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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 50. Marriage and Celibacy of the Clergy.


The progress and influence of monasticism, the general exaltation of the ascetic life above the social, and of celibacy above the married state, together with the increasing sharpness of the distinction between clergy and laity, all tended powerfully toward the celibacy of the clergy. What the apostle Paul, expressly discriminating a divine command from a human counsel, left to each one’s choice, and advised, in view of the oppressed condition of the Christians in the apostolic age, as a safer and less anxious state only for those who felt called to it by a special gift of grace, now, though the stress of circumstances was past, was made, at least in the Latin church, an inexorable law. What had been a voluntary, and therefore an honorable exception, now became the rule, and the former rule became the exception. Connubial intercourse appeared incompatible with the dignity and purity of the priestly office and of priestly functions, especially with the service of the altar. The clergy, as the model order, could not remain below the moral ideal of monasticism, extolled by all the fathers of the church, and must exhibit the same unconditional and undivided devotion to the church within the bosom of society, which monasticism exhibited without it. While placed by their calling in unavoidable contact with the world, they must vie with the monks at least in the virtue of sexual purity, and thereby increase their influence over the people. Moreover, the celibate life secured to the clergy greater independence toward the state and civil society, and thus favored the interests of the hierarchy. But, on the other hand, it estranged them more and more from the sympathies and domestic relations of the people, and tempted them to the illicit indulgence of appetite, which, perhaps, did more injury to the cause of Christian morality and to the true influence of the clergy, than the advantage of forced celibacy could compensate.

In the practice of clerical celibacy, however, the Greek and the Latin churches diverged in the fourth century, and are to this day divided. The Greek church stopped halfway, and limited the injunction of celibacy to the higher clergy, who were accordingly chosen generally from the monasteries or from the ranks of widower-presbyters; while the Latin church extended the law to the lower clergy, and at the same time carried forward the hierarchical principle to absolute papacy. The Greek church differs from the Latin, not by any higher standard of marriage, but only by a closer adherence to earlier usage and by less consistent application of the ascetic principle. It is in theory as remote from the evangelical Protestant church as the Latin is, and approaches it only in practice. It sets virginity far above marriage, and regards marriage only in its aspect of negative utility. In the single marriage of a priest it sees in a measure a necessary evil, at best only a conditional good, a wholesome concession to the flesh for the prevention of immorality,425425   1 Cor. vii. 9. and requires of its highest office bearers total abstinence from all matrimonial intercourse. It wavers, therefore, between a partial permission and a partial condemnation of priestly marriage.

