The Law of Continence in the Early Church

The law of continence states that all clergy, even for those who are married, must abstain from all sexual relations. This is part of the official canon law of the Catholic Church. Ironically, one of the main arguments for this position is taken from Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:5 on sexual relations in marriage:

“Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”

Paul says that those who are married may abstain from sexual relations for the purpose of prayer. But the argument goes that because priests are always offering up the sacrifice of prayer to God, they must always abstain from sexual relations. The church father Origen argues:

“I will express what the words of the Apostle mean, but I am afraid that some will be saddened. Do not refuse yourselves to each other, unless through a mutual agreement for a given occasion, so as to free yourselves for prayer, and then come together again; it is therefore certain that perpetual sacrifice is impossible for those who are subject to the obligations of marriage. . . . I therefore conclude that only the one vowed to perpetual chastity can offer the perpetual sacrifice” (23rd Homily on Numbers).

But this interpretation takes the verse completely out of context and ignores the significance of the phrases “for a limited time” and “but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” Paul only intended this to be a temporary abstaining from sexual relations in marriage. Where is Origen getting the idea of a perpetual sacrifice anyway? By turning this verse into an argument in favor of perpetual continence in marriage, he is making the exact opposite argument that Paul was.

The Council of Elvira at the beginning of the fourth century mandated that all clergy abstain from sexual relations:

“It has seemed good to absolutely forbid the bishops, the priests, and the deacons, i.e., all the clerics in the service of the sacred ministry, to have relations with their wives and procreate children; should anyone do so, let him be excluded from the honor of the clergy” (Canon 33)

The First Council of Arles in 314 followed the same practice:

“Moreover, concerned with what is worthy, pure, and honest, we exhort our brothers in the episcopate to make sure that priests and deacons have no [sexual] relations with their wives, since they are serving the ministry everyday. Whoever will act against this decision will be deposed from the honor of the clergy” (Canon 29).

Eusebius of Caesarea, a disciple of the teachings of Origen, followed his master:

“It is fitting, according to the Scripture, that a bishop be the husband of an only wife. But this being understood, it behooves consecrated men, and those who are at the service of God’s cult, to abstain thereafter from conjugal intercourse with their wives. As to those who were not judged worthy of such a holy ministry, Scripture grants them [conjugal intercourse] while saying quite clearly to all that marriage is honorable and the nuptial bed is without stain, and that God judges profligates and adulterers” (Demonstratio Evangelica 1.9).

One of the arguments for complete continence was that sexual relations under the Old Covenant made one ceremonially unclean. The priests had to go through ceremonies to make themselves clean again. But because priests under the New Covenant must serve God every day, they do not have the time to go through the cleansing rituals as the old priests did. As Ambrosiaster argues:

“Now there should be seven deacons, several priests (two per church), and only one bishop for each city, which is why they must abstain from any conjugal relations; they have to be present in church every day, and they do not have the necessary time to purify themselves properly after conjugal unions, as the priests of old used to do” (Commentary on 1 Timothy).

Pope Siricius affirms that this is the teaching of the Western Church at the end of the fourth century:

“Moreover, as it is worthy, chaste, and honest to do so, this is what we advise: let the priests and Levites have no intercourse with their wives, inasmuch as they are absorbed in the daily duties of their ministries” (Cum in Unum Decretal).

It was believed that sexual relations were defiling and impure, even within marriage. As Ambrose says:

“But ye know that the ministerial office must be kept pure and unspotted, and must not be defiled by conjugal intercourse” (De officiis ministrorum 1.258).

This attitude that sexual relations were defiling helped create the environment in which the belief that Mary was a perpetual virgin became widespread. As Pope Siricius wrote:

“You had good reason to be horrified at the thought that another birth might issue from the same virginal womb from which Christ was born according to the flesh. For the Lord Jesus would never have chosen to be born of a virgin if he had ever judged that she would be so incontinent as to contaminate with the seed of human intercourse the birthplace of the Lord’s body, that court of the Eternal King” (Letter to Bishop Anysius).

