The history of priestly celibacy isn’t so simple

SIR – Fr Jerome Bertram’s article on priestly celibacy (Feature, August 19) repeats a number of details and suppositions regarding the continence of married priests in the first millennium. That this was the system for a time is true, but we do not know that this was so from the beginning and it was not the case that this was universally accepted in the Church. The Eastern Churches did not follow the Western position on this, which became the norm.

It is far from clear that the earliest Church practised this. The oft-repeated verses, such as “we have left our homes”, do not necessitate that marriages were continent at all. It is an idea read into it. The mention of “self-control” in Titus 1:8 raises the question, too. The Greek word enkratia can mean various aspects of self-control. There were 28 possible definitions in Aristotle and several in New Testament Greek. It is most likely to have meant “calm, temperate and balanced”. It need not mention anything about sexual continence.

What scant material we do have of the earliest Church suggests that wives accompanied the Apostles without any issue, with no suggestion that continence was the norm, and material from the early 2nd century suggests that any seeking celibacy or continence should seek the counsel and permission of the bishop. There is no suggestion that this is just about holy orders.

Yours faithfully,

Fr Kevin O’Donnell

Rottingdean, East Sussex

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