Saturday, 3 September 2016

The Evidential Value of the St. Paphnutius story in the Celibacy Debate

As we have promised above to make some mention of Paphnutius and Spyridon, it is time to speak of them here. Paphnutius then was bishop of one of the cities in Upper Thebes: he was a man so favored divinely that extraordinary miracles were done by him. In the time of the persecution he had been deprived of one of his eyes. The emperor honored this man exceedingly, and often sent for him to the palace, and kissed the part where the eye had been torn out. So great devoutness characterized the emperor Constantine. Let this single fact respecting Paphnutius suffice: I shall now explain another thing which came to pass in consequence of his advice, both for the good of the Church and the honor of the clergy. It seemed fit to the bishops to introduce a new law into the Church, that those who were in holy orders, I speak of bishops, presbyters, and deacons, should have no conjugal intercourse with the wives whom they had married while still laymen. Now when discussion on this matter was impending, Paphnutius having arisen in the midst of the assembly of bishops, earnestly entreated them not to impose so heavy a yoke on the ministers of religion: asserting that 'marriage itself is honorable, and the bed undefiled'; Hebrews 13:4 urging before God that they ought not to injure the Church by too stringent restrictions. 'For all men,' said he, 'cannot bear the practice of rigid continence; neither perhaps would the chastity of the wife of each be preserved': and he termed the intercourse of a man with his lawful wife chastity. It would be sufficient, he thought, that such as had previously entered on their sacred calling should abjure matrimony, according to the ancient tradition of the Church: but that none should be separated from her to whom, while yet unordained, he had been united. And these sentiments he expressed, although himself without experience of marriage, and, to speak plainly, without ever having known a woman: for from a boy he had been brought up in a monastery, and was specially renowned above all men for his chastity. The whole assembly of the clergy assented to the reasoning of Paphnutius: wherefore they silenced all further debate on this point, leaving it to the discretion of those who were husbands to exercise abstinence if they so wished in reference to their wives. Thus much concerning Paphnutius.

From the Ecclesiastical History of Socrates of Constantinople

This account of an incident during the Council of Nicea by Socrates of Constantinople, has been dismissed as fiction by a number of scholars, most especially those who argue clerical celibacy or continence was an apostolic tradition. There are some scholars, however, who have defended the truthfulness of Socrates' account. Let us assume for a moment that this is a fiction that Socrates either invented or believed. Does this story have any bearing on the debate about the apostolicity of celibacy/ continence?

Firstly and rather obviously, this story shows that a married non-celibate clergy was not a novelty introduced by the Council of Trullo in 692 AD. The 'Apostolic Normists' often write as though the eastern practice of ordaining non-celibate men really did begin in 692 AD. If the Paphnutius story was written in, say 700 AD, then one could reasonably conclude it was a piece of propaganda composed to justify the Council's permission of non-celibate clergy. However, this was written some time before 450 AD, over two centuries before the Council of Trullo. This would clearly suggest that the Trullo position was based on an older tradition. If the Apostolic Normists claim the continence requirement of the Council of Elvira was based on an older tradition, we can just as legitimately argue that the Council of Trullo's position was traditional.

Secondly, this story shows that clerical continence was by no means a uniform requirement or expectation, but it was a subject of debate or contention as early as the 4th century. Ultimately, those who contend for a universal requirement of clerical continence in the early church are selective in their use of quotations. Where a text supports the expectation of clerical continence, it is given enormous weight and significance. Where texts seem to differ from that expectation, they are minimized or interpreted under the assumption of apostolic celibacy.

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