The Council of Carthage, influenced by the theology of Augustine who believed that sexual desire, even in marriage, was a necessary evil coming out of original sin (On Marriage and Concupiscence 1.8, 19), continued to uphold the law of continence:

“It is fitting that the holy bishops and priests of God as well as the Levites, i.e. those who are in the service of the divine sacraments, observe perfect continence, so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God; what the Apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us also endeavour to keep. The bishops declared unanimously: It pleases us all that bishop, priest and deacon, guardians of purity, abstain from conjugal intercourse with their wives, so that those who serve at the altar may keep a perfect chastity” (Canons 3-4).

“Moreover since incontinence has been charged against some clergymen with regard to their own wives it has seemed good that bishops, presbyters, and deacons should according to the statutes already made abstain even from their own wives; and unless they do so that they should be removed from the clerical office. But the rest of the clergy shall not be forced to this but the custom of each church in this matter shall be followed” (Canon 70).

Even the revered Council of Chalcedon which gave us a beautiful declaration concerning the two natures of Christ taught that any monk who marries is to be excommunicated from the church:

“It is not lawful for a virgin who has dedicated herself to the Lord God, nor for monks, to marry; and if they are found to have done this, let them be excommunicated. But we decree that in every place the bishop shall have the power of indulgence towards them” (Canon 16).

For Jerome, marriage was only good for making more virgins:

“Marriage is allowed in the Gospel, yet that those who are married cannot receive the rewards of chastity so long as they render their due one to another. If married men feel indignant at this statement, let them vent their anger not on me but on the Holy Scriptures; nay, more, upon all bishops, presbyters, and deacons, and the whole company of priests and Levites, who know that they cannot offer sacrifices if they fulfill the conjugal act. . . . Therefore, as I was going to say, the virgin Christ and the virgin Mary have dedicated in themselves the first fruits of virginity for both sexes. The apostles have either been virgins or, though married, have lived celibate lives. Those persons who are chosen to be bishops, priests, and deacons are either virgins or widowers; or at least when once they have received the priesthood, are vowed to perpetual chastity” (Letter 48 to Pammachius).

Epiphanius followed the same view:

“But the man who continues to live with his wife and sire children is not admitted by the Church as a deacon, priest or bishop, even if he is the husband of an only wife; [only] he who, having been monogamous, observes continence or is a widower; [this is observed] especially where the ecclesiastical canons are exact” (Panarion, Heresy 59).

The First Council of Toledo forbids bishops, priests, and deacons from having children even though Paul assumed that many overseers would have children (1 Tim 3:4-5):

“It seems good that the deacons be men who have kept their integrity by leading chaste and continent lives; even if they have wives, let such men be established in the ministry; however, if there are some who, even before the Lusitanian bishops had pronounced the interdict, did not observe continence with their wives, let them not be granted the honor of the priesthood; if a priest, before the said interdict, had children, let him not be admitted to the episcopate” (Canon 1).

Pope Innocent I followed Siricius in mandating continence for priests and deacons:

“Moreover, the Church must absolutely maintain what is worthy, pure, and honest, to wit: the priest and deacon must have no relations with their wives, because they are very busy every day with the necessities of their ministry” (Letter to Victricius of Rouen).

The Council of Orange taught that men cannot become deacons unless they make a vow of perpetual chastity:

“It pleases us that married men are not ordained anymore to the diaconate unless, with the firm intention of changing their lives, they have first made a profession of chastity. But if someone is found who, after having received the Levitical blessing, does not observe continence with his wife, let him be forbidden to exercise his ministry” (Canons 21-22).

Pope Leo the Great argues on the basis of 1 Corinthians 7:29 that married men in the priesthood must not have relations with their wives:

“Indeed, if those who do not belong to the Order of clerics are free to enjoy carnal relations and beget children, we must, in order to manifest what is the purity of a perfect continence, not permit carnal relations even to the subdeacons, ‘so that those who have a wife be as if they did not have one’ and those who do not have one remain single. If it befits this order – the fourth starting from the top – to observe [continence], how much more so the first, second and third must observe it; let no one be deemed apt for the Levitical or priestly dignity or for the supreme dignity of the episcopate if it is found that he has not yet put an end to conjugal pleasure” (Letter to Anastasius of Thessalonika).

