The unmarried state, particularly of clergy who are so bound by a solemn vow. Although matrimony is one of the seven holy sacraments and is likened to the union between Christ and the church (Eph. 5:31, 32), ascetic celibacy is regarded as a superior state, as it relieves men from earthly attachments and prepares the soul for the coming of Christ (1 Cor. 7:26-37).
The concept of voluntary abstention from marriage is not germane to Judaic thought. Nevertheless, the highest honor is accorded to those, like Jeremiah and Daniel, who led celibate lives. Of John the Baptist, Jesus stated, “Among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Mt. 11:11).
It is in the New Testament that celibacy has its real roots, as is indicated by Christ’s teachings in Matthew 19:9-12; 22:24-29; Mark 10:28-30; and Luke 20:27-36. The Apostle Paul explicitly declares his preference for celibacy over marriage, practicing it in his own life and wishing that all men could follow his example (1 Cor. 5:7- 38).
In the book of Revelation, Saint John speaks of the hundred and forty-four thousand who kept themselves chaste, and had the Father’s name written on their foreheads (Rev. 14:1-4).
The early fathers extolled the merits and virtues of a celibate life consecrated to the worship of God. Representative examples include Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (d. 258), to whom virginity was an angelic attribute.
Applying the parable of the talents to human life, Saint ATHANASIUS the Apostolic states, “For there are two ways in life . . . the one the more moderate and ordinary, I mean marriage; the other angelic and unsurpassed, namely virginity.”
CYRIL OF JERUSALEM sees a superhuman quality in chastity: “Let us not be ignorant of the glory of chastity: for its crown is angelic, and its excellence above man. . . . Angels walking upon earth are they who practice chastity: the virgins have their portion with Mary the Virgin.”
GREGORY OF NYSSA (c. 330-c. 395) admires, above all, the purity of celibacy and its freedom from corruption: “The holy look of virginity is precious indeed in the judgment of all who make purity the test of beauty; but it belongs to those alone whose struggles to gain this object of a noble love are favored and helped by the grace of God.”
Similar teachings are found in the writings of CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA, BASIL THE GREAT, Ambrose, bishop of Milan, JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, and Saint Jerome.
The early church also publicly honored celibates by giving them precedence and priority in seating and communing.
The Coptic and other Orthodox churches require their bishops to be celibates. As to the lower ranks of the hierarchy, married candidates are eligible for ordination, but marriage is not permitted once a person has been ordained.
Celibacy is a prerequisite of the monastic life. Saint BASIL THE GREAT suggests that explicit vows be required of the postulant for admission:
“We are not cognizant of any vows of men, unless it be that some men have enrolled themselves in the battalion of those who have adopted the monastic life, if they seem to accept celibacy by silent agreement. Nevertheless, I deem it fitting that in their case too that should receive primary attention. They must be asked, and from them must be taken a perspicuous vow, so that if any of them should by any chance return to a flesh-loving and sensual life afterwards they shall be incurring the penalty attached to those who commit fornication” (Second Canonical Epistle of Basil).
- Cummings, D. The Rudder (Pedalion). Chicago, 1957.
- Lea, H. C. History of Sacerdotal Celibacy in the Christian Church, 2 vols. London, 1907.
- Vacandard, E. Etude de critique et d’histoire religieuse, pp. 69-120. Paris, 1905.