Catholics for a Changing Church

"To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often" - Bl. John Henry Newman

Compulsory Clerical Celibacy I

Justifications for the Indefensible

Most members of CCC will be opposed to the practice of limiting ordination to men who are commanded to be celibate. This discipline which is currently enforced in the Latin rite, has a long history, but lacks any theological foundation.

The first four centuries of Church history are tantalisingly silent. All that we can say is that marriage for priests and bishops was the norm, both at the start and end of the period; in the middle years there is total silence. In the pages of the New Testament Jesus spoke enigmatically about eunuchs for the Kingdom, but celibacy was not imposed on anyone. The Epistles to Titus and Timothy show that the normal qualification for becoming a presbyter was marriage and an exemplary family life. Then in the fourth century we begin to see a change, in the decrees of local councils and papal letters to specific regions. Bishops and priests were urged to refrain from sex immediately before the Eucharist.

What had brought about that change in attitude? The break from Judaism had occurred so long beforehand that it no longer needed to be emphasised. So in the 3rd century Christians started to take from the Old Testament certain concepts about priesthood, without realising their unsuitability in the New Covenant. In those days, they were all biblical literalists. One concept was that of priesthood as a separate class (and a privileged one into the bargain). This explains how the Christian clergy so quickly took over the role of the pagan priests, once the Empire became officially Christian. The other concept was cultic purity. This is the principle which proclaims incompatibility between the sacred and bodily fluids, originating from corpses, diseased organs, or healthy sex. It is a primitive notion, widespread in pagan religions, older than Moses, and one of the many elements of ancient Israelite custom which was incorporated into the Sinai covenant, like the numerous food taboos.

All the prohibitions against sex for priests recorded in this period are based on cultic purity and the supposed unclean status of sexual intercourse. It is interesting to reflect that the difference between the Greek and Latin disciplines originated at this time. The Latin priests therefore - strictly speaking at least - were debarred completely from having sexual relations with their wives.  The Orthodox priests on the other hand, were permitted to make love on any night of the week except Saturday: a regime of continence for one day only out of seven. The Greeks held to the ancient practice of celebrating the Eucharist only on Sundays, whereas the Latins adopted a daily Eucharist very early in their history. So the Greek clergy had to observe sexual continence for six days out of seven.

It is difficult to estimate how far the rule was observed in western Europe. Ordination in those days was not permitted below the age of thirty. Marriages took place much earlier, so perhaps the clerical families had as many children as they could cope with by the time the husband was ordained. Their wives may have had something to say about that too!

The second legislative stage occurred in the 12th century, when the Second and Third Lateran Councils decreed for the whole of the Latin rite that marriage itself, and not just sex, was forbidden to clergy in major orders. One consideration seems to have been the reluctance that Church property would become the permanent possession of clerical families. The major motivation was undoubtedly repugnance for sex. Theologians of that period held such a disparaging view of sex, that they only just admitted that it was free of sin, even within marriage itself. For anyone who pursued the spiritual life, sex was described as nothing but a hindrance to higher aspirations.

How far the legislation was effective is hard to say. Sporadic in effect is probably the best way to describe it. History relates many strange tales. The last Catholic bishop of Rekjavik in Iceland was martyred during the Reformation with his two priest sons.

At the Council of Trent clerical celibacy was reinforced, partly because the Protestants had all sanctioned a married clergy, on the grounds that no prohibition was found in the Bible. Spiritual writers and preachers stressed strongly the sacrificial character of the celibate life, as being conducive to spiritual perfection. Open and critical discussion of the justification and value of compulsory celibacy did not occur until the latter half of the twentieth century. Once the debate got under way, it became apparent to all fair minded Catholics that the legislation reposed on false premises. Unfortunately the matter was not discussed at Vatican II (on the insistence of Pope Paul VI), but the Council did make two important pronouncements, which effectively robbed the celibacy law of all credibility. The decree on the priestly life states that there is no intrinsic connection between Holy Order and celibacy (Presbyterorum Ordinis, section 16). Gaudium et Spes (section 49) states that in marriage sex between husband and wife is morally good. To most of the human race that latter pronouncement would seem superfluous, to put it mildly, but within the Catholic Church it was historically the first official pronouncement that sex was in principle good.

After Vatican II it has proved impossible to justify the ban on clerical marriage, and it is one of the factors which has produced the catastrophic decline in recruitment to the clergy. In 1994 the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy published a Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests. Mandatory celibacy was mentioned briefly and its justification was relegated to a long footnote, whose references could be deciphered only by those who could read Latin and who had access to an extensive theological library. The law’s rationale is still cultic purity, lest the sacredness of the Eucharist should be besmirched by the dirtiness of sex.

As the twentieth century drew to a close, events did not stand still. Demands for an end to the rule came publicly from all quarters of the Church. Pope John Paul II forbade bishops to discuss any alteration of the law. Pressure groups were formed in many countries. In England the Movement for Married Clergy was started in 1975 and is still going strong: Secretariat at 13 Foxham Road, London N19 4RR. At the Synod in Rome in 2005 the possibility of ordaining married men was openly spoken of for the first time in such an assembly, only for the Curial Cardinals to foil its adoption. One can predict confidently that the matter does not rest there.

Michael M. Winter

Further Reading

Winter, Michael M. Misguided Morality, London, Ashgate Publications, 2002, pp. 91-114

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