Priestly Celibacy, a Tradition of Apostolic Origin

Priestly Celibacy a Tradition of Apostolic OriginsNot infrequently some ecclesiastic raises the question of priestly celibacy implying that it can be discussed because it is not a dogma of the faith. The secular media immediately take such statements and scatter them to the four winds, implying that the Church is about to abandon the discipline of celibacy.

The latest statement in this regard was made by the newly appointed Secretary of State of the Holy See, Archbishop Pietro Parolin in a September 8 interview with El Universal of Caracas.

He is reported to have said that priestly celibacy “is not a Church dogma and can be discussed because it is an ecclesiastical tradition.”1

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Continence and Celibacy

In the primitive Church, since a large number of Christians were adult converts (a typical example is Saint Augustine, who converted at the age of 30), it was common for a married man to be ordained priest and made bishop. However, the condition for married men to receive Holy Orders was for them, by common agreement with their wives, to cease having marital relations and start to live in continence.

As to the famous statement by Saint Paul in his Epistles to Titus and Timothy that a bishop had to be a “man of only one woman,”2 according to the interpretation commonly adopted in the early Church (and attested to by the Fathers of the Church), a candidate to the priesthood could not be married more than once. Thus, a widower who remarried was ineligible.3

“What the Apostles Taught”

In his monumental study The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, Father Christian Cochini, S.J. concludes:

“The study that we have undertaken of the documents and of the historical facts demonstrates it [the requirement of celibacy/continence], we think, with enough certainty. Let us conclude that the obligations demanded from married deacons, priests, and bishops to observe perfect continence with their wives is not, in the Church, the fruit of a belated development, but on the contrary, in the full meaning of the term, an unwritten tradition of apostolic origin that, so far as we know, found its first canonical expression in the 4th century.

Ut quod apostoli docuerunt, et ipsa servavit antiquitas, nos quoque custodiamos” – “What the apostles taught, and what antiquity itself observed, let us endeavor also to keep.” The affirmation of the Fathers of Carthage [A.D. 390] will always remain an essential link with the origins.”4

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“We Left All We Had to Follow You”

Among the Apostles, only Saint Peter is known to have been married due to the fact his mother-in-law is mentioned in the Gospels. Some of the others might have been married but there is a clear indication that they left everything, including their families, to follow Christ.

Thus, in the Gospels, one reads that Saint Peter asked Our Lord, “What about us? We left all we had to follow you.” The Divine Master answered: “I tell you solemnly, there is no one who has left house, wife, brothers, parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not be given repayment many times over in this present time and, in the world to come, eternal life.”5

To use the words of Saint Paul to the Corinthians (9:5) so as to imply that all the Apostles, including Saint Paul, were married and living with their wives while preaching the Gospel results from an incorrect translation (believing wife instead of a woman, a sister) and from a false exegesis. For the Apostle was referring to the pious women who in Jewish tradition used to serve their spiritual guides and are mentioned in the Gospels as following the Savior.6

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The context of the Epistle to the Corinthians does not warrant any conclusion that the Apostle was claiming some right to take a wife with him, since a little earlier (7:7-8) he had made clear that he was not married and had no intention to marry. He preferred perfect chastity to the married state which he, nonetheless, held in high esteem. In that passage, addressing both the single and widowed, he writes:

“For I would that all men were even as myself: but every one hath his proper gift from God; one after this manner, and another after that. But I say to the unmarried, and to the widows: It is good for them if they so continue, even as I.”

Celibacy Was Not Introduced in the Middle Ages

Some mistakenly conclude that Saint Gregory VII introduced the law of celibacy into the Church. Quite the contrary. What Saint Gregory VII, and later the Second Lateran Council (1139) did was not to “introduce” the law of celibacy but simply confirm that it was in force and issue regulations for its observance. Since most recruiting for the priesthood was already among the unmarried, the Second Lateran Council forbade priestly marriage, declaring it null and void in the case of priests, deacons or anyone with a solemn vow of religion.

Theological Foundation

In the Old Testament, the priesthood was merely a temporary function received by way of inheritance and marriage was allowed. But when the priest would perform his priestly duties he would leave his wife and retreat to the Temple, where he practiced continence.

Priesthood in the New Testament is a vocation, a calling that transforms the person and confiscates him entirely. He is a sanctifier, a mediator.

Above all, in the New Testament, the priesthood is a participation in the Priesthood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the High Priest. And, therefore, the priest has a mysterious and special bond with Christ, in whose Name and by whose power he offers the bloodless sacrifice (in persona Christi). The most profound reason for priestly celibacy comes from this supernatural bond with the Savior. He is an alter Christus, another Christ, Who is the Model he must follow.


  1. Pietro Parolin: “La renovación implica una vuelta al cristianismo primitivo,” El Universal, Sept. 8, 2013,, accessed Sept. 20, 2013.
  2. 1 Tim. 3:2; 3:12; Titus 1:6.
  3. Alfons Cardinal Stickler, The Case for Clerical Celibacy (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1995), 38-9.
  4. Ibid., 439.
  5. Cf. Luke 18:28-30; Matt. 19:27-30; Mark 10:20-21.
  6. See in this regard my article The Wiles and Guiles of a Campaign Against Priestly Celibacy,

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  • Pinifolius Press

    What is sad is that this question keeps coming back and is going to be reintroduced in 2018 in the synod in South America. Saint JPII affirmed he had no right himself to make a change about the subject. One clarification about the statement by Father Cochini, SJ: married permanent deacons in the Novus Ordo era are not required to observe perfect continence with their wives; they only cannot remarry, should they become widowers.

