Vol. 2, Chapter IX. Ascetic Tendencies

104. Ascetic Virtue and Piety

Ad. Möhler (R.C.): Geschichte des Mönchthums in der Zeit seiner ersten Entstehung u. ersten Ausbildung, 1836 (“Vermischte Schriften,” ed. Döllinger. Regensb. 1839, II. p. 165 sqq.).

Is. Taylor (Independent): Ancient Christianity, 4th ed. London, 1844, I. 133-299 (anti-Puseyite and anti Catholic).

H. Ruffner (Presbyt.): The Fathers of the Desert; or an Account of the Origin and Practice of Monkery among heathen nations; its passage into the church; and some wonderful Stories of the Fathers concerning the primitive Monks and Hermits. N. York, 1850. 2 vols.

Otto Zöckler (Lutheran): Kritische Geschichte der Askese. Frkf. and Erlangen, 1863 (434 pages).

P. E. Lucius Die Therapeuten und ihre Stellung in der Geschichte der Askese. Strasburg, 1879.

H. WEiNGARTEN: Ueber den Ursprung des Mönchthums im nach-Konstantinischen Zeittalter. Gotha, 1877. And his article in Herzog’s “Encykl.” new ed. vol. X. (1882) p. 758 sqq. (abridged in Schaff’s Herzog, vol. II. 1551 sqq. N. Y. 1883).

Ad. Harnack: Das Mönchthum, seine Ideale und seine Geschichte. Giessen, 1882.

The general literature on Monasticism is immense, but belongs to the next period. See vol. III., and the list of books in Zöckler, l.c. p. 10-16.

Here we enter a field where the early church appears most remote from the free spirit of evangelical Protestantism and modern ethics and stands nearest the legalistic and monastic ethics of Greek and Roman Catholicism. Christian life was viewed as consisting mainly in certain outward exercises, rather than an inward disposition, in a multiplicity of acts rather than a life of faith. The great ideal of virtue was, according to the prevailing notion of the fathers and councils, not so much to transform the world and sanctify the natural things and relations created by God, as to flee from the world into monastic seclusion, and voluntarily renounce property and marriage. The Pauline doctrine of faith and of justification by grace alone steadily retreated, or rather, it was never yet rightly enthroned in the general thought and life of the church. The qualitative view of morality yielded more and more to quantitative calculation by the number of outward meritorious and even supererogatory works, prayer, fasting, alms-giving, voluntary poverty, and celibacy. This necessarily brought with it a Judaizing self-righteousness and overestimate of the ascetic life, which developed, by an irresistible impulse, into the hermit-life and monasticism of the Nicene age. All the germs of this asceticism appear in the second half of the third century, and even earlier.

Asceticism in general is a rigid outward self-discipline, by which the spirit strives after full dominion over the flesh, and a superior grade of virtue. It includes not only that true moderation or restraint of the animal appetites, which is a universal Christian duty, but total abstinence from enjoyments in themselves lawful, from wine, animal food, property, and marriage, together with all kinds of penances and mortifications of the body. In the union of the abstractive and penitential elements, or of self-denial and self-punishment, the catholic asceticism stands forth complete in light and shade; exhibiting, on the one hand, wonderful examples of heroic renunciation of self and the world, but very often, on the other, a total misapprehension and perversion of Christian morality; the renunciation involving, more or less a Gnostic contempt of the gifts and ordinances of the God of nature, and the penance or self-punishment running into practical denial of the all-sufficient merits of Christ. The ascetic and monastic tendency rests primarily upon a lively, though in morbid sense of the sinfulness, of the flesh and the corruption of the world; then upon the desire for solitude and exclusive occupation with divine things; and finally, upon the ambition to attain extraordinary holiness and merit. It would anticipate upon earth the life of angels in heaven. It substitutes all abnormal, self-appointed virtue and piety for the normal forms prescribed by the Creator; and not rarely looks down upon the divinely-ordained standard with spiritual pride. It is a mark at once of moral strength and moral weakness. It presumes a certain degree of culture, in which man has emancipated himself from the powers of nature and risen to the consciousness of his moral calling; but thinks to secure itself against temptation only by entire separation from the world, instead of standing in the world to overcome it and transform it into the kingdom of God.

