Why Priests Should Remain Unmarried and Celibate

There are many angles from which to analyse clerical celibacy today and the suggestions by some that it’s high time to end the practice. I would like to focus on two: its history and a personal reflection.

The Catholic Church sometimes remembers aspects of its tradition which have fallen into disuse – such as her teachings on the universal call to holiness and religious liberty, recovered and refined at the Second Vatican Council – and so we can ask, did the Church have married priests in the past, and if so, can we therefore restore them today?

There is evidence from the Gospels onwards of married clergy (such as St Peter, who had a mother-in-law). But, perhaps surprisingly, there is no evidence of married clergy making use of their marriage: there is a constant tradition of Latin clergy being celibate from their ordination onwards even if they were married.

To explore this and subsequent points, I follow Cardinal Stickler’s recently re-published classic The Case for Clerical Celibacy.

The first reference to Catholic priests having marital relations after ordination came at the Second Council of Trullo in 692 AD, a local council in Constantinople, never recognised by Rome. This was a highly controversial step: the thirteenth canon of this council deliberately misquoted an earlier council in Carthage to reverse the previous tradition.

From this point onwards, Catholic priests in the East were permitted to live as husbands of their wives; the Latin Church maintained celibacy, which had been the universal custom. In short, the practice of Catholic clergy making use of their marriage was not a tradition dating back to the apostles which was lost at some point in history – it was invented over six centuries after Christ.

What then, can history teach us about clerical celibacy, apart from the fact that it was discarded in the East in 692 AD?

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