bishop to continue his family life, but not his conjugal life. For this reason, as well, the preference was to ordain men who had reached an advanced age.”

With the Council of Elvira in southern Spain in the early fourth century (Brandmüller puts the date as 305-306), there is the first known law regarding celibacy of the clergy (canon 33). The Council prohibited all clergy from having conjugal relations with their wives. (“At the time, it was therefore thought that conjugal abstinence was compatible with family life,” notes Brandmüller.) With the passage of time, the tendency was to ordain only unmarried men until this became a fixed custom in the Middle Ages. And so, we arrive at the present discipline.

The cardinal notes that “as is the nature of things, the observance of celibacy has seen highs and lows over the course of the centuries” … “There is, for example, the famous and fiery dispute in the 11th century, at the time of what is called the Gregorian reform. At that juncture one witnessed a split that was so stark—especially in the German and French Churches—as to lead the German prelates, who were contrary to celibacy, to forcibly expel from his diocese, Bishop Altmann of Passau. In France, the pope’s emissaries, who were charged with insisting on the discipline of celibacy, were threatened with death.”

But the major example of a rupture with tradition occurred in the East. According to Brandmüller, it was in the East that the practice of “abstinent celibacy” for clerics was held to be most binding. The date was 691, during the Quintisext Council, or Council “in Trullo,” that this rupture occurred. The Council was held in Constantinople. “This Council, influenced to a great extent by the emperor, who wanted new legislation to restore order in relations, was never recognized by the popes,” affirms the cardinal. In the Council, permission was granted for all subdeacons, deacons, and priests to be married without practicing celibacy.

The above outline could be filled in with an immense wealth of detail, most of it in favor of the discipline of celibacy, “abstinent” or not, from apostolic times until the Middle Ages. Subsequent history of celibacy in the East is quite complicated, but the above outline is sufficient for present purposes. This note will now concentrate on the possible meaning of celibacy as practiced from the apostolic age until the present.

Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical contains a wealth of material which is well worth perusing. For example, in §19, he writes:

The Christian priesthood, being of a new order, can be understood only in the light of the newness of Christ, the Supreme Pontiff and eternal Priest, who instituted the priesthood of the ministry as a real participation in his own unique priesthood.

In the context of an encyclical on priestly celibacy, this is an indication that the celibacy of Christ, and hence of his priests, is related to his unique priesthood.

Further on in the encyclical, the pontiff invites further study regarding priestly celibacy and its relation to the priesthood of Christ. In §25, he writes:

This biblical and theological view associates our ministerial priesthood with the priesthood of Christ; the total and exclusive dedication of Christ to his mission of salvation provides reason and example for our assimilation to the form of charity and sacrifice proper to Christ our Savior. This vision seems to Us so profound and rich in truth, both speculative and practical, that We invite you, venerable brothers, and you, eager students of Christian doctrine and masters of the spiritual life, and all you priests who have gained a supernatural insight into your vocation, to persevere in the study of this vision, and to go deeply into the inner recesses and wealth of its reality. In this way, the bond between the priesthood and celibacy will more and more be seen as closely knit—as the mark of a heroic soul and the imperative call to unique and total love for Christ and His Church.

In the light of all of the above—Eugenio Salvari’s published version of his interview with Pope Francis, Cardinal Walter Brandmüller’s remarks (here in abbreviated form) on the history of celibacy in the Church, and in Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical Sacerdotalis caelibatus, his invitation to deepen his remarks on the relation of Christ’s priesthood to his celibacy—the following is not inappropriate.

In §19, the encyclical mentions Christ as “the eternal Priest,” and refers to, among other texts, Hebrews 7:24: “He (Christ) because of remaining forever, has an unchangeable priesthood.” The verse occurs in a chapter of Hebrews dominated by the figure of Melchizedek. Melchizedek first appears in the epistle in Hebrews 5:6, which cites Psalm 110:4, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” In the previous verse, the text cites Psalm 2:7, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.” In the total context of Hebrews, this means that at the moment of his Resurrection, Christ entered into eternal life, not with a renewed earthly body, as Lazarus had at his resurrection from the dead, but in a heavenly body that had escaped the bonds of time.

In Hebrews 7:3, the figure of Melchizedek is described as he is presented in Genesis 14:1-10, “He is without father or mother or genealogy and has neither a beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains priest forever.”