  • Kieran Cummins

    I fully support everything in the TFP.
    But complusary celebasy is a man mad rule and contrary to the gospel preaching of love. Moverover it is a violation of the most basic human right. It is unnatural and contributes to lonliness in older priesthood.

  • Aidan Brexit

    Every Apostle was married.
    It was introduced roughly 1000 years later so The Church rather than a priests family could inherit his wealth.
    Jews and other enemies if Christ had their motivation to enact it along with simony and usury.

    • John Horvat II

      St. John was not married…

  • Patrick O’Brien

    Fine article, a needed answer to a current tendency to blame the priest abuse crisis on required celibacy. Ironic personally, since my pastor is a married Ukrainian Catholic priest, a very fine man. But this article speaks for itself.

  • Paul Tran

    Thank you so much for the clarification. I have also been reading a book called “What happened to the Apostles” and it clearly supports the facts mentioned. However, there are so many Catholic priests today who would attempt to water down this Apostolic tradition by saying that priesthood celibacy is a creation of the Early Church. Moreover, even women were priestly as anyone acting in the image of Christ could be considered for the priesthood contrary to what St Thomas Aquinas wrote in his Summa Theologica.

    • Palliden7

      I disagree, celibacy is not a mandate from God. It was a decision by the leaders of the early church. There by it was a decision by men.

      • Paul Tran

        You are mistaken, the original apostles had been married but all left their wives & families to carry out their apostolic duties. Please go and read “What happened to the Apostles”.

        • Palliden7

          I’m not mistaken, it’s when the church actually became a structured entity and formalized the celibacy rule for the Roman Church.

          • Paul Tran

            Please go and reread the article. Otherwise get yourself the book called “What happened to the Apostles ?” , the original Apostles all left their families and wives to carry out the ministry of Christ – other than St John who was the youngest and not married – they followed the example of Christ and acted in His image, hence the tradition of the priesthood.

        • Aidan Brexit

          Not true!!

          In his First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul laid claim to the title
          Apostle, and informed his readers of the apostolic rights he chose not
          to exert: “Do we not have the right to our food and drink? Do we not
          have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as the other
          Apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only
          Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living?”
          (I. Cor. 9: 4-6).

          The words “believing wife” leap out. The Greek words Paul uses are
          “adelphen gunaika” — literally “sister wife,” but more conventionally
          translated “believing wife.” Think about what Paul is saying. The
          other Apostles traveled with their wives. So did Peter (Cephas). So
          did the brothers of the Lord. Did they travel with their children also?
          Perhaps. And it is likely that they had other traveling companions,
          just as Paul had Barnabas, John Mark, Silas, and others.

          Other biblical texts lend deeper, richer perspective on the
          phenomenon of the married Apostles. There is, of course, the famous
          Gospel passage in which Jesus cures Peter’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8: 14-15).
          We are not told how Peter’s wife reacted, but she surely must have
          been pleased. After all, contrary to much later legend, we know that
          Peter was not a widower or otherwise separated from her since both he
          and his wife traversed the Mediterranean together (I Corinthians 9: 5).

          Steeped in Greek mythology and philosophy, Clement nevertheless mounted a robust defense of Christianity against its critics.

          One group he was particularly concerned to refute were the
          Encratites, a sect that insisted that all true followers of Christ must
          renounce sexual expression. Clement responded by holding up the married
          Apostles as examples of authentic Christianity. Consider, Clement said,
          the marriage of St. Peter.

          Like Philip, St. Peter experienced the joys
          of child-rearing in his marriage. Reporting a legend found nowhere else
          in the Christian sources, Clement told the story of the martyrdom of
          Peter’s wife. She was arrested and led away with Peter helplessly
          looking on. This sturdy old couple did not weep, however, or bewail
          their fate, but encouraged one another, knowing the end was near.

          ‘Celibacy is a discipline, not a dogma of the Church

          • Paul Tran

            First of all, St Paul has always been questionable as an Apostle as he never met Christ when Christ was alive. Second, the passage you referred to is St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, thus he was speaking to the people in Corinth.
            As said, St Peter had been married but left his wife & family and what Pope Clement claimed was nothing more than anecdotal
            Just consider this passage in Luke (18: 28-30) “And Peter said, “Behold, we have left our homes and followed you ” And he (Jesus) said unto them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life”. This is straight from the mouth of Our Lord.
            Also,per Cor 9; 5, wife , in Greek, means a woman, or a sister according to my Catholic Bible.

          • Aidan Brexit

            Facts: Priests Married for over 1100 years in The Church.

            There were many many Popes that were married and with children. Hormisdas, Adrian 2, Honorus 4, Clement 4, John XV11, and St Peter.

            Celibacy only became an issue when The Church recognized it could obtain much more wealth and bypass the inheritance of a Clerics family, but imposing said requirement.

      • Aidan Brexit

        St. Ignatius of Antioch mentions all of the Apostles were married
        then mentions Paul and Peter specifically were married Apostles.

        3.) Many other Church fathers, such as Tertullian, St. Jerome, St.
        Augustine say that Paul was NOT married. Jerome holds firm to the
        belief that John was celibate.

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