The claim of married priest's and "perfect continence"


Often the claim is made in defending the present Latin practice of mandated clerical celibacy, that those priest and bishops who were married (and the Church’s history is full of them) and remained so after their ordination did not have relations with their wives after ordination, but observed “perfect continence.”

The problem is the records of antiquity, when mentioning that St. so and so was the son of a priest/bishop, don’t mention that he was born before or after his father’s ordination.

So I found it of interest when I came across this:

St. Gregory Nazianzus, Doctor of the Church, born at Arianzus, in Asia Minor, c. 325; died at the same place, 389. He was son – one of three children – of Gregory, Bishop of Nazianzus (329-374), in the south-west of Cappadocia, and of Nonna, a daughter of Christian parents. The saint’s father was originally a member of the heretical sect of the Hypsistarii, or Hypsistiani, and was converted to Catholicity by the influence of his pious wife. His two sons, who seem to have been born **between **the dates of their father’s priestly ordination and episcopal consecration, were sent to a famous school at Caesarea, capital of Cappadocia, and educated by Carterius, probably the same one who was afterwards tutor of St. John Chrysostom.

Which 1) belies the claims that the married clergy lived “like brother and sister” 2) shows what happy results can happen when they live like husbands when they live like priests. What would the Church be like without St. Gregory.


Hi Isa,

Often the claim is made in defending the present Latin practice of mandated clerical celibacy, that those priest and bishops who were married (and the Church’s history is full of them) and remained so after their ordination did not have relations with their wives after ordination, but observed “perfect continence.”

The history of celibacy among clergy is long and varied. But the practice you mention is attested in both East and West. This document from the Vatican website covers the question of celibacy at length and can be considered pretty definitive.



Do you mean the practice of celibate priests, or married priest’s who don’t touch there wives?

If the former, the practice is, without doubt and irrefutable, apostolic, and an affirmation for one of the worth of the individual (as opposed to only having value in relationship to other persons).

If the latter, well, the problem is with spiritual marriages is they frustrate an end of marriage, the procreation of children (besides the becoming one flesh, which Our Lord underlines). It is like going to confession, and saying “I have nothing to confess,” celebrating mass and no one communes.


I have never heard that married priests never touched their wives after ordination. That seems rather unreasonable.

I have heard that Eastern Rite priests who are permitted to marry are not to have relations with their wife within 24 hours of saying Mass. Other than that I have never heard of what has been referred to as “perfect continence”.

Also, the Church, to my knowledge, has never had a bishop who was married. Only priests. A priest who is married has always been precluded from being ordained to Bishop. The Apostle Peter was the only married bishop, I believe.


There have certainly been married priest that have adopted continence, and there may even have been times when it was encourage or required. Mostly I think the practice has been overblown in an attempt to defend the current practice. Although only Peter’s wife is mentioned in Scripture, the tradition is that all the Apostles but John were married. There is no suggestion that they lived any differently than other married couples.

Prohibitions on priests having sex with their wives start showing up in the 4th Century, but it seems like the polices (or at least the practices) changed around a lot. Its hard to get a good read on the history of these things because there is so much emotion bound up in them and the only people that care enough to research are those that already have a strong opinion and/or a position to support.


well you can see this is early on in church history. There wasn’t always a mandated celibacy. This happened later when the church was far more established (sorry I don’t have the date, but I am quite sure 300’s was rathe early)

Secondly, there is no mandate that a priest who is married should remain celibate with his wife. THe idea of priestly celibacy is so that the man is a father to his congreation, and the congregation and their well-being always come first. Not a wife or kids. Sex is not the bad part, nor is it wrong. We have a case of a priest in my parish who is married. He was a Lutheran minister than had converted and felt called to serve. He was sent to Rome to meet with some cardinals, and they put it to a vote (as well as meeting with his kids and wife) and after seeing they were all committed to this, they ordained him. He is “allowed” to have marital relations since this is not an evil or defiling act in any way. He just has to put his congregation first above his family. His family knows this and are called to serve the church in this way as well. This means if he and his wife and “coming together” and the phone rings, he needs to make a point to answer that phone.

We really shouldn’t make this mistake that thinking that sex is in some way defiling or wrong. It isn’t for married people, it is a holy gift. Sometimes priests are married, thismeans they are probably sexually active. But these are rare cases, and truly mandated and cared for by God.


There were at least some because there have been a few married Popes. (The number is open to debate because some Popes were widowed or left their wives to become Pope.) I think it was pretty common in the early church for bishops to be married. St. Paul believed bishops could (and maybe should?) be married, because this is how he described the characteritics of a good bishop in 1 Timothy 3:

Therefore, a bishop must be irreproachable, married only once, temperate, self-controlled, decent, hospitable, able to teach,
not a drunkard, not aggressive, but gentle, not contentious, not a lover of money.
He must manage his own household well, keeping his children under control with perfect dignity;
for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of the church of God?


Hmm… Thought provoking. :hmmm:


Though I am not a Greek scholar, my studies of that passage seem to indicate that the verses speak not only to preclude those who cannot manage their own household from being ordained to ministry, but also to demonstrate the similarity between the two, and how having the one skill and responsibility benefits the other.

Additionally, the passage applies much the same qualifications to deacons, and speaks of the wives as well, showing the character they should have.


It was the western practice to demand perfect continence of it’s married priests. I don’t think the east ever did that formally.

I am not ready to post links or anything, that’s just what I remember.

I think it may be from nightfall before. But I don’t remember. :shrug:

We cannot prove a negative (as it is said), but one might be able to disprove it. Better to not speak in absolutes.

Actually then, there have been many in the east and the west, but historically very early. And as I understand it the Church of the East (once thought of as Nestorian) continues to allow married bishops but that is the only modern exception I am aware of among the Apostolic churches There may be celibate bishops among them, but I think married bishops are possible…worth a check I’d say). It’s would not be a practice they introduced later, it would a continuation for them.



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