Election, Education, and Celibacy of the Clergy


IN the mode of filling ecclesiastical positions, there was exhibited a mixture of the popular and of the hierarchical principle. The tendency, no doubt, was to withdraw the suffrage wholly from the people; but it was only by slow advances that this result was reached. While the presbyters and deacons were appointed by the bishops, the custom remained quite generally in vogue to ask the people if the candidate was acceptable. In the election of a bishop, the bishops of the province were the principal factors; but the will of the people was more or less consulted, and sometimes, especially in the West, asserted itself with determining force. In the elevation, for example, of Ambrose to the bishopric of Milan, the popular choice and enthusiasm bore down every thing else. This rather mixed suffrage, in places where the people were given to violent partisanship, and the clergy were imbued with a worldly and political temper, could easily give rise to unseemly disorders. All abuse, in an age of hierarchical tendencies, was naturally turned to the prejudice of the popular principle. It was after the close of the present period, however, before the people were legislated out of all participation in the choice of bishops. To be sure, we find the council of Laodicea, in the latter part of the fourth century, prescribing in general terms that the prerogative of electing to the priesthood should no longer be conceded to the people. [Canon 13. See Helele, § 93. The canon is understood by eminent expositors to refer to the episcopal office as well as to that of priests.] But, as a matter of fact, such a prerogative was not yet fully cancelled, even in the East to which the canon in question more especially applied. As for the West, we meet at the middle of the next century, from so eminent an authority as Leo the Great, the broad statement that "he who is to preside over all should be elected by all."

Epist. x. 6. "Teneatur subscriptio clericorum, honoratorum testimonium, ordinis consensus at plebis. Qui præfuturus est omnibus, ab omnibus eligatur." Compare Epist.xiii. It is interesting to note that this most aggressive champion of the monarchy of the Roman see strongly asserted in another form a democratic principle. Expressing the theory of the common priesthood of believers, he says: "Omnes in Christo regeneratos crucis signum efficit reges, sancti vero Spiritus unctio consecrat sacerdotes " (Serm., iv. 1).

Different plans of episcopal election were finally adopted by the East and the West respectively. The former based its practice upon the fourth canon of the first council of Nicæa, which reads as follows: "The bishop shall be appointed by all [the bishops] in the eparchy [or province]; if this is not possible on account of pressing necessity, or on account of the length of journeys, three at the least shall meet and proceed to the imposition of hands, with the permission of those absent, in writing. The confirmation of what has been done belongs by right, in each eparchy, to the metropolitan." The seventh and eighth ecumenical councils (787 and 869) interpeted this canon as meaning that a bishop should be elected only by bishops, and the practice of the Eastern Church was conformed to this interpretation. The Latin Church, on the other hand, regarded the canon as applying only to ordination and confirmation; and while, it too, excluded the people from episcopal elections (about the eleventh century), it excluded likewise the bishops of the province, and confined the suffrage to the clergy of the cathedral Church. [Hefele, § 42.] As respects confirmation, also, Latin custom ultimately became distinguished from Greek, in that the Pope took the place of the metropolitan in the West, and was credited with the sole determining power to confirm the choice of a bishop. These regulations were in general successful in excluding the mass of the people, but secular princes still had it in their power to exercise much influence over episcopal elections. Even the papal throne itself was sometimes made to represent the overshadowing effect of secular power and patronage.

The isolation of the clergy from ordinary rank and occupation, and the multiplication of theological controversies, naturally turned attention to ministerial education. On the other hand, the growth of ceremonialism, and the attractions which ecclesiastical positions had from a worldly stand-point, tended to qualify the emphasis laid upon the teaching function of the clergy and their own apprehension of the need of thorough culture. As a resultant of these different tendencies, we find special efforts and provisions in the direction of ministerial education, but, at the same time, a widespread neglect of the same. The latter fact is indicated by the following complaint of Gregory Nazianzen: "Only he can be a physician who has examined into the nature of diseases; he a painter, who has had much experience in mixing colors and drawing forms; but a clergyman may readily be found, not laboriously wrought, but brand-new, sown and full blown in a moment, as the legend says of the giants." [Orat., xliii. 26.] Among theological schools, that of Alexandria took the lead at the beginning of the period, but was soon rivalled by that of Antioch. Casaræa in Palestine was quite an eminent seat of theological culture. A school founded at Edessa in the fourth century, by Ephraem the Syrian, flourished about a hundred years, and educated ministers for Mesopotamia and Persia. A seminary founded at Nisibis in Mesopotamia, in the fifth century, was the chief source of theological culture among the Nestorians. The West could boast of no such noted educational centres, but enterprising bishops in that region in part supplied the lack by personal attention to the training of those within or preparing for the ministry. In both East and West the cloisters were a factor in the education of the clergy; they were, however, relatively less conspicuous in this office in the present than in the subsequent era.

