The third installment in Pope Francis’ series of interviews with atheist reporter Eugenio Scalfari took place on Thursday, July 10, 2014, and was published the following Sunday (07/13/14) in La Repubblica daily. Being that Scalfari doesn’t record these interviews on tape, but, rather, re-prints the dialogue based upon his memory of the interview, we can only say what Pope Francis ‘allegedly’ said in them. One of the things that the Pope allegedly told Scalfari is that he wants to continue these interviews is because he “believes that an interview with a non-believer is mutually stimulating.”

Typical of Scalfari’s interviews, Catholic bloggers will be spending the next few weeks talking about what Pope Francis meant to say in this one also. In the instant case, what Pope Francis allegedly said about the origin of priestly celibacy is sure to cause Catholic apologists to beat their head against a steel wall.

For centuries Protestants have been claiming and publishing tracts that say that the Catholic Church didn’t start teaching priestly celibacy until around 1079 A.D., and in refutations Catholic apologists have been pointing to Church documents, as far back as to the second century, to prove that celibacy for the clergy has always been a discipline of Catholic Church in the West. Now comes along Pope Francis to give Protestant anti-Catholics the proof of what they have been telling Catholics along – that priestly celibacy is a modern innovation. Below is my translated text of that portion of the interview:

SCALFARI: “An hour passed and I got up. The Pope embraces me and gives me hopes to heal as soon as possible. But I still have a question: Your Holiness, is working hard to integrate Catholicism with the Orthodox, Anglicans … I stop continuing: “With that the Waldensian which I find religious of the first order, with the Pentecostals and, of course, with our Jewish brothers and sisters. Well, many of these priests or pastors are regularly married. What happened overtime in that becoming a problem in the Church of Rome? ”

FRANCIS: “Perhaps you don’t know that celibacy was established in the tenth century, that is, 900 years after the death of our Lord. The Eastern Catholic Church has the faculty now that its priests marry. The problem certainly exists but is not of great magnitude. It takes time but there are solutions to be found.”

SCALFARI: “We are now out of the doorway of Santa Marta. We hug again. I confess that I was moved. Francis caressed my cheek and the car started.”

Is it true that priestly celibacy was established in the tenth century; that is, 900 years after the death of Christ Jesus? Absolutely not! Despite what the Pope said, you are still on very solid ground to defend Church teaching as always being part of Catholic tradition.

It is still true that in the fourth and fifth centuries four different Popes decreed celibacy (Damasus I in 384, Siricius in 385, Innocent I in 404, and Leo I in 458). In that same period, four local councils issued edicts imposing celibacy on the clergy (Carthage, Africa in 390 and 401-19, Orange, France in 441, Tours, France in 461, and Turin, Italy in 398). It is still true that the Synod of Augsburg in 952, and the local Councils of Anse (994) and Poitiers (1000) all affirmed the rule of celibacy.

Where Pope Francis seems to pick up in the long history of the tradition of a celibate priesthood in the Western Catholic Church is with Pope Gregory VII in 1075, who forbade married priests or those who had concubines from saying Mass or performing other ecclesiastical functions. Pope Gregory’s edict was followed by the First Lateran Council in 1123, which mandated celibacy for the Western clergy, and the Second Lateran Council in 1139 that decreed Holy Orders as an impediment to marriage. Both of these Lateran councils were ecumenical councils.

Rather than saying that, “celibacy was established in the tenth century,” what Pope Francis probably meant to say (charitable me)/should have said (me being quite frank) was that celibacy for the clergy was officially mandated as a discipline in the 12th century by an ecumenical council for the first time.

In the document, Priestly Celibacy in Patristics and in the History of the Church, Ukrainian Greek Catholic theologian Roman Cholij, affirms that the general law of celibacy long outdated the Lateran councils:

“Of the numerous synods convoked throughout Europe during the eleventh and twelfth centuries to enforce with rigour the neglected law, the most notable are the First Lateran Council (1123) and the Second Lateran Council (1139), considered as ecumenical in Roman tradition. Lateran I made into general law the prohibition of cohabiting with wives (c. 7). Lateran II, c. 7, reiterating the declaration of the Council of Pisa (1135), also declared marriages contracted subsequent to ordination to be not only prohibited, but non-existent (… matrimonium non esse censemus). At times, this Council is wrongly interpreted as having introduced for the first time the general law of celibacy, with only unmarried men being admitted to the priesthood. Yet what the Council was doing, in a more pointed way, was re-emphasizing the law of continence (… ut autem lex continentiae et Deo placens munditia in ecciesiasticis personis et sacris personis dilatetur…)60 Subsequent legislation, however, continues to deal with questions relating to married men ordained secundum legem, not contra legem.”

Other early statements concerning the discipline of celibacy for the clergy include:

  • Council of Elvira (c. 305)
    (Canon 33): “It is decided that marriage be altogether prohibited to bishops, priests, and deacons, or to all clerics placed in the ministry and that they keep away from their wives and not beget children; whoever does this, shall be deprived of the honor of the clerical office.”
  • Council of Carthage (390)
    (Canon 3): “It is fitting that the holy bishops and priests of God as well as the Levites, i.e. those who are in the service of the divine sacraments, observe perfect continence, so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God; what the Apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us also endeavor to keep… It pleases us all that bishop, priest and deacon, guardians of purity, abstains from conjugal intercourse with their wives, so that those who serve at the altar may keep a perfect chastity.”
  • St. Epiphanius of Salamis (d. 403)
    “Holy Church respects the dignity of the priesthood to such a point that she does not admit to the diaconate, the priesthood or the episcopate, nor even to the subdiaconate, anyone still living in marriage and begetting children. She accepts only him who if married gives up his wife or has lost her by death, especially in those places where the ecclesiastical canons are strictly attended to.”