Save for the permanent diaconate, a vow of clerical celibacy is mandated for all newly ordained priests and clergy members within the Catholic Church. However, this was not always the case. For the first thousand or so years of Catholicism, priests would commonly marry and have children. The first pope himself, Saint Peter, was married and most likely had children, and many who came after him also had children.
Last March, Pope Francis interviewed for the German magazine Die Zeit suggested that the Church may return to its early tradition by examining exceptions for married priests in isolated areas without clerical leadership. How did the priestly vow of celibacy evolve to be such an ingrained part of Catholic tradition?
There are many reasons why priests practice celibacy. The Code of Canon Law has to say that
“Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and therefore are bound to celibacy which is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and are able to dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and humanity.” – Can. 277 §1
One of the biggest acts of self sacrifice a priest is called upon to make is that of celibacy – forgoing spouse and children to be able to serve and have a relationship with his parishioners and God. When a priest is ordained, the Church becomes his highest calling. If he had a family and children, he would have less time to devote to his spiritual duties.
Celibacy has not only traditional, but biblical foundations as well. The sacrifice of spouse and family is for the sake of the Kingdom and for Christ.
Then Peter said, “We have given up our possessions and followed you.” He said to them, “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not receive [back] an overabundant return in this present age and eternal life in the age to come.” – Luke 18:28-30
Being ascending to the papacy, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in his Salt of the Earth interview saw the practice as based on Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew.
“Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage* for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.”” – Matthew 19:12
Historically, the first mention of celibacy in Church tradition comes from the Council of Elvira around the year 305. Canon 33 forbade clerics from have relations with their spouses, although it did not expressly forbid marriage.
“It is decided that marriage be altogether prohibited to bishops, priests, and deacons, or to all clerics placed in the ministry, and that they keep away from their wives and not beget children; whoever does this shall be deprived of the honor of the clerical office.”- Council of Elvira, Canon 33
It was not until around 800 years later that the First Lateran Council was convoked by Pope Calixtus II in 1123. At this council, marriage of the clergy was expressly forbidden, and any clergy currently married had to dissolve their marriage with penance.
“We absolutely forbid priests, deacons, subdeacons, and monks to have concubines or to contract marriage. We decree in accordance with the definitions of the sacred canons, that marriages already contracted by such persons must be dissolved, and that the persons be condemned to do penance.” – First Lateran Council, Canon 21