Clerical marriage

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Eastern Catholic priest from Romania with his family.

Clerical marriage is the practice of allowing clergy to marry, a practice not to be confused with that of allowing married persons to become clergy. Clerical marriage is admitted in Protestantism, Anglicanism, Independent Catholic Churches, Judaism, Islam, and the Japanese sects of Buddhism. The Roman Catholic Church, while allowing married men to be ordained (only exceptionally in its Western form but more commonly in the Eastern Catholic Churches), also excludes clerical marriage. Marriage after ordination is also excluded for priests of the Eastern Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox churches, whose parish clergy are generally married before becoming priests, although unmarried priests are sometimes assigned to parishes.[1]

Present-day practice[edit]

Eastern parish clergy are usually married, but as stated below, their marriage must have occurred before ordination as a subdeacon.[2] Since it takes place when they are still laymen, not yet clergy, the marriage is not a clerical marriage. Clerical marriage is thus not admitted in the Orthodox Church: even if the wife of a married deacon or priest dies, he may not remarry but must remain celibate. Generally, if a deacon or priest divorces his wife, he may not continue in the ministry. Bishops are elected from among those clergy who have chosen, usually by taking monastic vows, to remain celibate, or from widowed clergy. Among the Orthodox, bishops must always be monks, not simply celibate. If a widowed priest is elected bishop, he must take monastic vows before he can be consecrated. Eastern Catholic Churches, in full communion with the Pope, follow much the same tradition as the Orthodox from whom they came.

Following the example of Martin Luther, who, though an ordained priest, married in 1525, Protestant denominations permit an unmarried ordained pastor to marry. They thus admit clerical marriage, not merely the appointment of already married persons as pastors. But in view of 1 Timothy 3:2 and 3:12, some do not admit a second marriage by a widowed pastor.

In these denominations there is generally no requirement that a pastor be already married nor prohibition against marrying after "answering the call". Being married is commonly welcomed, in which case the pastor's marriage is expected to serve as a model of a functioning Christian marriage, and the pastor's spouse often serves an unofficial leadership role in the congregation. For this reason, some Protestant churches will not accept a divorced person for this position. In denominations that ordain both men and women, a married couple might serve as co-pastors.

Certain groups[who?] require a prospective pastor to be married before he can be ordained, based on the view (drawn from 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1) that a man must demonstrate the ability to run a household before he can be entrusted with the church. Even in these strictest groups, a widower may still serve. This again concerns marriage before appointment as pastor, not clerical marriage.

In general, the Eastern Catholic Churches allow ordination of married men as priests. Within the lands of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the largest Eastern Rite Catholic Church, priests' children often became priests and married within their social group, establishing a tightly-knit hereditary caste.[3]

Married clergy in Christian churches that exclude clerical marriage[edit]

The Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and Oriental Orthodoxy permit married men to become clergymen (with certain limitations), but do not permit clergy to marry after ordination.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodoxy and Eastern Catholic Churches have from ancient times both married and celibate clergy (see Monasticism). Those who opt for married life must marry before becoming deacons and priests.

The Latin Church of the Roman Catholic Church follows the discipline of clerical celibacy: as a rule, only celibate men are allowed to be ordained, though from time to time married men who have been clergymen of other denominations are ordained after being received into the Roman Catholic Church. For example, occasionally some married Anglican priests who leave the Church of England are admitted to the Roman Catholic priesthood.[4]

Sometimes priests are granted dispensation from the obligation of celibacy but only if they are laicized.[5] Their subsequent marriage is thus seen as the marriage of a layman, not clerical marriage.


Marriage reform: cleric Martin Luther married Katharina von Bora in 1525
One of the final drafts of the Six articles (1539), reaffirming clerical celibacy in England

There is no dispute that at least some of the apostles were married or had been married: a mother-in-law of Peter is mentioned in the account in Matthew 8:14, Mark 1:29-34, Luke 4:38-41 of the beginning of Jesus' ministry. 1 Timothy 3:2 says: "an overseer (Greek ἐπίσκοπος) must be ... the husband of one wife". This has been interpreted in various ways, including that the overseer was not allowed to remarry even if his wife died.[6]

