Were priests allowed to marry for the first 1000 years

I heard someone say on a popular radio talk show that priests were allowed to marry for the first 1000 years of the church.

Is that true?

I’m not sure if it was actually the first 1000 years. I vaguely remember hearing 800, but yes, they were. We also have married Catholic priests today, just not of the Latin rite. It was, from what I hear, uncommon for them to marry when they had the opportunity though.

Actually, there are a few married Latin Rite priests (one lives here in Portland). I think all are converts from some Anglican communion.

Celebacy became a universal requirement at the First Lateran Council (1123).

You have heard incorrectly. Priests have never been able to marry after ordination.

During the first 1000 years some married men were ordained to the priesthood. Very quickly the disciplilne in the West became a celibate priesthood (for example the Council of Elvira in Spain set celibacy for priests in its jurisdiction). Eventually this became the law of the entire Western Church. The Eastern Catholic Church and Orthodox Churches did not adopt this discipline, however bishops are chosen only from the unmarried.

1ke maybe you can clarify further on this but supposedly 39 popes were married within the first 1200 years of the Church. This comes out to be 20% of popes during that time were married.

That is a very important point though that I hadn’t heard that priests were never allowed to marry after being ordained. That makes quite a bit of difference in looking at the issue.

Well, no. That isn’t true.

There are 10 Popes known or believed to have been married, the first being St. Peter of course.

Of the 10 known (or believed) to have been married three were widowers before receiving Holy Orders or before becoming Pope. Several others lived in continence and separately from their wives/children after becoming ordained or Pope. It seems only a few lived with their wives after ordination, and a few no one knows for sure if they were married.

Already married priests from the Episcopal Church are allowed to become validly ordained priests in the Latin Rite Church. If their wives pass before they do, they are required to be celibate for the remainder of their lives. This requires special papal dispensation and is highly unusual.
Otherwise, validly ordained priests in the Latin Rite are required to take a vow of celibacy for their entire lives. This was made an official Church discipline (NOT DOGMA) during Third Council of the Lateran in 1179.
Bishops are required to be unmarried. They can only have been married once during their lives and are no longer married at the time of their ordination and anytime afterwards (REMEMBER ONCE YOUR SPOUSE PASSES, YOU ARE NO LONGER MARRIED).

We also have to be careful not to suppose that once a married man was ordained to the priesthood his married life carried on as usual. Though this was generally the case in the East, in the West, from very early on, married men who were ordained to the priesthood had to give up marital relations with their wives, permanently.

So for all practical purposes, in the West, when they were following the canons, married men ordained to the priesthood had to live as if they were unmarried.

Looked at in view of this ancient discipline, the official restriction of the priesthood to unmarried men was a solid pastoral move in favor of the poor women whose husbands were called to the priesthood (not to mention the problem of inheritances).

For those not familiar with the language, a discipline can be changed, a dogma cannot.

So yes, the Church “could” change it’s stance and we “could” return to a married priesthood.

I seem to recall someone asserting that a distinction was made when it came to Bishops, and that a married Bishop was not theologically acceptable (something to do with Peter and the other Apostles no longer living as man wife with their spouses.)

Any body have anything official on that assertion? (Maybe I just dreamed that up…)


We actually had a seminar at Church a few weeks ago. That is where our priest was making the distinction between divine laws and church laws. Married or unmarried priesthood is a church law and has nothing to do with divine law. It could be changed at any time. The reason behind the celibate priesthood is economical more than theological.

I seem to remember the change being driven by the overlap with secular authority and noble “giving” Bishoprics to relatives and then trying to pass them on to their descendents and other such abuses.

That ring a bell with anyone else?


No, priests were never allowed to marry. Married men, however, were (and still are) allowed to become priests. Our Melkite Catholic priest is married.

Thanks for the clarification. I do not see much traction here for people who would like priests to be allowed to marry. I’ve seen the “39 popes were married” stat in multiple places online though, and do you have any idea where this false information is coming from or is based on?

Priestly celibacy is an Apostolic Norm and the celibacy required for priests from the time of the apostles was mandatory, and obligatory.

