Unmarried bishops: Doctrine or discipline?

I suppose this will show my ignorance. I thought the discipline of clerical celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church was just that – a discipline and not a doctrine, albeit a discipline with deep roots in the earliest centuries of the Church. It is clear that married men may be ordained priests – think of the recent exceptions permitting this for clergymen coming into the RC communion from the Lutheran or Anglican traditions.

But look at this. The Vatican Information Service issued a statement on January 15 saying that married men may not be ordained as bishops “for doctrinal reasons.” Can anyone out there clarify this for me? What does history have to teach us? Is it clear that the issue is doctrinal and not merely disciplinary?

Here is the significant excerpt from the Vatican’s statement, emphasis mine:

For doctrinal reasons the Church does not, in any circumstances, allow the ordination of married men as bishops. However, the Apostolic Constitution does provide, under certain conditions, for the ordination as Catholic priests of former Anglican married clergy.



  1. I don’t think it’s doctrinal.

    Some or all of the apostles were married, certainly Peter, according to early writings.

    If the VIS is correct and it is doctrinal, maybe we’re looking at a change of doctrine since apostolic times. Wouldn’t that be interesting for the institutional Church to admit?

  2. It looks like just another Vatican press mistatement. Had this statement come in an official document, I think it would be cause for concern. Given that this is from the Vatican’s press arm, we can probably just assume an imprecision in language.

  3. +JMJ+

    I would say it is an error on the part of the VIS. It may be a very very long-standing tradition that bishops are unmarried, but 1 Timothy 3:2 speaks of a bishop as (potentially, at least) having a wife. John O’Malley, in a 2002 article in America, listed these married bishops in the early centuries of the Church:

    Beginning with the third century there is indisputable evidence that even in the West many priests and bishops in good standing were married. The following list of bishops is but a small sample that I have randomly selected: Passivus, bishop of Fermo; Cassius, bishop of Narni; Aetherius, bishop of Vienne; Aquilinus, bishop of évreux; Faron, bishop of Meaux; Magnus, bishop of Avignon. Filibaud, bishop of Aire-sur-l’Adour, was the father of St. Philibert de Jumiäges, and Sigilaicus, bishop of Tours, was the father of St. Cyran of Brenne. The father of Pope Damasus I (366-84) was a bishop. Pope Felix III (483-92), whose father was almost certainly a priest, was the great-great grandfather of Pope Gregory I the Great (590-604). Pope Hormisdas (514-23) was the father of Pope Silverius (536-37).

  4. I wouldn’t assume that so quickly Jonathan…

    If it were merely misspoken, then it would actually be that Bishops couldn’t be married in any circumstances for disciplinary reasons.

    But that can’t be right, because those disciplinary reasons would be the same as apply to Priests, and we know that they don’t apply in all circumstances. If it were a case of it being merely disciplinary, then there would be no reason why an exception couldn’t be applied for the same reason. But clearly, the statement is that the situation of Bishops is distinct from that of priests and the same exception can’t apply.

    There is something more here, unless the statement is simply wrong and the Church has no objection to married Bishops. That doesn’t seem right either.

    1. The Note of the CDF about Personal Ordinariates (from Oct. 20, 2009) states:

      “[Anglicanorum Coetibus] provides for the ordination as Catholic priests of married former Anglican clergy. Historical and ecumenical reasons preclude the ordination of married men as bishops in both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.”

      The way I read that statement, it seems to be out of concern for ecumenical relations with the Orthodox that the Catholic Church is unwilling to make an exception in the Church’s discpline of ordaining married men as bishops (not to mention the West’s own longstanding discipline).

      Especially given this earlier statement, I would assume that the phrase “doctrinal reasons” in this more recent report is an example of imprecision of language.

  5. I believe the vatican statement reflects the recent lecture by the new head of the congregation of clergy…

    Cardinal Piacenza the recently appointed head of the Congregation for the Clergy recently addressed a congress on priestly celibacy, Zenit carries his speech, which deals with the Magisterial statements of recent Popes, in its entirety here.

    He speaks of the pronouncements of the Council of Elvira and the Second Council of Carthage regarding celibacy as “dogmatic pronouncements”.

    He also specifically denounces the idea that celibacy is merely “ecclesiastical law”, explaining that celibacy is “an intrinsic demand of the priesthood and of the configuration to Christ that the sacrament determines.”
    thanks to Rorate

    hat tip to fr ray blake’s blog.

  6. Piacenza’s address was commented on by a few of us on an earlier post – Unrest in the German Catholic Church….the last 10 or so postings.

