The Bible mentions that one of the miracles Jesus performed was the healing of Peter's mother-in-law. This makes it quite clear that Peter himself was married, and Peter is the considered the first Pope by Roman Catholics. I've also heard that many if not all of the first popes were married and had families.

So, my question is this:

When was it that marriage first became prohibited for priests and popes in the Catholic church (for Latin Rite priests)?

And immediately he left the synagogue and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told him about her. Mark 1:29-30 ESV

  • 5
    I've always been curious about this. +1 for asking the question I forgot that I had!
    – Richard
    Commented Nov 7, 2011 at 13:31
  • Good deal of info in Catholic Encyclopedia
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Nov 7, 2011 at 14:43
  • 6
    Also, this question ought to be limited to Latin Rite priests, there are rites within the Catholic Church wherein priests are allowed to Marry, or it is at the discretion of the local bishop.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Nov 7, 2011 at 14:44
  • Just to clarify here as well, since the question and some comments above could be read the wrong way: It's true to say that in some cases a Catholic man can be already-married when he receives Holy Orders. But men who have already been ordained to major orders have never been allowed to get married afterward, in East or West. I understand that this is also the case with the Orthodox, although I'm not 100% certain of that.
    – Ben Dunlap
    Commented May 1, 2013 at 19:28
  • Fails to mention celibate apostles and disciples according to Tradition.
    – user13992
    Commented Aug 9, 2014 at 6:14

6 Answers 6


This article gives an overview of the history of celibacy in the clergy. Even the Catholic church would admit that celibacy was not enforced on clergy in New Testament times, but would point out that those who chose celibacy were held in high honour, even in that period. There is dispute over how early the rules of celibacy came to be enforced. The earliest enactment of a rule was around 300AD at the Spanish Council of Elvira. This was not a universal rule. The rules appear to have been gradually tightened over the next few centuries,:

[...] the synods of the sixth and seventh centuries, while fully recognizing the position of these former wives and according them even the formal designation of bishopess, priestess, deaconess, and subdeaconess (episcopissa, presbytera, diaconissa, subdiaconissa), laid down some very strict rules to guide their relations with their former husbands.

Even centuries after that the practice was not universal.


The important thing to consider is that celibacy, or practicing non-marriage, was practiced far before Christianity. Druid priests, Aztec Priests, etc were told to have been mandated to be pure and have no marriage with women.

I believe that the first written mandate that states that priests should be celibate was made around AD 300. The Council of Elvira stated that all "bishops, presbyters, and deacons and all other clerics were to abstain completely from their wives and not to have children".

This practice of celibacy began spreading in the Middle Ages. Around the 11th century Pope Benedict VIII issued a rule prohibiting the children of priests from inheriting property. A few decades later Pope Gregory VII issued a decree against clerical marriages.

It should be noted that Kings have used this as a weapon against the church's power. Since they could not have children, they could not pass the power to someone else. So it was the job of the king to decide who should be the next Pope.

As to why, maybe it was to make the people at the church to have a standing out quality that few other men had. It represented a paradigm of separation from the sinful world.

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    Could you fix up the 4th paragraph, source it, etc... I know there have been some popes picked by pressure from outside, but for the most part, it was the papacy which was on the top of the medieval power structure, not the provincial kings - or even the emperor.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Nov 8, 2011 at 14:07
  • @Peter Well, you know it better then me... I only read about it, in Korean book to boot, I think I can give the source, IF I find it... Commented Nov 8, 2011 at 17:15
  • 7
    First paragraph is irrelevant, and the fourth is wrong. Commented Nov 12, 2011 at 21:11
  • A couple curious phrases...what do "mandated to be pure" and "separation from the sinful world" have to do with not being married and not having children?
    – Chance
    Commented Jul 16, 2012 at 21:45
  • This answer is unclear because it does not attend to the distinction between continence and celibacy. Continence means refraining from sexual relations, even if married. The quoted text from Elvira is, on its face, not about celibacy at all but about continence. Celibacy, on the other hand, means remaining unmarried. The original question is about celibacy, not continence.
    – Ben Dunlap
    Commented May 1, 2013 at 19:36

Priests have always been prohibited to marry, all the way back to Apostolic times, in both the Eastern or Western Church. Sometimes, though, married men have been permitted to become priests.