Asceticism is by no means limited to the Christian church, but it there developed its highest and noblest form. We observe kindred phenomena long before Christ; among the Jews, in the Nazarites, the Essenes, and the cognate Therapeutae, and still more among the heathens, in the old Persian and Indian religions, especially among the Buddhists, who have even a fully developed system of monastic life, which struck some Roman missionaries as the devil’s caricature of the Catholic system. In Egypt the priests of Serapis led a monastic life. There is something in the very climate of the land of the Pharaohs, in its striking contrast between the solitude of the desert and the fertility of the banks of the Nile, so closely bordering on each other, and in the sepulchral sadness of the people, which induces men to withdraw from the busy turmoil and the active duties of life. It is certain that the first Christian hermits and monks were Egyptians. Even the Grecian philosophy was conceived by the Pythagoreans, the Platonists, and the Stoics, not as theoretical knowledge merely, but also as practical wisdom, and frequently joined itself to the most rigid abstemiousness, so that “philosopher” and “ascetic” were interchangeable terms. Several apologists of the second century had by this practical philosophy particularly the Platonic, been led to Christianity; and they on this account retained their simple dress and mode of life. Tertullian congratulates the philosopher’s cloak on having now become the garb of a better philosophy. In the show of self-denial the Cynics, the followers of Diogenes, went to the extreme; but these, at least in their later degenerate days, concealed under the guise of bodily squalor, untrimmed nails, and uncombed hair, a vulgar cynical spirit, and a bitter hatred of Christianity.

In the ancient church there was a special class of Christians of both sexes who, under the name of “ascetics” or “abstinents,” though still living in the midst of the community, retired from society, voluntarily renounced marriage and property, devoted themselves wholly to fasting, prayer, and religious contemplation, and strove thereby to attain Christian perfection. Sometimes they formed a society of their own, for mutual improvement, an ecclesiola in ecelesia, in which even children could be received and trained to abstinence. They shared with the confessors the greatest regard from their fellow-Christians, had a separate seat in the public worship, and were considered the fairest ornaments of the church. In times of persecution they sought with enthusiasm a martyr’s death as the crown of perfection.

While as yet each congregation was a lonely oasis in the desert of the world’s corruption, and stood in downright opposition to the surrounding heathen world, these ascetics had no reason for separating from it and flying into the desert. It was under and after Constantine, and partly as the result of the union of church and state, the consequent transfer of the world into the church, and the cessation of martyrdom, that asceticism developed itself to anchoretism and monkery, and endeavored thus to save the virgin purity of the church by carrying it into the wilderness. The first Christian hermit, Paul of Thebes, is traced back to the middle of the third century, but is lost in the mist of fable; St. Anthony, the real father of monks, belongs to the age of Constantine. At the time of Cyprian there was as yet no absolutely binding vow. The early origin and wide spread of this ascetic life are due to the deep moral earnestness of Christianity, and the prevalence of sin in all the social relations of the then still thoroughly pagan world. It was the excessive development of the negative, world-rejecting element in Christianity, which preceded its positive effort to transform and sanctify the world.

The ascetic principle, however, was not confined, in its influence, to the proper ascetics and monks. It ruled more or less the entire morality and piety of the ancient and mediaeval church; though on the other hand, there were never wanting in her bosom protests of the free evangelical spirit against moral narrowness and excessive regard to the outward works of the law. The ascetics were but the most consistent representatives of the old catholic piety, and were commended as such by the apologists to the heathens. They formed the spiritual nobility, the flower of the church, and served especially as examples to the clergy.


105. Heretical and Catholic Asceticism

But we must now distinguish two different kinds of asceticism in Christian antiquity: a heretical and an orthodox or Catholic. The former rests on heathen philosophy, the latter is a development of Christian ideas.

The heretical asceticism, the beginnings of which are resisted in the New Testament itself (1Ti_4:3; Col_2:16 sqq. Comp. Rom_14:1-23), meets us in the Gnostic and Manichaean sects. It is descended from Oriental and Platonic ideas, and is based on a dualistic view of the world, a confusion of sin with matter, and a perverted idea of God and the creation. It places God and the world at irreconcilable enmity, derives the creation from an inferior being, considers the human body substantially evil, a product of the devil or the demiurge, and makes it the great moral business of man to rid himself of the same, or gradually to annihilate it, whether by excessive abstinence or by unbridled indulgence. Many of the Gnostics placed the fall itself in the first gratification of the sexual desire, which subjected man to the dominion of the Hyle.

The orthodox or catholic asceticism starts from a literal and overstrained construction of certain passages of Scripture. It admits that all nature is the work of God and the object of his love, and asserts the divine origin and destiny of the human body, without which there could, in fact, be no resurrection, and hence no admittance to eternal glory. It therefore aims not to mortify the body, but perfectly to control and sanctify it. For the metaphysical dualism between spirit and matter, it substitutes the ethical conflict between the spirit and the flesh. But in practice it exceeds the simple and sound limits of the Bible, falsely substitutes the bodily appetites and affections, or sensuous nature, as such, for the flesh, or the principle of selfishness, which resides in the soul as well as the body; and thus, with all its horror of heresy, really joins in the Gnostic and Manichaean hatred of the body as the prison of the spirit. This comes out especially in the depreciation of marriage and the family life, that divinely appointed nursery of church and state, and in excessive self-inflictions, to which the apostolic piety affords not the remotest parallel. The heathen Gnostic principle of separation from the world and from the body, as a means of self-redemption, after being theoretically exterminated, stole into the church by a back door of practice, directly in face of the Christian doctrine of the high destiny of the body and perfect redemption through Christ.

