Some Remarks on Trullo in the Catholic Church

In my earlier post, “Edwards Peters Contra the East,” I incorporated some critical remarks concerning Peters’s dismissal of the 692 A.D. Council in Trullo (otherwise known as the Quinisext Council or Penthekte Synod). It is commonplace for Latin Catholics dismissive of the Eastern practice of married clergy without the requirement of perpetual continence to claim, on the one hand, that Trullo introduced innovations into the (Eastern) Church and, on the other, has no standing in the Catholic Church. Indeed, it is not difficult to find popular and academic pieces written from a Latin perspective which dismiss Trullo tout court. This picture is not altogether accurate, as detailed in Fr. Frederick R. McManus’s article, “The Council in Trullo: A Roman Catholic Perspective,” 40 Greek Orthodox Theological Review 79 (1995). Without claiming to summarize all of the article’s contents, allow me to mention a few highlights:

  • Although the disciplinary canons promulgated at Trullo were immediately rejected by Pope Sergius I at the close of the seventh century, John VIII, in the ninth century (if not also his predecessor Pope Constantine in the eighth century), accepted those canons which did not contradict the usages and disciplines of the See of Rome. At the heart of Rome’s initial rejection of Trullo was its pretense of defining disciplines and practices for the universal Church, ones which would have contracted longstanding Latin usage (e.g., Lenten fast on Saturdays and mandatory celibacy for deacons and presbyters).
  • Numerous sources throughout the medieval period indicate that that Rome recognized that Trullo was binding law for the Greeks (i.e., Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics who follow the Byzantine Rite) even though it had no binding status for Latin Catholics.
  • Critical editions of the canons of Trullo — in Latin and Greek — were published first under Blessed Pope Pius IX and, second, under Popes Pius XI and XII when sources were being assembled for what would eventually become the Code of Canons for the Eastern Churches.
  • Although the 1990 Code of Canons for the Eastern Churches leaves much to be desired in both substance and form, the manner of its promulgation is noteworthy. In his Apostolic constitution Sacri Canones, John Paul II explicitly recognizes the legitimacy of the Eastern canonical tradition, including Trullo.

These observations do not obviate the fact that Latin Catholics will likely continue to raise the false flag that Trullo’s canons concerning priestly celibacy are “an innovation” or that celibate priesthood is ipso facto superior to the married priesthood. Let me close with a reminder that that the crisis of Christianity in modern times — one which can be found in the East and the West — will not be remedied through petty polemics, triumphalism, insult, creative history, or chauvinism. The ancient Latin Catholic discipline of clerical celibacy — in my humble opinion — ought to be respected and retained, and no Easterner — Catholic, Orthodox, or Oriental — should cast aspersions upon it. Perhaps it would be good if, at some point in the future, Eastern Christians take time to reflect more deeply on the unique spiritual and practical benefits of clerical celibacy in the light of their own tradition. Eastern Christendom’s great monastic culture would never have been possible without the discipline of celibacy, nor, in the Catholic context, would the missionary work of the Redemptorists in Ukraine have been possible either. Catholics everywhere should give thanks to God for the gift of the priesthood and pray that more men take up this vocation, married or celibate.


  1. Of course polemic and triumphalism are useless in confronting the crisis we face today. We Romans, however, face an extremely dangerous attack on our ancient tradition of mandatory celibacy, the backbone of which is that the issue is merely disciplinary rather than doctrinal. The example of the East is constantly used to support the innovators. We must, therefore, explain why the clear practical advantage, in some contexts, of a married presbyterate are not to be accepted as good reason to change our law. The only way this can be done is by re-emphasising the spiritual importance of celibacy as a state of greater perfection and closer to the life of heaven. Saying that “it is our tradition” and “it is a great spiritual gift” without further explanation simply does not cut the ice. This cannot be done without at least implicitly saying that the Roman practise is preferable. This needn’t be a problem. pursuit of perfection within a monastery is not something I am called to but that does not mean I don’t recognise that it is a higher calling than my own.

    1. I agree with you in general. I suppose my concern is how can a strong defense be made of the Latin discipline without insulting or alienating Eastern Christians (particularly Catholics). I struggle with this question myself, and I don’t claim to have any good answer right at hand. What I have tried to do with the last two posts is defend the Eastern practice from some of the more extravagant and wrongheaded criticisms which are brought against it by Latin Catholics. I am certainly not a fan of Latin renovationists cherry-picking from the East in order to support disciplinary changes which are imprudent, if not dangerous.