    IMO, Piacenza’s address is for a specific audience and his statements are neither objective nor based even on current church understanding. His themes are too one sided; they use outdated analogies and images (cultic purity; freely chosen; sacrifice/virginity) some of which have little to no basis in scripture e.g. his constant use of the term “holy celibacy”. His address starts with recent papal addresses and ignores 18 centuries of church history.

    To quote from Donald Cozzen’s book “Freeing Celibacy” – he states: “…conflating charism and law is theologically problematic and logically contorted. It eventually appears to most as an argument that comes down to _____ it is so because the church says it is so.”

    The church had married bishops through the 12 century and some nations of Europe (e.g. England) resisted the Lateran imposition of mandatory celibacy. For 11 centuries the latin church had a both/and appreciation for priesthood, marriage, and the charism of celibacy. There is also an older strain of spirituality from Origen (who castrated himself) and Augustine that planted a tradition of misogny, viewing the female as sinful; an over-emphasis on ritual purity or cultic purity. This strain (pushed by Peter Damian, who was adopted and raised by a wife of a married priest) plus growing issues with property, inheritance, and church finances led to the Lateran pronouncement. Part of our history is the fact that centuries of celibacy did not lead to total celibacy – it had to be mandated/enforced as a law/discipline which even then took hundreds of years to implement. One could argue that “mandated celibacy” has been in search of a spiritual justification since the Lateran. (you will not find it in NT scripture; and biblical experts would suggest that life of Jesus was at heart much more than…

  7. It is worth noting that the saintly Father of Basil of Caesarea was a married man and a Bishop. Gregory of Nyssa, Basil’s saintly Brother, was also a married man and a Bishop. Of course, Saint Basil himself is seen as the Father of Monasticism in the Eastern Church — his rules make wonderful and ‘properly spiritual’ reading. Also the last Catholic Bishop and national hero of Iceland (at the time of the Lutheran Reformation) Jon Aaronson was a married man who died leading an army which contained his sons and grandsons into battle against the invading Danish Lutherans–this in the 16th century after the Council of Trent. The Greek Orthodox and the Slavonic and other origin Orthodox in North America, at least, have been seriously discussing the question of married Bishops — because partially of the paucity of suitable monastic/celebate clergy. This, despite the comments of the Cardinal, is not a dogmatic question, but like that of deacons and priests, a disciplinary question for the Church, both East and West.

  8. Something to do with the idea that the bishop is “married” to the local church over which he has charge, maybe?

  9. Perhaps this isn’t the place for such questions, but I can’t understand why some Anglicans, having satisfactorily surmounted the hurdle of women priests, should object to women bishops.

    1. Nicholas wrote;
      Perhaps this isn’t the place for such questions, but I can’t understand why some Anglicans, having satisfactorily surmounted the hurdle of women priests, should object to women bishops.

      Difficult to answer your point in a few lines, but, briefly [in the Church of England: i.e. the provinces of Canterbury and York]:
      1]The Anglicans who now object to women bishops are those who have continued to object to women priests.
      2] When it became permissible in 1992 to ordain women as priests it was declared that those who supported the innovation and those who maintained the traditional practice were both to be accounted faithful Anglicans – the “two integrities”
      3] Provision was made in law for the latter group – “flying-bishops” – to minister to Anglicans,Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical, who could not accept the innovation.
      4] If the current legislation goes through, such provisions wil be scrapped. The only allowance made wil be for a congregation to request a male priests or bishop to administer the Sacramentrs, who may himself have been ordained or consecrated by a woman bishop. A priest holding traditional views would be subject to the jurisdiction of a female diocesan bishop were one appointed.
      There is, Nicholas, a small group of Evangelicals who fall into your definition: they can accept women-priests as assistant ministers, but because of the Pauline headship arguments, would not accept them as incumbents or even more so as bishops.
      Hope this helps,
      Kind regards

  10. There may be a serious problem among the Roman Curia as indicated by this article and the statement by Cardinal Burke, then Archbishop of St. Louis, the present chief justice for all Canon Law. Burke stated to a newspaper reporter that there is no difference between doctrine and discipline.

    That shocked me. I thought the distinction was routinely taught in Theology 101.

    This fits the pattern of of abusing authority by forbidding the discussion of female ordination. It fits the common misunderstanding of papal infallibility being limited to ex cathedra statements on doctrine and morality.

    Will the pope, once an excellent theologian, have the honesty and courage to correct these courtiers?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *