One of the most awaited themes to be addressed at the Synod on the Amazon is the possibility of “priestly ordination for older people, preferably indigenous, respected and accepted by their community, even if they have an existing and stable family” (Instrumentum laboris, no.129). This suggestion would be legitimate because it would “recall aspects of the early Church when it responded to needs by creating appropriate ministries,” explains the synodal preparatory working document. What is it really?
The New Testament testifies that the ordination of previously married men was common in the early days of the Church. Thus St. Paul recommends to his disciples Titus and Timothy that such candidates for ordination should have been married only once (1 Tim 3:2-4 & 12 for deacons, see also Tit.1:6).
We also know that the first pope, St. Peter, was married. Going to his house, Our Lord heals his mother-in-law who is in bed with a fever (Mt 8:14-15). In this regard, the question that St. Peter poses to his Master is remarkable: “Behold we have left all things, and have followed thee: what therefore shall we have?” (Mt 19:27).
Christ answers him: “Amen, I say to you, there is no man that hath left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God’s sake, who shall not receive much more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting” (Lk 18:29-30). Not only did St. Peter leave his boat and his nets, but also wife and child, to follow the Lord.
Through this answer, the first obligation of the celibacy of clerics implicitly appears in the form of continence. It is a matter of not contracting a marriage or not using a marriage when it already exists. Such is the meaning of celibacy, which consists in abstaining completely from any carnal activity, even from that which is permitted in marriage.
The Law of Continence
In fact, the first written laws on celibacy all evoke perfect continence. This insistence can be explained by the large number of clerics previously married, who had to be regularly reminded of this prohibition.
Indeed, after the first persecutions, the ever increasing number of conversions, and, therefore, the necessary increase in ordinations, there were growing difficulties regarding this obligation. The councils and pope struggled against the difficulties with increased vigilance, issuing written laws and regulations.
Thus the council of Elvira, in A.D. 305-306, recalls in its 33rd canon “Bishops, presbyters, and deacons, and all other clerics having a position in the ministry, are ordered to abstain completely from their wives and not have children. Whoever, in fact, does this shall be expelled from the dignity of the clerical state.” This reminder was often repeated by popes and councils during the following centuries.
Everywhere, the Church preferably ordains unmarried candidates, and to the contrary tends to repel married candidates, because of the risk of not observing the initial, freely accepted commitment.
Many are the prescriptions dating back to the beginnings of the Church. They emanate in particular from Popes—St. Sirice, St. Innocent I, St. Leo the Great, and St. Gregory the Great. As no historical document challenges these claims, it would in opposition to the historical method to advance the contrary.
The Fight Against Nicolaism
One must therefore wonder why it is regularly stated that this law has dated from the 12th century. In fact, serious abuses entered the Church in the 10th and 11th centuries, during one of the most difficult periods in its history. This crisis was linked to benefices, which rendered the holder of the living economically independent, which could only be removed from him with great difficultly. This system too often placed unprepared or unworthy bishops, abbots (placed at the head of abbeys), or parish priests in the service of the Church. Two other evils resulted from it: the purchase of positions or simony, and Nicolaism, or the generalized violation of clerical celibacy.
It required the energy of several popes, especially St. Gregory VII, to ward off the grave danger that had affected the high clergy. They refused more and more to admit married candidates. Thus, at the Second Lateran Council (1139), it was decided that the taking of a major order was an obligation prohibiting marriage.
This council solemnly declared that marriages of major clerics, like that of the religious having pronounced solemn vows, are not only prohibited as before, but also invalid, i.e., lacking any religious or civil effect.
It is, therefore, ignorance of this context that gave birth to the error that the celibacy of major clerics was an invention of the Middle Ages. It is the invalidity of the marriage concluded in violation of the prohibition that was decreed, whereas the prohibition had already existed for a long time.
So, a serious study of the history of the Church makes it possible to deduce from established practice that continence attached to the reception of the major sacred orders appeared as an obligation dating back to the beginnings of the Church, an obligation received and transmitted by Tradition. This is a treasure that would not be advisable to give up in any case.