Prof. Thomas O’Loughlin gives history of celibacy in the Catholic Church
One of the most carefully fostered aspects of the image of the Catholic priest is that he is without a wife. Indeed, this image has been built-up by the church administration as an essential part of its own esprit de corps. In recent centuries, certainly since clerical problems in mid-eighteenth century France, the authorities have perceived in celibacy a badge of identity for its officers and presented it as representing a willingness to pay any price for the survival of their religious system. Popes have spoken of it a ‘the jewel in the crown of the priesthood’. And some, notably Pope Gregory XVI in 1832 and Pius IX in 1846, have suspected that there was a vast conspiracy to undermine Catholicism by attacking celibacy. Gregory was quite certain that ‘their’ strategy was to promote the abolition of celibacy, for once priests were married they would no longer have the energy to resist the larger conspiracy of those wanting to destroy the Church.
Clerics on recruitment drives in schools used more robust language and presented celibacy as leaving the priest without ties and attachments: ready for world-wide deployment at a moment’s notice. The celibate priest was a hybrid between a spiritual Red Adare and the Marine Corps of the army of Christ. If this B-movie romanticism (“I’ve no family at home, I’ll get the message back through the lines!”) seems far-fetched, then study the old seminary anthems such as this from All Hallows, Dublin: “in lands afar – for Christ our King – our comrades bravely fight – for to teach the nations to bear – the banner of the Lord”. Meanwhile, nineteenth-century defenders of celibacy, realising that the local clergy had neither the energy of a Red Adare nor the mobility of the marines, presented a different image of one who was always ready to go “on a sick-call”, the ally of the outcast, the friend of children. This image, fostered by nineteenth-century French religious writers such as Lacordaire, or by popular writers like Canon Sheehan whose novels were best-sellers in the early years of this century in Ireland, while not ignoble, was certainly fanciful as the repeated episcopal legislation from Maynooth makes clear. The bishops’ concern was that priests stay in their parishes to be available when needed. And, as transport and the possibilities of travel improved, so did the complexity of the attempts of the Maynooth Statutes to keep them on the job. Parallel to this official promotion of celibacy, there was always a grim realisation that it caused serious and widespread problems: not just the drunken priest problem, but a range of situations which, if public, would be scandalous; other problems such as men leaving the priesthood; or the knowledge that the further a priest was geographically from the administration, the greater the likelihood that celibacy would be forgotten. The best evidence for this awareness is to examine what was covered by law. For instance, there were detailed regulations on the age of house-keepers, a prohibition on a priest absolving his sexual partner of her sin, prohibitions on priests dancing, going to certain entertainments, having a woman sitting beside them in the front of a car, and the list goes on and on. The origins of such a phenomenon as celibacy, provoking so much public defence by the church authorities who privately were aware of how problematic the policy was in practice, make it a fascinating study for the historian. And, given current public interest in clerical celibacy, a sketch of its history in the Roman Catholic Church is not out of place.
First References to Celibacy
From what can be gleaned from the scanty references to ministers in the earliest Christian documents, it is clear that there was no notion of celibacy. The first Christian ministers were married and took this for granted (cf. 1 Cor 9:5 and Matt 8:14). From the early second century we have a collection of texts (included in the New Testament under the name of Paul) which specify some qualities of bishops and priests: they should have shown skill in running their own families and be monogamous (1 Tim 3:2 and 3:12; and Tit 1;6); and indeed, there is a general warning on those who forbid marriage on religious grounds (1 Tim 4:3). Yet, by the fourth century something had changed. Then we see the first signs of disquiet about the compatibility of marriage and priesthood. For example at a local synod in Spain (c. 306) it was decreed that any cleric who would not undertake absolute continence should be deposed. But when a Spanish bishop tried to get a similar law given general acceptance at the Council of Nicea (325), which intended its law for the whole empire, he was rejected. An Egyptian bishop Paphnutius, who felt he could speak with authority as he was unmarried, thought the idea imprudent, difficult in practice, and objectionable as it reduced a personal choice of celibacy to a regulation. But elsewhere things were afoot.
