Sunday, August 03, 2014

Book Review: "The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy"

For the past three months I have been immersed in The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy by the scholarly Jesuit Fr. Christian Cochini (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 1981). The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy is the definitive work on the question of priestly celibacy in the Early Church, summarizing all the research done on this question since the Renaissance and adding truly monumental original contributions to this field by his own commentaries on Greek and Latin texts and voluminous compilation of primary sources. Fr. Cochini's magnum opus represents the last word on the question of clerical continence - and the historical sources absolutely vindicate the Tradition of the Church.

The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy aims to settle four points: (1) That there is a difference historically between the discipline of clerical celibacy and the discipline of clerical continence. (2) That the universal expectation in the Early Church was that clerics, married or unmarried, would observe perfect and perpetual continence. (3) That this was not just a pious custom but an actual law or precept, and (4) That the origins of this law go back to precedents set by the Apostles themselves. Every available text by a father, saint, pope, council, and even imperial legislation is brought to bear to prove these four points. And Fr. Cochini proves them beyond any modicum of doubt.

Honestly, until I read this book, I had not given much thought to the distinction between clerical celibacy and clerical continence. The former means the prohibition of clerics entering into marriage or of married men receiving Holy orders; the latter means abstention from sexual relations by all clerics, married or single. It is undeniable that the Early Church had married priests; some Traditionalists want to deny this plain fact of history. Don't bother. We had married priests. Get over it. In fact, Cochini devotes an entire chapter to documenting every single mention of a married bishop, priest or deacon in the Church of the first seven centuries. That we had married clerics is an undeniable fact of history and anyone who says otherwise has simply not read the sources.

However, the argument does not end there, because - and this is where the modern proponents of a married priesthood totally miss the point - while the Early Church admitted clerics to be married, it never, ever condoned clerics engaging in sexual activity. We are introduced to a plethora of texts - most of them previously unknown to me - in support of this position. For example, the Cum in Utum decretal of Pope Siricius, dating from 386:

"Moreover, as it is worthy, chaste, and honest to do so, this is what we advise: let the priests and Levites have no intercourse with their wives, inasmuch as they are absorbed in the daily duties of their ministries. Paul, when writing to the Corinthians, said, "Leave yourselves free for prayer" (1 Cor. 7:5). If lay people are asked to be continent so that their prayers are granted, all the more so a priest who should be ready at any moment, thanks to an immaculate purity, and not fearing the obligation of offering the sacrifice or baptizing. Were he soiled by carnal concupiscence, what could he do? Would he excuse himself? With what shame, in what state of mind would he carry out his functions?"

There is much more. Hundreds of citations over hundreds of pages drive the main point home: It has never been the tradition of the Church to condone a sexually active priesthood.

There are many things cleared up by understanding this discipline. For one thing, it handily explains the how the Church once allowed then prohibited married clerics while simultaneously claiming her teaching on this matter has never changed; this is because the teaching was never about whether a cleric could be married, but whether it was fitting for clerics to have sexual intercourse. Understood this way, the teaching (until modern times) has been unanimous.

It also puts the question of marriage in the Eastern Rites into a glaringly new perspective. When we understand the ancient discipline, we see that it is not, as so often asserted, that the Western Church imposed a new discipline onto its clerics while the East, which allows married priests, is preserving a more ancient practice. On the contrary, East and West both insisted on continence from their clerics. In the West, this insistence remained so strong that eventually it became clear that the only way to ensure it was to prohibit the ordination of married men (the discipline of celibacy); in the East, the observance of the ancient canons began to grow lax until after the Quinisext Council of 692, married clerics were finally allowed to use the marital rights. Thus it was the East that changed the discipline, not the West.

I highly recommend Fr. Cochini's book for anyone who wants a solid patristic understanding of this question. You can purchase it here on Amazon.

If you want an in depth but more concise synopsis of the historical arguments presented in Cochini's book, please see my article "The Truth About Priestly Celibacy and Continence in the Early Church" on the USC website, which synthesizes the most important primary sources cited by Cochini and explains their theological and historical significance.


Nick said...

I was actually talking with a very solid Priest (who was also a canon lawyer) on this very subject. I was talking about the online article that Canon Lawyer Ed Peters wrote about a year ago showing that the wording of Catholic Canon Law indicates continence for married deacons. The part of the law saying that the wife 'has to agree for her husband to be a deacon' is precisely referring to the wife having to agree to be continent.

The Priest I talked to also pointed out how this is what Paul meant in 1 Timothy 3 when he said that clergy are to be the 'husband of one wife', because if they got remarried it was a sign (to the Apostles) that the candidate was unable to practice continence.

It's a fascinating subject, and if you have time, could you comment on these two points?

Nick said...

Oops, I just noticed you had a link to an article as well as to buy the book. I didn't click the link originally because I thought it required buying the book.

Pablo the Mexican said...

I would like to post your article on my website for the edification of souls.

You will be given credit as a Priest.

Thank you in advance.



Boniface said...


read the article and then let me know if you still need a comment.

Pablo, yes, please post, but I am not a priest, just a layman.

Nick said...


I did read the article and it covered 1 Tim 3:2. But it didn't address the fact modern day canon law requires continence among married clergy as well, as argued pretty strongly by Ed Peters in his look at Canon 277:

I recall that somewhere canon law also says that part of becoming a deacon requires your wife to 'agree' to this. Ed Peters spoke about how this only really makes sense if it's speaking of the wife agreeing to live in continence.

