A vow of clerical celibacy is the promise of a Christian priest or bishop to remain unmarried. Because sex outside of marriage is prohibited by the Christian church, this implies a life of sexual abstinence.

Neither the Catholic nor the Orthodox church has ever considered celibacy rules to be among the infallible dogmas of the church. Rather, those rules are considered mutable by popes, councilss, patriarchs, or synods. The popes have altered the celibacy rules in the Catholic church a number of times.

The rules provide that:

  • In Latin-Rite (i.e., Western) Catholic churches, married men may (since the time of the Second Vatican Council) be ordained deacons, but may not be ordained priests or bishops, and one may not marry after ordination. Since the Second Vatican Council, exceptions may be allowed for married Protestant ministers who convert to Catholicism and wish to be Catholic priests, provided their wives consent. (Catholics consider Protestant ordinations invalid, and recognize Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox ordinations as valid.) In some cases, defrocked (or "laicized") priests are allowed to marry by special dispensation.

  • In Eastern Orthodox churches, and in Eastern-rite Catholic churches (i.e., churches under the authority of Catholic patriarchs of the east and in full communion with the Roman Catholic church), married men may be ordained deacons or priests, but may not be ordained bishops, and one may not marry after ordination.

  • (All of?) the Oriental Orthodox churches follow the same rules that hold in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

  • Anglican and almost all other Protestant denominations have no restrictions on the marriage of deacons, priests, bishops, or other ministers.

More on Celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church

The given reasons for clerical celibacy in the Catholic Church are both theological and practical. Foremost in the theological realm are the desire to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ with regard to chastity and the sacrifice of married life for the "sake of the Kingdom" (Luke 18:28-30, Matthew 19:27-30; Mark 10:20-21), and to follow the example of Jesus Christ in being "married" to the Church, which is seen in Catholic theology as the "Bride of Christ". Also of import are the teachings of Paul of Tarsus that chastity is the superior state of life, and his desire expressed in I Corinthians 7:7-8, "I would that all men were even as myself- but every one has his proper gift from God; one after this manner, and another after that. But I say to the unmarried and the widows. It is good for them if they so continue, even as I."

On a more practical level, the reasons for celibacy are given by the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 7:7-8, 32-35: "But I would have you to be without solicitude. He that is without a wife is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God. But he that is with a wife, is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife: and he is divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin thinketh on the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit. But she that is married thinketh on the things of this world how she may please her husband. And this I speak for your profit, not to cast a snare upon you, but for that which is decent and which may give you power to attend upon the Lord without impediment."

From the Church's beginnings Christian priests were to abstain from sexual contact, even from sexual contact with their wives. Catholics see this as foreshadowed by the periodic abstinence of the Old Testament Levites before they approached their altars. What Catholics see as the perfect priesthood of Jesus Christ, and in the examples of the Apostles, called for a much greater sacrifice. Their belief is that what the Old Testament priests offered at their altars was not salvific, but the bread and wine that is offered by New Testament priests becomes the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ Himself, Who is then "offered to the Father" as the perfect oblation.

Many married priests failed, though, to remain sexually continent from their wives, so celibacy was introduced.

Among the early Church statements on the topic of sexual continence and celibacy are "Decreta" and "Cum in unum" of Pope Siricius ca. A.D. 385, which affirm that clerical sexual abstinence was the apostolic practice that must be followed by ministers of the Church. Two Canons from the following Councils also help us understand continence and celibacy of the early Church's priests:

Council of Elvira (A.D. 300-306) Canon 33: It is decided that marriage be altogether prohibited to bishops, priests, and deacons, or to all clerics placed in the ministry, and that they keep away from their wives and not beget children; whoever does this, shall be deprived of the honor of the clerical office.

Council of Carthage (A.D. 390) Canon 3: It is fitting that the holy bishops and priests of God as well as the Levites, i.e. those who are in the service of the divine sacraments, observe perfect continence, so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God; what the Apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us also endeavour to keep... It pleases us all that bishop, priest and deacon, guardians of purity, abstain from conjugal intercourse with their wives, so that those who serve at the altar may keep a perfect chastity.

See also Roman Catholic Church sex abuse allegations.

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