The Council of Trullo on Clerical Celibacy

Research has had me doing a bit of a fresh dive into Byzantine canon law. Whilst pursuing examples of canonical enforcement, I re-encountered the Council of Trullo (691–2). Somehow, in earlier readings on this synod, I had missed Canon 13. Here’s my rough-and-ready translation:

Whereas in the Romans’ church, in canonical order, we observed that it has been taught that those about to be honored with the ordination of deacon or presbyter must promise that they no longer joined with their spouses, we want, following the ancient canon of apostolic precision and order, the lawful cohabitation of sacred men to be strong from now on, no longer breaking off union with their spouses nor defrauding themselves of intercourse with them at the proper time. So, if any should be found worthy of ordination as a subdeacon, deacon, or presbyter, let him no longer be hindered to take such a step if he cohabitates with a lawful spouse. Nor indeed let him be pressured to agree that he will abstain from lawful intercourse with his proper spouse, so that we may not be forced to disdain the marriage instituted by God and blessed by his presence, with the voice of the gospel bellowing, “What God has joined, let no human sunder,” and with the apostle teaching that marriage is honorable and sex is undefiled, and: “Have you bound to a wife? Do not seek divorce.”

And we are aware—even like those who gathered in Carthage said, positing care for the sacredness of liturgists in life: “the subdeacons singing sacred rites, deacons, and presbyters according to their particular oaths are all to be abstinent from their spouses, so that we may also guard both what has been passed down from the apostles and what has been maintained from antiquity itself”— knowing that there is a time for every action, especially for both fasting and prayer. For it is necessary for those at the altar attending to the care of the saints in the proper time to be self-controlled in everything, so that they are able to obtain what they ask from God.

If anyone then should dare to defraud someone of sacred orders (we mean a presbyter, deacon, or subdeacon) from intercourse and also fellowship with his lawful spouse, moving contrary to apostolic canons, let him be removed [from clerical office]. And likewise, if any presbyter or deacon should cast off his wife on the pretext of “piety,” let him be separated, and persisting, let him be removed.[1]

Trullo’s decision had a few interesting historical factors in the mix. For one, it occurred during the two-century-long era of the so-called Byzantine Papacy (late 530s-751). When Justinian’s armies put the city of Rome back under imperial oversight, the popes became like every other bishop in the empire: they had to do what the emperor wanted, which in turn meant they were far less insulated from Greek theological consensus than before. This would make for some interesting but oft-forgotten moments in the history of the institution. When this council (held at Constantinople) was laying down these rules, it imagined itself to be an ecumenical body, and one can see in the text where they are attempting to correct erroneous practices in Latin canonical tradition. Apparently, if you do a web search on the “canons of Trullo,” you will quickly find a still-running debate between Roman Catholics and the Orthodox as to whether the popes really recognized Trullo’s rulings or not. (They can be oddly opaque like that, those magisteria.)

Recognized or no, the bishops at Trullo were articulating a clear theological rejection of Latin notions of clerical sexual purity. One of the councils of Carthage, a series of which occurred around the turn of the fifth century and often involved none other than Augustine of Hippo, comes up for special attention. (If memory serves, at least some of the Carthaginian councils had become standard entries in Western canon law starting around the year 500.) While still expecting clerical celibacy for bishops, Trullo wants no such standard for lower clergy who are already married.

What is not articulated is why the West had come to this peculiar ideal standard. In short, the basic idea was ceremonial purity. If one’s position involved overseeing liturgy, especially the Eucharist, sex with one’s spouse was ritual non-starter. From popes in the late 300s up to more regional Western councils two centuries later, there’s quite a lot of evidence that this was a widely shared expectation—though it’s highly questionable how many lesser clergy on the ground were actually following this rule. With special focus on Francia, one modern scholar summarized it this way,

The Frankish councils initially tried to deter clerks from resuming sexual relations with their wives by invoking the threat of deposition. Extending the rule of continence also to subdeacons, the Council of Orleans in 538 cited Pope Innocent I’s letter to Victricius of Rouen. “What shame shall be his who returns to sacrifice, defiled by sexual desire,” the Pope had written. The bishops, meeting at Clermont three years earlier, had been even more ingenious. Using Pope Leo I’s plea that clerks should transform their matrimonial ties into a brother and sister relationship, these bishops executed a legal tour de force by drawing the conclusion that clerical incontinence was a form of incest. If a clerk had intercourse with his wife, and particularly if he begot children, he was guilty of incest and had to be deposed. In 567 the Council of Tours charged incontinent married clerks with Nicolaitic heresy, also punishable with deposition. The call for ritual purity played an important part in the council’s deliberations. “How does one who consecrates the Body of the Lord,” the bishops asked, “dare to commit such a crime?”[2]

What I have not been able to find on a relatively quick skim is whether Augustine himself shared this view. Given his involvement in the councils of Carthage as well as some of the other views on sex he explicitly posited, I tend to suspect he broadly agreed. (Perhaps a more knowledgeable reader can chime in here.) If this is right, it would put Protestants rather closer historically to Greek theology, at least on the particular issue of clerical marriage and sexuality.

