Externals of the Catholic Church – An Unmarried Clergy

There is such a wide distinction between the mode of life of the Catholic priest and that of the clergy of other Christian denominations that we are apt to look upon his celibate state as something which is essential to his sacred character and profession. We are familiar with the idea that the priest is one who has voluntarily sacrificed all that man holds dear in worldly relationship in order thereby to be better able to devote himself to God’s service; but it would be erroneous to imagine that the fact of his priesthood necessitates his living a single life. Our priests in the Latin Church have vowed themselves to celibacy; by receiving ordination they have rendered themselves forever incapable of valid marriage; but this is because the Church has made laws to that effect, and not through any divine decree or institution.

The practice of clerical celibacy and the law which confirms it have been the slow growth of centuries – and, as we shall see, they are not by any means universal. There are many thousands of Catholic priests (not schismatics, but real Catholics) who are lawfully married and are living in the married state; but this is the case only in Eastern churches which have a ritual and a system of legislation different from the Roman. The uniform practice and rule of the “Latin Church” is that those who serve the altar and who are promoted to sub-deaconship shall be unmarried and shall so remain.

Why Our Priests Do Not Marry

What are the reasons for clerical celibacy? Why is it that the Church insists on this rigorous and difficult rule? Rigorous and difficult it undoubtedly is, for it requires the constant repression of natural instincts and affections. The Church has imposed celibacy on her clergy that they may serve God with less restraint and with undivided heart. As Saint Paul says, “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.”

They are expected to practise chastity because the state of virginity is holier than that of marriage. This does not mean that the married state is not praiseworthy and honorable; but our Blessed Lord Himself tells us (and the Apostles reiterate His teaching) that the life of those who practise virginity is superior to that of those who are married. The Church has always taught the same doctrine. Council after Council has extolled the holy state of celibacy, and the great Council of Trent affirmed as a matter of faith that it is holier than marriage.

But this, while it shows that the unmarried state is preferable and even specially desirable for the priests of the Church, does not of itself compel them to observe it. This has been done by direct legislation, which required several centuries to reach its present development.

The Church’s Law

The Church imposes a law of celibacy upon her ministers, but she has not always done so. During at least one-half of her history the legislation was not in its present form; and even now it is not extended to all parts of the Church’s domain and is not enforced in regard to all her clergy.

In the first days of the Church there was no law restricting the marriage of the clergy except that a bishop was required to be “a man of one wife”; that is, to have been married only once. It is quite likely that several of the Apostles were married. We read in the Gospel of the curing of Peter’s mother-in-law by our Blessed Lord – and if the chief of the Apostles had a mother-in-law he undoubtedly had at some time a wife. It is supposed, however, that she was dead before he was called to be an Apostle, as there is no mention of her in the Scriptural account of Peter’s life.

The first trace which we can find of positive legislation is in the fourth century. At the Council of Nice and other synods of about the same time a regulation was made prohibiting the marriage of the clergy after ordination; but the validity of the marriage was not denied or assailed by this rule. It merely provided that the priest who contracted it was to be degraded to the lay state. But gradually the sentiment of the whole Western Church became more rigorous. It was felt that a married clergy was in no way desirable; and under various Popes laws were made for the clergy of the Latin rite which rendered invalid any marriage attempted by a sub-deacon or one in higher orders. The marriage of a cleric below the rank of sub-deacon was and is valid, but it renders him incapable of receiving that or the succeeding orders while his wife lives – except in the case that, by mutual agreement, she enters a religious community of women and he a monastic house.

In the eyes of the Church a widower is a single man, and therefore is eligible to Holy Orders; if he is otherwise capable, his previous marriage is not an obstacle to his becoming a priest.

Catholic Priests Who are Married

Are there any married priests in the Catholic Church? Yes, several thousands. They are really married, and they are not living in opposition to God’s or the Church’s law. These are the clergy of several Oriental churches which are united to ours in faith and government, though differing from it in ritual and laws.

