In Luke 20:27-40 we receive the fullest account of why the blessed neither marry nor are given in marriage.
And there came to him some of the Sadducees, who deny that there is any resurrection, and they asked him, Saying: Master, Moses wrote unto us, If any man’s brother die, having a wife, and he leave no children, that his brother should take her to wife, and raise up seed unto his brother. There were therefore seven brethren: and the first took a wife, and died without children. And the next took her to wife, and he also died childless. And the third took her. And in like manner all the seven, and they left no children, and died. Last of all the woman died also. In the resurrection therefore, whose wife of them shall she be? For all the seven had her to wife. And Jesus said to them: The children of this world marry, and are given in marriage: But they that shall be accounted worthy of that world, and of the resurrection from the dead, shall neither be married, nor take wives. Neither can they die any more: for they are equal to the angels, and are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection. Now that the dead rise again, Moses also shewed, at the bush, when he called the Lord, The God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; For he is not the God of the dead, but of the living: for all live to him. And some of the scribes answering, said to him: Master, thou hast said well. And after that they durst not ask him any more questions.
God is the living one. Those who would approach him, in this life or the next, must divest themselves of death. Since the Fall marriage has been inextricably tied up with death. Before the Fall all who were born would have been born into grace and eternal life and reproduction existed to make up the number of the elect. After the Fall reproduction is required, as with the beasts, just to keep the human race in existence. All are now born into sin as children of wrath and most die in sin as children of wrath. The elect are born now not from the womb but from the font. All the faithful who are, since that second birth (God willing) no longer children of the world, must strive to live poverty, chastity and obedience so far as it is given them. Whether in the monastery, the presbytery or in the sacrament of marriage they form part of a common struggle to keep unstained our baptismal robe when we appear before the Lord in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and at His return in glory. For the the Christian spouses a necessarily imperfect struggle is made possible by the sacrament of marriage to restore the sanctity of the union of our first parents before the Fall when marriage existed only to beget children of God. For the Monk, engaging in spiritual combat in a state of perfection, life is directed with an undivided heart to the reality which that great sign represents. The priest approaches the Living One in the holy terror of the Mass. With him we stand before that splendid outrage in our common priesthood as children of God and children of the resurrection striving for chastity according to our state.
Even the married faithful need to be willing to separate themselves from each other if fidelity to Christ requires it of them. “And there went great multitudes with him. And turning, he said to them: If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:25-26). This is not just a negative requirement. The greatest love, even spousal love, respects and recognises that the beloved exists for herself and ultimately for God. In the last sentence of A Grief Observed C. S. Lewis meditates on the moment of his wife’s death quoting the moment at which Dante and Beatrice part at the end of the Divine Comedy: “How wicked it would be, if we could, to call the dead back! She said not to me but to the chaplain, ‘I am at peace with God.’ She smiled, but not at me. Poi si torno all, eterna fontana.” ‘Then she turned herself back toward the eternal fountain’. This moment of separation occurs when every religious enters the cloister and for every priest when he steps outside the camp and into the sanctuary of the Living God.
Cardinal O’Brien has sadly wobbled on priestly celibacy. It is of course quite false to say that Divine Law permits priests to marry. Divine Law forbids priests to marry. The Church will not allow priests to marry unless they have first been forever forbidden to exercise their priestly functions. Outside of the Roman Patriarchate other Churches sui iuris allow men who are already married to receive sacred orders up to and including the presbyterate but not the episcopate. In fact, there are regulations, still arguably in force in at least some of these Churches, requiring married priests to abstain from the use of marriage for a certain period prior to the celebration of the Eucharist. The observance of these is naturally difficult for a married priest alone in a parish celebrating the Divine Liturgy every day.
A difficult question arises concerning the status of these provisions. Is the use of marriage by priests (for this is the real issue not marriage as such) permitted by Divine Law but forbidden by the Latin Church as an ascetical discipline; or is the use of marriage forbidden by Divine Law but in such a way that the Church may dispense? We know this second possibility, of dispensing from some precepts of Divine Law, exists in the case of marriage between a baptised and a non-baptised spouse.