Boniface said...

LULZ...that's because it's called continence and celibacy "in the early church."

Seriously though, a married priest from the Anglican Ordinariate told me that the canon is still in force but they have to be dispensed from it, which is common.

Br. Alexis Bugnolo said...

how does his exposition differ from that in the Catholic Encyclopedia?

And was Pope Siricius an easterner, speaking to the practice of easterners?

Not That Guy said...

Why did the Church desire a non-sexually active priesthood?

Boniface said...


Didn't you read the accompanying article?

Not That Guy said...

I hadn't, no. I'm sorry I overlooked that.

I'm still wondering after reading it about the proximity of the profane (sexual relations) with what is holy and set apart (the priesthood). In the abstract, I understand the idea, but there are other things that laity do which is purely earthbound which priests can do (like recreate) and it is not considered a violation.

Boniface said...

Well, all I can say is that is the way the Fathers saw it, and they linked it to Old Testament prohibitions on sexual activity during ministry, which comes directly from God's revelation in the Old Law.

Not That Guy said...

Fair enough. Thank you again.

William G. said...

Out of curiosity, are you suggesting that married priesthood be abolished in the Eastern rites or merely defending the praxis of the West? Also, how do you account for the married priests among the Assyrian Church of the East and the Oriental Orthodox, neither of which were a party to the Quinisext Council?

William G. said...

Out of curiosity, are you suggesting that married priesthood be abolished in the Eastern rites or merely defending the praxis of the West? Also, how do you account for the married priests among the Assyrian Church of the East and the Oriental Orthodox, neither of which were a party to the Quinisext Council?

Boniface said...


I can't really say I'm doing either. I'm merely talking about the historical development of the discipline.

In Cochini's book he has several chapters on the Assyrian Church and other orthodox groups. At least in the case of the Assyrians, their rejection of the discipline dates from the mid-5th century when they embraced Nestorianism.

William G. said...

Out of curiosity, what does Nestorianism have to do with this issue? To my knowledge, Nestorius, for all his faults, was celibate, and none of the numerous controversies he managed to ignite, the most spectacular of which being the a enforcement of Mopsuestian Christology, which got him anathematozed, related to clerical celibacy.

Boniface said...

Hi William!

It does not have to do with Nestorianism qua Nestorianism; in other words, it is not that part of the Nestorian Creed called for an end to celibacy. Rather, it is just that once the Assyrian Churches broke with the rest of the Church during the schism and were more autonomous, they took that opportunity in their general synods to end the discipline of mandatory priestly continence, as had been demanded by many of the priests in the more rural areas. So you are right - there is no necessary connection between the teachings of Nestorius and ending clerical continence, but once the schism of Nestorius had ruptured communion with the rest of the Church, the schismatic churches used it as an occasion to jettison the discipline.

Eric Brooks said...

"Were he soiled by carnal concupiscence, what could he do?" Great piece (the accompanying article too). This quote in my mind really sums up the issue. Sexual pleasure is always carnal, it always involves an arousal of the passions. It is not to b listed with "secular recreations" as if a priest engaging in it could be compared to a priest who makes a hobby of fishing. This is the same point that's missed in modern theology of the body talks, wherein couples are encourage to go at it as much as possible to "build intimacy" or something. The fathers were so convinced of the opposite, that intercourse will always arouse the passions, that most of them argued that Adam and Eve would have reproduced without intercourse if there was no fall (I follow Augustine/Aquinas in rejecting this view, but it's prevalence even in big names like Jerome and John of Damascus says a lot about how much our consciousness of the psychology of the passions has changed). I'm sure that view would be posting pooh poohed as "anti-sex" or maybe even "manichaean" in most apologetics circles today, but for my money I'll bet on the truth of the "carnal relations are carnal" view.

Married Priesthood said...

Pope Siricius was 1st Pope to mandate continence for married priests in AD 385 (as you cited).

Pope Siricius is Pope #38.

That means Popes ##1-37 were SILENT on mandated continence for married priests which have existed since the Twelve Apostles.

That's 352 years of SILENCE on continence from Peter in AD 33 to Siricius in AD 385.

Can you cite any Pope before AD 385 teaching on mandated continence?

If not, then lack of papal teaching about continence for those silent 352 years sounds like mandated continence is not Apostolic Tradition.

Boniface said...

@Married Priest-

1) Apostolic Teaching ≠ Papal Teaching. Even if the first mention of mandatory clerical continence by papal decree is from the time of Siricus, that's not the first time it is mentioned at all. It is mentioned as early as the time of Tertullian (c. 200). For example, in his "Exhortation to Chastity" he says: Accordingly, the apostle added the recommendation of a temporary abstinence for the sake of adding an efficacy to prayers, that we might know that what is profitable "for a time" should be always practiced by us, that it may be always profitable. Daily, every moment, prayer is necessary to men; of course continence is so too, since prayer is necessary. There are enough such references from the pre-Nicene period to establish that continence was expected of priests in the early church. It might not have been mandated by a pope it was was a discipline nonetheless.

2) Of course, just because something is first mentioned in papal teaching at a certain point does not mean that's when the practice first emerged. This is the same error of those who say that the Assumption of Mary was "invented" in 1950 because that's when the pope first taught it authoritatively.