The Alexandrian fathers furnished a theoretical basis for this asceticism in the distinction of a lower and higher morality, which corresponds to the Platonic or Pythagorean distinction between the life according to nature and the life above nature or the practical and contemplative life. It was previously suggested by Hermas about the middle of the second century. Tertullian made a corresponding opposite distinction of mortal and venial sins. Here was a source of serious practical errors, and an encouragement both to moral laxity and ascetic extravagance. The ascetics, and afterwards the monks, formed or claimed to be a moral nobility, a spiritual aristocracy, above the common Christian people; as the clergy stood in a separate caste of inviolable dignity above the laity, who were content with a lower grade of virtue. Clement of Alexandria, otherwise remarkable for his elevated ethical views, requires of the sage or gnostic, that he excel the plain Christian not only by higher knowledge, but also by higher, emotionless virtue, and stoical superiority to all bodily conditions; and he inclines to regard the body, with Plato, as the grave and fetter of the soul. How little he understood the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith, may be inferred from a passage in the Stromata, where he explains the word of Christ: “Thy faith hath saved thee,” as referring, not to faith simply, but to the Jews only, who lived according to the law; as if faith was something to be added to the good works, instead of being the source and principle of the holy life. Origen goes still further, and propounds quite distinctly the catholic doctrine of two kinds of morality and piety, a lower for all Christians, and a higher for saints or the select few. He includes in the higher morality works of supererogation, i.e. works not enjoined indeed in the gospel, yet recommended as counsels of perfection, which were supposed to establish a peculiar merit and secure a higher degree of blessedness. He who does only what is required of all is an unprofitable servant (Luk_17:10); but he who does more, who performs, for example, what Paul, in 1Co_7:25, merely recommends, concerning the single state, or like him, resigns his just claim to temporal remuneration for spiritual service, is called a good and faithful servant (Mat_25:21).

Among these works were reckoned martyrdom, voluntary poverty, and voluntary celibacy. All three, or at least the last two of these acts, in connection with the positive Christian virtues, belong to the idea of the higher perfection, as distinguished from the fulfilment of regular duties, or ordinary morality. To poverty and celibacy was afterwards added absolute obedience; and these three things were the main subjects of the consilia evangelica and the monastic vow.

The ground on which these particular virtues were so strongly urged is easily understood. Property, which is so closely allied to the selfishness of man and binds him to the earth, and sexual intercourse, which brings out sensual passion in its greatest strength, and which nature herself covers with the veil of modesty; — these present themselves as the firmest obstacles to that perfection, in which God alone is our possession, and Christ alone our love and delight.

In these things the ancient heretics went to the extreme. The Ebionites made poverty the condition of salvation. The Gnostics were divided between the two excesses of absolute self-denial and unbridled self-indulgence. The Marcionites, Carpocratians, Prodicians, false Basilidians, and Manichaeans objected to individual property, from hatred to the material world; and Epiphanes, in a book “on Justice” about 125, defined virtue as a community with equality, and advocated the community of goods and women. The more earnest of these heretics entirely prohibited marriage and procreation as a diabolical work, as in the case of Saturninus, Marcion, and the Encratites; while other Gnostic sects substituted for it the most shameless promiscuous intercourse, as in Carpocrates, Epiphanes, and the Nicolaitans.

The ancient church, on the contrary, held to the divine institution of property and marriage, and was content to recommend the voluntary renunciation of these intrinsically lawful pleasures to the few elect, as means of attaining Christian perfection. She declared marriage holy, virginity more holy. But unquestionably even the church fathers so exalted the higher holiness of virginity, as practically to neutralize, or at least seriously to weaken, their assertion of the holiness of marriage. The Roman church, in spite of the many Bible examples of married men of God from Abraham to Peter, can conceive no real holiness without celibacy, and therefore requires celibacy of its clergy without exception.


106. Voluntary Poverty

The recommendation of voluntary poverty was based on a literal interpretation of the Lord’s advice to the rich young ruler, who had kept all the commandments from his youth up: “If thou wouldest be perfect, go, sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me (Mat_19:21).” To this were added the actual examples of the poverty of Christ and his apostles, and the community of goods in the first Christian church at Jerusalem. Many Christians, not of the ascetics only, but also of the clergy, like Cyprian, accordingly gave up all their property at their conversion, for the benefit of the poor. The later monastic societies sought to represent in their community of goods the original equality and the perfect brotherhood of men.

