Page 4, 14th October 1988

14th October 1988
Page 4
Page 4, 14th October 1988 — An historical view on married priests

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Locations: Milan


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An historical view on married priests

FR Michael Gaine and the other members of Movement for the Ordination of Married Men (October 7) will have to do a great deal more homework to justify the promotion of their particular cause. I will not develop a critique of the manifestly gratuitous statements made by Joanna Moorhead concerning the health hazards of the priesthood, except to underline the ample evidence that any profession which is dedicated to caring for others is certain to be at risk because of the enormous pressures involved.

What I would question more closely is the entirely fallacious argument presented by the MOMM, that clerical celibacy was soley the product of monastic ideals and that it only became universally obligatory in the 12th century. These arguments seem to betray a misunderstanding of the whole movement towards clerical celibacy, from the Apostolic era onwards.

May I attempt to set the record straight by setting down some relevant data. Legislation for the clerical state in the form of total continence for even married clergy, was promulgated by Pope Damasus I (366-384) and by his immediate successor Siricius (384-399). In the following century various other Popes e.g. Innocent I (401-417), Zozimus (417-418), Celestine I (422-432) and St Leo the Great (440-461) all made additions to the existing legislation of their predecessors and to already existing decrees of various regional councils and synods. The papal decrees were considered by their promulgators as of binding and universal application to all the territories to which the Gospel had penetrated.

At the same time, that is from the beginning of the fourth century onwards, many of the outstanding Fathers of the Church including Jerome, Ambrose of Milan and Augustine of Hippo — all promoted and exhorted clerical celibacy. Furthermore, among the arguments used by the Fathers in support of celibacy and virginity were many drawn from Sacred Scripture. Statements such as that of Peter ". . .we have left everything and followed you. . ." (Mk. 10:28; Mt. 19:27; Lk. 18:28) were seen as a clear indication of the renunciation of married life by the married disciples of Jesus. Certainly the practice of clerical marriage continued in many places, ignoring and disobeying the Papal and Counciliar legislation, but the latter still remained as the ideal at which to aim. When the Holy See was in a position to establish its rightful authority and jurisdiction in these matters, it did not hesitate to do so. Even in the East, where acceptance of Roman Decrees was also a problem, there was a strong tendency towards a continent if not celibate clergy. The Emperor Justinian (527-565) forbade a man who had children or grandchild to be made a bishop. The definitive legislation in the east came in 692 at the Quinisext Council, which decreed that before being made a bishop a man must separate totally from his wife — if he had already married. Incidentally, the wife had to enter a convent! Priests and deacons could be married before ordination but must be continent on days when they celebrated the liturgy.

What emerges from this historical evidence is the existence of an ancient and authoratative tradition in favour of a clergy free from the responsibility of marriage and therefore considered more readily disposed to the work of the Church.

Instead of wasting time and effort in harking back to an imaginary era of joyful unrestrained clerical incontinence, or day-dreaming about a future paradise of a married and therefore problem-free presbyterate, those who support MOMM would be better advised to seek to promote a positive and enhanced evaluation of the celibate priesthood as it now is. This could lead to a greater awareness of the true nature of the priesthood, which, in its sacredness, has been sadly undervalued of late. Some seem to prefer priests as politicians or puppets rather than prophets and pontiffs. The celibate priesthood should not be for sale to the latest miasmic movement bearing counterfeit currency. It has a market value that far supersedes the most exacting price that most priests are still asked to pay; that of lifelong celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom.

Antony Conlon St Mary's Rectory Chelsea

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