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Charles Buck Theological Dictionary [1]

The state of unmarried persons. Celibate, or celibacy, is a word chiefly used in speaking of the single life of the popish clergy, or the obligation they are under to abstain from marriage. The church of Rome imposes an universal celibacy on all her clergy, from the pope to the lowest deacon and subdeacon. The advocates for this usage pretend that a vow of perpetual celibacy was required in the ancient church as a condition of ordination, even from the earliest apostolic ages. But the contrary is evident from numerous examples of bishops and archbishops who lived in a state of matrimony, without any prejudice to their ordination or their function. Neither our Lord nor his apostles laid the least restraint upon the connubial union: on the contrary, the Scriptures speak of it as honourable in all, without the least restriction as to persons.  Hebrews 13:4 .  Matthew 19:10;  Matthew 19:12 .  1 Corinthians 7:2;  1 Corinthians 7:9 . St. Paul even assigns forbidding to marry as characteristic of the apostacy of the latter times,  1 Timothy 4:3 .

The fathers, without making any distinction between clergy and laity, asserted the lawfulness of the marriage of all Christians. Marriage was not forbidden to bishops in the Eastern church till the close of the seventh century. Celibacy was not imposed on the Western clergy in general till the end of the eleventh century, though attempts had been made long before. Superstitious zeal for a sanctimonious appearance in the clergy seems to have promoted it at first; and crafty policy, armed with power, no doubt rivetted this clog on the sacerdotal order in later periods of the church. Pope Gregory VII. appears in this business to have had a view to separate the clergy as much as possible from all other interests, and to bring them into a total dependence upon his authority; to the end that all temporal power might in a high degree be subjugated to the papal jurisdiction. Forbidding to marry, therefore, has evidently the mark of the beast upon it.

See Marriage

Holman Bible Dictionary [2]

 Matthew 19:12 1 Corinthians 7:8 Mark 10:2-12 1 Corinthians 7:36-39 1 Corinthians 9:5 1 Timothy 4:1-3

Webster's Dictionary [3]

(n.) The state of being unmarried; single life, esp. that of a bachelor, or of one bound by vows not to marry.

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament [4]

See Marriage.

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature [5]

(celibatus, Lat. ccelebs or caolebs, unmarried, derived by some Roman writers from cali beatitudo, the blessedness of heaven), the state of virginity, or of unmarried persons.

1. In The Scripture. Under the Mosaic law, priests were not only allowed, but encouraged to marry. The priesthood was confirmed to the descendants of one family, and consequently involved even an obligation to marry. In the N.T. we find passages in which an unmarried life, voluntarily assumed, is commended, under certain circumstances ( Matthew 19:12;  1 Corinthians 7:1-35). But no passage in the N.T. can be interpreted into a prohibition against the marriage of the clergy under the Gospel dispensation; on the contrary, there are many from which we may infer the contrary. One of the twelve, Peter, was certainly a married man ( Matthew 8:14), and it is supposed that several of the others were also married. Philip, one of the seven deacons, was also a married man ( Acts 21:9); and if our Lord did not require celibacy in the first preachers of the Gospel, it cannot be thought indispensable in their successors. Paul says, Let every man have his own wife" ( 1 Corinthians 7:2); and that marriage is honorable in all ( Hebrews 13:4), without excepting those who are employed in the public offices of religion. He expressly says that "a bishop must be the husband of one wife" ( 1 Timothy 3:2); and he gives the same direction concerning elders, priests, and deacons. When Aquila traveled about to preach the Gospel, he was not only married, but his wife Priscilla accompanied him ( Acts 18:2); and Paul insists that he might have claimed the privilege "of carrying about a sister or wife ( 1 Corinthians 9:5), as other apostles did." The "forbidding to marry" ( 1 Timothy 4:3) is mentioned as a character of the apostasy of the latter times.