The real priest Melchizedek doubtless had a father and mother and a genealogy, but the author of Hebrews is viewing him strictly as he is presented in the inspired text. He is viewing Melchizedek, moreover, not from the standpoint of Melchizedek, but from the standpoint of Christ. As priest, Christ has no father nor mother nor genealogy. He just is. Secondarily, this situation provides a contrast with the Israelite priests who had to belong to the tribe of Levi, and, of necessity, had father and mother and genealogy. But, primarily, this situation indicates that Christ the Priest exists in eternity outside of time, i.e., in a heavenly body. Thus, his priesthood and its saving effects, which he gained from the sacrifice of himself in time while he had an earthly body, can be applied to all men and women who ever lived, even before this death in time, and who ever will live. It is this eternal Priest that the earthly priests, who are ordained as his ministers, image forth by their celibacy.

Such celibacy, as is obvious from the teaching of the Church, is not necessary for the validity of the priestly calling. But it is necessary for the fullness of witness of such priests to the Priest who, as Priest, had neither father nor mother nor genealogy, but just is.

Fr. James Swetnam, SJ About Fr. James Swetnam, SJ

Fr. James Swetnam, SJ, entered the Society of Jesus in 1945. He was ordained in 1958 and spent 50 years in Rome at the Pontifical Biblical Institute. During his Jesuit training, he acquired licentiate degrees in philosophy, theology, and Scripture, and a doctorate in biblical studies from the University of Oxford. He maintains a website, www.jamesswetnamsclosereadings.com, and is now in residence at Jesuit Hall in St. Louis, Missouri.


  1. Avatar John Servorum says:

    In keeping with the aims of this article two wonderful resources come to mind.
    “The Case for Clerical Celibacy” by Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler
    “Celibacy in the Early Church” by Stefan Heid.
    Both books trace the origins of priestly celibacy back to Jesus Christ and the Apostles.

    • Thank you, Mr. Servorum, for your useful biographical information. I have read Stefan Heid’s book and found it illuminating. I hope our Holy Father will do the same. James Swetnam, S.J

  2. Avatar Jim Foley says:

    The origins of priestly celibacy actually stretch back to the OT. An Hebrew priest had to abstain from sexual relations whenever his ministrations brought him into proximity with the Holy of Holies in the Temple, the place where the presence of God was believed to exist. Even a nocturnal emission would render the priest unfit for holy service. One group of priests developed this themes into the elevation of celibacy as the ideal for all. This group was ousted from the Temple in the second century B.C. and became the group we know as the Essenes. We know from 11Q13 that the Essenes highly regarded the priest Melchizedek and looked forward to the year of favor from the Lord. It is also known that there was a relationship between the Essenes and the early Christians. The traditional site for the last supper was in the Essene Quarter in Jerusalem and Pope Benedict believes Jesus observed Passover there according to their sectarian calendar. In Acts 6:7 we learn that just after the resurrection “the number of the disciples was multiplied in Jerusalem exceedingly: a great multitude also of the priests obeyed the faith.” It is believed that the priests referred to here were most likely the dissident Essene priests. In any event there is abundant evidence of Essene influence in the early church and the elevation of celibacy as an ideal and possibly monasticism are the probable fruits of this interaction.

    • Many thanks Mr. Foley for this important contribution. It deserves expansion to a full-fledged article for HPR. The material about Melchizedek is especially noteworthy. – James Swetnam, S.J.

  3. Avatar Patricia says:

    Clerical celibacy chosen for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and suited to the priesthood is to be greatly esteemed everywhere, as supported by the tradition of the whole Church; likewise, the hallowed practice of married clerics in the primitive Church and in the tradition of the Eastern Catholic Churches throughout the ages is to be held in honor. (Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches)

    “The Churches of the East, as much as those of the West, have a full right and are in duty bound to rule themselves, each in accordance with its own established disciplines, since all these are praiseworthy by reason of their venerable antiquity, more harmonious with the character of their faithful and more suited to the promotion of the good of souls,” (Orientalium Ecclesiarum, no. 5).

    Despite this and other differences, we are still the same One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. These differences highlight the beautiful plurality in the universal Church, and are the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

    • If I understand you correctly, Patricia, the lack of unity among Christians–how many denominations are there?–is a good thing. We should stop praying for the unity of Christians. Is that what you mean? Do you understand the stand of the Eastern Church in deliberately abandoning the tradition of celibacy for priests as a good thing? I don’t understand how the Church can say that keeping to this tradition involving the abandonment of celibacy can be a good thing if it is a tradition originating with Christ. That the many rites of the Church which do not conflict with the apparent mind of Christ should be maintained (e.g,, languages) I do agree with. — James Swetnam, S.J.

