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The controversy over celibacy for deacons
Ivan Gobry

Translated from an article appearing in Controverses, April 1997 and printed in English in the August 1998 issue of The Angelus.

In the fall of 1995, the French bishops met at Lourdes in order to confer together over the pastoral problem created by married deacons. What is strange about this, though, is that they forgot to examine the doctrinal problem, which is the essential one, that is to say, the question of the very lawfulness of this ordination. Indeed, it is not a question of a problem, but of a fact: the ordination to the diaconate (as also to the priesthood or episcopacy) of a married man who has not separated from his wife has always been held to be, since the very beginning of the Church, completely unlawful.

What history shows

This tradition was solemnly proclaimed by the Council of Nicea, the first ecumenical council, in 325 AD. Canon no. 3, unanimously approved by the Fathers, made no concession whatsoever. The prohibition imposed thereby on all bishops, priests and deacons against having a wife is considered absolute; and all subsequent councils that have addressed the subject have renewed this interdiction.

In reply to this fact, our objectors affirm that, be that as it may, it was only in force up until Vatican II. They subscribe to the principle that what the Church decreed yesterday, she can abrogate today. But they are wrong. In any case, it would be strange temerity to blot out with the stroke of a pen a custom decreed for 2,000 years to be absolutely obligatory. But there is more to the argument: Ecclesiastical celibacy is not an ecclesiastical institution; it is divine.

Celibacy: of divine institution

If the Church has the right and power to abolish her own decrees, she cannot abolish those which have been indicated to her by Christ and His Apostles. This is what was affirmed by the Council of Carthage in 390 AD when, explaining the inviolability and the universality of the discipline decreed by the Nicean Council, the Fathers stated that celibacy is of Apostolic tradition. For instance, St. Epiphanius, Father of the Church, wrote, "It is the Apostles themselves who decreed this law." St. Jerome also testified:

Priests and deacons must be either virgins or widowers before being ordained, or at least observe perpetual continence after their ordination... If married men find this difficult to endure, they should not turn against me, but rather against Holy Writ and the entire ecclesiastical order.

Pope St. Innocent I (401-417 AD) wrote in the same vein:

This is not a matter of imposing upon the clergy new and arbitrary obligations, but rather of reminding them of those which the tradition of the Apostles and the Fathers has transmitted to us.

It cannot be more clearly stated. And there is a reason for the tradition. If in fact the foundation of clerical celibacy is doctrinal and not disciplinary, it is because the cleric in major orders, by virtue of his ordination, contracts a marriage with the Church, and he cannot be a bigamist. As our fathers in the Faith still explain it, these clerics are virgins in order to be true disciples and ministers of Christ, a virgin consecrated to His Spouse. St. Jerome, in his treatise, Adversus Jovinianum, bases clerical celibacy on the virginity of Christ.

The Eastern tradition

At this point we can anticipate the objection of certain Catholics who would be quick to cite the example of the Eastern Church, where there are married priests and deacons, not only in the schismatic Orthodox Church, but also in the Eastern Rites of the [Catholic] Church. But the fact is, the Council of Nicea established a universal law that applied, and still applies, to the Eastern Church as well as to that of the West; moreover, in that Council, it was the Greeks who made up the overwhelming majority. Even earlier, the Council of Neo-Caesarea (314 AD) had reminded all clerics of major orders in the East of the inviolability of this law under pain of deposition. In 405 AD, St. Jerome wrote against Vigilantius:

What do the churches of Egypt and the Orient do? They choose clerics who are virgins or continent; and if they have a wife, they cease to be husbands.

St. Jerome states a well-known fact: a married man was not ordained unless the two spouses had mutually consented to a life of perpetual continence.

The Eastern Church began at a late date inexorably to violate the sacrosanct law that their fathers had inculcated. This began with the Quinisext Council of 692.[1] This marked one of the ways by which she became schismatic, because the popes refused to endorse the conclusions of the Council in the matter of celibacy. As for the popes who would grant a dispensation to the Orientals remaining Catholic, this was, ad duritiam cordis, because of the hardness of their hearts - in order to keep these clerics from becoming wholly schismatic.

