From the very earliest days of Christianity it was assumed that ministers of the altar would abstain from sexual relations, living in a state of perfect sexual continence. It is true that there were married priests in the early Church, but those priests were expected to practice continence with their wives; i.e., abstain from even the legitimate sexual relations of the married state. We see this reflected in the regional and ecumenical conciliar texts of the period, which all stipulated that priests who were married were expected to live with their spouse as brother and sister. This is so uniformly asserted in the sacred canons that we can safely hold clerical continence to be an Apostolic Tradition universally acknowledged in the patristic era (see our previous essay, “The Truth About Priestly Celibacy in the Early Church” for the background of these assertions).
There are, however, two regional synods which are often proffered as evidence that clerical continence was not universally practiced. The first, which we will examine here, is the Council of Ancyra, held in Asia Minor in the year 314 (the other is the Council of Neo-Caesarea, also held around 314-315, which we shall save for a future article). It is opined by some that the canons of Ancyra and Neo-Caesarea seem to allow for married clerics to use their conjugal rights; if so, these synods weaken the argument that married priests in the early Church were expected to be sexually abstinent.
The question before us, then, is whether the regional Council of Ancyra allowed clerics to enter into marriage and use their conjugal rights? Let us see.
The Council of Ancyra Canon 10
A small assembly of between twelve and eighteen bishops from Asia Minor and Syria met in Ancyra in the year 314. The Edict of Milan had been issued only a year prior and the tyrant Maximus had recently died. After having suffered under the Great Persecution for nearly ten years, ecclesiastical discipline was in disarray. Many regional assemblies and synods were summoned during this time in order to solve various disciplinary problems. Like the nearly contemporary synods of Elvira and Arles, the Council of Ancyra dealt with the problems of the lapsi and clerics who had committed sins of the flesh.
Like the councils of Elvira and Arles, Ancyra tackled the question of priestly continence, specifically, what should be the discipline regarding the diaconate? Should deacons be allowed to take wives?
As background for this discussion, it must be stated clearly that the early Church did not simply enjoin continence upon priests and bishops, but also upon deacons – the three “higher grades” of Holy Orders; later in the west this would even be extended to subdeacons. This is explored thoroughly in our previous article mentioned above; we recommend reviewing it if you are not familiar with this topic. It suffices to say that there was a general expectation of celibacy on the part of deacons. I say “general” because Canon 10 of Ancyra seems to introduce an exception. Canon 10 reads:
“Those who are promoted to deacons, if, at the time of their promotion, they protested and said that they had to marry and could not live in this way and then married later, can remain in the ministry because the bishop permitted them to do so. But those who have kept silence and were admitted to ordination [on the condition] that they preserve in this state [i.e., celibacy], if they marry, subsequently, they will be deprived of the diaconate” (1).
What does this canon say, exactly? At the outset, it seems to be at odds with the western tradition as expressed at Arles, Carthage, and Elvira, all of which strictly forbid deacons from entering into marriage and taking wives. Yet Ancyra seems to suggest that the rule of celibacy only applies to deacons who “keep silence” and thereby evidence willingness to be celibate; an exception seems to be made for men who loudly “protested” that they could not maintain celibacy and would be allowed to marry. In other words, celibacy was voluntary for the diaconate. Is this really what Ancyra is saying?
Notice first off that Ancyra retains the general rule of celibacy imposed upon deacons: those who were single before ordination and do not protest must remain celibate, for it notes specifically that “if they marry, subsequently, they will be deprived of the diaconate.” So Ancyra certainly would not support a general married clergy since it does not even permit deacons to marry if they kept silent on the subject at ordination; and if such a deacon is not permitted to enter into the married state after his ordination, certainly neither a priest or bishop would be. Thus the question posed by Ancyra is really a very narrow one: whether the Church ever had a married, sexually active priesthood is not in question, as Ancyra affirms the discipline of celibacy even right down to the diaconate. We are looking, rather, at one exception the Council (seems) to be making for parts of the diaconate specifically.
This exception, however, is tremendously important. While the second half of the canon reiterates the rule that a bachelor once ordained cannot marry, the first half of the canon seems to introduce a situation where a deacon can later marry if he warns the bishop ahead of time that he cannot maintain celibacy. Let us look at the pertinent language again and offer an interpretation:
“Those who are promoted to deacons, if, at the time of their promotion, they protested and said that they had to marry and could not live in this way and then married later, can remain in the ministry because the bishop permitted them to do so.“
One possible interpretation of this canon is: Celibacy being the general rule, when a bachelor is admitted to the diaconate and remains silent on the question of marriage, it is presumed that he is willing to accept the discipline and henceforth will be expected to maintain celibacy and abstain from marriage; if he subsequently marries, he will be expelled from the ministry. But on the other hand, if a man about to be ordained to the diaconate loudly protests to the bishop that he desires to marry and cannot observe the discipline of celibacy, the bishop may dispense him from the discipline, allowing him to advance to the diaconate while retaining the freedom to marry after ordination. And if he can marry, he can use his conjugal rights, since it would be not make any sense for a man who had complained about celibacy to enter into a continent marriage. Therefore, Ancyra is allowing deacons to marry and use their conjugal rights after ordination.