First, there was the growth in monasticism and the notion that this was, with its implicit celibacy, the ideal of a Christian and holy life. Second, a group of influential writers, notable Jerome (c.347-419) and Ambrose (c.339-397) held that celibacy was a higher spiritual condition than marriage and that the cultic purity of the priest required abstinence from sexuality. For these writers, marriage was an earth-bound reality, but celibacy was angelic, and if the priest was to involved with the holy he could not be involved with a wife. This notion that sexuality was incompatible with holiness, destroyed cultic purity, was somehow lower in the scale of things, dirty, and connected with Original Sin, has complex origins. But, what is interesting is that it appears repeatedly in different guises until today — although since the Reformation, official praise of celibacy has usually attached a warning-phrase like: ‘but no one should understand this as a denigration of marriage’. Third, during the fourth-fifth centuries the clergy emerged as a distinctive group (the notion of forming ‘the holy order’ – the ‘ordo’ was the administrator class in the empire) within with the Church, with a developing theological identity — the notion of tiers of ‘orders’ and of a divide between clergy / laity emerge at this time. Likewise, within civil society, the Church (first as a legal and then as the official religion) and the clergy had a new public profile (distinctive dress is mentioned for the first time) and a corporate identity that was defined in law.
We see these strands coming together in a series of legal documents. Pope Damasus, a patron of Jerome, writing to some Gallic bishops (c. 380), his successor Siricius writing to a Spanish and some African bishops (c. 385), Innocent (early fifth-century) to several bishops, and Leo I, some fifty years later to several bishops, said priests should be continent, even if married, or at least periodically continent (i.e. before saying Mass). Similar laws can be found in a series of local councils (mainly southern Gaul) from the fifth-early sixth centuries. They envisage that only celibates be ordained, and those ordained should cease having sexual relations with their wives either permanently or for the night before they say Mass. Needless to say, given that almost all clergy were married in the areas affected by these decrees, legislation on matters like sleeping accommodation, maids, women (other than mothers) living in the same house, begins to appear at this time also. One other feature of this legislation should be noted, it recognised the dangers of church property being alienated by passing to a wife on the death of a priest.
This early body of legislation is often appealed to as evidence for the antiquity of the practice of celibacy. But it is nothing of the sort: all it shows is that one small, influential, group believed it should be mandatory. The decrees were all local in intent, and had little or no effect for they are often repeated verbatim from one council to the next. All they indicate is that among some administrators the idea of celibacy was in the air. In reality, the clergy (monks apart) were married, and in most places there was no hint of disapproval. The best evidence that these early laws were in not considered universal, and had little impact, is that when in the eight-century the first great systematisation of church law took shape, this legislation was not included. While these law-books praise monasticism and virginity using Jerome and others, celibacy is not mentioned in their laws on clergy, and their marriage law does not exclude clerics. For example, one of the most complex of these books, from Ireland, the Collectio canonum hibernensis (early eighth-century), assumes that clerics marry, quotes 1 Tim 3:2 on monogamy and well-regulated households, and is concerned about church property. But while those early decrees had no effect in reality, the idea that the ideal priest was a celibate had been born.
