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
    Nov 7, 2011 at 13:31
  • 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
    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
    May 1, 2013 at 19:28
  • Fails to mention celibate apostles and disciples according to Tradition.
    – user13992
    Aug 9, 2014 at 6:14

5 Answers 5


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
    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... Nov 8, 2011 at 17:15
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    First paragraph is irrelevant, and the fourth is wrong. 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
    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
    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. Apr 11 at 0:24
  • @RayButterworth Let me know if the quotes I added help.
    – Geremia
    Apr 11 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. Apr 11 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
    Apr 11 at 3:04


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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