At the outset, this seems very reasonable. However, as we shall see, the above interpretation is actually very unlikely. To shed some light on this, let us consider a 6th century Latin translation of the canon that may help us understand the legislative intent of Ancyra.
St. Martin of Braga‘s Translation
Over two centuries later, in 572, the Bishop St. Martin of Braga (Portugal) was seeking to aid a fellow bishop in the restoration of discipline in the churches throughout Visigothic Spain following the Second Council of Braga (572). To this end, he sent his brother Bishop Nitigisius of Lugo a Latin edition of eighty-four Greek canons. St. Martin was the foremost scholar of his age; Gregory of Tours says Martin was “second to none of his contemporaries in learning” (2). Born in the East and ordained in Palestine, he had a powerful and natural command of the Greek language and made many Latin translations of important Greek texts, as in the case of the eighty-four canons sent to Nitigisius.
Among this compendium was Canon 10 of the Council of Ancyra. Here is how Martin’s Latin translation reads:
“If someone is chosen for the ministry of the diaconate but does raise a protest beforehand to claim the right of taking a wife, declaring that he cannot persevere in chastity, let him not be ordained. If at the time of ordination he kept silent and was ordained and later seeks to marry, let him be rejected from the ministry and eliminated from the clergy” (3).
Notice that, if we go with the interpretation of Canon 10 we posited above, Martin’s translation is in direct contradiction. In our original interpretation, a man who protests that he desires to marry may be granted permission by the bishop to subsequently marry and continue to ordination; Martin of Braga has it that a man who protests his desire to marry will not be ordained.
This appears to be in blatant contradiction to the original Greek of Canon 10—however, it is in perfect harmony with the rest of the western tradition, as exemplified in the Gallic and Spanish synods, as well as the teaching of the popes from the 5th and 6th centuries. It would thus be easy to suggest that St. Martin simply changed the canon arbitrarily to force it to conform with the western usage. Such manipulation is always possible. But there is a better explanation.
St. Martin spoke Greek fluently; born in Pannonia (Bosnia-Serbia), he may have been a native Greek speaker. In his preface to the canons, he congratulates himself on having amended certain obscure passages in the previous Greek translations of the canons. He states that the previous translations had obscured the meaning of the original; his translation was meant to restore faithfully the meaning of the Greek canons for his Latin readers. If Martin was going to intentionally change the canon, it seems odd that he would confess these alterations. Given his understanding of Greek and knowledge of Greek customs—indeed, no other Spanish cleric of his age had such a knowledge of Greek culture—we have no reason not to take him at his word.
If we take St. Martin at his word that his Latin translation is faithful to the meaning of the Greek of Canon 10, perhaps we should reread the original canon with greater attention to see if the text does justice to St. Martin’s interpretation. Before we look at the text again, remember, Martin reads it such that men who protest their desire to marry will not be advanced to the diaconate. Let us review Canon 10 once more, keeping St. Martin’s translation in mind:
“Those who are promoted to deacons, if, at the time of their promotion, they protested and said that they had to marry and could not live in this way and then married later, can remain in the ministry because the bishop permitted them to do so. But those who have kept silence and were admitted to ordination [on the condition] that they preserve in this state [i.e., celibacy], if they marry, subsequently, they will be deprived of the diaconate“
The canon deals with the case of deacons who present themselves for ordination; we are not talking about deacons about to receive ordination to the diaconate, which would be an absurdity, but of lower grades of clerics, men in Minor Orders, presenting themselves for advancement to Major Orders. This canon thus concerns not deacons proper but candidates to the diaconate: cantors, lectors, exorcists, or more likely, subdeacons during their period of preparation. The canon envisions two possibilities: during the time of preparation, after prayer and reflection, the candidates either (a) declare their need to marry and inability to maintain celibacy, or (b) keep silent and tacitly agree to observe the discipline.
Now, of those who protest their desire to marry, the canon says they “can remain in the ministry because the bishop permitted them to do so”, the question is what does it mean to “remain in the ministry”? What ministry? “Remain” where? Have these persons who protested already been ordained or not? The canon does not mention anything about ordination here; ordination is only mentioned with the second group, those who remained silent and became ordained. Thus it seems that the men in the first group who protest do so at the time of their promotion but not after ordination; i.e., during their time of preparation.
If that were the case, to “remain in the ministry” would mean to retain the functions of subdeacon, lector, cantor, etc. that they already had. If they were already in Minor Orders, their “ministry” could refer to the ecclesiastical functions associated with the lower orders. Fr. Christian Cochini’s excellent book The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy contains a two page digression into the Greek word here for “ministry” which strongly supports such an argument. It is beyond the scope of this article to dig into the Greek, but the basic context of the statement seems to bear such an assumption.
