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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

St. Patrick in the Confession tells us that his father Calpurnius was a deacon, and, moreover, the son of Potitus, a priest. No manuscript copy of the Confession describes Calpurnius as a priest, although some of the Lives represent him as such. We may be sure, however, that if Calpurnius had been at any time raised to the priesthood, the Saint would not have described himself as the son of Deacon Calpurnius, but of Priest Calpurnius, so that the silence of St. Patrick on this point may be accepted as conclusive evidence that his father was not a priest, especially when we find him referring to his grandfather Potitus the priest, in contradistinction to his father Calpurnius the deacon.

Some simple souls who know little of the history of the Church and the nature of its discipline feel somewhat startled at these statements, and cannot well understand them; others, for their own purposes, lay stress on these statements, as if they furnished a justification for the existence of a married clergy in the separated churches.

As a fact, however, there is no argument to be deduced therefrom, either in favour of the marriage of the parson, or against the celibacy of the priest.

We must bear in mind, first of all, that the question merely regards the discipline of the Western Church in the middle of the fourth century, and secondly, that being a pure question of discipline, it might vary, and to some extent has varied, at different times even in the Western Church.

What then was the Western discipline on this point about the middle of the fourth century?—for that is really the question at issue. And in particular, what was the discipline of the Church of Gaul?—for we may assume as certain that the British discipline on the celibacy of the clergy was not different from what it was in Gaul and Italy.

We have no documents of the British Church bearing on this question during the fourth century, but we know that British bishops were present at some important Councils in Gaul, from which, apart from other considerations, we may fairly infer their adhesion to the Gaulish, not to say the Roman, doctrine and discipline.

The Spanish Council of Elvira, celebrated probably in 305 or 306, forbids a bishop or any other cleric to keep in his house any female except his sister or a virgin daughter dedicated to the service of God. This shows that men who had been married might become bishops or priests; but it shows also that after ordination they were bound to remain continent. The language is very strict, and clearly proves that the Spanish Church at the time repudiated a married clergy in the modern sense of the word—that is a clergy living with their wives. But the thirty-third Canon is even still clearer and more emphatic, leaving no doubt as to the meaning of the twenty-seventh Canon. It enacts that all bishops, priests, and deacons, or other clerics placed in the ministry should entirely abstain from their wives (if married), and beget no children; otherwise they were to be excluded from the said ministry. The Latin is neither exact nor elegant; but there can be no doubt as to its meaning; and it is the oldest and most emphatic legislation to be found anywhere regarding the celibacy of the clergy at that time.

The Greek Church, however, was not so strict. Priests and deacons who were married before they were ordained were allowed to live with their wives; but they were not allowed to get married after ordination, except in the case of deacons who protested at the time of their ordination that they could not live in a state of celibacy. Bishops, however, were neither allowed to marry nor to live with wives married before their ordination. The Council of Nice, if we may believe Socrates and Sozomon, influenced by the earnest remonstrance of Paphnutius, declined to make the law more rigid; and up to the present such in substance has been the discipline of the Greek Church.

But the stricter discipline of Elvira was universally adopted throughout the Latin Church in the course of the fourth century. A married man might become a bishop, priest, or deacon, as often happened, but in all cases he was required either to separate from his wife, or to live with her as a sister, from the moment of his ordination. This was the law, although, no doubt, like other laws, it was not always observed.

The Synod of Arles held in 314, at which British bishops were present, forbids in its twenty-ninth Canon priests and levites who had been married before ordination, to cohabit with their wives, on the ground that such cohabitation was inconsistent with the chastity and decorum of men engaged in the daily ministry of the altar.

A Synod of Carthage held in 387 or 390, just about the time St. Patrick became a captive, ordains that bishops, priests, and levites must abstain from all intercourse with their wives, thus exhibiting the discipline of the African Church in the fourth century, as exactly the same as that prevalent in the Churches of Gaul and Spain. Married men might be ordained priests and bishops, as often occurred, but the law at the time required them to abstain from all marital intercourse with their wives. The discipline in Britain, and afterwards in Ireland, was exactly the same. There may, no doubt, have been crimes and abuses, but they were never sanctioned by law.

Having these principles before our mind we can easily explain the statement in the Confession. Potitus, the father of Calpurnius, may have been ordained after the death of his wife, or after separation from his wife, or after a mutual vow of chastity; but if any children were born to him after his marriage it would be a violation of the existing discipline of the Church—which certainly ought not to be rashly assumed in the case of a man deemed worthy of the priesthood. So also Calpurnius might have been ordained deacon after his marriage, or after the death of his wife, but we have no ground whatsoever for assuming that Deacon Calpurnius would violate the existing law by living with his wife after his ordination as deacon.

In many cases, indeed, not only on the Continent, but even in Ireland, it was found desirable to ordain as priests, and even as bishops, men who had been married, and whose wives were in some cases still alive, but living in continence. Such men were, doubtless, often better subjects for the sacred ministry in the infancy of the Church than untried youths, who in their early years could not have been trained to lead lives of chastity and virtue. A married man, who had already given proof of conjugal chastity and sober wisdom, was at that time, from many points of view, a more desirable candidate for the sacred ministry. Such was the great Paulinus of Nola, such was Germanus of Auxerre, the teacher of St. Patrick, and many other great prelates of the fourth century, but in all these cases we find it expressly stated that, in accordance with the discipline of the Church, they abstained from all marital intercourse with their wives after their ordination.






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