2. In The Early Church. At an early period virginity came to be held in honor in the Church. Several passages of the N.T. (e.g.  Matthew 19:10;  Matthew 19:12;  1 Corinthians 7:7;  1 Corinthians 7:38) in which Voluntary virginity for "the kingdom of heaven's" sake is commended under certain circumstances, were interpreted as favoring asceticism and as depreciating marriage. Moreover, in the old Pagan times celibacy had been held in honor (e.g. the Vestal Virgins). Wherever dualistic ideas of a good and evil principle, and of matter as the seat of evil, prevailed, there it was natural that ascetic notions of virginity should arise. An undue regard for virginity, and corresponding depreciation of marriage, began to appear strongly about the middle of the second century, and reached their height in the fourth. Few of the so-called fathers escaped from extravagant notions and opinions on this subject; in fact, their errors here have done more, perhaps, than any other cause to weaken their authority as guides for the Church (see Taylor, Ancient Christianity, passim). But no enforced celibacy of the clergy was known in the Church immediately following the apostolic age. Bingham collects the facts carefully (Org. Ecclesiastes Luke 4, ch. 5) to the following effect. In the age immediately succeeding that of the apostles we read of the wives of Valens, presbyter of Philippi (Polycarp, Ep. Ad Philip. 2:11), of Chceremon, bishop of Nilus (Euseb. 6, 100:42), of Novatus, presbyter of Carthage (Cyprian, Ep. 49), of Cyprian himself, of Caecilius, who converted him (Pont Vit. Cyp.), and of several other bishops and presbyters. But it has been said by the advocates of celibacy that married persons promised to separate themselves from their wives as soon as they should receive ordination. The history of Novatus distinctly proves the contrary. He was accused, long after he was a presbyter, of having caused the miscarriage of his wife by a passionate blow. In fact, throughout the first three centuries we read of no enforced celibacy. Chrysostom expressly combats the notion that the clergy, peculiarly, were required to live unmarried (Ephesians 1 ad Cor.: Hom. XIX ad  1 Corinthians 7:1).

But the first step towards clerical celibacy was taken in the disapproval of second marriages. "Yet so late as the-beginning of the third century there were many clergymen in the Catholic Church who were married a second time. This appears from the accusation of Tertullian, who asks the Catholics, with Montanistic indignation: 'Quot enim et bigami praesident apud vos, insultantes utique apostolo? . . . Digamus tinguis? digamus offers?' Second marriage thus seems to him to disqualify for the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper. Hippolytus, in the Philosophoumena, reproaches the Roman bishop Callistus with admitting to sacerdotal and episcopal office those who were married the second and even the third time, and allowing the clergy to marry after having been ordained. The next step was the disapproval of-even one marriage for the clergy, but not yet the prohibition of it. The priesthood and marriage became more and more incompatible in the prevailing view. The Montanists shared in this feeling; among the oracles of the prophetess Prisca is one to the effect, 'Only a holy (that is, an unmarried) minister can administer in holy things.' Even those fathers who were married, like the presbyter Tertullian and the bishop Gregory of Nyssa, gave decided preference to virginity. The apostolical constitutions and some provincial councils accordingly prohibited priests not only from marrying a widow, or a divorced woman, or a slave, and from second marriage, but also from contracting marriage after ordination. The Synod of Ancyra, in 314, allowed it to deacons, but only when they expressly stipulated for it before taking orders. The rigoristic Spanish Council of Elvira (Illiberis), in 305, went farthest. It appears even to have forbidden the continuance of nuptial intercourse after consecration upon pain of deposition" (Schaff, Church Hist. 1, § 96).