Conflict and Reform
The next phase in the development of the practice of celibacy comes in the eleventh century as part and parcel of what medievalists call ‘the investiture struggle’ and church historians call ‘the gregorian reform’. Again several factors come together. The first issue is power. Whose law, imperial or papal has primacy in church administration, to whom do clergy owe their first loyalty. To us even the question seems bizarre. Was the cleric (the only person in the village who formed a link with the wider society) there as the local representative of the organisation headed by the pope using canon law, or did he belong to the local society and so take part in supporting local law: the answer affected money, property, and local cohesion. With this went the question of which law, canon or civil, was primary, and who had the power, and patronage, to make lucrative appointments. The issues are usually discussed in terms of the precedence of pope or emperor: is the pope the imperial chaplain, or the emperor the pope’s secular administrator. But the dispute was also fought at parish level. Celibacy first enters the conflict in 1018 when Benedict VIII issued a series of decrees all of which were primarily aimed at avoiding the shift of property from church control. This continued with Leo IX (1049) and Nicholas II (1059) who sought to reduce priests’ wives to servitude and held that people should not attend Mass from inferior married priests (sotto voce: do not support them with your contributions). It was clearly seen that in a conflict about the church’s rights and property, a celibate clergy would be far more tied into the canonical administration and so be far more likely to look to the papacy than to local rulers for their maintenance and advancement. Second, in this period there was a general movement for a new style of organised religious life, which was presented (using a ninth-century notion) as a ‘reform’ (i.e. there was once a ‘perfect age’ of the church; so anything thought of as an improvement on the present situation was, therefore, a ‘going-back’ (reformare) to that perfect age). And, a ‘reform’ of the church meant a ‘reform’ of the clergy: but what was the ideal? This ideal was not constructed historically, there and then they had ideal Christians and ideal priests: the monks. Therefore, the monk-priest was the model for every priest. And, as the new ‘reformed’ monasteries founded from Cluny, and later Citeaux, began to spread across Europe, and became a source of ‘reforming’ pro-papal bishops, they presented a new ideal of the priest — formed not on an analysis of the priest’s role in the ordinary community, but on the pattern of a monk. For example, when St Laurence O’Toole, a monk, became archbishop of Dublin, in 1162, one of his first acts was to ‘reform’ the canons of his cathedral by insisting on celibacy. Third, linked to this ‘reform’ movement, a new theoretical understanding of the priesthood, marriage, and sexuality began to emerge in which celibacy became a value and a virtue of outstanding worth in itself. Many, such as Peter Damian, now argued along lines like this: if the Church is Christ’s bride, and the priest is devoted to Christ and represents him, for him to be married is to be an adulterer to Christ. Those who opposed his extremism, or suggested he was getting mixed up in his metaphors were condemned (e.g. Bishop Ulric of Imola by decree of Gregory VII, 1079). These theological developments have been well-named by Christopher Brooke as ‘the cult of celibacy’. Fourth, this period saw a massive growth in the scope and detail of canon law; the age of the lawyer-popes had arrived. The men involved in supporting the papal position, those interested in reform, and many who were particularly interested in celibacy, such as Peter Damian, had all one thing in common: they believed the way forward to success on all fronts was that of law. A comprehensive legal structure, drawing on every ancient precedent that could be found, coupled with an efficient legal system in the service of the pope would make him the appeal court of Christendom, enhance his prestige and influence, and create a highly structured clergy that looked towards Rome. Celibacy was part of this as it would help create this new clergy and administration, and would prove that at the heart of ‘reform’ was the papacy. One should not forget that for all its political expediency, the attempts to impose celibacy sprung also from a genuine desire for the good: what could be more noble in ‘reform’ of the church than to want ideal priests, and — in their eyes — any priest who engaged in any sexual activity had to be less holy than one who was celibate; so, if spiritual ‘reform’ can be effected through law, then make it law. And this is exactly what they did.
In a series of synods leading up to two councils held in Rome (First Lateran (1123) and Second Lateran (1139)) the marriages of clergy were declared not only unlawful, but null and void. The law stated that anyone in Orders could not marry, and someone married could only become a priest if the marriage were set aside (i.e. they no longer lived as husband and wife, but the wife could not re-marry). However, on the ground little changed. While we think of councils having effects rapidly around the world, this was not so in the twelfth century, even the notion of an ‘ecumenical council’ did not yet exist. These decrees were from an important council, were agreed by the bishops there, but no more than that. They would only take effect where individual bishops decided to enforce them, even then any change would be slow and random. As ever, if such a law was applied to cathedral canons and the important clergy in towns, it was a very different matter in rural areas far from episcopal interest.
Gratian and the Law Schools
The up-surge in interest in celibacy might have petered out, were it not that it occurred in a stream of developments in canon law. Canon law’s importance as an instrument of power and doctrine had been steadily increasing since the eleventh century. It reached a new height with a lawyer named Gratian (died before 1159). He brought together over 4000 legal decisions, from the earliest times until the Second Lateran council, in a new organised format that presented the Church’s law in a systematic and coherent body in one book. Now, the laws on celibacy were not just a jumble of decisions, some pro and some anti, but a structured position: the papacy had legislated, so other laws and precedents should be understood in conformity with this. Gratian presented canon law as systematic, coherent, internally consistent, and in perfect continuity from the earliest times to the most recent. His book, the Decretum, was an immediate success. It became a standard reference and text-book in universities, was a model for other subjects such as theology and philosophy, and formed the base of the Church’s legal system until 1918. Since Gratian included Lateran II’s decrees, these were guaranteed an influence and publicity their framers could not have hoped for. And, from then until the Reformation, they would be commented on, added to, and gradually given effect among the clergy.