In the East, one marriage was always allowed to the clergy, and at first even to bishops, and celibacy was left optional. Yet certain restrictions were early introduced, such as the prohibition of marriage after ordination (except in deacons and subdeacons), as well as of second marriage after baptism; the apostolic direction, that a bishop should be the husband of one wife,426426   1 Tim. iii. 2, 12; Lit. i. 6. being taken as a prohibition of successive polygamy, and at the same time as an allowance of one marriage. Besides second marriage, the marrying of a concubine, a widow, a harlot, a slave, and an actress, was forbidden to the clergy. With these restrictions, the “Apostolic Constitutions” and “Canons” expressly permitted the marriage of priests contracted before ordination, and the continuance of it after ordination.427427   Lib. vi. cap. 17 (ed. Ueltzen, p. 144):̓επίσκοπον καὶ πρεβύτερον καὶ διάκονον [thus including the bishop] εἴπομεν μονογάμους καθίστασθαι... μὴ ἐξεῖναι δὲ αὐτοῖς μετὰ χειροτονίαν ἀγάμοις οὗσιν ἔτι ἐπὶ γάμον ἔρχεσθαι, etc. Can. Apost. can. 17 (p. 241): Ὁ δυσὶ γάμοις συμπλακεὶς μετὰ τὸ βάπτισμα... οὐ δύναται εῖναι ἐπίσκοπος ἢ πρεσβύτερος ἢ διάκονος ἢ ὅλως τοῦ καταλόγου τοῦ ἱερατικοῦ. Comp. can. 18 and can. 5. The synod of Ancyra, in 314, permitted deacons to marry even after ordination, in case they had made a condition to that effect beforehand; otherwise they were to remain single or lose their office.428428   Can. 10. Comp. Dr. Hefele, Conciliengeschichte, i. p. 198. The Synod of New Caesarea, which was held at about the same time, certainly before 325, does not go beyond this, decreeing: “If a presbyter (not a deacon) marry (that is, after ordination), he shall be expelled from the clergy; and if he practise lewdness, or become an adulterer, he shall be utterly thrust out and held to penance.”429429   Can. 1. In Harduin, tom. v. p. 1499; Hefele, Conciliengesch. i. 211 sq. This canon passed even into the Corpus juris can. c. 9, dist. 28. At the general council of Nice, 325, it was proposed indeed, probably by the Western bishop Hosius,430430   Hosius of Cordova, who was present at the council of Elvira in Spain, in 305, where a similar proposition was made and carried (can. 33). In the opinion above given, Theiner, Gieseler, Robertson, and Hefele agree. to forbid entirely the marriage of priests; but the motion met with strong opposition, and was rejected. A venerable Egyptian bishop, Paphnutius, though himself a strict ascetic from his youth up, and a confessor who in the last persecution had lost an eye and been crippled in the knee, asserted with impressiveness and success, that too great rigor would injure the church and promote licentiousness and that marriage and connubial intercourse were honorable and spotless things.431431   See the account in Socrates, H. E. i. c. 11, where that proposition to prohibit priestly marriage is called an innovation, a νόμος νεαρός; in Sozomen, H. E. i. c. 23; and in Gelasius, Hist. Conc. Nic. ii. 32. The statement is thus sufficiently accredited, and agrees entirely with the ancient practice of the Oriental church and the directions of the Apostolic Constitutions and Canons. The third canon of the council of Nice goes not against it, since it forbids only the immorality of mulieres subintroductae (comp. vol. i. § 95). The doubts of several Roman divines (Baronius, Bellarmine, Valesius), who would fain trace the celibacy of the clergy to an apostolic origin, arise evidently from dogmatic bias, and are sufficiently refuted by Hefele, a Roman Catholic historian, in his Conciliengeschichte, vol. i. p. 417 sqq. The council of Gangra in Paphlagonia (according to some, not till the year 380) condemned, among several ascetic extravagances of the bishop Eustathius of Sebaste and his followers, contempt for married priests and refusal to take part in their ministry.432432   Comp. Hefele, l.c. i. 753 sqq. The so-called Apostolic Canons, which, like the Constitutions, arose by a gradual growth in the East, even forbid the clergy, on pain of deposition and excommunication, to put away their wives under the pretext of religion.433433   Can. 5 (ed. Ueltzen, p. 239): Ἐπίσκοπος ἢ πρεσβύτερος ἢ διάκονος τὴν ἑαυτοῦ ̓ γυν́αῖκα μὴ ἐκβαλλέτω προφάσει εὐλαβείας; ἐὰν δὲ ἐκβαλῆ, ἀφοριξέσθω, ἐπιμένων δὲ καθαιρείσθω. Comp. Const. Apost. vi. 17. Perhaps this canon likewise was occasioned by the hyper-asceticism of Eustathius.