Phileas, bishop of Thumis, and Philoromus, had both wife and children, and were on that account urged by the heathen magistrate to deny the faith and save themselves (Euseb. lib. 6, cap. 42; lib. 8, cap. 9). Eusebius (4:23) tells us how Pinytus, bishop, of Gnossus, in Crete, being desirous to enforce celibacy, was rebuked by Dionysius, bishop of Corinth. In the great Council of Niciea it was proposed to enact a law to that effect, but Paphnutius, an Egyptian bishop, himself unmarried, resolutely withstood it as an innovation, declared that marriage is honorable "in all men," and desired that the ancient tradition of the Church should continue to be observed, viz. that those who before ordination were unmarried should continue to be so (Socrates, H. E. 1:11; Sozomen, H. E. 1:23). The only reply which Bellarmine and Valesius give to this statement is to suspect the veracity of the historians; in which they are followed by Thomassin, who, cautious and judicious as he is, scruples not to say that Socrates and Sozomen are not such irreproachable writers, nor of such weight, that we need believe their word in a matter of such importance. In opposition to all this, Roman writers allege the testimony of Epiphanius and Jerome, and the tenth canon of Ancyra, which forbids deacons who did not, at ordination, declare their intention to marry, to do so afterwards. But all these testimonies are subsequent to the third century; and the Council of Gangra, held probably about 379, long after that of Ancyra, anathematizes those who separate from the communion of a married priest: "Si quis discernit presbyterum conjugatum, tanquam occasione nuptiarum quod offerre non debeat et ab ejus oblatione ideo se abstinet, anathema sit" (Canon 4). See Wilson, The Doctrine of the Apostolic Fathers (Liverpool, 1845), p. 178 sq.; and the article (See Eustathius).

3. In The Church Of Rome. Siricius, bishop of Rome (A.D. 385), decided against the Canon of Gangra (Ad Himer. Tarraconensem, ep. 1, 100:7, in 100:3, 4, dist. 82), asserting that the reason why, in the O.T., priests were allowed to marry, was because they could be taken only from the tribe of Levi. He argued, therefore, as no such tribal limitation exists in the Christian Church, that obscaenae cupiditates (i.e. marriage) are inconsistent with the clerical office. The Roman bishops after Siricius adhered to his theory, and the Church generally seems to have followed them (Decretals of Innocent I, A.D. 404, 405, 100:4-6, dist. 31; of Leo I, 446-458, in 100. 1, dist. 32; 100:10, dist. 31, etc.; Conc. Carth. 2, A.D. 390, 100:2, in 100:3, dist. 31; 100:3, dist. 84; Conc. Carth. 5, A.D. 401, 100:3, in 100:13, dist. 32; 100:4, dist. 84, etc.). The prohibition applied at first only to bishops, priests, and deacons, but from the fifth century onward subdeacons were prohibited marriage after ordination (Leo I, A.D. 446, in 100:1, dist. 32; Gregory I, A.D. 591-94, in 100:1, dist. 31; 100:2, dist. 32; Conc. Agath. A.D. 506, 100:39, in 100:19, dist. 34, etc.). The clergy of the minor orders were allowed to marry once, but not with widows (Conc. Carth. 5, A.D. 401, 100:3, in 100:13, dist. 32; Greg. I, A.D. 601, in 100:3). The civil law confirmed these regulations, enacting that married persons, or such as had children or grandchildren, should not be chosen as bishops. It was farther enjoined by the civil law that all marriages of higher clergy after their ordination should be held as invalid, and the children of such marriages illegitimate (Herzog, Real- Encyklop Ä die, 7:772).