Reformation and Counter-Reformation
By the sixteenth century a situation had emerged where everyone knew the law, in many places (perhaps most — we do not know) it was adhered to, while in many places it was ignored or by-passed. We know this from bishops who arrived in their dioceses with new brooms. Usually their first complaint (and the proof of the uselessness of the former regime) was the ‘awful morals of their priests’ which means that ‘house-keepers’ were in fact — and all knew it as they had children — the priests’ wives. This is also seen in cases presented to Rome by priests asking that their sons be legitimated, so that they could inherit or so that these sons could themselves be ordained. Incidentally, not only were these requests very common, but were looked on most favourably by the Roman Curia as they were among the most expensive dispensations to be had, costing 12 Gros Tournois. Finally, in sixteenth-century tax-returns from Germany we find that a sure guide for assessing the spread of the Reformation is to look at how clergy describe those who share their living quarters. In many cases, while he considers himself in union with Rome, we find beside a woman’s name: ‘ancilla’ (house-keeper); when the actual break comes and he considers himself ‘a protestant,’ beside the same woman’s name is ‘uxor’ (wife). Little, but the formalities, seem to have changed.
Luther marks the next stage in the story. He argued that something one does, for instance making a vow or being celibate, could not add to one’s holiness (1522). Later, he condemned celibacy as the creation of canon law, itself the work of the devil (1530) and held that for fallen men, burning with passion, marriage was a necessity if they were to avoid sin (his understanding of 1 Cor 7:9). Luther himself married in June 1525 and died the father of a large family. His position on celibacy was, in broad outline, that of the other reformers as well. For example, Calvin held that some are called by God to celibacy, but that it should not be prescribed by law nor be considered a more spiritual, higher, vocation than marriage. Significantly, his is the best historical scholarship of the period. Commenting on references to marriage in Scripture, he recognised that Jerome’s position could not be sustained with its extremely corrupt view of sexuality, and indeed was not one shared by the New Testament. He further recognised that it was Jerome’s hang-ups about sex and virginity, rather than Scripture, that influenced law and ordinary theology text-books. Jerome was to be used with caution, and this comes from Calvin who on other matters of interpretation and linguistics had Jerome as his hero.
The opposition of the Reformers sealed the fate of celibacy for the Roman Church. The Council of Trent declared that celibacy was possible, founded on Scripture, and that it was heresy to say that virginity / celibacy were not objectively superior to marriage (1563). If the Protestant ministers were married, the new men of the Counter-reformation would be celibates, trained and organised with a precision and uniformity unimaginable to medieval clerics. Moreover, the continuing Protestant / Catholic divide gave Trent an impetus to enforce its law unlike any previous council. Celibacy was to be a badge of the priesthood, and every priest trained in a special way and in a special place, the seminary. The distinction between the priest in the parish and the priest-member of a religious order further disappeared. A good priest was a member of a spiritual elite formed on a pattern designed for monks and friars. It took many decades for Trent’s vision to inform practice; but where Catholicism remained the religion, it gradually replaced older forms and attitudes. Variations certainly continued in reality, but they were increasingly seen as ‘irregularities’ and ‘occasional lapses’. However, while it became commonplace to note ‘the great reforms’ of Trent, careful studies of the consequences of its approach to the priesthood are far less common. By insisting in a age when few were even literate that the priest had to be, de facto, a graduate and a celibate, the number of priests declined, the priesthood was professionalised, and a gulf established between these new small group of specialists that would have been unthinkable during the Middle Ages and which can still be seen in the Orthodox world today. In the Middle Ages, every little village had its church (look at all the place names beginning with ‘kil’ in Ireland, ‘llan’ in Wales, or ‘St’ in France) with a priest who was one of the community as was his father before him and his son after him (look at names like McTaggart or De Clercq); after Trent priests were far less common – just recall the scale of resouces needed to train them – and were both socially and religiously distinct from those among whom they worked: and the price of such specialist professionalism is still being paid today.
