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The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy
Christian Cochini, S.J.


On February 10, 385, Pope Siricius sent to the Spanish bishop Himerius, metropolitan of the province of Tarragona, a long letter in reply to the bishop’s written request with regard to various subjects sent several months earlier to Pope Damasus (t 384). 12

Siricius answered in the name of his late predecessor because the questions had not been asked to the person of Damasus but to the representative of Peter. Before studying the questions, the Directa decretal begins with the affirmation of the permanent presence and action of the Apostle Peter on the Roman See in the person of his successors: "We carry the burdens of all those who are laden: rather, Blessed Apostle Peter is carrying them in us, and we firmly trust that he protects and guards us in all things, as we are heirs to his functions." 13

Fifteen points are studied. With regard to the clerics, two of these points unveil a background of numerous married deacons, priests, and bishops. One recalls in this respect that remarried men were not permitted to receive major Orders (VIII, 12) a fact that confirms indirectly the compatibility of monogamous marriage and the priesthood. On the other hand, we are going to read a long text devoted to the duty of continence that presupposes as normal and legitimate many matrimonial situations in the ranks of the clergy. This was also attested, as we have seen, by the Council of Carthage in 390. One must keep such a background in mind when studying the matter of clerical celibacy’s origins. It was with the best and most honorable intentions that some men, married before ordination, were carrying out priestly functions and even received episcopal dignity. However, they were expected to live in a state of perfect chastity, of perpetual continence with regard to their wives, even if the latter were still alive.

It was against violations committed by some men that Pope Siricius took a firm position in chapter 7 of his Directa decretal when answering a question of Bishop Himerius: Let us talk now about the very holy clerical Orders. As your Charity advises us, we see that in your provinces they are trampled underfoot and confused, with great prejudice to the honor due to religion. It has come to the point where we must say with Jeremiah: "Who will turn my head into a fountain, and my eyes into a spring for tears, so that I may weep all day, all night for all the dead out of the daughter of my people?" (Jer 8:23). If the blessed prophet declares that tears are not enough to lament the sins of the people, how much more can we be grief stricken when we have to bemoan the crimes of those in our own body? We especially, because as Blessed Paul put it, we must constantly be preoccupied daily, anxious for all the Churches. "When any man has had scruples, I have had scruples with him; when any man is made to fall, I am tortured" (2 Cor 11:29). We have indeed discovered that many priests and deacons of Christ brought children into the world, either through union with their wives or through shameful intercourse. And they used as an excuse the fact that in the Old Testament—as we can read—priests and ministers were permitted to beget children.

Whatever the case may be, if one of these disciples of the passions and tutors of vices thinks that the Lord—in the law of Moses—gives an indistinct license to those in sacred Orders so that they may satisfy their passions, let him tell me now: why does [the Lord] warn those who had the custody of the most holy things in the following way: "You must make yourselves holy, for I am Yahweh your God" (Lev 20:7). Likewise, why were the priests ordered, during the year of their tour of duty, to live in the temple, away from their homes? Quite obviously so that they would not be able to have carnal knowledge of any woman, even their wives, and, thus, having a conscience radiating integrity, they could offer to God offerings worthy of his acceptance. Those men, once they had fulfilled their time of service, were permitted to have marital intercourse for the sole purpose of ensuring their descent, because no one except [the members] of the tribe of Levi could be admitted to the divine ministry.

This is why, after having enlightened us by his coming, the Lord Jesus formally stipulated in the Gospel that he had not come to abolish the law, but to bring it to perfection; this is also why he wanted the beauty of the Church whose Bridegroom he is to shine with the splendor of chastity, so that when he returns, on the Day of Judgment, he will find her without stain or wrinkle, as his Apostle taught. It is through the indissoluble law of these decisions that all of us, priests and deacons, are bound together from the day of our ordination, and put our hearts and our bodies to the service of sobriety and purity; may we be pleasing to our God in all things, in the sacrifices we offer daily. "People who are interested only in unspiritual things can never be pleasing to God", says the Chosen Vessel. "Your interests, however, are not in the unspiritual, but in the spiritual, since the Spirit of God has made his home in you" (Rom 8:8-9).14

The circumstance leading the Roman Pontiff to write about clerical continence, as this document shows, was the news coming from Spain: many clerics belonging to major Orders in those provinces went on living with their wives and having children. He was distraught by such news because they were grave violations of what he saw as an indisputable discipline. Hence his intervention, the purpose of which was not to promulgate new regulations, but to reinstate those that should never have been broken. Siricius also learned from Himerius that those clerics were attempting to justify their behavior through Scripture, which is why he also uses Scripture. Some people are saying that the Old Testament, in particular the rules of Leviticus, authorized marriage for the Levites. Yes, indeed, he retorts, but married priests were under the obligation of temporary continence when serving in the temple. Now the priesthood of Christ brought the old priesthood to perfection. And by this very fact the obligation of continence became an obligation to perpetual continence. If the ministers had to abstain periodically from intercourse with their wives "so that, with a conscience radiating integrity, they could present to God offerings worthy of his acceptance", the conclusion, as far as Siricius is concerned, is that the ministers of Jesus Christ who offer sacrifice daily, a sacrifice far superior to that of Jerusalem, must be pleasing to God through perfect chastity.