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Dean Pawlak wrote:

Hi, guys —

I have heard the Roman Catholic Church eliminated marriage for priests because priests were giving church land to their sons. Allegedly, due to the subsequent fear of the land being given away, they decided to stop priests from being married.

  • Is there any truth or basis for this point?


  { Did the Church eliminate the married priesthood because priests were giving away Church land? }

Fr. Nick replied:

Hi, Dean —

Actually, there is a lot of truth to this statement. As so often happens in Church History, a concern is addressed and then the theology is added later.

During the early middle ages, bishops and priests were leaving estates to their wives and children, and this was causing problems for the new priests and bishops. The easiest and most effective solution was celibacy.

Fr. Nick

Eric replied:

Hi, Dean —

While there is some truth to what Fr. Nick said, it is somewhat oversimplified (as it is with most attempts to make a sound-bite out of history.) In point of fact, the celibate priesthood has been practiced since Apostolic times, just not universally. Evidence from several fourth-century Councils show that married priests in the early Church were typically required to give up their marital rights and live in total continence. (This is not "celibacy"; "celibacy" is the state of being single, more than it is, the state of not having sex.) This was not always enforced, especially in rural areas, so Councils had to repeatedly reaffirm it.

In the seventh century, the Eastern Churches relaxed this discipline for married priests.

In the twelve century, at the Second Lateran Council, the Western Church decided to stop ordaining married men to the priesthood to prevent abuse of inherited ecclesiastical offices.

This is what you are referring to.

Some claim that this is when mandatory celibacy began, but as we've seen, that is simply not accurate. The Second Lateran Council said nothing about whether priests could have sex (bluntly speaking); it had been the custom for centuries for married men to be ordained if they gave up their marital rights. The Second Lateran Council just made the decision that, henceforth,
all priests in the Latin Rite would be taken from the ranks of celibates. (single men)

So while it is true that bishops and priests were leaving estates to their wives and children, causing problems for the new priests and bishops and prompting the solution you mentioned of ordaining only unmarried men, abstaining from sexual intercourse for the sake of the Kingdom is a practice that goes back to Apostolic times.

Eric Ewanco

Fr. Francis replied:

Hi, Dean —

I would never argue that there were no difficulties with some "priest's son" inheriting property, however, if you think about it, there were ways of dealing with "property" other than the total prohibition of having children. This is the myth that is implied, and that you have stumbled upon. That myth-rumor, I believe, was begun by "forces" within the post-Vatican II Church attempting to minimalize and de-sacralize the underlying reasons for the celibacy discipline within the Church.

The real reason for celibacy is found in "the Kingdom of Heaven". The Lord Himself described those in the Kingdom as sons of the Resurrection, where there is neither marrying nor giving in marriage. He then told the stunned disciples, totally blown away by His teaching on marriage and the total prohibition of divorce, that if they found this tough, even tougher was the reality of those "eunuch's for the sake of the Kingdom". (See Matthew 19)

Saint Paul, in prophetic and apostolic earnest was likewise celibate, and for the first, but not last, time introduced the idea that it was a higher calling; as we find his statements in 1 Corinthians 7. (Side note: Jeremiah was celibate and greatly influenced Paul.) I, of course, recognize that Paul did not associate celibacy in any absolute way with what we would call Holy Orders, as witnessed by the three Pastoral Letters and his instructions concerning bishops, presbyters and deacons.

The enshrining of [celibacy|virginity] can be found once again in the eschatological Book of Revelation, speaking of the 144,000 virgin-martyrs. It is hard to differentiate whether they were martyrs, and thus analogously virgins (not contaminated by the world), or virgin-celibates and thus analogously martyrs having died to the world. Either way, however, as early as the end of the first century, there is already a certain emphasis, and even concentration on, those called to virginity-celibacy in the early Church.

With Anthony of Egypt, and the movement to the desert, begins a great movement in the Church that picks up on this heroic lifestyle. These Desert Fathers were seen to be super Christians
(as were the martyrs). Their lives were legendary, but then this was enshrined through the writing of Athanasius and the life of Anthony. This writing, which obviously, was more than simply biographical, enshrined this higher calling for generations. It influenced Augustine's circle of friends and led to their and his conversion.

The laity in the early Church did not see the Desert Fathers and their celibate lifestyles as a
put-down on their lay life or marriages. Instead, they also placed these early heroes on pedestals, recognizing in them the call to holiness all share in. The clergy were not threatened by them either; except some bishops thought that they were getting "out of hand" and needed to be "tamed". The first taming came with the Council of Michaela, in 325 A.D. in its canons which stated and halted (at least for a time) the connecting of celibacy and Holy Orders. The Council forbade making celibacy mandatory on all clergy.

This is an interesting ruling. Again, remember it is a ruling, not a teaching. If one looks at it again, it means that already by 325 A.D. there was a good-sized movement within the Church calling for a celibate Holy Orders. The fact that the discipline was necessary is fascinating.
The reason for the "prohibition" was simple. There is no absolute connection between celibacy
and Holy Orders in the Apostolic tradition.

This fact is still recognized within all of Christianity! Suffice it to say, celibacy and its reasons go far deeper than some middle age priest's will.

Father Francis

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