Pope Gregory the Great leaves no doubt that this is the official teaching of the Western Church:

“Three years ago it was absolutely forbidden to subdeacons of the Churches of Sicily, according to the customs of the Roman Church, to have relations with their wives. . . . This is why it seems good to me to request that all the bishops from now on should not allow themselves to ordain as subdeacon someone who would not have [first] promised to live in chastity…as to those who, on their part, [still] refused to abstain from relations with their wives after interdiction, we oppose their admission to the sacred Order, since no one can have access to the alter if his chastity has not been tested and recognized before receiving the ministry” (Letter to Peter, Subdeacon of Sicily).

“Many reports have informed us that there was a custom in the past, among you, permitting subdeacons to have relations with their wives. So that no one will again have the audacity to act in such a way, an interdiction was brought by Servus-Dei, deacon of our See, on the authority of our predecessor: those who were already united to wives had to choose between two things: either to abstain from conjugal relations or not to have the presumption to exercise their ministry under any pretext” (Letter to Leo, Bishop of Catania).

Isidore of Seville, considered to be the last of the church fathers, held the same view:

“Because they touch the sacred mysteries, it has seemed good to the Fathers that these men [subdeacons] be chaste and keep continence with their wives and be free of any carnal impurity” (De Ecclesiasticis Officiis).

The Council of Trullo, which the Eastern Church considers to be an infallible ecumenical council, requires that all bishops refrain from sexual relations:

“Moreover this also has come to our knowledge, that in Africa and Libya and in other places the most God-beloved bishops in those parts do not refuse to live with their wives, even after consecration, thereby giving scandal and offense to the people. Since, therefore, it is our particular care that all things tend to the good of the flock placed in our hands and committed to us – it has seemed good that henceforth nothing of the kind shall in any way occur. And we say this, not to abolish and overthrow what things were established of old by Apostolic authority, but as caring for the health of the people and their advance to better things, and lest the ecclesiastical state should suffer any reproach. . . . But if any shall have been observed to do such a thing, let him be deposed” (Canon 12).

The First Lateran Council of 1123, one of the infallible ecumenical councils of Roman Catholicism, taught that priests and deacons who marry must dissolve their marriages:

“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” (Canon 21).

But how would all of these people respond to the argument against clerical continence based on Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 9:5 that he has a right to take along a believing wife? A common response is that Paul is not speaking of marriage in this verse, but bringing along his wife on his missionary journeys. Clement of Alexandria argues that all of the apostles lived in continence even though they were all married:

“Even Paul did not hesitate in one letter to address his consort. The only reason why he did not take her about with him was that it would have been an inconvenience for his ministry. Accordingly he says in a letter: ‘Have we not a right to take about with us a wife that is a sister like the other apostles?’ But the latter, in accordance with their particular ministry, devoted themselves to preaching without any distraction, and took their wives with them not as women with whom they had marriage relations, but as sisters, that they might be their fellow-ministers in dealing with housewives” (Stromata 3:53).

But if Paul was married and yet refused to engage in sexual relations with his wife, then he would be going against his very own instructions in 1 Corinthians 7:5 that continence in marriage is only to be temporary and not a permanent state of affairs. How absurd would it be for Paul to live in continual continence as a married man and then teach against such a practice! When Paul speaks of taking along a believing wife, he is not talking about taking her on a missionary journey, but using the verb as a metaphor to describe marriage. Paul was not married: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am” (1 Cor 7:8). Some argue that Paul is not talking about a wife in 1 Corinthians 9:5, but a female companion who would help provide for his needs. But this is simply not what the text says. The Catholic NAB translation accurately translates the verse: “Do we not have the right to take along a Christian wife, as do the rest of the apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, and Kephas?” Cephas, or Peter, was married as indicated by Matthew 8:14 which mentions his mother-in-law.

Modern Catholics who believe that there is nothing wrong with a married priest having sexual relations with his wife are in disagreement with the teachings of Popes Leo, Gregory, Innocent, Siricius, the First Lateran Council, and canon law. There is a contradiction between this ancient law defended by multiple popes and the present practice of the Catholic Church which allows for priests who were already married when they converted to Catholicism to continue to have relations with their wives. This is one more example of papal fallibility since Pope John Paul II never required these married priests to abide by the law of continence when they converted from Episcopalianism to Catholicism and joined their priesthood. Modern Catholicism also does not require deacons who are married to abstain from sexual relations in contrast to the teachings of these popes. The popes of old would be rolling over in their graves if they knew about this departure from their established tradition.

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