Yet on the other hand, we meet with more moderate views. Clement of Alexandria, for example, in a special treatise on the right use of wealth, observes, that the Saviour forbade not so much the possession of earthly property, as the love of it and desire for it; and that it is possible to retain the latter, even though the possession itself be renounced. The earthly, says he, is a material and a means for doing good, and the unequal distribution of property is a divine provision for the exercise of Christian love and beneficence. The true riches are the virtue, which can and should maintain itself under all outward conditions; the false are the mere outward possession, which comes and goes.


107. Voluntary Celibacy

The old catholic exaggeration of celibacy attached itself to four passages of Scripture, viz. Mat_19:12; Mat_22:30; 1Co_7:7 sqq.; and Rev_14:4; but it went far beyond them, and unconsciously admitted influences from foreign modes of thought. The words of the Lord in Mat_22:30 (Luk_20:35 sq.) were most frequently cited; but they expressly limit unmarried life to the angels, without setting it up as the model for men. Rev_14:4 was taken by some of the fathers more correctly in the symbolical sense of freedom from the pollution of idolatry. The example of Christ, though often urged, cannot here furnish a rule; for the Son of God and Saviour of the world was too far above all the daughters of Eve to find an equal companion among them, and in any case cannot be conceived as holding such relations. The whole church of the redeemed is his pure bride. Of the apostles some at least were married, and among them Peter, the oldest and most prominent of all. The advice of Paul in 1Co_7:1-40 is so cautiously given, that even here the view of the fathers found but partial support; especially if balanced with the Pastoral Epistles, where marriage is presented as the proper condition for the clergy. Nevertheless he was frequently made the apologist of celibacy by orthodox and heretical writers. Judaism — with the exception of the paganizing Essenes, who abstained from marriage — highly honors the family life; it allows marriage even to the priests and the high-priests, who had in fact to maintain their order by physical reproduction; it considers unfruitfulness a disgrace or a curse.

Heathenism, on the contrary, just because of its own degradation of woman, and its low, sensual conception of marriage, frequently includes celibacy in its ideal of morality, and associates it with worship. The noblest form of heathen virginity appears in the six Vestal virgins of Rome, who, while girls of from six to ten years, were selected for the service of the pure goddess, and set to keep the holy fire burning on its altar; but, after serving thirty years, were allowed to return to secular life and marry. The penalty for breaking their vow of chastity was to be buried alive in the campus sceleratus.

The ascetic depreciation of marriage is thus due, at least in part, to the influence of heathenism. But with this was associated the Christian enthusiasm for angelic purity in opposition to the horrible licentiousness of the Graeco-Roman world. It was long before Christianity raised woman and the family life to the purity and dignity which became them in the kingdom of God. In this view, we may the more easily account for many expressions of the church fathers respecting the female sex, and warnings against intercourse with women, which to us, in the present state of European and American civilization, sound perfectly coarse and unchristian. John of Damascus has collected in his Parallels such patristic expressions as these: “A woman is an evil.” “A rich woman is a double evil.” “A beautiful woman is a whited sepulchre.” “Better is a man’s wickedness than a woman’s goodness.” The men who could write so, must have forgotten the beautiful passages to the contrary in the proverbs of Solomon; yea, they must have forgotten their own mothers.

On the other hand, it may be said, that the preference given to virginity had a tendency to elevate woman in the social sphere and to emancipate her from that slavish condition under heathenism, where she could be disposed of as an article of merchandise by parents or guardians, even in infancy or childhood. It should not be forgotten that many virgins of the early church devoted their whole energies as deaconesses to the care of the sick and the poor, or exhibited as martyrs a degree of passive virtue and moral heroism altogether unknown before. Such virgins Cyprian, in his rhetorical language, calls “the flowers of the church, the masterpieces of grace, the ornament of nature, the image of God reflecting the holiness of our Saviour, the most illustrious of the flock of Jesus Christ, who commenced on earth that life which we shall lead once in heaven.”

The excessive regard for celibacy and the accompanying depreciation of marriage date from about the middle of the second century, and reach their height in the Nicene age.

Ignatius, in his epistle to Polycarp, expresses himself as yet very moderately: “If any one can remain in chastity of the flesh to the glory of the Lord of the flesh” [or, according to another reading, “of the flesh of the Lord], let him remain thus without boasting; if he boast, he is lost, and if it be made known, beyond the bishop, he is ruined.” What a stride from this to the obligatory celibacy of the clergy! Yet the admonition leads us to suppose, that celibacy was thus early, in the beginning of the second century, in many cases, boasted of as meritorious, and allowed to nourish spiritual pride. Ignatius is the first to call voluntary virgins brides of Christ and jewels of Christ.

