The Roman Catholic practice of requiring its clergy to remain permanently unmarried and devoted to personal purity in thought and deed. The NT seems to be ambivalent on the subject of marriage. On the one hand, some of the apostles were married (Matt. 8:14; 1 Cor. 9:5), and Paul recommended marriage for the leaders of churches (1 Tim. 3:1), but on the other hand, the values of virginity are stressed. Besides the examples of Christ, Mary, and John the Baptist, there are (1) the teaching of our Lord that celibacy is a way of consecrating oneself to God (Matt. 19:12, 19) and (2) the statements of Paul that celibacy is the condition for a more fervent consecration to God because it avoids earthly entanglements and prepares the soul for the coming of Christ (1 Cor. 7:26-35). The idea developed early in the church's history that the unmarried state was preferable. During the fourth century most of the bishops in Greece, Egypt, and western Europe were unmarried or left their wives after consecration. Still, priests and deacons married and no law was passed prohibiting clerical marriage during the first three centuries of the Christian era.
In the East, the sixth and seventh centuries saw laws enacted which forbade the marriage of bishops. (If he were already married before consecration, he had to put his wife away in a distant monastery.) Yet the lower orders of clergy were allowed to marry. Celibacy in the Western Church became a canonical obligation for the clergy through the combined efforts of the popes and regional church councils. The earliest canonical statement, canon 33 of the Council of Elvira (c.305), states: “We decree that all bishops, priests, and deacons, and all clerics engaged in the ministry are forbidden entirely to live with their wives and to beget children: whoever shall do so shall be deposed from the clerical dignity.” Later Hosius* of Cordova attempted unsuccessfully to have this decree enacted by the Council of Nicea. If the ecumenical council would not act, the pope would, and the decretals of Damasus I, Siricius, Innocent I, and Leo I enjoin the clergy to celibacy. Other local councils in Africa, France, and Italy issued decrees enforcing this practice.
After the fall of the Carolingian empire there was a movement away from clerical celibacy, but with the Hildebrandine reform of the eleventh century a new ascetic spirit came to the church. Gregory VII, for whom this movement is named, struggled with great zeal to restore sacerdotal celibacy. Even after his time, however, there was a considerable gap between theory and practice with regard to this requirement.
The Protestant Reformers did not value celibacy. Calvin taught that it should not be judged of greater value than the married state, and he protested the despising of marriage by writers such as Jerome. The Council of Trent* (1545-63) reaffirmed the teaching of clerical celibacy, but it stated that this was enjoined on the clergy by the law of the church and not by the law of God. Currently, the Roman Church feels celibacy is useful for ministers as it gives them greater freedom in the service of God, but it also states the church may abrogate this rule if it chooses.
See H.C. Lea, History of Sacerdotal Celibacy in the Christian Church (2 vols., 1907); “Celibacy,” in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. II, pp. 366- 74.