Besides the biblical basis for continence, see "Priestly celibacy in patristics and in the history of the Church" by Roman Cholij, which quotes the earliest lex* regarding clerical incontinence, canon 33 of the Spanish Council of Elvira (ca. 305 A.D.):

  1. We decree that all bishops, priests and deacons in the service of the ministry are entirely forbidden to have conjugal relations with their wives and to beget children; should anyone do so, let him be excluded from the honour of the clergy.

The Case for Clerical Celibacy: its historical development and theological foundations by Cdl. Stickler (p. 12):

A reading of this text [of the canonist Gratian] clearly indicates a double obligation with respect to celibacy: not to marry and, if previously married, not to use the rights of marriage.

or the more recent Priestly Celibacy: Theological Foundations by Gary Selin (ch. 1 The Development of Clerical Continence and Celibacy in the Latin Church):

On the other hand, Lateran II declared that marriages contracted after ordination would be null and void: “matrimonium non esse censemus.”68 In doing so, the council was reemphasizing the law of clerical continence and the prohibition of the celibate cleric to marry or the married cleric to marry again after ordination.69 Often Lateran II is wrongly interpreted as having introduced for the first time the general law of celibacy, with only unmarried men being admitted to priestly ordination. Yet what the council actually did was to reemphasize the law of continence.70

68. Second Lateran Council, canon 7, in Tanner, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, vol. 1, 198.
69. Ibid. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) reaffirmed the legislation of the Second Lateran Council: see canon 14, Tanner, Decrees of Ecumenical Councils, vol. 1, 242.
70. “Ut autem lex continentiae et Deo placens munditia in ecclesiasticis personis et sacris personis dilatetur [But that the law of continence and cleanliness pleasing to God may be expanded among ecclesiastical persons and sacred persons],” Second Lateran Council, canon 7, in Tanner, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, vol. 1, 198.

*on lex (norm) vs. ius (law), see Stickler pp. 17-19:
"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 promulgated. […] 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. […] 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.'"

  • "Priests have always been prohibited to marry, all the way back to Apostolic times". This answer would be much improved if it provided explicit quotations from the given references to support this assertion. Providing links where people can, if they want, verify this claim is good. Expecting every reader to dig through those links to find the relevant information isn't. Commented Apr 11, 2022 at 0:24
  • @RayButterworth Let me know if the quotes I added help.
    – Geremia
    Commented Apr 11, 2022 at 0:44
  • Gratian was 300 years, and Lateran II over 1000 years after Apostolic times, so no, they don't support the "all the way back to Apostolic times" claim. Commented Apr 11, 2022 at 1:01
  • @RayButterworth A law (ius) can be established orally before being written down as a norm (lex), so the Council of Elvira (c. 305 A.D.) being the first to write down the lex doesn't mean clerical continence didn't exist as a ius before then. It has solid biblical basis.
    – Geremia
    Commented Apr 11, 2022 at 3:04

How clerical celibacy originated in the Catholic (Latin) Church

The "pious histories" of priestly celibacy tell the story of how Jesus regarded celibacy as part of his prophetic mission. As a result, Catholic priests picked up on this when reading the Gospels, and some embraced voluntary celibacy as a result. Thus, some local Synods passed legislation in favor of priestly celibacy. Only in the twelfth century did a "Vatican Council" legislate celibacy for all future deacons, priests, and bishops throughout the Catholic Church.

In what follows I am not going to try to pass on to you another "pious history." Rather, as a Church Historian, I am going to tell you something of the ugly side of imposed priestly celibacy.