Accordingly we not unfrequently find in the Oriental church, so late as the fourth and fifth centuries, not only priests, but even bishops living in wedlock. One example is the father of the celebrated Gregory Nazianzen, who while bishop had two sons, Gregory and the younger Caesarius, and a daughter. Others are Gregory of Nyssa, who, however, wrote an enthusiastic eulogy of the unmarried life, and lamented his loss of the crown of virginity; and Synesius († about 430), who, when elected bishop of Ptolemais in Pentapolis, expressly stipulated for the continuance of his marriage connection.434434   Declaring: “God, the law, and the consecrated hand of Theophilus (bishop of Alexandria), have given me a wife. I say now beforehand, and I protest, that I will neither ever part from her, nor live with her in secret as if in an unlawful connection; for the one is utterly contrary to religion, the other to the laws; but I desire to receive many and good children from her” (Epist. 105 ed. Basil., cited in the original Greek in Gieseler). Comp. on the instances of married bishops, Bingham, Christ. Antiq. b. iv. ch. 5; J. A. Theiner and A. Theiner, Die Einführung der erzwungenen Ehelosigkeit der christl. Geistlichen u. ihre Folgen (Altenburg, 1828), vol. i. p. 263 sqq., and Gieseler, vol. i. div. 2, § 97, notes at the close. The marriage of Gregory of Nyssa with Theosebia is disputed by some Roman Catholic writers, but seems well supported by Greg. Naz. Ep. 95, and Greg Nyss. De virg. 3. Socrates, whose Church History reaches down to the year 439, says of the practice of his time, that in Thessalia matrimonial intercourse after ordination had been forbidden under penalty of deposition from the time of Heliodorus of Trica, who in his youth had been an amatory writer; but that in the East the clergy and bishops voluntarily abstained from intercourse with their wives, without being required by any law to do so; for many, he adds, have had children during their episcopate by their lawful wives.435435   Hist. Eccl. v. cap. 22· Τῶν ἐν ἀνατολῇ πάντων γνώμῃ (i.e. from principle or voluntarily—according to the reading of the Florentine codex) ἀπεχομένων, καὶ τῶν ἐπισκόπων, εἰ καὶ βούλοίντο, οὐ μὴν ἀνάγκῃ νόμου τοῦτο ποιούντων. Πολλοὶ γὰρ αὐτῶν ἐν τῷ καιρῷ τῆς ἐπισκοπῆς καὶ παῖδας ἐκ τῆς νομίμης γαμετῆς πεποιήκασιν There were Greek divines, however, like Epiphanius, who agreed with the Roman theory. Justinian I. was utterly opposed to the marriage of priests, declared the children of such connection illegitimate, and forbade the election of a married man to the episcopal office (a.d. 528). Nevertheless, down to the end of the seventh century, many bishops in Africa, Libya, and elsewhere, continued to live in the married state, as is expressly said in the twelfth canon of the Trullan council; but this gave offence and was forbidden. From that time the marriage of bishops gradually disappears, while marriage among the lower clergy continues to be the rule.

This Trullan council, which was the sixth ecumenical436436   More precisely, the second Trullan council, held in the Trullan hall of the imperial palace in Constantinople; also called Concilium Quinisextum, σύνοδος πενθέκτη, being considered a supplement to the fifth and sixth general councils. Comp. respecting it Hefele, iii. 298 sqq. (a.d. 692), closes the legislation of the Eastern church on the subject of clerical marriage. Here—to anticipate somewhat—the continuance of a first marriage contracted before ordination was prohibited in the case of bishops on pain of deposition, but, in accordance with the Apostolic Constitutions and Canons, allowed in the case of presbyters and deacons (contrary to the Roman practice), with the Old Testament restriction, that they abstain from sexual intercourse during the season of official service, because he who administers holy things must be pure.437437   1 Can. 3, 4, and especially 12, 13, and 48. In the latter canon bishops are directed, after ordination, to commit their wives to a somewhat remote cloister, though to provide for their support. The same relation is thus condemned in the one case as immoral, in the other approved and encouraged as moral; the bishop is deposed if he retains his lawful wife and does not, immediately after being ordained, send her to a distant cloister; while the presbyter or deacon is threatened with deposition and even excommunication for doing the opposite and putting his wife away.