Celibacy is a classic example of how an idea from one period, if it gets lodged in law, can become self-perpetuating and eventually be seen as an ideal. When a law is repeated over a long-enough period it justifies itself even if it does not accord with reality or the larger values it claims to serve. Once the law provides the norm, it is reality that is judged defective, and any attempt to change the law is taken to reflect on the authority of the law in general and those who administer it. To say the law erred regarding celibacy was to suggest that the law was not the will of God, or that the papacy had been making erroneous decisions for years. Such prospects abhorred those who spent their lives in administration, and (as another lawyer, Lord Hailsham, said of a another clash of law and reality;) “it opens an appalling vista” that a whole system could be wrong on something like celibacy — on which it had expended so much effort. In this situation anyone who questioned celibacy had to be marginalised as in error or disloyal, or, as Gregory XVI believed, part of a vast conspiracy against God and his Church.
P. Delhaye, ‘Celibacy, History of’ New Catholic Encyclopaedia 3 91967), 369-74 [gives the facts, but written as an historical defence of the institution].
C. Brooke, The Medieval Idea of Marriage (Oxford 1989), ch. 3: The Cult of Celibacy [best account of the crucial 11-12th century period].
U. Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven (Harmondsworth 1991) [wide-ranging and provocatively written, but lacking a proper footnotes].
Additional Bibliography (2012):
The volume of writing on the topic of celibacy, in English alone, is staggering. But the quantity of writing that explores the topic historically is far more restricted – despite the fact that there was an historical critique of the notion that celibacy was of apostolic origin written as long ago as 1867 by Hency C. Lea (An Historical Sketch of Sascerdotal Celibacy in the Christian Church [Philadelphia 1867] – available as a free download at: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=ys5GAAAAcAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=lea+celibacy&hl=en&sa=X&ei=lxeyT_eYCs6r8AOcuNCvCQ&ved=0CDoQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=lea%20celibacy&f=false
Here are some pointers to further reading:
First, note that P. Delhaye, ‘Celibacy, History of’ New Catholic Encyclopaedia 3(1967)369-74 is re-printed in second ed., 2003, in vol. 3, pp. 322-8. There is a useful book-length history by W.E. Phipps: Clerical Celibacy: The Heritage (London 2004).
On the earlist period – upon which most has been written – three books stand out: W. Deming, Paul on Marriage and Celibacy: the Hellenistic Background of 1 Cor 7 (Grand Rapid, MI 2004). D.G. Hunter, Marriage, Celibacy, and Heresy: The Jovinianist Controversy (Oxford 2009). Harder to get hold of, but a fundamental modern study is S. Laeuchli, Power and Sexuality: The Emergence of Canon Law at the Synod of Elvira (Philadelphia 1972).
I have tried to explore the background to some of the issues mentioned in the above piece in these articles: T. O’Loughlin, ‘Marriage and Sexuality in the Hibernensis,’ Peritia 11(1997)188-206. - ‘Priestly Celibacy and “Arguments from History”,’ Doctrine and Life 49(1999)411-422. - ‘Giraldus Cambrensis and the Sexual Agenda of the Twelfth-Century Reformers’, Journal of Welsh Religious History 8(2000)1-15. - ‘Celibate clergy: the need for historical debate,’ New Blackfriars 85(2004)583-597 [re-printed in: Enda McDonagh and Vincent Mac Namara eds, An Irish Reader in Moral Theology: The Legacy of the Last Fifty Years (Columba, Dublin 2011), vol. 2: Sex, Marriage and the Family, pp. 447-60]. - ‘How many priests do we need?’ New Blackfriars 86(2005)642-657.
Lastly, one of the more significant works looking at the effects of celibacy on priestly ministry but making critical use of historians’ methods is: Heinz-Jürgen Vogels, Celibacy – Gift or Law? : A Critical Investigation (Tunbridge Wells 1992) – originally published in German as Pflichtzölibat in 1978 [revised edition, 1992]. This book, which has attracted little attention in English, is perhaps the most important study of celibacy within church praxis written in recent decades.
Thomas O’Loughlin is Professor of Historical Theology in the University of Nottingham.