Every informed pastor (the Pope included) knows that celibacy was not universally imposed upon the clergy until the Middle Ages, but only very few are aware of the history whereby papal attacks on clerical marriage were resisted for many generations by pastors and their wives.

enter image description here

The origins of universal clerical celibacy emerged as an unexpected byproduct when eleventh century church reformers [known as the Gregorian Reform] tried to deal with problems surrounding the inheritance of Church properties and of Church offices by the sons of clergymen. Reforming popes initially tackled this problem by trying to reduce the number of “sons” fathered by priests. Priests and their wives were accordingly required to sleep in separate beds. When this approach failed, their wives were required to live in separate houses. Fines were imposed. Priests stubbornly living with their wives were suspended. Bishops were required to make pastoral visitations and forcibly separate priests from their lawfully wedded wives. In many instances, these bishops were often bombarded by angry parishioners throwing rotten fruit. Meanwhile, in other areas, wives of priests who became pregnant were publicly shunned by parishioners and, in some instances, priests wanting to advance their careers within the Church were forced to abandon their wives and children in exchange for a better priestly post.

The First Lateran Council (1123) was so frustrated by the inability of the Vatican to impose compliance to earlier legislation that they took the radical step of declaring the sacramental marriages of priests “null and void.” The Council decreed “that marriages already contracted by such persons [priests, deacons and monks] must be dissolved, and that the persons [both husbands and wives] be condemned to do penance.” In a Church that was endeavoring to sustain the notion that no sacramental marriage could ever be dissolved by anything less than death of one of the spouses, the First Lateran Council’s open hostility toward the sacramental marriages of its priests was a shocking (and many would say “ungodly”) departure from its own theology of the indissolubility of the marriage bond.

There followed three centuries where discovering secret mistresses and illegitimate children became the ongoing concern of the Vatican and reform-minded bishops. Only when the laity were finally persuaded to boycott the altars of priests “living in sin” and bishops began demanding a solemn vow of celibacy prior to ordination did the campaign for clerical “chastity” finally take hold.

All in all, the whole ugly mess surrounding the imposition of celibacy did not approach anywhere near a universal adherence until the seminary system was instituted following the Council of Trent. In the new seminaries, the sexuality of young boys could be closely monitored and their youthful characters could be informed (some would say traumatized) with a morbid fear of having any contact whatsoever with women outside of the confessional.

This opened up the floodgates for developing new theologies calculated to foster clerical “virginity.” Gifted preachers moved from parish to parish promoting this message: “That a priest’s hands ought to be entirely virginal since only then could they worthily bring God into the world [at the words of consecration] just as did the Virgin Mary.” Out of such pietistic theologies that circulated during the 17th and 18th centuries, the charism of celibacy put forward in Paul VI’s Sacerdotalis Caelibatus was developed.

Note #1: The Council of Elvira stated that all "bishops, presbyters, and deacons and all other clerics were to abstain completely from their wives and not to have children". Note that this is a regional council in Spain and it has no binding power elsewhere. Note also that this rule presumes that the clergy do indeed have wives and children.

Note #2: Notice that the First and Second Lateran Council debated and passed some innovative legislation. But notice too that those priests who had wives and children were not going to immediately cave in and abide by the new rules. For starters, this legislation was not popular with the wives and children who were loosing their fathers/husbands and their paychecks. In fact, the traditionalists would argue that Peter was the first among equals precisely because he had a wife while the other apostles did not. On moral grounds, priests who had wives and children were not likely to be eating and drinking in taverns and whoring with the bar maids. Is it any wonder that it took five hundred years to break down all this resistance the stood behind the thousand year tradition supporting clerical marriages? Anyone who cites the Latern Councils and presumes that priests were ready and willing to comply immediately does not know much about the historical power of a prevailing tradition to subvert innovative legislation.


Postscript: Why didn't the bishops of Vatican II (1963-65) discuss priestly celibacy? How did Pope Pius VI write a document that shackled the entire Catholic Church to a fake history, a fake use of Scripture, and a fake theology of celibacy?