Thus, we could put forward a second interpretation for the meaning of Canon 10 of Ancyra: Celibacy being the general rule, all men admitted to Major Orders are expected to observe continence. If, during the time of preparation and up to the moment of ordination, a candidate to the diaconate declares that he cannot observe continence and wishes to marry, he will not be ordained to the diaconate but may retain his functions as a subdeacon, lector, etc. with the bishop’s permission. But if he keeps silent and proceeds to ordination, he tacitly agrees to accept the discipline of celibacy. If he enters into marriage after his ordination, he will be expelled from the ministry.
Such an interpretation has several arguments in favor: First, it brings the Greek and the Latin of Martin of Braga into harmony, second, it makes sense of St. Martin’s statement that his translation clarifies the meaning of the Greek; third, it brings Canon 10 in Ancyra into harmony with the western practice and that of the universal church at that time; fourth, it is consistent with the context and syntax of the wording of the canon itself; fifth, as Fr. Cochini explains, it is borne out by examination of the Greek word for “ministry”; sixth, as we shall see below, subsequent legislation in the East confirms Martin’s interpretation of Canon 10.
But suppose we are wrong. Suppose Martin of Braga’s translation was simply errant and the bishops of Ancyra really were intending to grant an exception for deacons to marry.
If so, it is odd that this exception was never confirmed by any subsequent legislation in the East. Look at Justinian’s legislation on married cleric’s from the Corpus Juris Civilis, written in 546, only twenty-six years before Martin sent his copies of the Greek canons to his brother bishop. Justinian’s legislation reads:
“But if the deacon who is about to receive the imposition of hands does not have a woman united to him [in marriage] as was stipulated above, let no one impose hands on him before the ordaining bishop has questioned him and before he has promised to be able to live worthily and without a legitimate wife after ordination; the ordaining bishop does not have the power, at the time of the imposition of hands, to authorize the deacon to take a wife after the imposition of hands; should such a thing occur, the bishop who granted such an authorization would be rejected from the episcopate; if, after the imposition of hands, a priest, a deacon, of even a subdeacon enters into a marriage contract, let him be rejected from the clergy and be delivered, body and goods, to the council of the town where he has been a cleric” (4).
Justinian’s understanding of the discipline mirrors the interpretation of Martin of Braga. The Emperor could have certainly modified the canon to suit his own tastes; but given the other evidence we have explored above, this seems unlikely.
The Greek Fathers of the Quinisext Council (691), while affirming and confirming the authority of the Council of Ancyra, nevertheless forbid marriage to the Major Orders:
“As is said in the apostolic canons, that among the single men promoted to the ranks of the clergy, only lectors and precantors can be married, we, too, obeying this regulation, order that from now on no subdeacon, deacon, or priest be permitted, once ordained, to contract a marriage. Should he dare do so, let him be deposed” (5).
Given that the Quinisext Council specifically confirms the rulings of Ancyra and then goes on to issue such legislation infers that they read Canon 10 of Ancyra to forbid marriage to deacons universally, otherwise the above cited legislation could in no way be in harmony with Canon 10.
Since no subsequent Greek legislation affirmed any episcopal exception to the discipline of celibacy for deacons—and given that the Corpus Juris Civilis and the Quinisext Council specifically repudiate any such allowance—we must assume that Martin of Braga’s interpretation of Canon 10 of Ancyra is correct.
The universal discipline of the Church in the early centuries was that a man ordained to Major Orders was expected to abstain from sexual relations; if he was a bachelor, this meant observing celibacy. If he was already married, this meant observing perpetual abstinence. This obligation is clearly laid out in all of the legislation that mentions the subject throughout the patristic era. But this was an understandably weighty obligation, and men were expected to count the cost carefully and prayerfully before being advanced to Major Orders. Canon 10 of Ancyra teaches that when a subdeacon or man with Minor Orders is discerning the diaconate, if he remains silent and allow himself to be ordained to the diaconate, he implicitly agrees to observe the discipline of celibacy. If, however, during the preparation period he declares to the bishop that he is unable to live celibate, the man will not be ordained to the diaconate. The bishop may, however, allow him to retain his functions as a subdeacon, lector, etc., which grants the man freedom to marry at a later date, since celibacy was not mandated on those in Minor Orders.
The Council of Ancyra is thus no exception to the universal discipline approved in the west and even throughout the east. Rather, it confirms it.
(1) Fr. Christian Cochini, Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 1981), 169-170. Much of the following argument is derived from Fr. Cochini’s work.
(2) Gregory of Tours, Hist. Franc., V, xxxviii
(3) Cochini, 171
(4) Justinian, Novella 123, cap. 14, CJC, cited in Cochini, 172
(5) Cochini, 173
Phillip Campbell, “Council of Ancyra and Celibacy,” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, January 12, 2015. Available online at https://www.unamsanctamcatholicam.com/2022/12/council-of-ancyra-and-celibacy