Justin Martyr goes further. He points to many Christians of both sexes who lived to a great age unpolluted; and he desires celibacy to prevail to the greatest possible extent. He refers to the example of Christ, and expresses the singular opinion, that the Lord was born of a virgin only to put a limit to sensual desire, and to show that God could produce without the sexual agency of man. His disciple Tatian ran even to the Gnostic extreme upon this point, and, in a lost work on Christian perfection, condemned conjugal cohabitation as a fellowship of corruption destructive of prayer. At the same period Athenagoras wrote, in his Apology: “Many may be found among us, of both sexes, who grow old unmarried, full of hope that they are in this way more closely united to God.”

Clement of Alexandria is the most reasonable of all the fathers in his views on this point. He considers eunuchism a special gift of divine grace, but without yielding it on this account preference above the married state. On the contrary, he vindicates with great decision the moral dignity and sanctity of marriage against the heretical extravagances of his time, and lays down the general principle, that Christianity stands not in outward observances, enjoyments, and privations, but in righteousness and peace of heart. Of the Gnostics he says, that, under the fair name of abstinence, they act impiously towards the creation and the holy Creator, and repudiate marriage and procreation on the ground that a man should not introduce others into the world to their misery, and provide new nourishment for death. He justly charges them with inconsistency in despising the ordinances of God and yet enjoying the nourishment created by the same hand, breathing his air, and abiding in his world. He rejects the appeal to the example of Christ, because Christ needed no help, and because the church is his bride. The apostles also he cites against the impugners of marriage. Peter and Philip begot children; Philip gave his daughters in marriage; and even Paul hesitated not to speak of a female companion (rather only of his right to lead about such an one, as well as Peter). We seem translated into an entirely different, Protestant atmosphere, when in this genial writer we read: The perfect Christian, who has the apostles for his patterns, proves himself truly a man in this, that he chooses not a solitary life, but marries, begets children, cares for the household, yet under all the temptations which his care for wife and children, domestics and property, presents, swerves not from his love to God, and as a Christian householder exhibits a miniature of the all-ruling Providence.

But how little such views agreed with the spirit of that age, we see in Clement’s own stoical and Platonizing conception of the sensual appetites, and still more in his great disciple Origen, who voluntarily disabled himself in his youth, and could not think of the act of generation as anything but polluting. Hieracas, or Hierax, of Leontopolis in Egypt, who lived during the Diocletian persecution, and probably also belonged to the Alexandrian school, is said to have carried his asceticism to a heretical extreme, and to have declared virginity a condition of salvation under the gospel dispensation. Epiphanius describes him as a man of extraordinary biblical and medical learning, who knew the Bible by heart, wrote commentaries in the Greek and Egyptian languages, but denied the resurrection of the material body and the salvation of children, because there can be no reward without conflict, and no conflict without knowledge (1Ti_2:11). He abstained from wine and animal food, and gathered around him a society of ascetics, who were called Hieracitae. Methodius was an opponent of the spiritualistic, but not of the ascetic Origen, and wrote an enthusiastic plea for virginity, founded on the idea of the church as the pure, unspotted, ever young, and ever beautiful bride of God. Yet, quite remarkably, in his “Feast of the Ten Virgins,” the virgins express themselves respecting the sexual relations with a minuteness which, to our modern taste, is extremely indelicate and offensive.

As to the Latin fathers: The views of Tertullian for or and against marriage, particularly against second marriage, we have already noticed. His disciple Cyprian differs from him in his ascetic principles only by greater moderation in expression, and, in his treatise De Habitu Virginum, commends the unmarried life on the ground of Mat_19:12; 1Co_7:1-40, and Rev_14:4.

Celibacy was most common with pious virgins, who married themselves only to God or to Christ, and in the spiritual delights of this heavenly union found abundant compensation for the pleasures of earthly matrimony. But cases were not rare where sensuality, thus violently suppressed, asserted itself under other forms; as, for example, in indolence and ease at the expense of the church, which Tertullian finds it necessary to censure; or in the vanity and love of dress, which Cyprian rebukes; and, worst of all, in a desperate venture of asceticism, which probably often enough resulted in failure, or at least filled the imagination with impure thoughts. Many of these heavenly brides lived with male ascetics, and especially with unmarried clergyman, under pretext of a purely spiritual fellowship, in so intimate intercourse as to put their continence to the most perilous test, and wantonly challenge temptation, from which we should rather pray to be kept. This unnatural and shameless practice was probably introduced by the Gnostics; Irenaeus at least charges it upon them. The first trace of it in the church appears early enough, though under a rather innocent allegorical form, in the Pastor Hermae, which originated in the Roman church. It is next mentioned in the Pseudo-Clementine Epistles Ad Virgines. In the third century it prevailed widely in the East and West. The worldly-minded bishop Paulus of Antioch favored it by his own example. Cyprian of Carthage came out earnestly, and with all reason, against the vicious practice, in spite of the solemn protestation of innocence by these “sisters,” and their appeal to investigations through midwives. Several councils at Elvira, Ancyra, Nicaea, etc., felt called upon to forbid this pseudo-ascetic scandal. Yet the intercourse of clergy with “mulieres subintroductae” rather increased than diminished with the increasing stringency of the celibate laws and has at all times more or less disgraced the Roman priesthood.