We shall not go into the details of the legislation of the separated Eastern churches – the schismatic sects which have a clergy and Mass and sacraments as we have, but which have cut themselves off from communion with Rome. In nearly all of these the pastors of parishes are married men – the members of the religious orders are not; while the bishops are also generally unmarried.

In nearly all the Oriental churches which are in communion with the Holy See, marriage before receiving deaconship is not an obstacle to that or the succeeding orders; but marriage is not allowed afterwards. If the candidate is not married he is ordained only on condition of making a promise of perpetual chastity. If the wife of a priest dies, he is not permitted to remarry in some Churches; while in others his second marriage is considered valid, but necessitates his retirement from priestly duties.

The result of these long-established customs in the Eastern Catholic Churches is that the candidate for Holy Orders, before receiving deaconship, usually withdraws from the seminary and is married – after which he returns, resumes his studies, and is finally ordained.

The Reasons for Celibacy

Why is it that the Church has sought to make at least the priests of the Latin rite observe the rule of celibacy? Because the value of the priest’s ministry is thereby enhanced. He is giving a practical lesson in disinterestedness and self-sacrifice. He has given up the things of the world which are most highly valued by men – the love of wife and children – that he may be the better able to devote himself to the salvation of souls. He has no earthly ties that might conflict with his duty to his spiritual flock. The burden which rests on the sinner’s soul may be freely revealed to him without fear that the secret will be shared with the confessor’s wife. Pestilence has no terrors for the unmarried priest – he has no family to whom the contagion might be transmitted; and so, when the call comes summoning him to the small-pox or typhus sufferer, or when his duty lies in the cholera-camp, he has no fear. He is risking nothing but his own life, and that he has already consecrated to God. And when the quest for souls leads him into distant pagan lands he has an advantage over the married missionary. He is a soldier in “light marching order.” He takes no family with him, to be an encumbrance in his work, to require support and shelter in his field of labor; he leaves no wife and children behind him whose welfare would be a source of anxiety while he is far from them. If death comes in the course of his work, whether by accident or disease or martyrdom, the unmarried priest need not care; he has no worldly ties to lessen his peace of soul – no dependents whose future well-being would be affected by his living or dying.

Difficult Not Impossible

Is not this law difficult of observance, since it is opposed to a primary function and instinct of man’s nature? Is it not impossible to bind the clergy by such a rule without leading to sins and irregularities immeasurably worse than honorable marriage would be?

These are questions which non-Catholics of an inquiring mind will frequently ask. We answer to the first question, that it is assuredly difficult. To observe the law of priestly celibacy requires a strong will, a divine vocation, a spirit of self-sacrifice, great watchfulness, frequent and fervent prayer, and God’s grace. But only the difficult things obtain much merit or deserve much reward.

To the second question we answer decidedly, No. It is not impossible nor even impracticable to bind the clergy to the unmarried state and to keep them pure and decent. We do not attempt to deny that abuses and scandals have arisen – that in some lands and in some epochs there have even been many lapses from virtue on the part of priests. Some countries have been worse than others – discipline has sometimes been relaxed, ecclesiastical training has sometimes been neglected, luxury and avarice have occasionally led to the preferment of the unworthy, and worse vices have naturally followed in their train. But we affirm most emphatically that the history of our Church shows that by far the greater part of her clergy have been faithful to their obligations, models of priestly virtue, ornaments of the mystical Body of Christ. The priests of Ireland, of Germany, of France and Belgium and the hard-working ones who have done God’s work in our own land have been worthy of all praise, faithful to their holy vocation. There have been exceptions, we know; but they have been few and far between; and when scandals have arisen, the very sensation which they produced demonstrated their infrequency.

What a grand testimony is given by the apostate Renan to the virtue of the clergy who were his instructors in his boyhood and youth. “I spent thirteen years of my life under the care of priests, and I never saw the shadow of a scandal. I have known no priests but good priests.”

Thank God, most of us can say the same.