Q. I just heard that during the early Church, celibacy was not a mandate for priests, and that baptism was administered to adults. Could you please explain the reason for the present celibacy requirement and why baptism was changed from adults to infants?
A. Here’s a reply from TCA columnist Father Ray Ryland, Ph.D., J.D.:
It is true that in the earliest days of the Church, baptism was administered ordinarily to adults. Yet the New Testament speaks in at least four instances of the baptism of “households,” which presumably would include children (Acts 10; 16; 18; 1 Cor 1).
We should say, then, not that baptism was “changed,” but that in the Church it was soon “extended” to include children. By God’s design, a child is brought into a particular family without having to choose that family. Similarly, through baptism an infant or child is brought into the Mystical Body of Christ without having to choose that membership.
Perhaps you misunderstood what was said about the requirement of celibacy in the early Church. This is a vast subject about which we can only make a few comments in the present limitations of space.
Start with our great High Priest, Jesus Christ. Perfectly incarnating the will of the Father, He chose celibacy. So far as we know, the apostles were celibate after having been chosen by Christ.
Peter asked what would become of him and the other apostles. Jesus replied, “Truly, I say to you, there is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life” (Lk 18:29-30, emphasis added).
In the early centuries, the Church did ordain men who had been married. The evidence is clear, however, that before those men were ordained, both they and their spouses were required to vow perpetual continence following ordination. As priests, of course, both previously married men and single men were under the solemn obligation of chastity.
The reason consistently given in the records of early Church councils for requiring celibacy was that ordination consecrated a man to Christ, setting him apart from ordinary life. All the earliest councils that dealt with celibacy (in the fourth and fifth centuries) affirmed the apostolic origin of celibacy.
Advocates of optional marriage for Catholic clergy point to Eastern Orthodox practice as a strong precedent. They argue that this, too, is apostolic and should be taken seriously. The argument falls flat in light of the facts of history.
Until the end of the seventh century, celibacy was the norm throughout the Church East and West. In 692, the eastern Council of Trullo changed the rules. It decreed that married men who were ordained could continue to live a conjugal life with their wives.
The Council did retain celibacy for bishops, but without explaining why. This is the origin of present Eastern Orthodox practice. By no means is it apostolic.
In recent decades numerous statements by synods and by the popes have declared the Church’s commitment to the discipline of celibacy. The present shortage of priests in some parts of the world is due not to the rule of celibacy, but to widespread dissent that confuses people and obscures calls to the priesthood and the religious life.
You can find a summary of the wide literature on this subject in “A Brief History of Celibacy,” a chapter I wrote for “Priestly Celibacy: Its Scriptural, Historical, Spiritual, and Psychological Roots” (Mt. Pocono, Pa.: Newman House Press, 2001), edited by Father Peter Stravinskas.