108. Celibacy of the Clergy

G. Calixtus (Luth.): De conjug. clericorum. Helmst. 1631; ed. emend. H. Ph. Kr. Henke, 1784, 2 Parts.

Lud. Thomassin (Rom. Cath., d. 1696): Vetus et Nova Ecclesiae Disciplina. Lucae, 1728, 3 vols. fol.; Mayence, 1787, also in French. P. I. L. II. c. 60-67.

Fr. Zaccaria (R.C.): Storia polemica del celibato sacro. Rom. 1774; and Nuova giustificazione del celibato sacro. Fuligno, 1785.

F. W. Carové, (Prot.): Vollständige Sammlung der Cölibatsgesetze. Francf. 1823.

J. Ant. & Aug. Theiner (R.C.): Die Einführung der erzwungenen Ehelosigkeit bei den Geistlichen u. ihre Folgen. Altenb. 1828; 2 vols.; second ed. Augsburg, 1845. In favor of the abolition of enforced celibacy.

Th. Fr. Klitsche (R.C.): Geschichte des Cölibats (from the time of the Apostles to Gregory VII.) Augsb. 1830.

A. Möhler: Beleuchtung der (badischen) Denkschrift zur Aufhebunq des Cölibats. In his “Gesammelte Schriften.” Regensb. 1839, vol. I. 177 sqq.

C. J. Hefele (R.C.): Beiträge zur Kirchengesch. Vol. I. 122-139.

A. de Roskovany (R.C.): Coestibatus et Breviarium … a monumentis omnium saeculorum demonstrata. Pest, 1861. 4 vols. A collection of material and official decisions. Schulte calls it “ein gänzlich unkritischer Abdruck von Quellen.”

Henry C. Lea (Prot.): An Historical Sketch of Sacerdotal Celibacy in the Christian Church. Philadelphia, 1867 2d ed. enlarged, Boston, 1884 (682 pp.); the only impartial and complete history down to 1880.

PROBST (R.C.): Kirchliche Disciplin, 1870.

J. Fried. von. Schulte (Prof. of jurisprudence in Bonn, and one of the leaders among the Old Catholics): Der Cölibatszwang und dessen Aufhebung. Bonn 1876 (96 pages). Against celibacy.

All the above works, except that of Lea, are more or less controversial. Comp. also, on the Roman Cath. side, art. Celibacy, Martigny, and in Kraus, “Real-Encykl. der christl. Alterthümer” (1881) I. 304-307 by Funk, and in the new ed. of Wetzer & Welte’s “Kirchenlexicon;” on the Prot. side, Bingham, Book IV. ch. V.; Herzog2, III. 299-303; and Smith & Cheetham, I. 323-327.

As the clergy were supposed to embody the moral ideal of Christianity, and to be in the full sense of the term the heritage of God, they were required to practise especially rigid sexual temperance after receiving their ordination. The virginity of the church of Christ, who was himself born of a virgin, seemed, in the ascetic spirit of the age, to recommend a virgin priesthood as coming nearest his example, and best calculated to promote the spiritual interests of the church.

There were antecedents in heathenism to sacerdotal celibacy. Buddhism rigorously enjoined it under a penalty, of expulsion. The Egyptian priests were allowed one, but forbidden a second, marriage, while the people practiced unrestrained polygamy. The priestesses of the Delphic Apollo, the Achaian Juno, the Scythian Diana, and the Roman Vesta were virgins.

In the ante-Nicene period sacerdotal celibacy did not as yet become a matter of law, but was left optional, like the vow of chastity among the laity. In the Pastoral Epistles of Paul marriage, if not expressly enjoined, is at least allowed to all ministers of the gospel (bishops and deacons), and is presumed to exist as the rule. It is an undoubted fact that Peter and several apostles, as well as the Lord’s brothers, were married, and that Philip the deacon and evangelist had four daughters (Act_21:8, Act_21:9). It is also self-evident that, if marriage did not detract from the authority and dignity of an apostle, it cannot be inconsistent with the dignity and purity of any minister of Christ. The marriage relation implies duties and privileges, and it is a strange perversion of truth if some writers under the influence of dogmatic prejudice have turned the apostolic marriages, and that between Joseph and Mary into empty forms. Paul would have expressed himself very differently if he had meant to deny to the clergy the conjugal intercourse after ordination, as was done by the fathers and councils in the fourth century. He expressly classes the prohibition of marriage (including its consequences) among the doctrines of demons or evil spirits that control the heathen religions, and among the signs of the apostacy of the latter days (1Ti_4:1-3). The Bible represents marriage as the first institution of God dating from the state of man’s innocency, and puts the highest dignity upon it in the Old and New Covenants. Any reflection on the honor and purity of the married state and the marriage bed reflects on the patriarchs, Moses, the prophets, and the apostles, yea, on the wisdom and goodness of the Creator.