Cardinal Ratzinger in *The Theological Locus of Ecclesial Movements *(note 10), explains the unity existing with and from the apostles, including priestly celibacy.
“That priestly celibacy is not a medieval invention, but goes back to the earliest period of the Church, is shown clearly and convincingly by Card. A.M. Stickler, *The Case for Clerical Celibacy: Its Historical Development and Theological Foundations *(San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995). Cf.also I: Cochini, *Origines apostoliques du celibat sacerdotal *(Paris-Namur, 1981); S Heid, *Zolibat in der friihen Kirche *(Paderborn, 1997).” (p 483 n 2)
9 Quoted by Roman Cholij, Celibacy, Married Clergy, and the Oriental Code. Eastern Churches Journal , Vol. 3, No. 3 (Autumn, 1996), p. 112.
10 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Theological Locus of Ecclesial Movements. Communio (Fall 1998), footnote 2, p. 483.

**National Catholic REGISTER, May 19-25, 2002
Priestly Celibacy and Its Roots in Christ … Interview with Fr McGovern **
“The sacrament of Order gives the priest a share in the mystery of Christ as Spouse of the Church – as in Ephesians 5:23-31. The priest, as icon of Christ, has then to love the Church with the same spousal love, loving her with an exclusive, sacrificial love which results in all the fruitfulness of spiritual paternity, generating new children of God through his sacramental and pastoral ministry. This, according to John Paul II in Pastores Dabo Vobis, is the basic theological reason for celibacy.

“Recent scholarship on the history of celibacy in both the Easter and Western Church has shown that there is a considerable body of evidence in favour of the argument that priestly celibacy is of apostolic origin, based on Christ’s invitation to the Twelve to leave all things and follow him (cf. Mt 19:29). [5] Indeed, John Paul II points out in his 1979 Holy Thursday Letter to Priests that celibacy is so closely linked to the language of the Gospel that it refers back to the teaching of Christ and to apostolic tradition.

“What is clear from Scripture, from the early history of the Church, the writings of the Fathers, and the witness of many clerics, is that there has always been a tradition of priestly celibacy in the Church. This tradition was approved and spread by various provincial councils and Popes.

“At the Second Lateran Council (1139), it was decreed that a marriage attempted by a bishop, priest, or deacon was not only gravely illicit but also invalid. This led to the misunderstanding, still widespread today, that celibacy for higher clergy was introduced as late as Lateran II. In reality that Council declared invalid something that had always been prohibited

“It was promoted, defended and restored in successive eras of the first millennium of the history of the Church, although it frequently encountered opposition from the clergy themselves and the worldly values of a decadent society. Apart from the historical argument, the theological justification for celibacy has gained considerable ground since Vatican II, not least in the writings of John Paul II."

During the Council of Trent, powerful rulers like the Emperor Ferdinand put enormous pressure on the Church to abolish the law of celibacy, but the popes resolutely declined.

Great replies all! I have learned from your posts and digging in a little on my own. It seems to me now that there is an important distinction between someone who is married and then becomes a priest vs. someone who is a priest and then wants to get married.

We had a priest at our parish who was married (as a baptist) and then was ordained later as a priest. So there are actually married priests. A few any way.

But we know of no one who was ordained a priest and then also decided to get married.

Pretty simple really.

The distinction between the first 1000 years or later 1000 years holds no water that I can tell. Just that it seems in the earlier times, more folks got married and then became priests.

But the notion is out there in the media that ‘the Catholic church allowed priests to be married fro the first 100 years, then changes the rules’.

I guess I can understand some of the confusion.

The pope has allowed dispensations for upto 500 married Anglican priests.