Pope Paul VI, during the final summer of Vatican II (1965), made an extraordinary intervention to forbid any discussion of the rule of priestly celibacy (a) since he had elected to study this issue himself and (b) since he had been warned that some bishops were keen to speak in favor of optional celibacy. Accordingly, on 24 June 1967, Paul VI published his encyclical on priestly celibacy known as Sacerdotalis Caelibatus.

Explaining how he arrived at his decision, Paul VI wrote: “We have, over a considerable period of time earnestly implored the enlightenment and assistance of the Holy Spirit and have examined before God opinions and petitions which have come to Us from all over the world, notably from many pastors of God’s Church” (sec. 1).

Needless to say, Paul VI, in his encyclical, tells us nothing of the pain, anguish, and understandable resistance to imposed celibacy that marked the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries. Rather, he offers Catholic priests the entirely mistaken and altogether unhistorical impression that priestly celibacy began when Jesus freely chose celibacy as an essential character of his own service to his Father and when he declared that “there are eunuchs [i.e. "castrated males" like myself] who have made themselves [voluntary] eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19:12). Paul VI thus leaves the impression that the link between celibacy and priesthood created by Jesus gradually grew within the church and that it came to full flower as "an eschatological sign" and foretaste of the life that everyone will one day enjoy for “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Matt 22:30). The "gift of celibacy," consequently, was heralded in Sacerdotalis Caelibatus as (a) "a faithful imitation of Christ, our high priest" and (b) as a foreshadowing of the celibacy that all the Saints would enjoy during “the final stages of salvation.”

Even if the manifest theological and historical flaws within Sacerdotalis Caelibatus could be forgiven in the name of the personal piety of Paul VI, one can hardly overlook the clear evidence of the Gospels to the effect that Jesus never mentioned celibacy when he choose any of his disciples. Peter, who is clearly recognized as a married man, receives no admonition to separate himself from his wife (if she was still alive). But, more importantly, we read in 1 Tim 3:2 that “a bishop must be above reproach, married only once [a one-woman man]” and, in Tit 1:7, we read that a presbyter should also be “someone who is blameless, married only once, whose children are believers.” Instead of discovering a “flowering of Jesus’ gift of celibacy,” therefore, we find in the late apostolic tradition the requirement that bishops and presbyters must have a wife and children. Why so? For this stated reason: “For if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he be expected to take care of God’s church [which is an extended family]?” (1 Tim 3:5).

How can Pope Paul VI expect Catholic priests to respect him as a reliable teacher when he fails to notice these things that are clearly specified in the sacred Scriptures? And what if he did notice these things but deliberately omitted to mention them because they entirely negate his pious arguments in favor of priestly celibacy? Then, in that case, Catholic priests would be prone to conclude that Pius VI is a dishonest scholar not worthy of their attention. All in all, this brings us to the embarrassing sticking point of having to decide whether Paul VI is either incompetent or dishonest or a curious mixture of both in his approach to clerical celibacy.

With the renewal of the Church following Vatican II, hundreds of thousands of priests anticipated a relaxation of the rule of celibacy. The adamant position taken by Paul VI in his encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus killed their hope for any compassionate change. Many Spirit-filled priests, facing a crisis of conscience between their call to ministry and their call to marriage, decided to apply for laicization. All told, nearly 200,000 Catholic priests worldwide left their ministry in order to marry.

Those who stayed called for more compassion, more collegiality, and more discussion on this matter. In 1970, the distress and disappointment of priests regarding Sacerdotalis Caelibatus had become so publicly known that nine German theologians, including Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), signed a letter publicly calling for a fresh discussion of the rule of celibacy. It never happened, and even today, over 50 years later, it still has not happened.

enter image description here But there is a ray of hope in Pope Francis. Right from the very beginning, he began saying publicly, "Clerical celibacy is not a dogma." So, even within the office of the papacy, a new era of refreshing honesty is slowly emerging. It is only a matter of time before "optional celibacy" will be authorized and practiced. Then the fake history, the fake theology, and the fake use of the NT found in Sacerdotalis Caelibatus will finally be replaced.