There was all early departure from these Scripture views in the church under the irresistible influence of the ascetic enthusiasm for virgin purity. The undue elevation of virginity necessarily implied a corresponding depreciation of marriage.

The scanty documents of the post-apostolic age give us only incidental glimpses into clerical households, yet sufficient to prove the unbroken continuance of clerical marriages, especially in the Eastern churches, and at the same time the superior estimate put upon an unmarried clergy, which gradually limited or lowered the former.

Polycarp expresses his grief for Valens, a presbyter in Philippi, “and his wife,” on account of his covetousness. Irenaeus mentions a married deacon in Asia Minor who was ill-rewarded for his hospitality to a Gnostic heretic, who seduced his wife. Rather unfortunate examples. Clement of Alexandria, one of the most enlightened among the ante-Nicene fathers, describes the true ideal of a Christian Gnostic as one who marries and has children, and so attains to a higher excellence, because he conquers more temptations than that of the single state. Tertullian, though preferring celibacy, was a married priest, and exhorted his wife to refrain after his death from a second marriage in order to attain to that ascetic purity which was impossible during their married life. He also draws a beautiful picture of the holy beauty of a Christian family. An African priest, Novatus — another unfortunate example — was arraigned for murdering his unborn child. There are also examples of married bishops. Socrates reports that not even bishops were bound in his age by any law of celibacy, and that many bishops during their episcopate begat children. Athanasius says: “Many bishops have not contracted matrimony; while, on the other hand, monks have become fathers. Again, we see bishops who have children, and monks who take no thought of having posterity.” The father of Gregory of Nazianzum (d. 390) was a married bishop. and his mother, Nonna, a woman of exemplary piety, prayed earnestly for male issue, saw her future son in a prophetic vision, and dedicated him, before his birth, to the service of God, and he became the leading theologian of his age. Gregory of Nyssa (d. about 394) was likewise a married bishop, though he gave the preference to celibacy. Synesius, the philosophic disciple of Hypasia of Alexandria, when pressed to accept the bishopic, of Ptolemais (a.d. 410), declined at first, because he was unwilling to separate from his wife, and desired numerous offspring; but he finally accepted the office without a separation. This proves that his case was already exceptional. The sixth of the Apostolical Canons directs: “Let not a bishop, a priest, or a deacon cast off his own wife under pretence of piety; but if he does cast her off, let him be suspended. If he go on in it, let him be deprived.” The Apostolical Constitutions nowhere prescribe clerical celibacy, but assume the single marriage of bishop, priest, and deacon as perfectly legitimate.

The inscriptions on the catacombs bear likewise testimony to clerical marriages down to the fifth century.

At the same time the tendency towards clerical celibacy set in very early, and made steady and irresistible progress, especially in the West. This is manifest in the qualifications of the facts and directions just mentioned. For they leave the impression that there were not many happy clerical marriages and model pastors’ wives in the early centuries; nor could there be so long as the public opinion of the church, contrary to the Bible, elevated virginity above marriage.

1. The first step in the direction of clerical celibacy was the prohibition of second marriage to the clergy, on the ground that Paul’s direction concerning “the husband of one wife” is a restriction rather than a command. In the Western church, in the early part of the third century, there were many clergymen who had been married a second or even a third time, and this practice was defended on the ground that Paul allowed remarriage, after the death of one party, as lawful without any restriction or censure. This fact appears from the protest of the Montanistic Tertullian, who makes it a serious objection to the Catholics, that they allow bigamists to preside, to baptize, and to celebrate the communion. Hippolytus, who had equally rigoristic views on discipline, reproaches about the same time the Roman bishop Callistus with admitting to sacerdotal and episcopal office those who were married a second and even a third time, and permitting the clergy to marry after having been ordained. But the rigorous practice prevailed, and was legalized in the Eastern church. The Apostolical Constitutions expressly forbid bishops, priests, and deacons to marry a second time. They also forbid clergymen to marry a concubine, or a slave, or a widow, or a divorced woman, and extend the prohibition of second marriage even to cantors, readers, and porters. As to the deaconess, she must be “a pure virgin, or a widow who has been but once married, faithful and well esteemed.” The Apostolical Canons give similar regulations, and declare that the husband of a second wife, of a widow, a courtesan, an actress, or a slave was ineligible to the priesthood.

