Clerical Celibacy: Concept and Method |
Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler | From "The Case for Clerical Celibacy" | IgnatiusInsight.com
Clerical Celibacy: Concept and Method | Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler | From
The Case for Clerical Celibacy
1. The first and most important prerequisite for a knowledge of the historical
development of any institution is the proper understanding of the meaning of
the concepts on which it is based. For ecclesiastical celibacy, we have a
particularly clear and concise reference in the writings of one of the greatest
of the Decretists--commentators on Gratian's Decretum--who around 1140 collected and explained all the
material concerning the juridical tradition of the first millennium of the
Church. This Decretist is Huguccio of Pisa (d. 1210), who in his Summa on the Decretum, composed around 1190,
began his treatment of celibacy with these
words: "In hac Distinctione incipit (Gratianus) tractare specialiter de
continentia clericorum, scilicet quam debent observare in non
contrahendo martimonio et in noti
utendo contracto." 
A reading of this text clearly indicates a double obligation with respect to
celibacy: not to marry and, if previously married, not to use the rights of
marriage. In addition, it is clear that even in this period, namely, the end of
the twelfth century, there were clerics in major orders who had been married
prior to ordination. In fact we know from the Scriptures that the ordination of
married men was a normal enough event. Saint Paul, in writing to his disciples
Titus and Timothy, prescribed that such candidates could be married only once.
 We know at least that Saint Peter was certainly married, since Peter said
to his Master: "What about us? We left all we had to follow you." To
this, Christ responded (Saint Luke): "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." 
Here we clearly already have the first obligation of clerical celibacy, namely,
the commitment to continence in the use of marriage after ordination. The real
meaning of celibacy, which today is in general almost totally forgotten but
which in the first millennium and beyond was well known, consists in this:
complete abstinence with respect to the procreation of children even within the
context of marriage. In fact all the first laws written on celibacy speak of
this prohibition, that is, of the further procreation of children, a point
which will be convincingly documented in the second part of this study. This
indicates that, despite the fact that many clerics were already married before
their ordination, they were nevertheless held to this particular obligation
before they could he ordained. In the beginning, the actual prohibition to
marry remained somewhat in the background. It emerged only later when the
Church imposed the prohibition against marriage on those celibates from whom
virtually all the candidates for sacred orders were exclusively recruited.
To complete this initial understanding of celibacy, which from the very beginning
was correctly termed ''continence'', we must immediately note that married
candidates could approach sacred orders and renounce the use of marriage only
with the consent of their wife. The reason for this lies in the fact that, on
the basis of the sacrament that had already been received, the wife had an
inalienable right to the use of the valid (and consummated) marriage, which in
itself was indissoluble. We will consider the complex problems that resulted
from this renunciation in the second part of this work.
2. The second prerequisite for a correct understanding of the origins and
development of clerical celibacy--which, given what has just been described,
should he called sexual ''continence"--concerns the research method to be
applied to this question. This is of particular importance given the number of
opinions about the origins and first developments of the obligation to
continence. Frequently they are the result of a flawed methodology in both
their analysis and their explanation of the problem.
In the first place, it is necessary to underline that every area of study has
what in general might be termed its own proper object and methodology, which
are strictly connected to one another. It is also true that for related areas
of study there are common rules that must be observed and applied in actual
research. Thus, for example, in historical research, one cannot disregard the
rules that are fundamental for a preliminary analysis of the sources and which
in turn establish their authenticity and integrity and thereby their intrinsic
value. In other words, how credible they are and what probative value can be
assigned to them. Only on this basis can one then correctly consider and
evaluate the evidence and assertions contained in the particular documents.
Thus a proper hermeneutic and a correct interpretation of the sources can only
be established on this basis: by taking into account their authenticity,
integrity, credibility and particular worth.
In addition to these general methodological prerequisites, it is also necessary
to apply, however, the specific method required in every particular field of
research. Hence, a competent history of philosophy presupposes an adequate
knowledge of philosophy; a history of theology, a knowledge of theology.
Likewise, the history of medicine and mathematics requires a sufficient
knowledge of these two sciences. Thus, for a history of law, a knowledge of law
and of its particular and proper methodology is also clearly fundamental.
Given this, we need to be conscious of the fact that the history of celibacy
implies, with respect to its content and development, an understanding of both
the law of the Church and of Catholic theology. Therefore, in establishing a
correct hermeneutic of the relevant historical evidence (documents and facts),
serious consideration must be paid to the method proper to both canon law and
theology. While at first sight these observations may appear somewhat abstract,
I would like immediately to demonstrate their meaning and necessity by applying
them to a concrete question relative to our study.
At the end of the last [19th] century, a well-known and somewhat
heated discussion took place about the origins of clerical celibacy. Gustav
Bickell, son of a lawyer and himself an orientalist, traced its origins to an
apostolic rule by appealing above all to evidence from the East. Franz X. Funk,
a well-known historian of the early Church, responded to Bickell claiming that
this could not be affirmed since the first law on celibacy could be found only
at the beginning of the fourth century. After a series of further exchanges in
various articles on the question, Bickell made no reply, while Funk continued
to publish his views without receiving any response from his adversary. He did
receive, however, the significant agreement of other leading scholars, such as
E. F. Vacandard and H. Leclercq. Their influence and authority in combination
with their tendency to express their views in widely disseminated works helped
to assure Funk's theory an almost universal acceptance that endures even today.