When did the prohibition of marriage for priests in the Catholic church originate?

For those called who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, they do so because they have been called to it and the joyfully receive it.

Mt 19:12(RSVCE)
12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.”[a]

a. 19.11-12 Jesus means that a life of continence is to be chosen only by those who are called to it for the sake of the kingdom of God.

As others have pointed out, it is a call to continence, of which celibacy is a subset, and the invitation is from the LORD himself, with the LORD himself setting the example.

Answering the question

Please see: [Pope] Francis Speaks, Scalfari Transcribes, Brandmüller Shreds | Sandro Magister, in it, German Cardinal Walter Brandmüller is quoted as writing:

The original form of celibacy therefore allowed the priest or bishop to continue his family life, but not his conjugal life. For this reason as well the preference was to ordain men who had reached an advanced age.

The fact that all of this can be traced back to ancient and sacred apostolic traditions is testified to by the works of ecclesiastical writers like Clement of Alexandria and the north African Tertullian, who lived in the 2nd-3rd century after Christ. Another witness of the high consideration bestowed on abstinence among Christians is a series of edifying tales of the apostles, the apocryphal 'Acts of the Apostles' composed in the 2nd century and widely read.

In the 3rd century the literary documentation on the abstinence of the clergy multiplied and became increasingly explicit, especially in the East. For example, here is a passage from the Syrian 'Didascalia': "The bishop, before he is ordained, must be put to the test to establish if he is chaste and has raised his children in the fear of God." The great theologian Origen of Alexandria (3rd century) also recognized the celibacy of abstinence as binding; a celibacy that he explains and explores theologically in various works. And obviously there are other documents that could be brought forward in support, something that obviously is not possible here.

It was the Council of Elvira in 305-306 that put this practice of apostolic origin into the form of a law. With canon 33, the Council prohibited bishops, priests, deacons, and all other clergy from having conjugal relations with their wives, and likewise prohibited them from having children. At the time it was therefore thought that conjugal abstinence was compatible with family life. Thus even the sainted pope Leo I, called Leo the Great, wrote around 450 that ordained men did not have to repudiate their wives. They were to remain together with them, but as if "they did not have them," as Paul writes in the first letter to the Corinthians (7:29).

It should be noted that while these kind of questions always point to the fact that Peter was married, they fail to record that it is the constant Tradition of the Church that St. John the Apostle and Evangelist was never married. Nor can the say whether as married, Peter continued with his conjugal life after a certain point after following Jesus.

And there is Jesus.


Cardinal Brandmüller ends by writing:

[I]t must be taken into account that celibacy, just like virginity in the name of the Kingdom of Heaven, will always be troublesome for those who have a secularized conception of life. But as Jesus said in this regard: “He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.”

It is said that among those who understand and appreciate continency for the sake of the Kingdom, are the married who strive for holiness in their vocation, and vice versa, it is the saintly priests among those who understand and appreciate the calling to sacramental matrimony.

Please see also:


Prior to Lateran II, clerics could contract valid marriages,* but they were illicit (illegal). Lateran II made such marriages also invalid:

*although they could not legally be consummated, because clerics have always been required to be 100% continent (perpetually refrain from sexual intercourse)

  1. Adhering to the path trod by our predecessors, the Roman pontiffs Gregory VII, Urban and Paschal, we prescribe that nobody is to hear the masses of those whom he knows to have wives or concubines. Indeed, that the law of continence and the purity pleasing to God might be propagated among ecclesiastical persons and those in holy orders, we decree that where bishops, priests, deacons, subdeacons, canons regular, monks and professed lay brothers have presumed to take wives and so transgress this holy precept, they are to be separated from their partners. For we do not deem there to be a [valid] marriage which, it is agreed, has been contracted against ecclesiastical law. Furthermore, when they have separated from each other, let them do a penance commensurate with such outrageous behaviour.

adapted from this answer to "What caused the imposition of strict celibacy for Catholic priests during the 11th century?"

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