  1. Ἐπειδὴ ἐν τῇ Ῥωμαίων ἐκκλησίᾳ ἐν τάξει κανόνος παραδεδόσθαι διέγνωμεν τοὺς μέλλοντας διακόνου ἢ πρεσβυτέρου ἀξιοῦσθαι χειροτονίας καθομολογεῖν, ὡς οὐκέτι ταῖς ἑαυτῶν συνάπτονται γαμεταῖς, ἡμεῖς τῷ ἀρχαίῳ ἐξακολουθοῦντες κανόνι τῆς ἀποστολικῆς ἀκριβείας καὶ τάξεως τὰ τῶν ἱερῶν ἀνδρῶν κατὰ νόμους συνοικέσια καὶ ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν ἐρρῶσθαι βουλόμεθα, μηδαμῶς αὐτῶν τὴν πρὸς γαμετὰς συνάφειαν διαλύοντες ἢ ἀποστεροῦντες αὐτοὺς τῆς πρὸς ἀλλήλους κατὰ καιρὸν τὸν προσήκοντα ὁμιλίας. ὥστε εἴ τις ἄξιος εὑρεθείη πρὸς χειροτονίαν ὑποδιακόνου ἢ διακόνου ἢ πρεσβυτέρου, οὗτος μηδαμῶς κωλυέσθω ἐπὶ τοιοῦτον βαθμὸν ἐμβιβάζεσθαι γαμετῇ συνοικῶν νομίμῳ· μήτε μὴν ἐν τῷ τῆς χειροτονίας καιρῷ ἀπαιτείσθω ὁμολογεῖν, ὡς ἀποστήσεται τῆς νομίμου πρὸς τὴν οἰκείαν γαμετὴν ὁμιλίας, ἵνα μὴ ἐντεῦθεν τὸν ἐκ θεοῦ νομοθετηθέντα καὶ εὐλογηθέντα τῇ αὐτοῦ παρουσίᾳ γάμον καθυβρίζειν ἐκβιασθῶμεν, τῆς τοῦ εὐαγγελίου φωνῆς βοώσης· ἃ ὁ θεὸς ἔζευξεν, ἄνθρωπος μὴ χωριζέτω, καὶ τοῦ ἀποστόλου διδάσκοντος· τίμιον τὸν γάμον καὶ τὴν κοίτην ἀμίαντον, καί· δέδεσαι γυναικί, μὴ ζήτει λύσιν. Ἴσμεν δέ, ὥσπερ καὶ οἱ ἐν Καρθαγένῃ συνελθόντες τῆς ἐν βίῳ σεμνότητος τῶν λειτουργῶν τιθέμενοι πρόνοιαν ἔφασαν, ὥστε τοὺς ὑποδιακόνους τοὺς τὰ ἱερὰ μυστήρια ψηλαφῶντας καὶ τοὺς διακόνους καὶ πρεσβυτέρους κατὰ τοὺς ἰδίους ὅρους καὶ ἐκ τῶν συμβίων ἐγκρατεύεσθαι, ἵνα καὶ τὸ διὰ τῶν ἀποστόλων παραδοθὲν καὶ ἐξ αὐτῆς τῆς ἀρχαιότητος κρατηθὲν καὶ ἡμεῖς ὁμοίως φυλάξωμεν, καιρὸν ἐπὶ παντὸς ἐπιστάμενοι πράγματος καὶ μάλιστα νηστείας καὶ προσευχῆς· χρὴ γὰρ τοὺς τῷ θυσιαστηρίῳ προσεδρεύοντας ἐν τῷ καιρῷ τῆς τῶν ἁγίων μεταχει ρήσεως ἐγκρατεῖς εἶναι ἐν πᾶσιν, ὅπως δυνηθῶσιν ὃ παρὰ τοῦ θεοῦ ἁπλῶς αἰτοῦσιν ἐπιτυχεῖν. Εἴ τις οὖν τολμήσοι, παρὰ τοὺς ἀποστολικοὺς κανόνας κινούμενος, τινὰ τῶν ἱερωμένων, πρεσβυτέρων φαμὲν ἢ διακόνων ἢ ὑποδιακόνων, ἀποστερεῖν τῆς πρὸς τὴν νόμιμον γυναῖκα συναφείας τε καὶ κοινωνίας, καθαιρείσθω· ὡσαύτως καὶ εἴ τις πρεσβύτερος ἢ διάκονος τὴν ἑαυτοῦ γυναῖκα προφάσει εὐλαβείας ἐκβάλλοι, ἀφοριζέσθω, ἐπιμένων δέ, καθαιρείσθω. A. R. Flogaus, C. R. Kraus, and H. Ohme, Acta conciliorum oecumenicorum. Text from Series secunda, volumen secundum: Concilium Constantinopolitanum a. 691/2 in Trullo habitum (Concilium quinisextum), Pars 4, Berlin – Boston: De Gruyter, 2013: 1-86.
  2. Suzanne Fonay Wemple, Women in Frankish Society: Marriage and the Cloister, 500 to 900 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981), 133.


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