The debate on the question of sexuality among clergy men has been open for centuries. It has become topical again after Pope Francis answered a question he had been asked aboard a plane during one of his journeys using the following words: “Celibacy is not a dogma of faith, it is a rule of life. I appreciate it very much and I think it is a gift for the Church. But considering the fact that it is not a dogma of faith, there is always an open door”.
This “openness” unleashed commentators from all over the world, and triggered debate among people. Yet, Benedict XVI had dedicated a Synod to this question back in time, opening to a reform of the discipline of celibacy. Rivers of words flow on the media on chastity, abstinence, and celibacy, terms often used interchangeably, as synonyms. All this creates great confusion, which leads to one final interrogation on why priests cannot marry, given that in Sacred Scripture this detail is not mentioned explicitly.
It is worth doing a short journey backwards in time in order to understand how things evolved, and why it happened?
In the ancient Church, the ministers of God were chosen both among celibate and married people. If we go back to the origins, St. Peter was married, San Giovanni and Saint Paul were unmarried. Were married also the fathers of the Church, St Gregory, bishop of Nyssa, and Saint Paulinus, the Bishop of Nola. St. Augustine had a wife whom the law considered a concubine at that time (because she belonged to a lower social class). Hence, marriage has not been always prohibited to Catholic priests of the Roman rite. The rule of celibacy is disciplined by the second paragraph of the canon 987, contained in 1917 Code of Canon Law, which determines that married people “are precluded” from sacred ordination. But, before reaching that point, there had been many other steps.
Starting from the IV century, some councils were delegated specifically to the question of celibacy and chastity. The basic principle, handed down from the origins to the present discipline, was that a married man could devote himself to the ministry, provided that he accepted the law of continence, that is to say, stopped having carnal relations with his wife. The point is that this rule was not respected, and the thing became evident when the consort of the ordered became pregnant. Thus, the Council of Elvira, in the IV century a. C. (305), established that a bishop or any other cleric could live together only with a sister or a consecrated virgin daughter. It is obvious that in order to live with a daughter, marriage must have been contracted before ordination, and it was not an obstacle for ordination.
At the Council of Nicea (325 A.D., the first ecumenical council) the same thing was reaffirmed, although with some ‘‘adjustments’’: it granted the possibility for a priest to take care of his mother, aunt or any person above all suspicion, since it became obvious that managing a house and the ecclesiastic community at the same time was impossible.
And so, the early Church did not exclude the possibility for a married man to be a priest, yet it imposed the constraint of abstinence on him. Whereas the Lateran Councils II (1139) and the Council of Trent (1563) declared the impossibility for an ordered man to get married. Possibilities were given to go from marriage toward ordination to priesthood (if certain conditions were respected) but not for the opposite route, that is, going from being a priest to becoming a husband.
Here is the explanation of the concept of “celibacy” that goes hand in hand with that of “temperance”, which implies abstention from having an intimate and exclusive relationship with anyone, because the priest must be devoted to the community.
Even in the Catholic Church, some rites are open to the figure of the married priest. For example, the eastern-rite Churches which recognize the authority of the Pope, but at the same time allow marriage for priests. Even the Anglican Church allows priests to get married legitimately inside the Church. The same is true for Catholic priests of the Byzantine or Constantinople rites, of the Greek Catholic Church, of Macedonian, Antiochene, Chaldean, and Armenian rites.
But the vow of chastity, proper to religious life, is something else. It is an obligation not to have sex and to use one’s sacred energies to serve God and men. Normally, the vow of chastity is professed together with the vows of obedience and poverty. Priests do not pronounce the vow of chastity, but undertake celibacy along with the order. Inside the Catholic Church, are defined religious institutes those ecclesiastical societies which are legitimately erected or approved by the competent authority (diocesan ordinary or the Holy See) and whose members (religious men) profess public vows and live in a community (monks, friars, and nuns). Along with the secular institutes (that is, those which have made the same choice, but do not live in a community), they are part of the Institutes of consecrated life.