For centuries this question of the celibacy of the clergy was a subject of constant struggle within the Church. Unnatural crimes abounded among the clergy; their office, in the ninth and tenth centuries, seemed to be held as a license for excess (Neander, Church History, 4:94). Many priests lived openly in wedlock, although the councils were always issuing new orders against them. "Popes Leo IX (10481054) and Nicolas II (1058-1061) interdicted all priests that had wives or concubines from the exercise of any spiritual function, on pain of excommunication. Alexander II (1061-1073) decreed excommunication against all who should attend a mass celebrated by a priest having a wife or concubine. This decision was renewed by Gregory VII (Hildebrand) in a council held at Rome in 1074, and a decretal was issued that every layman who should receive the communion from the hands of a married priest should be excommunicated, and that every priest who married or lived in concubinage should be deposed. The decree met with the most violent opposition in all countries, but Gregory succeeded in carrying it out with the greatest rigor; and, though individual instances of married priests were still to be found in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the celibacy of the Roman Catholic clergy was established, and has since continued both in theory and practice" (Chambers, s.v.). Nevertheless, after the Reformation, the question came up; and at the Council of Trent (1545- 1563) several bishops, and the emperor Charles V, favored a relaxation of the rule. But the majority of voices decided that God would not withhold the gift of chastity from those that rightly prayed for it, and the rule of celibacy was thus finally and forever imposed on the ministers of the Roman Catholic Church. Those who have only received the lower kinds of consecration may marry on resigning their office. For all grades above a sub-deacon, a papal dispensation is necessary. A priest that marries incurs excommunication, and is incapable of any spiritual function. If a married man wishes to become a priest, he receives consecration only on condition that he separate from his wife, and that she of her free will consent to the separation, and enter a religious order, or take the vow of chastity (sess. 24, cuan. 9). It is a question among divines of the Roman communion whether the law of the celibacy of clerks be of divine right, i.e. whether marriage is by holy Scripture forbidden to the clergy, or whether it is only of ecclesiastical authority, and binding on each clergyman in consequence of the vow to that effect voluntarily made at his ordination. Their best and most moderate writers maintain the second view.

4. In The Greek Church. The Greek Church. has never adopted the law of celibacy absolutely for all its clergy, but adheres, in substance, to the ancient canon law. The Council in Trullo (A.D. 692) enacted that, though bishops may observe celibacy, yet presbyters and deacons might live with their wives (100:14; Conc. Chalc. A.D. 451, 100:3, 6, 12, 13, 48; Conc. Trullan, A.D. 692, can. 7, 13). In the Russian Church, a parish priest must be married before ordination; if he loses his wife, he generally enters a monastery; or, if he marries again, he lays aside his priestly functions (Neale, Voices from the East, p. 58). Celibacy is to this day enjoined upon the bishops, who are therefore generally chosen from the monks, or from widowed presbyters; but as to the lower clergy, while the canons forbid the marriage of priests, deacons, and subdeacons, after ordination, they do not forbid the ordination of married men, nor require them to abstain from the conversation of their wives. In the Armenian Church marriage is imperative; an unmarried man cannot be ordained; but he cannot marry again. The Vartabeds (regulars), on the other hand, take the vow of celibacy, live in convents, and from their ranks the bishops are chosen (Dwight, in Coleman's Ancient Christianity, ch. 27, § 2); and the Romish Church allowed this in the case of the Greeks, Maronites, etc. who united with her (Benedict XIV, in the constit. Etsi Pastoralis of May 26, 1742 [Bullar. Magn. ed. Luxemb. t. 16, fol. 100, and his Eo quamvis tempore, May 4, 1745, t. 16:6, 296]). The priests of the united Greek Church have received permission from the popes to continue in marriage, if entered into before consecration, but on condition of always living apart from their wives three days before they celebrate mass. There have been discussions in the Roman Church even in regard to the validity or nullity of marriages among the Copts and Greeks entered into after ordination (seo Bullar. Magn. t. 18, p. 67). "The Greek Church, differs from the Latin, not by any higher standard of marriage, but only byr 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 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" (Schaff, Church History, 2, § 50).