On this subject St. Peter Damian (1007-1072) wrote:

No one can be ignorant of the fact that all the Fathers of the Catholic Church unanimously imposed the inviolable rule of continence on clerics in major orders. The Body of the Lord in the sacrament of the altar is the same as the one carried by the immaculate hands of the Virgin at Bethlehem. To be able to touch It, it is necessary to have pure hands, sanctified by perfect continence.

Nowadays in the Catholic Church we see deacons who step from the conjugal bed to the sanctuary.


These deacons, of course, are in good faith.[2] They do not know that by an imprescriptible law, they have incurred the penalty of major excommunication, from which they cannot be delivered until they either abandon their wives, or agree to be reduced to the lay state. Moreover, they live in the lay state, in a state of ambiguity which allows clerics to cast off the outward sign of their consecration the very day they have solemnly put it on. The new priests have taught the new deacons that it is normal to lay away in the closet, as a symbol too embarrassing to be worn, the sacred garment that separates its wearer from the world. Yet the Councils of Agde (France), in 506 AD, and of Constantinople (Quinisext), in 692 AD, voted a decree of excommunication (which seems never to have been abrogated), against clerics in major orders who fail to wear clerical garb. This rule has been so universally recognized that even Pope Paul VI felt it necessary to remind them of this obligation.

The Catholic bishops, moreover, are practicing a deliberate deception in the rite of ordination they use for married clerics, for they follow the solemn ceremony reserved to clerics who bind themselves to celibacy.

A striking photograph of the ordination of a married deacon, part of an advertisement, appeared in the French daily newspaper, Figaro (October 25, 1995).

 In it we see the husband extended on the floor in a position of oblation, clothed in an immaculately white alb, his wife kneeling beside him, as if the whole affair were being done according to a venerable traditional rite, a common offering of their bodies to Christ.

Yet in the rite of ordination to major orders, the attitude of prostration has always had only one meaning: that of the immolation of the body, henceforth liberated from the servitude of the flesh, and definitively subject to the law of continence. In the traditional rite of ordination, this meaning is expressed verbally by the admonition of the bishop to the sub-deacon:

If you receive this order, you can no longer break your engagement, and you will be vowed forever to the service of God: you will have to remain celibate, with His help...

In the new rite of ordination, the subdiaconate, which had been the first echelon in the ranks of major orders, and which entailed a life of perpetual continence, was suppressed. And it would seem that this suppression has given rise to a vicious train of thought, that because there is no longer a subdiaconate, there is no need for the celibacy of deacons. Hence we are forced to perceive a sacrilege and a profanation in the prostration of the deacon, sign of the engagement of a life of perpetual continence, next to his wife, who awaits the hour when she will rejoin him in bed.

He is not consecrating his body to Christ the Savior; he saves it for her. As soon as he leaves the temple where he makes a small offering to God, he will lay away the white alb, and hold her in his arms again.


1 The Quinisext Council (692 AD) was held under the Byzantine Emperor Justinian II. It was convoked to draw up disciplinary canons based upon the doctrinal canons of the Fifth and Sixth General Councils, which had not done so. It was attended by 215 bishops, all Orientals. They breached the Apostolic tradition concerning the celibacy of clerics by declaring "all clerics except bishops may continue in wedlock, while they excommunicate anyone who tries to separate a priest or deacon from his wife. The Orthodox Greek Church holds this council an ecumenical one... In the West, St. Bede calls it... a reprobate synod" (cf. The Catholic Encyclopedia, "Constantinople," vol. 4, pp.311-312) [Translatorís Note].

2 At least, most of them are. But some are already pushing ahead: The French publication, Panorama du Medecin published a photograph of a doctor, father of six, who is a deacon, showing him standing at the altar with his arms extended before chalice and paten, assisted by his pastor in the background (see Controverses, March 1996). © 2013                    home                    contact