2. The second step was the prohibition of marriage and conjugal intercourse after ordination. This implies the incompatibility of the priesthood with the duties and privileges of marriage. Before the Council of Elvira in Spain (306) no distinction was made in the Latin church between marriages before and after ordination. But that rigoristic council forbade nuptial intercourse to priests of all ranks upon pain of excommunication. The Council of Arles (314) passed a similar canon. And so did the Council of Ancyra (314), which, however, allows deacons to marry as deacons, in case they stipulated for it before taking orders. This exception was subsequently removed by the 27th Apostolic Canon, which allows only the lectors and cantors (belonging to the minor orders) to contract marriage.

At the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325) an attempt was made, probably under the lead of Hosius, bishop of Cordova — the connecting link between Elvira and Nicaea — to elevate the Spanish rule to the dignity and authority of an ecumenical ordinance, that is, to make the prohibition of marriage after ordination and the strict abstinence of married priests from conjugal intercourse, the universal law of the Church; but the attempt was frustrated by the loud protest of Paphnutius, a venerable bishop and confessor of a city in the Upper Thebaid of Egypt, who had lost one eye in the Diocletian persecution, and who had himself never touched a woman. He warned the fathers of the council not to impose too heavy a burden on the clergy, and to remember that marriage and conjugal intercourse were venerable and pure. He feared more harm than good from excessive rigor. It was sufficient, if unmarried clergymen remain single according to the ancient tradition of the church; but it was wrong to separate the married priest from his legitimate wife, whom he married while yet a layman. This remonstrance of a strict ascetic induced the council to table the subject and to leave the continuance or discontinuance of the married relation to the free choice of every clergyman. It was a prophetic voice of warning.

The Council of Nicaea passed no law in favor of celibacy; but it strictly prohibited in its third canon the dangerous and scandalous practice of unmarried clergymen to live with an unmarried woman, unless she be “a mother or sister or aunt or a person above suspicion.” This prohibition must not be confounded with prohibition of nuptial intercourse any more than those spiritual concubines are to be identified with regular wives. It proves, however, that nominal clerical celibacy must have extensively prevailed at the time.

The Greek Church substantially retained the position of the fourth century, and gradually adopted the principle and practice of limiting the law of celibacy to bishops (who are usually taken from monasteries), and making a single marriage the rule for the lower clergy; the marriage to take place before ordination, and not to be repeated. Justinian excluded married men from the episcopate, and the Trullan Synod (a.d. 692) legalized the existing practice. In Russia (probably since 1274), the single marriage of the lower clergy was made obligatory. This is an error in the opposite direction. Marriage, as well as celibacy, should be left free to each man’s conscience.

3. The Latin Church took the third and last step, the absolute prohibition of clerical marriage, including even the lower orders. This belongs to the next period; but we will here briefly anticipate the result. Sacerdotal marriage was first prohibited by Pope Siricius (a.d. 385), then by Innocent I. (402), Leo I. (440), Gregory I. (590), and by provincial Synods of Carthage (390 and 401), Toledo (400), Orleans (538), Orange (441), Arles (443 or 452), Agde (506), Gerunda (517). The great teachers of the Nicene and post-Nicene age, Jerome, Augustin, and Chrysostom, by their extravagant laudations of the superior sanctity of virginity, gave this legislation the weight of their authority. St. Jerome, the author of the Latin standard version of the Bible, took the lead in this ascetic crusade against marriage, and held up to the clergy as the ideal aim of the saint, to “cut down the wood of marriage by the axe of virginity.” He was willing to praise marriage, but only as the nursery of virgins.

Thus celibacy was gradually enforced in the West under the combined influence of the sacerdotal and hierarchical interests to the advantage of the hierarchy, but to the injury of morality.

For while voluntary abstinence, or such as springs from a special gift of grace, is honorable and may be a great blessing to the church, the forced celibacy of the clergy, or celibacy as a universal condition of entering the priesthood, does violence to nature and Scripture, and, all sacramental ideas of marriage to the contrary notwithstanding, degrades this divine ordinance, which descends from the primeval state of innocence, and symbolizes the holiest of all relations, the union of Christ with his church. But what is in conflict with nature and nature’s God is also in conflict with the highest interests of morality. Much, therefore, as Catholicism has done to raise woman and the family life from heathen degradation, we still find, in general, that in Evangelical Protestant countries, woman occupies a far higher grade of intellectual and moral culture than in exclusively Roman Catholic countries. Clerical marriages are probably the most happy as a rule, and have given birth to a larger number of useful and distinguished men and women than those of any other class of society.