5. Since The Reformation. The evils brought upon the Church by the celibacy of the clergy formed one cause of the movement towards reform which culminated in the 16th century. The leading Reformers declared against the celibacy of the clergy as unfounded in Scripture, and contrary to the natural ordinance of God, and the spell was finally broken by the marriage of Luther with Catharine Bora. His example was soon widely followed; and his writings, and those of his coadjutors, soon put an end to celibacy among all the reforming clergy (comp. Luther, Ermahnung an kaiserl. Maj. 1520, etc.; De Votis Monasticis). Calvin speaks as follows of the evil of clerical celibacy, as developed among the Romanists: "With what impunity fornication rages among them it is unnecessary to remark; emboldened by their polluted celibacy, they have become hardened to every crime. Yet this prohibition clearly shows how pestilent are all their traditions, since it has not only deprived the Church of upright and able pastors, but has formed a horrible gulf of enormities, and precipitated many souls into the abyss of despair. The interdiction of marriage to priests was certainly an act of impious tyranny, not only contrary to the Word of God, but at variance with every principle of justice. In the first place, it was on no account lawful for men to prohibit that which the Lord had left free. Secondly, that God had expressly provided in his Word that this liberty should not be infringed, is too clear to require much proof" (Institutes, 4:12, 13).

The Protestant Confessions of Faith generally touch on the subject more or less directly: e.g. the Augsburg Confession has a long article (23) on the subject, from which we extract a passage: "Matrimony is moreover declared a lawful and honorable estate by the laws of your imperial majesty, and by the code of every empire in which justice and law prevailed. Of late, however, innocent subjects, and especially ministers, are cruelly tormented on account of their marriage. Nor is such conduct a violation of the divine laws alone; it is equally opposed to the canons of the Church. The apostle Paul denominates that a doctrine of devils which forbids marriage ( 1 Timothy 4:1;  1 Timothy 4:3); and Christ says ( John 8:44), 'The devil is a murderer from the beginning.' For that may well be regarded as a doctrine of devils which forbids marriage and enforces the prohibition by the shedding of blood." The Church of England: "Art. 32. Of the Marriage of Priests. Bishops, priests, and deacons are not commanded by God's law either to vow the estate of single life, or to abstain from marriage; therefore it is lawful for them, as for all other Christian men, to marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve better to godliness." See also the Helvetic Conf. 1, ch. 37; 2, ch. 29. All the modern evangelical denominations are agreed in rejecting enforced celibacy as unscriptural and immoral. "When an institution has been tried during a dozen centuries in all parts of the world, and has uniformly been found productive of the same evil effects, there cannot well be a doubt what sentence ought to be pronounced on it: Cut it down. That the papacy should have refrained from pronouncing this sentence that, on the contrary, it should have retained and upheld that institution with dogged pertinacity, notwithstanding the horrors which streamed in whelming torrents from it, is perhaps the most damning proof how the papacy recklessly sacrificed every moral consideration, recklessly sacrificed the souls of its ministers, for the sake of maintaining its own power, by surrounding itself with an innumerable host of spiritual Mamelukes, bound to it by that which severed them from all social ties. And this is the Church for which our modern dreamers claim the exclusive title of holy a Church headed by his holiness Pope Alexander the Sixth!

This whole question of the celibacy of the clergy has been treated in a masterly manner by Jeremy Taylor, in that wonderful book, his Ductor Dubitantium (b. 3, 100:4, rule 20), where (in § 28) he gives the following summary of his objections: 'The law of the Church was an evil law, made by an authority violent and usurpt, insufficient as to that charge. It was not a law of God; it was against the rights and against the necessities of Nature; it was unnatural and unreasonable; it was not for edification of the Church; it was no advantage to spiritual life; it is a law that is therefore against public honesty, because it did openly and secretly introduce dishonesty; it had nothing of the requisites of a good law no consideration of human frailty nor of human comforts; it was neither necessary, nor profitable, nor innocent neither fitted to time, nor place, nor person; it was not accepted by them that could not bear it; it was complained of by them that could; it was never admitted in the East; it was fought against, and declaimed, and railed at in the West; and at last it is laid aside in the churches, especially of the North, as the most intolerable and most unreasonable tyranny in the world; for it was not to be endured that, upon the pretense of an unreasonable perfection, so much impurity should be brought into the Church, and so many souls thrust down to hell.' " Hare, Contest with Rome, p. 263.

At different periods since the Council of Trent the celibacy of the clergy has been a topic of dispute within the Church of Rome, and many of the clergy have sought to free their body from this yoke of bondage. In Austria, Joseph II confirmed it by an ordinance under date of June 11, 1787, which would seem to indicate that some hopes of its nullification were entertained by the Austrian clergy at that time. When, in consequence of the Concordat of 1801, ecclesiastical communities were re-established in France, the rule of celibacy was maintained, and was skillfully defended by Portalis in the session of the Corps Legisklatif of March 21, 1802. In 1817 the question was again mooted by the theological faculty of Landshut, who, complaining of the scarcity of candidates for holy orders, pointed to celibacy as one of its causes. In 1828 certain Roman priests of Baden and Silesia made another attempt, but without success. Similar attempts were also made after 1831 in the grand-duchy of Hesse, Wurtemberg, and Saxony, and petitions asking for the abolition of celibacy presented at the diets.

The civil authorities felt the less inclined to such a step, as the fundamental question as to whether celibacy is an ecclesiastical law, or whether it could be abrogated by the civil authorities, is not yet decided. In France, again, the question was eagerly discussed from 1828 to 1832. In Spain, the Academy of Ecclesiastical Science took the subject into consideration in a meeting held in 1842; while the Portuguese Chambers had previously, in 1835, discussed it, though without result. The same took place in Brazil about 1827. During the commotions of 1848, the subject was again brought into prominence in Germany. The "German Catholics" (q.v.) had already abolished celibacy; and a general measure was called for in the Frankfort Parliament, in the Prussian Assembly, and in the press. In Austria, also, voices were raised against it; but here the state took the side of the pope, who, in a bull of 1847, had added fresh stringency to the rule of celibacy, and condemned its infringement. Since the Italian Liberation War of 1866, hundreds of the Italian clergy have united to reform the Church, and one of the special points demanded is the abolition of celibacy.

On the other hand, the Romanizing party in the Church of England seem inclined to revive celibacy and the ancient admiration of virginity. See Shipley, The Church and the World (Vaux's Essay), London, 1866, 8vo.

Literature. For the older writers on both sides, see Walch, Bibliotheca Theoloqica, 1:202; 2:254. As later authorities, besides those cited in this article, see Gieseler, Ch. History, 1, § 95, 124; 2, § 30, 65; Schaff, Apostol. Church, § 112; Schaff, Ch. History, 50. 100.; Browne, On Thirty-nine Articles, art. 32; Burnet, On the Articles, art. 32; Mackintosh, Ethical Philosophy, § 3; Taylor, Ancient Christianity, 1:193, 383 (N. York ed.); Neander, Planting, etc., 1:246 sq.; ibid. Church History, 2:147; 4:94 (Torrey's); Atterbury, Sermon before the Sons of the Clergy (Dec. 6, 1709); Thiersch, Vorles. Ü b rr Katho'icismus,and Protestartismus, Vorl. 33; Marneineke, Institt. Symbol. § 49, and references there; Herzog, Real- Encyklop Ä die, 2:771; Wetzer u. Welte, Kirchen-Lexikon, 2:656 (for Romanist view); Palmer, On the Church, pt. 6, ch. 9; Cramp, Text-book of Popery, ch. 15, § 2; Elliott, Delineation of Romanism, bk. 4 (a very full treatment of the subject); Burnet, History of Reformation, 2:142 sq.; Macaulay, History of England, vol. 1, ch. 2; Vollst Ä ndige Sammlung d. C Ö libatgesetze (Franc. 1823); Theiner, Dle Einf Ü hrung d. priesterlichen Ehelosigkeit u. ihre Folgen (Altenlb. 128); Klitzsche, Gesch. d. Colibats (Augs. 1830); Sulzer, Die erheblichsten Gr Ü nde f Ü r u. gegen d. C Ö libatgesetze (Const. 1820); Lea, Sacerd. Celibacy (Phila. 1867, 8vo); Stanley, East. Church, p. 264; Milman, Lat. Christianity, 3:108 sq. (See Marriage); (See Monachism); (See Virginity).