Letter: A history of priestly celibacy

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The Independent Online
From Mr David R. Boulton

Sir: With regard to the question of priestly celibacy that is exercising your correspondents (Letters, 8 July), Roman Catholic priests take vows of celibacy and of chastity. They are not the same thing. To be celibate is to remain unmarried; to be chaste is to remain a virgin, or else to remain faithful for life to one sexual partner.

Thus, Orthodox priests, for example, are required to be chaste, but not to be celibate. When an Orthodox priest's wife dies, he is not permitted to re-marry because chastity requires faithfulness to the one sexual partner. In theory, Anglican priests, too, are required to be chaste but not celibate.

Celibacy is not a scriptural requirement for the sacred ministry, nor indeed for any Christian whether ordained or lay. Chastity, on the other hand, is very definitely required of every Christian, both ordained and lay.

Clerical celibacy was introduced in Western Christendom in about the 10th century, not for doctrinal reasons, but as an attempt to check ecclesiastical nepotism. When Duke William of Normandy seized the throne of England, he did so with the Papal blessing, on condition that he installed Archbishop Lanfranc at Canterbury and assisted him to impose celibacy on the English clergy, after the Continental pattern.

Roman celibacy is not, then, a matter of Scripture nor doctrine, but of tradition. Men make traditions, men can change them. On the other hand, celibacy and chastity are genuine acts of sacrifice - a concept which, along with wrath, judgement and grace, is difficult for the modern liberal secularist to grasp.

Yours faithfully,

David R. Boulton


8 June