Before the close of the third century there was quite a general preference for clerical celibacy. But still for a time no tribunal, having anything more than provincial jurisdiction, imposed a celibate life upon the three orders of the ministry. The Spanish council of Elvira stood alone, in the first part of the fourth century, in making this requisition. The council of Ancyra in 314 licensed the deacons, under certain conditions, to live in married relations. The following is the canon which it issued upon the subject: "If deacons, at the time of their appointment, declare that they must marry, and that they cannot lead a celibate life, and if accordingly they marry, they may continue their office, as having the permit of the bishop; but if at the time of their election they have not spoken, and have agreed in taking holy orders to lead a celibate life, and if later they marry, they shall lose their diaconate." The council of Neo-Cæsarea, held about the same time, appears not to have exceeded the above restrictions. While it ordained, "if a priest [or presbyter] marry, he shall be removed from the ranks of the clergy," it said nothing about deacons who might claim the same license. At the council of Nicæa, the question of enforcing celibacy was agitated; but the assembled bishops were persuaded to leave the matter where they found it. "It seemed fit to the bishops," says Socrates, "to introduce a new law into the Church, that those in holy orders (I speak of bishops, presbyters, and deacons) should have no intercourse with the wives whom they had married prior to ordination. And, when it was proposed to deliberate on this matter, Paphnutius, having arisen in the midst of the assembly of bishops, earnestly entreated them not to impose so heavy a yoke upon the ministers of religion." [Hist. Eccl., i. ii. Compare Sozomen, i. 23.] This exhortation of Paphnutius, since he was a distinguished confessor, and had himself lived a strictly celibate life, had great influence; and the proposed law was abandoned. The third canon of Nicæa, which has sometimes been interpreted as a sanction for celibacy, has an entirely different application. It forbids in the houses of the clergy, not wives, but the class of persons called sorores; that is, women undertaking, according to a perilous custom of which there are some earlier traces, [The council of Ancyra, Canon 19, had already condemned the custom.] to live with men in familiar companionship, and at the same time to keep the vow of virginity. That the canon has no reference to wives proper, is clear, from the fact that the prohibition is extended to every grade of the clergy; whereas legislation, at the very acme of its stringency, never attempted to impose the law of celibacy upon the lower ranks of ecclesiastics.

In the Greek Church, the requirement of celibacy on the part of the entire clergy was never insisted upon. The synod of Gangra (in Paphlagonia), in the latter part of the fourth century, declared it a proper ground for excommunication, if any one should refuse to share in divine service when a married priest was ministering at the altar. Even bishops at this period occasionally lived in married relations after consecration. Such was the case with the father of Gregory Nazianzen, who had children born in his family after assuming the episcopal office, one of them being the distinguished theologian himself. Socrates states that in his time abstinence from marriage was a matter of choice among the clergy of the East, there being no binding law upon the subject. [Hist. Eccl., v. 22.] "It was gradually," says one of the most learned, as well as most candid, of Roman-Catholic writers, "that in the Greek Church it became the practice to require the bishops and all the higher clergy to abstain from married life. The apostolic canons know nothing of such a requirement. They speak, on the contrary, of married bishops; and church history also gives examples of the same, such as Synesius in the fifth century." [Hefele, Conciliengeschichte, § 43.] In the case of Synesius, the privilege of retaining his wife was made by him a positive condition of accepting the episcopal office. The Greek Church, however, came finally to insist upon celibate bishops. Those who had wives prior to entering upon the office of bishop were put under obligation to part from them. A law to this effect was promulgated by the so-called Trullan council, held at Constantinople in 692. As regards priests and deacons, on the other hand, the ultimate custom of the Greek Church made a single marriage no barrier against consecration, and placed no restriction upon a continuance in married relations consummated prior to consecration. In respect to bishops also, it became usual to avoid an interference with the marriage bond by selecting monks or widower priests to fill vacancies.

In the Latin Church, legislation assumed a more stringent tone. The Roman bishop Siricius, in 385, in answer to inquiries from Spain, issued a decretal letter, in which the position of the council of Elvira was re-affirmed, and married life was disallowed to bishops, presbyters, and deacons.

[Epist. i. Compare Epist. x. Henry C. Lea, in his learned work on Sacerdotal Celibacy, calls attention to the lack of historical warrant which the decretals of Siricius exhibit. "It is observable," he says, "that in these decretals no authority is quoted later than the apostolic texts, which, as we have seen, have but little bearing on the subject. No canons of councils, no epistles of earlier popes, no injunctions of the Fathers are brought forward to strengthen the position assumed, whence the presumption is irresistible, that none such existed, and we may rest satisfied that no evidence has been lost that would prove the pre-existence of the rule."]

Leo the Great, in the next century, included the sub-deacons under the same requisition. Numerous synods in the fifth century, as that of Carthage in 401, that held under the Roman bishop Innocent I. in 402, that of Orange in 441, prohibited the three orders from living with wives. From the council of Tours, in 461, it appears that those violating the rule of celibacy had been subject to excommunication; but that council modified the penalty, and decreed that priests and Levites continuing in intercourse with their wives should be debarred from promotion, and from officiating in the public service, the communion meanwhile being granted them. In the succeeding centuries, also, the celibate rule received many formal declarations. All this may be taken as evidence that clerical celibacy became well established in this period in the theory of the Latin Church. At the same time, however, the very frequency with which the requirement of it was asserted is a clear hint that there were many exceptions to it in practice. Moreover, the strict safeguards which it was thought necessary to provide for the purity of the clergy indicate that the prohibition of family relations was often the occasion of immorality. In synod after synod it was ordained that no women, other than near relatives, even for the performance of necessary service, should be found in the houses of the clergy. [So the Synods of Aries in 443 or 452, Angers in 453, Agde in 506, Toledo in 527-531, Clermont in 535, Orleans in 549, Elusa in 551, Tours in 567, and Macon in 581.]

The causes by which the policy of celibacy was especially urged on were the hierarchical and monastic tendencies of the times. The unmarried state served to distinguish the clergy. It widened the gulf between them and the ordinary classes of men. Monasticism encouraged the idea that a special sanctity pertains to the unwedded life. It was felt that the sacred order of the clergy ought not to fall below the highest standard. Hence, the growing warfare against the domestic instincts of those in holy orders.

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  1. The Greek Church, however, came finally to insist upon celibate bishops.
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