What is clear is that both the East and the West hold it to be in some way better for a priest to abstain from the use of marriage. No married man has ever been consecrated to the episcopate. As mentioned, the married priests of e.g. the Byzantine ritual Church have traditionally been required to abstain from the use of marriage before the celebration of the Divine Liturgy.
What makes the question hard to resolve is the fact that respect and enthusiasm for St Paul’s teaching on perfect chastity in 1 Corinthians 7 was so general in the earliest age of the Church that the question of whether perfect continence was required for clergy or just taken for granted seems not to have even arisen. More energy was expended in the second century dealing with those who in their enthusiasm for chastity or because of Gnostic tendencies forbade the use of marriage to the baptised in general.
Nevertheless, there exists direct and implied scriptural grounds for the discipline of priestly celibacy. The most explicit statement is Titus 1:8 where St Paul says that a presbyter or bishop must be continent. It is interesting that just before this, as elsewhere, he insists that he must be the husband of only one wife. This comment has often been misinterpreted by casual readers to indicate precisely that that clerical continence was not required in the Apostolic Church. In fact, it leads to the opposite conclusion. Why would second marriage have been forbidden except because it indicated a person was unable or unwilling to practice the continence the priestly state requires?
There is an incident recorded by the church historian Socrates (who died in the mid-fifth century) that supposedly occurred at the First Council of Nicaea when a famously holy and continent bishop Paphnutius dissuaded the Council Fathers from imposing continence on the presbyterate. There is considerable dispute over the authenticity of this incident for which Socrates is the earliest authority. Those who uphold it obviously conclude that no such discipline existed earlier than 325. This is often seen a strong argument against the conclusion that priestly celibacy is Apostolic and of Divine Law. Once again this conclusion arises from a reading of the evidence through secular modern lenses. The truly interesting fact about the alleged incident is that the passing of a decree enforcing presbyteral continence was nearly passed on the nod until Paphnutius’s supposed intervention. What this tells us is that even if the story is accurate clerical continence was so widespread that its enforcement in ecclesiastical positive law would have been (but for one highly persuasive and unexpected intervention) uncontroversial. This strengthens the idea that the practice of clerical continence is of Apostolic origin.
Of course we must conclude that by the time Socrates wrote in Constantinople in the fifth century clerical continence cannot have been universal else his assertion of the story (regardless of its accuracy) would make no sense. In fact, for an orthodox Catholic the origin of the discipline of clerical continence in Divine Law is not a matter of doubt because of the clear teaching on this subject given by Pope Siricius in 385,
Let us come now to the most sacred orders of the clergy, which we find so abused and so disorderly throughout your provinces to the injury of venerable religion that we ought to say in the words of Jeremias: Who will water to my head, or a fountain of tears to my eyes? And I will weep for this people day and night (Jer. 9:1). . . . For we have learned that very many priests and Levites of Christ, after long periods of their consecration, have begotten offspring from their wives as well as by shameful intercourse, and that they defend their crime by this excuse, that in the Old Testament it is read that the faculty of procreating was given to the priests and the ministers.
Whoever that follower of sensual desires is let him tell me now: . . . Why does [the Lord] forewarn those to whom the holies of holies were to be entrusted saying: Be ye holy, because I your Lord God am holy [Lev. 20:7;1 Pet. 1:16]? Why also were the priests ordered to dwell in the temple at a distance from their homes in the year of their turn? Evidently for this reason that they might not be able to practice carnal intercourse with their wives, so that shining with purity of conscience they might offer an acceptable gift to God. . . .
Therefore also the Lord Jesus, when He had enlightened us by His coming, testifies in the Gospel, that he came to fulfill the Law, not to destroy it [Matt. 5:17]. And so He has wished the beauty of the Church, whose spouse He is, to radiate with the splendour of chastity, so that on the day of judgment, when He will have come again, He may be able to find her without spot or wrinkle [Eph. 5:27] as He instituted her through His Apostle. All priests and levites are bound by the indissoluble law of these sanctions, so that from the day of our ordination, we give up both our hearts and our bodies to continence and chastity, provided only that through all things we may please our God in these sacrifices which we daily offer.”But those who are in the flesh,” as the vessel of election says, “cannot please God” [Rom. 8:8].