The Western church, starting from the perverted and almost Manichaean ascetic principle, that the married state is incompatible with clerical dignity and holiness, instituted a vigorous effort at the end of the fourth century, to make celibacy, which had hitherto been left to the option of individuals, the universal law of the priesthood; thus placing itself in direct contradiction to the Levitical law, to which in other respects it made so much account of conforming. The law, however, though repeatedly enacted, could not for a long time be consistently enforced. The canon, already mentioned, of the Spanish council of Elvira in 305, was only provincial. The first prohibition of clerical marriage, which laid claim to universal ecclesiastical authority, at least in the West, proceeded in 385 from the Roman church in the form of a decretal letter of the bishop Siricius to Himerius, bishop of Tarragona in Spain, who had referred several questions of discipline to the Roman bishop for decision. It is significant of the connection between the celibacy of the clergy and the interest of the hierarchy, that the first properly papal decree, which was issued in the tone of supreme authority, imposed such an unscriptural, unnatural, and morally dangerous restriction. Siricius contested the appeal of dissenting parties to the Mosaic law, on the ground that the Christian priesthood has to stand not merely for a time, but perpetually, in the service of the sanctuary, and that it is not hereditary, like the Jewish; and he ordained that second marriage and marriage with a widow should incapacitate for ordination, and that continuance in the married state after ordination should be punished with deposition.438438   Epist. ad Himerium Episc. Tarraconensem (in Harduin, Acta Conc. i. 849-850), c 7: “Hi vero, qui illiciti privilegii excusatione nituntur, ut sibi asserant veteri hoc lege concessum: noverint se ab omni ecclesiastico honore, quo indigne usi sunt, apostolicae sedis auctoritate dejectos .... Si quilibet episcopus, presbyter atque diaconus, quod non optamus, deinceps fuerit talis inventus, jam nunc sibi omnem per nos indulgentiae aditum intelligat obseratum: quia ferro necesse est excidantur vulnera, quae fomentorum non senserint medicinam.” The exegesis of Siricius is utterly arbitrary in limiting the demand of holiness (Lev. xx. 7) to the priests and to abstinence from matrimonial intercourse, and in referring the words of Paul respecting walking in the flesh, Rom. viii. 8, 9, to the married life, as if marriage were thus incompatible with the idea of holiness. Comp. also the striking remarks of Greenwood, Catheda Petri, vol. i. p. 265 sq., and Milman, Hist. of Latin Christianity, i. 119 (Amer. ed.), on Siricius. And with this punishment he threatened not bishops only, but also presbyters and deacons. Leo the Great subsequently, extended the requirement of celibacy even to the subdiaconate. The most eminent Latin church fathers, Ambrose, Jerome, and even Augustine—though the last with more moderation—advocated the celibacy of priests. Augustine, with Eusebius of Vercella before him (370), united their clergy in a cloister life, and gave them a monastic stamp; and Martin of Tours, who was a monk from the first, carried his monastic life into his episcopal office. The councils of Italy, Africa, Spain, and Gaul followed the lead of Rome. The synod of Clermont, for example (a.d. 535), declared in its twelfth canon: “No one ordained deacon or priest may continue matrimonial intercourse. He is become the brother of her who was his wife. But since some, inflamed with lust, have rejected the girdle of the warfare [of Christ], and returned to marriage intercourse, it is ordered that such must lose their office forever.” Other councils, like that of Tours, 461, were content with forbidding clergymen, who begat children after ordination, to administer the sacrifice of the mass, and with confining the law of celibacy ad altiorem gradum.439439   Comp. Hefele, ii. 568, and Gieseler, l.c. (§ 97, note 7).

But the very fact of the frequent repetition of these enactments, and the necessity of mitigating the penalties of transgression, show the great difficulty of carrying this unnatural restriction into general effect. In the British and Irish church, isolated as it was from the Roman, the marriage of priests continued to prevail down to the Anglo-Saxon period.