      • Avatar Patricia says:

        Disunity among Christians is a source of sadness and scandal. We certainly must continue to pray and work towards bringing separated Christian into the fullness of the Faith through the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. That being said, priestly celibacy is a discipline of the Church, not a doctrine.

        I respectfully submit that it is possible to defend the Western discipline of celibacy without denigrating the Eastern discipline of permitting married men to be ordained. Likewise, it is possible to defend the Eastern tradition of a married priesthood without denigrating or undermining the Western tradition of a celibate priesthood.

        Between the Eastern and Western Churches there is not only a difference in liturgy, but also a difference in “ethos.” A large part of the underlying psychology between the Eastern and Western Churches is that Roman Catholics see their priests in the same light that we Eastern Christians see our monks. For Eastern Christians, the person most perfectly configured to the person of Christ is not the priest, but the monk. It is the monastic life that is the highest possible vocation in our theology, and an important component of the monastic calling is the gift of celibacy.

        At that the time of the Council of Nicea most of the clerics in both the Eastern and Western Churches were married men. However, a movement began in the Western Church during the 4th century to promote clerical celibacy, beginning with a canon ascribed to Council of Eliva. It took many centuries for this to become the norm in the West. In the East no such legislation was ever promulgated, although the Council in Trullo (692) did eventually legislate mandatory celibacy for bishops. Rather than being an issue of deliberately abandoning a tradition, the East has maintained it’s tradition.

        The Eastern Churches have always seen celibacy as being a special, high calling for those who have this gift. While we ordain married men to the priesthood, we also recognize that those who have the gift of celibacy should be encouraged to foster this gift.

        During the Arian crisis, it was celibate monks who preserved the true doctrine of the Church. Thus, in the West, many local councils began to legislate clerical celibacy, holding up the monastic vocation as an ideal for all priests. During this time bishops such as St. Augustine required their priests to live in community with them. In the East the response was somewhat different. Rather than requiring all priests to be celibate, the Eastern Churches at the Council in Trullo required all bishops to be monks. This has been the law for the Eastern Churches ever since.

        In the early 20th century there were efforts to impose celibacy upon Eastern Catholic clergy in the US, which sadly led to widespread discord and eventually to two tragic schisms.

      • Father Gary Selin Father Gary Selin says:

        Thank you for your thoughtful contribution. I would like to note, however, that clerical continence is missing from your historical account. It is well documented (cf. Cochini’s “Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy”) that married clerics in the East and the West, from apostolic times, were bound to live perfect and perpetual continence in relation to their wives. The early Church Fathers attest to this continence in the Apostle’s lives, and this continued through subsequent generations. It began to be compromised, however, in certain areas of the Church, particularly in the Eastern Churches, where temporary continence was introduced.

        The short work by Stickler cited above gives of a good summary of this apostolic tradition, which is a sure witness to Christ instituting this life for the Apostles, whose immediate successors continued to live this charism of clerical continence.

        Blessed Paul VI in his encyclical “Sacerdotalis Caelibatus” gives excellent reasons for the preeminence of celibacy in the ministry and life of Catholic priests. The Pope teaches that Jesus Christ Himself is the fundamental reason for priestly celibacy; priests seek to imitate the Lord in His mission and life. Paradoxically, in many contemporary discussions about priestly celibacy today, the life of Christ is never mentioned.

        Because Jesus established His eternal priesthood “according to Melchizedek” rather than the temporary Levitical priesthood, it is fitting and integral to priestly life that the continence lived by priests – both celibate and married – should likewise be perfect and perpetual.

        Whenever the Magisterium affirms the legitimacy of the married priesthood, it will also state that there is a greater excellence in the celibate priesthood. This is not to denigrate the witness and life of married priests, but it is to affirm the preeminence of the gift of priestly celibacy.

        Fr. Gary Selin

  4. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Thank you Father Selin and Father Swetman for your very clear explanation of celibacy and the priesthood. Quoting from Pope Paul VI ” Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, and going into Melkizadeck where Christ became Melkizadek for the author of Hebrews because he thought of him as a priest but he did not become Christ because he was first a Melchizedekian priestly Messiah. All Catholic persons recognize the priest as celibate with the vow and virtue of Chastity all emanating from Christ alone The priest is alter Christus.. Thank you for showing the good influence of the Essenes Mr. Foley


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