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The true history of celibacy

According to some reports, the next synod may touch on the question of ordaining married men. If we are to have such a debate, it should be based on fact, not fantasy. You will sometimes hear people say that priests could be married up to the 12th century. Others say that celibacy was imposed on the clergy by Gregory VII or that celibacy was promoted “because they hated the body". These are familiar statements, but they are all untrue.

The history is complicated, but well documented in studies such as Stefan Heid’s Celibacy in the Early Church. Yes, indeed, during the first millennium it was perfectly regular for married men to be ordained deacon or priest, but they had to separate from their wives beforehand. Technically not celibacy, but continence: sexual abstinence by formerly married men. They never pretended they had not been married. Their wives enjoyed status, and their children often followed them into the ministry. The sons, incidentally, could be ordained to minor orders before their teens, up to acolyte.

It was never forbidden for acolytes to marry, and still be clerics, and they easily found employment as clerks. We seem to have forgotten that minor orders existed (they were reformed in 1972), but many “married clergy" were in minor orders, who often decided later to proceed to major orders – though only if their wives were happy about it.

True, we know little of the early period, though St Peter boasted, “we have left our homes and followed you", when Our Lord commended leaving house or wife (Luke 19:28-9), and St Paul says bishops must be “self-controlled" (Titus 1:8; in Greek “continent" or “abstinent"). But from the 4th century, legislation, and writings of popes and bishops, make it clear that they believed the discipline of clerical continence went back to the Apostles.

From then onwards, there are innumerable decrees of local councils, circulated throughout the Church. It would be tedious to record them all, and councils only needed to repeat the law because it was not always kept. (I discovered all this while preparing for my little book on community life among pastoral clergy, Vita Communis, which was published by Gracewing in 2009.)

Clergy were encouraged to live in communities, where young clerics were educated, and the deacons and priests kept away from their wives. But the wives were not forgotten – clergy were enclosed at night, but went about the city by day, including visiting their families.

The early second millennium was a time of reform after the sad corruption of the papacy in the 10th century. Councils, bishops, and monarchs issued decrees on clerical continence, always reminding them of an ancient rule well known. The first General Council to repeat this is Lateran I (1123), forbidding priests, deacons or sub-deacons to live together with wives or concubines, or any woman except a mother, sister or aunt beyond reproach. Lateran II in 1139 added that if major clergy and monks married after ordination, such marriages were invalid. St Anselm ensured that the English clergy obeyed this, and Henry I gleefully proposed taxing the offenders – only to discover that there were too few to be worth taxing.

Nothing in Lateran I or Lateran II actually contradicts the ancient practice of ordaining married men as long as they lived in continence thereafter. In fact, no General Council of the Church has ever forbidden that. The Council of Trent merely repeats that clergy in major orders cannot validly marry. So we can even say that the Church never officially imposed celibacy: the word, strictly speaking, means being a bachelor (celibe in Italian simply means an unmarried man). A widower can be ordained; a married man may still sometimes be ordained if he separate from his wife. But all priests and bishops in the Latin Church are required to observe continence (except by special dispensation, as in the case of some convert clergy), and those already ordained cannot validly marry.

Yet celibacy is now usual. The big change came about before the 13th century, when it became exceptional, afterwards very rare, for a married man to be ordained. Why? Because it was now seen as undesirable to break up a marriage. The Albigensians in the south of France claimed that all marriage is sinful – Lateran II had to condemn that idea very strongly. That concentrated the minds of theologians, notably that of Hugh of St Victor. They developed the theology of marriage as something holy – indeed, a sacrament. As marriage is so holy, it is not considered right for a man to leave his wife for ordination, except in very special circumstances and at the request of both parties. (This is now so rare that permission to do what was once normal is now reserved to the Holy See.)

Celibacy, the choice of unmarried men for the priesthood, became normal, precisely because marriage is holy and a sacrament.

This article first appeared in the August 19 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.



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