But with the disappearance of legitimate marriage in the priesthood, the already prevalent vice of the cohabitation of unmarried ecclesiastics with pious widows and virgins “secretly brought in,”440440   The so-called sorores, or mulieres subintroductae, orπαρθένοι συνείσακτοι. Comp. on the origin of this practice, vol. i. § 95. became more and more common. This spiritual marriage, which had begun as a bold ascetic venture, ended only too often in the flesh, and prostituted the honor of the church.

The Nicene council of 325 met the abuse in its third canon with this decree: “The great council utterly forbids, and it shall not be allowed either to a bishop, or a priest, or a deacon, or any other clergyman, to have with him a συνθείσακτος, unless she be his mother, or sister, or aunt, or some such person, who is beyond all suspicion.”441441   By a misinterpretation of the term συνείσακτος, the sense of which is fixed in the usage of the early church, Baronius and Bellarmine erroneously find in this canon a universal law of celibacy, and accordingly deny the above-mentioned statement respecting Paphnutius. Comp. Hefele, i. 364. This canon forms the basis of the whole subsequent legislation of the church de cohabitatione clericorum et mulierum. It had to be repeatedly renewed and strengthened; showing plainly that it was often disobeyed. The council of Toledo in Spain, a.d. 527 or 531, ordered in its third canon: “No clergyman, from the subdeacon upward, shall live with a female, be she free woman, freed woman, or slave. Only a mother, or a sister, or other near relative shall keep his house. If he have no near relative, his housekeeper must live in a separate house, and shall under no pretext enter his dwelling. Whosoever acts contrary to this, shall not only be deprived of his spiritual office and have the doors of his church closed, but shall also be excluded from all fellowship of Catholics.” The Concilium Agathense in South Gaul, a.d. 506, at which thirty-five bishops met, decreed in the tenth and eleventh canons: “A clergyman shall neither visit nor receive into his house females not of his kin; only with his mother, or sister, or daughter, or niece may he live. Female slaves, also, and freed women, must be kept away from the house of a clergyman.” Similar laws, with penalties more or less severe, were passed by the council of Hippo, 393, of Angers, 453, of Tours, 461, of Lerida in Spain, 524, of Clermont, 535, of Braga, 563, of Orleans, 538, of Tours, 567.442442   Comp. the relevant canons of these and other councils in the second and third volumes of Hefele’s Conciliengeschichte. The emperor Justinian, in the twenty-third Novelle, prohibited the bishop having any woman at all in his house, but the Trullan council of 692 returned simply to the Nicene law.443443   Can. 5: “No clergyman shall have a female in his house, but those allowed in the old canon (Nicaen. c. 3). Even eunuchs are to observe this.” The Western councils also made attempts to abolish the exceptions allowed in the Nicene canon, and forbade clergymen all intercourse with women, except in presence of a companion.

This rigorism, however, which sheds an unwelcome light upon the actual state of things that made it necessary, did not better the matter, but rather led to such a moral apathy, that the Latin church in the middle age had everywhere to contend with the open concubinage of the clergy, and the whole energy of Gregory VII. was needed to restore in a measure the old laws of celibacy, without being sufficient to prevent the secret and, to morality, far more dangerous violations of it.444444   “Throughout the whole period,” says Milman (Hist. of Latin Christianity, i. 123), “from Pope Siricius to the Reformation, as must appear in the course of our history, the law [of clerical celibacy] was defied, infringed, eluded. It never obtained anything approaching to general observance, though its violation was at times more open, at times more clandestine.” The later ecclesiastical legislation respecting the mulieres subintroductae is more lenient, and, without limiting the intercourse of clergymen to near kindred, generally excludes only concubines and those women “de quibus possit haberi suspicio.”445445   So the Concilium Tridentinum, sess. xxv. de reform. cap. 14. Comp. also the article Subintroductae, in the 10th volume of Wetzer and Welte’s Cath. Church Lexicon.



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