But those, who contend with an excuse for the forbidden privilege, so as to assert that this has been granted to them by the Old Law, should know that by the authority of the Apostolic See they have been cast out of every ecclesiastical office, which they have used unworthily, nor can they ever touch the sacred mysteries, of which they themselves have deprived themselves so long as they give heed to impure desires. And because existing examples warn us to be on our guard for the future should any bishop, priest, or deacon be found such, which henceforth we do not want, let him now understand that every approach to indulgence is barred through us, because it is necessary that the wounds which are not susceptible to the healing of warm lotions be cut out with a knife. (Denzinger 89)
Two questions remain. First, why did clerical continence become controversial by the end of the fourth century (and de facto optional in e.g. Constantinople) when it was apparently so uncontroversial at the beginning? Secondly, what are we to say of the married clergy of the Eastern Catholic Churches and those ordained after reception from the ‘Church’ ‘of England’ if clerical continence is of Divine Law?
In the answer to the second question lies the answer to the first. All these clergy have in common that they either personally or as Churches have spent significant periods outside of the visible hierarchical structure of the Church. Of the Eastern Catholics only the Italo-Greeks have never been in schism. The Melkites were in a rather confused position for a long time due to Antiochene disapproval/ambiguity towards the Cerularian Schism. The Syro-Malabars were caught up with the Persian Nestorians for geographical rather than theological reasons. Nevertheless, it is clear that all these Churches were, for long periods at least, headed by bishops who resisted the Roman primacy. Marriage is a symbol of the union of Christ and His Church – the Sacramentum Magnum. This union is effected by Sanctifying Grace. As Pope Boniface VIII solemnly taught in Unam Sanctam (1302) outside of the Church, defined by submission to the Roman Pontiff, “there is neither salvation nor the forgiveness of sins”. The reason chastity is superior to marriage is that it orders us more perfectly to the reality, the nuptial union of Christ and the Church, of which marriage is the symbol. Outside the Roman obedience the symbol and the reality both perish. Sanctifying grace cannot be had outside the Church and the indissolubility of marriage and obligatory clerical continence swiftly pass away. It is noticeable that those Eastern Catholics with little or very little history of real schism have the strongest tradition of clerical celibacy. By the end of the fourth century the entire Church had been rocked by the Arian Crisis for nearly seventy years. Many individuals and particular churches had been separated from the See of Rome and the true faith for long periods. The Monks, most famously St Antony, were a notable bulwark of Catholic orthodoxy. St Paul forbade the ordination of those who had been married twice because such could not be expected to maintain the continence of the clerical state. What is a restored schismatic individual or church but one who on the deepest level has been compelled to marry twice: once when he or she was baptised and once agin when restored to communion with Christ’s Vicar on Earth?
The fact that clerical continence, though of Divine Law, is dispensable bears witness to the goodness of marriage. The discipline of liturgical marital abstinence in the Eastern Churches (which requires some renewed emphasis) bears witness to the superiority of continence. The married clergy of the East also remind us of the fact that continence is not uniquely clerical. It is the monk who is the paradigm of the chaste life not the cleric. All the faithful are called to practice poverty, chastity and obedience in spirit and in fact so far as is given to them by grace and providence. For the clergy the fittingness is so intense, because of their proximity to the Holy Sacrifice, that it constitutes a norm that must be dispensed only when pressing pastoral need requires it. In this era when the true nature of marriage is under assault on every side and chastity despised, urgent pastoral need demands that the largest Patriarchate in the Church the Church of Rome blessed with the Supreme Pastor as its proximate head preserve inviolate the Apostolic tradition of clerical continence and boldly profess the sanctity of virginity, continence and marriage to this corrupted dying age.