Some scholars hold that a tradition of clerical continence existed in early Christianity, whereby married men who became priests were expected to abstain from sexual relations with their wives.[7][8] In this view, the early Church did not consider legitimate marriage by those who were already priests. The Council of Elvira, a local synod held in Hispania Baetica (part of modern Andalusia) in 306, before Constantine had legitimized Christianity, made it an explicit law that bishops and other clergy should not have sexual relations with their wives. The church canons known as the Ecclesiastical Canons of the Holy Apostles, which appear to have been composed in Syria or Egypt slightly earlier have also been interpreted as imposing a similar obligation.[9]

Evidence for the view that continence was expected of clergy in the early Church is given by the Protestant historian Philip Schaff, who points out that all marriages contracted by clerics in Holy Orders were declared null and void in 530 by Emperor Justinian I, who also declared the children of such marriages illegitimate.[10]

Schaff also quotes the account that "In the Fifth and Sixth Centuries the law of the celibate was observed by all the Churches of the West, thanks to the Councils and to the Popes. In the Seventh and down to the end of the Tenth Century, as a matter of fact the law of celibacy was little observed in a great part of the Western Church, but as a matter of law the Roman Pontiffs and the Councils were constant in their proclamation of its obligation." This report is confirmed by others too. "Despite six hundred years of decrees, canons, and increasingly harsh penalties, the Latin clergy still did, more or less illegally, what their Greek counterparts were encouraged to do by law—they lived with their wives and raised families. In practice, ordination was not an impediment to marriage; therefore some priests did marry even after ordination."[11] "The tenth century is claimed to be the high point of clerical marriage in the Latin communion. Most rural priests were married and many urban clergy and bishops had wives and children."[12] Then at the Second Lateran Council of 1139 the Western Church declared that Holy Orders were not merely a prohibitive but a diriment canonical impediment to marriage, making a marriage by priests invalid and not merely forbidden.[13][14]

The practice of clerical marriage was initiated in the West by the followers of Martin Luther, who himself, a former priest and monk, married Katharina von Bora, a former nun, in 1525. It has not been introduced in the East. In the Church of England, however, the Catholic tradition of clerical celibacy continued after the Break with Rome. Under King Henry VIII, the 6 Articles prohibited the marriage of clergy and this continued until the Articles were repealed by Edward VI in 1547, thus opening the way for Anglican priests to marry for the first time.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Orthodox Priests
  2. ^ Apostolic Canon 26, Canons 3 and 6 of the 6th Ecumenical Council
  3. ^ Orest Subtelny. (1988). Ukraine: A History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp.214-219.
  4. ^ Father William P. Saunders, Straight Answers.
  5. ^ Encyclical Sacerdotalis caelibatus; Procurator General.
  6. ^ While rejecting this interpretation, Baptist scholar Benjamin L. Merkle considers it a possible interpretation, one that has several strengths and fits in with the value that the early church attached to celibacy after the divorce or death of a spouse (Benjamin L. Merkle, 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons (Kregel 2008 ISBN 978-0-8254-3364-1), 126).
  7. ^ Roman Cholij, Priestly Celibacy in Patristics and in the History of the Church.
  8. ^ Cesare Bonivento, Priestly Celibacy — Ecclesiastical Institution or Apostolic Tradition?; Thomas McGovern,Priestly Celibacy Today; Alfons Stickler, The Case for Clerical Celibacy: Its Historical Development and Theological Foundations; Anthony Zimmerman, Celibacy Dates Back to the Apostles
  9. ^ Stefan Heid, Celibacy in the Early Church (Ignatius Press 2004 ISBN 978-0-89870-800-4), p. 105
  10. ^ Excursus on the Marriage of the Clergy
  11. ^ Barstow, Anne Llewellyn. Married Priests and the Reforming Papacy. NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1982, p. 45
  12. ^ Lea, Henry C. History of Sacerdotal Celibacy in the Christian Church. Philadelphia: University Books. 1966, pp. 118, 126.
  13. ^ New Catholic Encyclopedia, Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. 1967, p366
  14. ^ Herbert Thurston, "Celibacy of the Clergy" in Catholic Encyclopedia 1908
  15. ^ Ridley, Jasper (1962). "Thomas Cranmer". Oxford: Clarendon Press. OCLC 398369. .

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