      1. As you say, it is so often difficult to be tactful when discussing these issues. The very idea of “superior” vocations is something which many good, holy priests I have know find difficult language. We know full well that there are saints amongst the parishioners who put their pastors to shame for true asceticism, and to suggest that celibate clergy are living a higher vocation seems at odds with this. But, as I am sure we all understand, the perfection of the vocation in no way implies that the one with that vocation is necessarily as holy as he or she is called to be. Those saints of the ancient past who wept on their way to episcopal consecration out of fear for the grave responsibilities they were about to take on are who we must look too.

        We need to be tactful and recognise where others have perhaps the more perfect praxis. The Roman Church has the glory of (near) universal clerical celibacy while the East has maintained a truly Patristic understanding of the central place of monasticism in the life of the Church, the West too often favouring St Martha over St Mary (saints though they may both be).

        An important discussion. Thanks for your thoughtful writing and for creating a forum for these important conversations.

    2. Felix, what is the dogma in this regard for Catholics? Is it that celibacy is a state of greater perfection? Or is it specifically the celibacy of an ordained priest? If so, does this extend to all those in celibate, consecrated life, men and women?

      Also, there seems to me that in the East there is much less of a gap regarding what is expected from celibates (ie monastics) vs what is expected of layman, in the ideal, than what developed in the West. This wider gap in the West then, would naturally lend itself to more self-talk dedicated to justify this gap, which runs a greater risk in denigrating the married life to an extreme and magnifying to an extent perhaps more than necessary about the greater perfection of the celibate state.

      1. The superiority of celibates is hardly “dogma”.

        Your post reminds me of the life of Daniel the Stylite. A general came to him after becoming a bishop or archbishop to escape assassination in some plot. After the plot ended, he left behind his ministry — which would have made him celibate then. He put on, then took off, his ordained ministry. When the general came to the Stylite, Daniel never brought this maneuver up to him, as though he had done something wrong, or profaned a holy office. That’s Byzantium. The office is simply the office — it no more marks the person than an Imperial administrative stint.

        The Roman West has a higher view of ordination than we do. They have, I would argue, the same views on celibacy. The former demands the necessity of the latter *for* the former.

        1. I am not sure if you are in union with Rome or not. If you are then it most certainly is a dogma – if a canon of an ecumenical council, with an anathema attached, is not dogmatic then what is?

      2. The dogma relates to all celibates, rather than just clerics. It would follow, I would think, however, that if celibacy is a preferable state it is more befitting to the clerical state than marriage. Besides, there is a clear preference for celibacy amongst the clergy in the writing of the Fathers and in the sacred canons and so I would suggest that it is part of the ordinary magisterium.

        Your concerns about this doctrine being misinterpreted as somehow denigrating marriage have often been shown to be quite fair. It is an error which must always be guarded against.

        1. Could you direct me to anything you regard as normative and authoritative regarding the “indelible mark” of the ordained as understood by the West? I’ve friends and family that speak of this as permanent, regardless if the man was regularized by his diocese to become a laymen. I would guess that this understanding developed concurrent with the enforcement of clerical celibacy in the west.

          What is on my mind is the degree to which such thinking undermines the power of the Church regarding binding and loosing, encourages clericalism and weakens the degree to which the laity maintain a conscious level of ownership of the faith, of their sensus fidelium.

          1. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, no.1582, references the Trent and Vatican II as authoritatively teaching this. It has, however, been firmly believed in the West since at least the time of St Augustine. St Augustine wrote several works opposing the heresy of the Donatists. They held that the sacraments administered by clergy who had apostatised during the persecutions were invalid, even going so far as to insist on the re-baptism of those who had lapsed. Along with the entire Western hierarchy he condemned this as a heresy because, firstly, the righteousness of the minister does not effect the validity of the sacrament and, secondly, because the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and orders make an indelible mark upon the recipient, configuring the to Christ, which can never be removed. In general, Western theology has always held that all sacraments are irreversible even though confession, extreme unction, communion, and marriage once one partner has died can be repeated.

    1. You catch all of my mistakes. Are you willing to take on the job as blog editor? It doesn’t pay much, or anything, and it will probably hurt all of your future chances at employment and respectability…but let’s just say the offer is on the table.

