Celibacy in the Early Church, by Stefan Heid

Celibacy in the Early Church, by Stefan Heid

Fr Peter Murphy

The Beginnings of a Discipline of Obligatory Continence for Clerics in East and West

by Stefan Heid

(Ignatius Press, 2000, 373pp, $39.95. Available from AD Books)

With much exactness and rigorous research, Stefan Heid in his brilliant work, Celibacy in the Early Church, has tenaciously cleared the ground once and for all on the problematic debate concerning clerical celibacy.

At the very outset, after noting other works on the topic and spurious legends, he reminds the reader that the word celibate is derived from the Latin caelebs meaning unmarried and that clerics in the early Church, both in the east and west, were married and unmarried.

Notwithstanding their state of life, however, what all clerics did hold in common was the call to perfect chastity, total sexual continence for the sake of the kingdom of God. In short, married men before being admitted to holy orders were required to forego their marital rights, obviously with their wife's permission, for the sake of total consecration to the sacred ministry. Being a cleric in major orders thus demanded perfect imitation of Christ which required perfect chastity in their ministry.

In order to validate such a claim, Heid starts from scratch and wades through pertinent texts in the New Testament, adding, as he goes, much lateral thinking and Greek scholarship regarding the Pauline corpus. His fascinating insights into the pastoral letters of Titus and Timothy and the said requirements for the clerical state, not to mention some comments on widows and virginity, of the nascent Church, are well founded and most thoroughly researched.

Church Fathers

Once the scriptural foundation to continence is laid, the author then investigates the works of the Apostolic writers and Church Fathers in the subsequent centuries to ascertain if this state of continence was normative. For much of the book, he gradually winds his way through pertinent texts, both Eastern and Western, from the second to the sixth century. When there was some divergence from this norm of chastity, magisterial letters did proclaim that perfect continence was common to all Church traditions from the beginning.

The text concludes this historical analysis of chaste clerics with an adequate and most relevant reply to the question of the Church's imposition of celibacy as a legal (canonical) requirement for those who are called to the priesthood. Often when this question is raised it is pitched in such a manner so as to imply that a supposed dichotomy exists between God's grace in the calling and Church's law in the arriving; thus, resulting in the present shortage of clergy.

But as early Church history clearly illustrates, argues Heid, continence was never regarded in the beginning as an externally imposed law of the Church, but rather an interior charism essentially united to those who are called to be clerics, be they single or married, to consecrate themselves by perfect chastity for the sake of religious reverence to the sacred mysteries.

Celibacy in the Early Church is thoroughly recommended as a valuable resource for every priest's library. Compliments are due also to the translator, Michael J. Miller.

Fr Peter Murphy is a senior lecturer at Vianney College Diocesan Seminary of the Wagga Wagga Diocese.

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