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.
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.
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.