Celibacy as an Option in the Roman Catholic Church: Clearing the way for Married Priests

The celibacy requirement for priest ordinations, a twelfth century Roman Catholic Church law, has contributed to the reduction of vocations in America. In part, this could be the result of a modern evolution towards a more secular society. However, analysis indicates that the celibacy requirement is a contributing factor.
The Roman Catholic Church is the only Christian church that requires celibacy for ordination. If we examine Church history, we discover that many early apostles such as Peter and Augustine were married (Cozzens, 34). The last married Pope lived in the ninth century and it wasn’t until the 12th century that the Lateran Council 1123 and 1139 mandated absolute and perpetual clerical celibacy, chastity and continence within the entire Western or Latin Church.
It was a defensive reaction to the sexual debauchery and loss of control occurring during this period as well as the reverence for virginity as exemplified by the Virgin Mary. “A great deal of the spiritual undergirding for Christian celibacy over the centuries has been the modeling offered in the name of the Blessed Virgin Mary" (Freeing Celibacy, Cozzens, 43). Some say celibacy was viewed as a replacement for martyrdom as a sign of devotion to Christ.
Separation of the Latin rite from the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1054 was due to celibacy. The Eastern Church accepted priests who were married before they entered the vocation. The great Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologia II had provided opposition to those who saw celibacy rulings as part of divine law. Thomas contended that the celibacy requirement for Catholic priests was merely Church law that could be reversed at any time by papal or councilor authority (MacGregor, 108-109). There is no foundation in scripture for celibacy.
Father Andrew Greeley in his 1972 study The Catholic Priest in the United States: Sociological Investigations reports that 65% of diocesan priests, and 88% of those under age 35, expected a change in the law of celibacy. “One sixth leave the priesthood because of celibacy and 20% of inactive priests would return if the celibacy rule was eliminated thus keeping the vocation healthy (An ordained priest is always considered a priest whether in the active ministry or inactive).
Four out of five priests between the ages of forty six to sixty five support married priests, and most Catholics support the Anglican model (marry before or after ordination). According to Greeley, “Celibacy is not the main reason priests leave but it may be the main reason they don’t become priests.” (Greeley, 68 )
In 1965 there were 65,000 priests in the United States; in 2011, there were less than 40,000 supporting 75 million parishioners. Recent surveys have pointed to a dramatic drop in vocations due to lower recruitment, resignations, and retirement. In fact, less than 500 priestly ordinations occurred in 2011 compared to nearly 1,000 in 1960s. Parishes today without a resident pastor total over 3,200 compared to 1975 when this number was 700. Additionally over 50% of priests are currently 60 years of age or older.
In 1965 the Vatican II Council proved that real change was possible in the previously entrenched institution. The sacrament of marriage was elevated as a charism (a gift that flows from God’s love to man), separate but equal to Holy Orders. Yet questions regarding sexuality remained unanswered. Vatican II opened a slight fissure in the floodgates giving local clergy and laity the courage to question the modern relevance and infallibility of church law.
However, beginning in the seventies, criticism from the media, laity, and priests, over sexual abuse, priests marrying, female priesthood, homosexuality, and celibacy frightened subsequent Popes. The Church hierarchy reacted to controversy by needlessly circling the wagons. For example, when action was finally taken on removing the offenders of child abuse, the public accepted the acts as a part of the human condition and was appeased.
The fact that support among the clergy for married priests reached 72% in 2002 appeared to fall on deaf ears. According to a statement by John Paul II, reinforced by the current Pope Benedict XVI, “The vow of celibacy is a matter of keeping one’s word to Christ and the Church. A duty and a proof of the priest’s inner maturity; it is the expression of his personal dignity.”(BBC News 14 October, 2003) The Latin Rite Church, as the Roman Catholic Church is known, has a history of obdurate control from the top. Its position on the subject of celibacy reflects its rigidity.
In this paper I will examine why priests leave, why they stay, and why their numbers continue to decline. While celibacy is a joyfully chosen way of life for some priests, it is not for others. I will argue that celibacy rules are a major obstacle to the recruitment of ordinates, a major factor in the shortage of priests within the United States, and a contributor to increases in attrition.
I will also argue that these rules are unsound both theologically and psychologically and that a dysfunctional hierarchy is stubbornly neglectful in its willingness to address the issue. Since there is no apparent moral reason for disallowing married priests, economics and control will be examined. The fact is the coexistence of celibacy and marriage within the Catholic clergy is painfully past due.

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