      Are you Old Calendar? Because otherwise I would wish you Merry Christmas.

      And yeah I’ll correct it. [sigh]

  2. I find the idea that “celibacy” is a “higher” state or calling – whether for priests or others – somewhat problematic, i.e. leads to problems. It is the tendency of organisations to pyramidise, with elites of varying kinds at the summit, and so discourse – and self-justifying theories – often develop along such lines. Setting aside the situation of the celibate cenobite or anchorite pursuing the contemplative life, I think the thinking about “celibate” priesthoods has been traditionally grounded in or influenced by considerations of this kind, to promote and sustain the hierarchical structures and their authority, as well as particular notions about sex: sex is something of a necessary(!) evil, or a concession, or just plain sinful. [To take just one example – in his encyclical “Sacra Virginitatis”, Pope Pius XII – for whom I have much regard – puts the issue this way: “There is no counting the number of those who……have offered their chastity to God……..But they are all distinguished by their common determination to abstain, for the love of God, from the gratifications of the flesh”. ]

    Now, the line of protest against the removal of mandatory celibacy for secular priests appears, I think, to have something of the character of an Alamo – a last-ditch stand (or one of a series of) for a passing or threatened religious paradigm.

    I think we need to ask ourselves how, in what sense, can celibacy – for anyone – be said to be “higher”, or better, given that the universal call to relationship and reconciliation with God and neighbour implicit in Christianity, in Christ, is for all, whatever their circumstances? Quite apart from any other consideration, were every Christian to immediately eschew any kind of – let alone, married – intercourse, the Christian population would become extinct within 4 generations at the outside. Were every human to do so, the same result would eventuate. The history of the Shakers shows the vulnerability of absolute celibacy for a class or group. The effect of the language and theory of the higher state of celibate clerical life has essentially been to encourage in the psyche of the vast majority of the members of the Churches the idea that they are deficient in some way, or are some kind of stud or fertility farm for the good of the institution.

    If I may go back to Pius XII, I note two things: one, that he himself speaks of “chastity” rather than “celibacy” although in different contexts it is sometimes clear that the two ideas are combined or identical; second, he makes it very clear that ‘chastity’ (i.e. celibacy) is “no Christian virtue unless we embrace it “for love of the kingdom of heaven”. Citing Augustine, he says that “it is not….virginity that we extol in virgins but their consecration in plighted continence to God”. If this is interpreted in a way that encompasses the universal call to love, then it is the example of love of God at the expense of oneself that should inspire us, not the particular means or expression of that love – i.e. celibacy. We are inspired similarly by the example and dedication of a husband and wife for each other, a man or woman who devotes their life to the service of others, forgoing money or respectability or status etc.

    If we are all called to love God, and all called to be chaste (in the sense of not making our human sexual nature an idol or objectifying vehicle), and if we all find ourselves in diverse circumstances, then it is not so much a case of celibacy being a “higher” calling but simply one possible way – in context – for an individual to express their own love for God and neighbour.

    It is in this context that we perhaps ought to consider the competing claims for mandatory clerical celibacy and optional clerical celibacy. Is it possible for people to be priests and ministers and get married? Of course it is. Is it possible that an imposed celibacy can become a personally oppressive condition likely to lead to unchastity in mind if not also in body? I don’t think there is any doubt that this is so in many cases, somewhat ironically in view of Pope Pius XII’s claim that ‘the test of the tree is in its fruit’.

    The flaw in the idealisation of compulsory clerical celibacy does not lie in a consideration of (i) whether freedom from conjugal responsibilities, a dedicated matrimonial relationship, the raising of children does not afford, or has not proven to assist, the dedication to pastoral apostolate, or (ii) whether a decision to abstain from sexual gratification and intimacy cannot be an expression of the earnestness of a person’s love for God and the Christian mission, and thus an inspiration to others, or (iii) whether sexual abstinence and the solitary life are not necessarily existentially harmful or injurious to people – rather the flaw seems to be in the gratuitous assertion that it is intrinsically superior to either the non-voluntary single state or a married state; and the foundational notion that sex is bad in itself.

    The argument for optional celibacy appears to me to be quite a sensible one. There may be still a case for compulsory clerical celibacy, but if so, in my view, the emphasis should be on practical considerations, the example of love, and any suggestion that it is intrinsically better should be quietly retired.

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