In the Orthodox Eastern churches, ordinary parish clergy are married, but monks, nuns, and bishops are celibates. In the West, celibacy was common among the parish clergy beginning the 3d cent.; as time passed, the Holy See became adamant in opposing the marriage of the secular clergy (see orders, holy). By the early Middle Ages, marriage of the clergy had fallen into disrepute; church reformers aimed at concubinage and violations of the laws of chastity rather than of marriage. In the 12th cent. the most stringent laws were enacted, and by the time of the Reformation popular opinion tolerated neither concubinage nor marriage in the clergy. Protestantism rejected voluntary celibacy as an ideal.
The Roman Catholic Church in the Roman rite allows no sacerdotal marriage, but the clergy of Eastern rites united with the Holy See are often married before ordination. Some married priests from other religions or rites have converted to Catholicism and been accepted, but not all dioceses have permitted these priests to practice. Although recent popes and various national groupings of bishops have insisted on the retention of celibacy for priests, there has been considerable pressure in the United States and Europe in support of voluntary marriage for the clergy. A standard defense of the Western discipline of celibacy for parish priests is that marriage would prevent the priest from giving his complete attention to his parish; critics complain that unmarried clergy are unfit to give counsel on marital and sexual problems. Since the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church has restored the office of deacon to a prominent place in the ministry and accepts married men into it.
The question of celibacy is handled differently by various Christian authorities.
The Bible teaches celibacy to be honorable, but not required. The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7, "Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: 'It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.' But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband." (verses 1-2); "I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion." (verses 7-9); "I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord." (verses 32-35)
Catholics understand celibacy to be a reflection of life in Heaven, and a source of detachment from the material world, which aids in one's relationship with God. Catholic priests are called to be espoused to the Church itself, and espoused to God, without overwhelming, exclusive commitments interfering with the relationship. Catholics understand celibacy as the calling of some, but not of all.
A few Christian sects even advocated celibacy as a better way of life for everyone. These groups included the following: The Shakers, The Harmony Society, and The Ephrata Cloister. These groups no longer exist.