Taking into consideration what has been stated above concerning the need to
follow clear methodological principles for this type of research, it must be
pointed out that Funk, both in the development and presentation of his results,
did not apply the general principles necessary for a critical study and
appreciation of the sources. He accepted as one of his principal arguments
against Bickell the spurious story of the monk-bishop Paphnutius of Egypt at the
Council of Nicaea (325). This was surprising in such an eminent scholar, given
the fact that even before Funk a critical appraisal of the sources had
repeatedly concluded that this episode was false. This has also been confirmed
by contemporary research, as will be seen when we return to the question in our
discussion of the Council of Nicaea. Funk made a still greater error when he
asserted that the official obligation to celibacy first began only with the
appearance of a specific written law on the topic. The same mistake must also
have been made by Vacandard, a historian of theology, and Leclercq, a historian
Every historian of law knows (as Hans Kelsen, one of the most authoritative
legal theorists of this century, has clearly affirmed) that an identification
between law in the general sense and norms (rules, statutes) is mistaken, ius
et lex. Law (ius) is any obligatory legal norm, whether it be
established orally or handed on by means of a custom or already expressed in
writing. A norm (lex), on the
other hand, is any regulation established in a written form and legitimately
It is a particular characteristic of law, explained in every history on the
topic, that the origin of every legal system consists in oral traditions and in
the transmission of customary norms which only slowly receive a fixed written
form. Thus it was only after centuries and for various sociological reasons
that the Romans formulated in writing the law of the Twelve Tables. The German
peoples only compiled their popular juridical system and customs in written
form after many centuries of their actual existence. Up to that time, their law
was unwritten and was handed on orally. No one would thereby affirm that, on
this basis, their law (ius) was
not obligatory and that its observance was left to the free will of the
Like the legal system of any large community, that of the early Church
consisted for the greater part in regulations and obligations which were handed
on orally, particularly during the three centuries of persecution, which made
it difficult to fix them in writing. On the other hand, the Church, to a
greater degree than other new societies, had written elements of law from the
very beginning. Evidence of this can be found in Scripture. Saint Paul in his
Second Letter to the Thessalonians (2:15) wrote: "Stand firm, then,
brothers, and keep the traditions that we taught you, whether by word of mouth
or by letter." Without doubt we are dealing here with obligatory
regulations which had been given, as is said explicitly, not only in writing
but also handed on orally. Anyone, therefore, who claims that only those norms
are obligatory which have been written down fails to do justice to the
cognitive method proper to the domain of legal history.
Further, in considering the correct method to arrive at an understanding of the
theological foundations of clerical continence, one must give explicit
consideration to the fact that alongside the disciplinary and hence juridical
material, we are also dealing with a charism which is intimately connected with
the Church and with Christ. This clearly implies that the theological
foundations can be understood and analyzed only in the light of revelation and
of theological reflection.
It is now known that medieval theology gave little independent study to
subjects connected with the law and discipline. Rather, it made its own the
discussions and the conclusions of the classic canonists, who were flourishing
in this period, especially through the work of the glossators. The historians
of medieval theology have explicitly identified this phenomenon,  and a
glance at the works of the greatest of the medieval scholastics, Saint Thomas
Aquinas, obviously confirms their findings. This is surely the principal reason
why clerical celibacy or continence has not been satisfactorily studied by
theology itself, that is, by following its own proper method based on
revelation and its sources. True, this lacuna has already been partially
filled, but a far more profound understanding of the theological foundations
for our subject is urgently required. This all-too-justified demand will be
accommodated in the final part of this work.
 [In this section (Gratian) begins specifically to treat the clerical celibacy,
i.e.. which clerics are bound to observe in not contracting marriage and in not
exercising the rights of marriage.] Dist. 27, dict. introd. ad v. quod autem.
See Studia Gratiana, ed. by J. Forchicili and Alfons M. Stickler, vols. 1-3
 1 Tim 3:2 and 3:12; Titus 1:6.
 Mt 19:27-30; Mk 10:20-21; Lk 18:28-30.
 Gustav Bickell, "Der Cölibat eine apostolische Anordnung", in: Zeitschrift
für katholische Theologie 2 (1878): 26-64.
Id., "Der Colibat dennoch eine apostolische Anordnung", in: Zeitschrift
für katholische Theologie 3 (1879): 792-99.
Franz Xaver Funk, "Der Cölibat keine apostolische Anordnung", in: Tübinger
theologische Quartalschrift 61 (1879):
208-47. Id., "Der Cölibat noch lange keine apostolische Anordnung",
in: Tübinger theologische Quartalschrift 62 (1880): 202- 21. Id., "Cölibat und Priesterehe im Christlichen
Altertum", in: Kirchengeschichtliche Abhandlungen und
Untersuchungen 1 (1897) 121-55.
Elphège-Florent Vacandard, "Les Origines du célibat ecclésiastique",
in: Études de critique et d'histoire religieuse, 1st ser. (Paris, 1905; 5th ed.: Paris, 1913),
71-120. Id., art. "Célibat", in: Dictionnaire de théologie
catholique 2 (Paris, 1905): 2068-88. Henri Leclercq, "La Législation conciliaire relative au célibat ecclésiastique",
in the extended French edition of Conciliengeschichte, by Carl Josef v. Hefele, vol. 2, part 2 (Paris,
1908), appendix 6, 1321-48. Id., art. "Célibat", in: Dictionnaire d'Archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie
2 (Paris, 1908): 2802-32.
 Cf. Arthur Michael Landgraf, "Diritto canonico e teologia nel sec.
XII", in: Studia Gratiana 1:371-413.
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Cardinal Alfons Maria Stickler is a member of numerous international academic organizations. He has been a consultor to many
Congregations of the Roman Curia, was a member of the preparatory commission for the Second Vatican Council, a peritus to three
of the Council Commissions, and a member of the commission for the preparation of the new Codex Iuris Canonici.
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