Celibacy (Lat. carfebs, unmarried), the state of being unmarried, whether the person be a bachelor or a widower, a maid or a widow. In its restricted and more usual sense, it means the state of those who have formally renounced matrimony for the future, especially by a religious vow. In ancient Greece and Rome celibates, outside of the priesthood, were subjected to various penalties. In Sparta unmarried men were regarded as infamous, and by the laws of Lycurgus might be seized and severely punished by the women in the temple of Hercules. Plato, in his imaginary republic, declared all those who had remained unmarried till they were 35 years old to be incapable of holding any public office. At Rome celibates were forbidden to bear witness in courts, or to leave a will, and it was believed that special penalties were reserved for them in the future life. It is remarkable that while celibacy was proscribed in Europe, it was authorized in the East. There celibates bore honorable names, were raised to high positions, and styled favorites of heaven. With the progress of civilization in Greece and Rome celibacy became more common. Thus often the men of letters, the philosophers, athletes, gladiators, and musicians, some from taste, and some from necessity, remained unmarried.
This was frequently the case with the disciples of Pythagoras and Diogenes. Celibacy was early regarded as a peculiar privilege and duty of the priesthood. Among the Hebrews, persons intended for the service of the temple were permitted to marry, but under certain restrictions. Among the Egyptians, the priests of Isis were bound to chastity. The gymnosophists of India and the hierophants of the Athenians lived in celibacy. There were maidens among the Persians consecrated to the worship of the sun, and vestal virgins among the Romans, who alone were permitted to guard the sacred fire. The celibacy of religious persons was regarded by the Greeks as a grace almost divine. No sacrifice was regarded as perfect without the intervention of a virgin. - In the primitive Christian church celibacy came gradually to be esteemed a higher state than matrimony. The early fathers, especially St. Jerome, enthusiastically celebrated the virtue of continence. Yet there was no law nor uniformity of opinion or action on the subject, and it was not till the 4th century that even the higher clergy began generally to live in celibacy.
The council of the Spanish and African churches at Elvira, in Spain, about A. D. 305, commanded ecclesiastics of the three first grades to abstain from conjugal intercourse under penalty of deposition. A motion to the same effect was made in the general council of Nice, in 325, but it was rejected. Yet a tradition became prevalent about that time, that priests once admitted into holy orders should not afterward marry; and this practice, being once established, led naturally to the opinions that persons who were married should not be admitted into orders, and that celibacy was a holier state than marriage. In the Latin church the usage of celibacy was most strictly observed. Near the close of the 4th century Pope Siricius forbade conjugal intercourse to priests without distinction, .and this interdiction was repeated by the subsequent popes and councils. The emperor Justinian declared the child of an ecclesiastic illegitimate, and incapable of being an heir. The council of Tours in 567 decreed that married monks and nuns incurred excommunication, and that their marriage was null. The Greek church opposed the action of the Latins, and the regular clergy of that church cannot he celibates.
A priest, however, can he married only once, and if his wife dies he must go into one of the monastic orders. The monks and the bishops, who are chosen from among them, are unmarried. In the Roman church councils were frequently occupied with rigorous measures against violations of the law of celibacy; and observance of the law was most strictly insisted upon under the pontificate of Gregory VII., who excommunicated every married priest, and every layman who should be present at a service celebrated by him. The reformers rejected celibacy as contrary to natural law, and permitted Protestant ministers to marry. This innovation brought the question up again in the Catholic church, and although the emperor, the king of France, and many of the electors and princes were favorable to the marriage of priests, yet the council of Trent, which closed its sittings in 1563, decided finally to retain the discipline of celibacy. From that time the law has been absolute in the Roman Catholic priesthood. One who has been married cannot be ordained if his wife is living, unless a separation takes place between the parties by mutual consent.
Those who have yet attained only the lower orders may renounce their benefices, forsake their orders, and be married; but it is otherwise with subdeacons and the higher degrees. To such the pope alone, notwithstanding the indelibility of the character of priests, may grant permission to retire from the priesthood, and consequently to contract marriage. - See "History of Clerical Celibacy," by II. C. Lea (Philadelphia, 1867).