A Brief History of Celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church
Metroland - July 11, 2002
Glenn Weiser

This was written when the clergy abuse story was in the news. -GW

The unfolding tragedy of the pedophilia scandal among American Catholic clergy has rekindled the debate over whether priests should be allowed to marry. To better understand this issue, it helps to look at the history of priestly celibacy. As it turns out, the wealth and power of Rome had more to do with the practice than spirituality. Clerics often married until the Middle Ages, until concern, mostly over the loss of Church lands to heirs of priests, led to the imposition of the celibacy rule. Here’s how it came to pass: 

    To begin with, Jesus designated St. Peter, a married man, to be the first pope. Priests had married in Judaism (the priesthood itself was a hereditary profession), and it would seem that Christ accepted this part of the tradition in his choice of Peter. Although St. Paul believed that spreading the Gospel was easier for a man who didn’t have a family to provide for, he still mandated that bishops, elders and deacons be only “the husband of one wife.” (Even then, polygamy among all ranks of the clergy persisted, and by the third century bishops alone were required to be monogamous.)
    The change began with the Council of Elvira in Spain in about 306, which prohibited bishops, deacons and priests from marrying. Shortly thereafter, the early church fathers began to stigmatize sex as sinful in their writings. St. Ambrose (340-397) wrote, “The ministerial office must be kept pure and unspoiled and must not be defiled by coitus,” and the former libertine St. Augustine (354-430) even went so far as to consider an erect penis a sign of man’s insubordination 
    With the advent of the Dark Ages around 500, the upheavals in society saw a decline in clerical discipline and with it, a return to marriage and even the keeping of concubines by priests. During this time, the wealth of the church was also increasing, a development not lost on Rome. Many priests were leaving church lands to their heirs, and others handed down land of their own through primogeniture. The Holy See saw that a return to the celibacy rule would result in a real-estate bonanza, and in about 1018 Pope Benedict VIII put teeth in the Elvira decree by forbidding descendents of priests to inherit property. Later, in the 11th century, Pope Gregory VII, who had assumed vast power by declaring himself the supreme authority over all souls, went even further by proscribing married priests from saying mass; he also forbid parishioners from attending masses said by them. Scholars believe that the first written law forbidding the clergy to marry was finally handed down at the Second Lateran Council in 1139.
    Dissent persisted, though. At two 15th-century church councils, supporters of clerical marriage attempted to reintroduce the practice but were defeated by hard-liners, who tried to rewrite history by asserting that celibacy was apostolic in its origins. The law finally became official doctrine at the Council of Trent in 1563, and Rome’s position on the issue has remained essentially unchanged since then.       
But as the current crisis in the church has shown, the controversy just won’t die. When reached for comment, Father Edward Deimeke, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, acknowledged that the institution of celibacy was a “human rule” which could be altered, as opposed to a moral absolute (like the church’s stance on abortion). He also allowed that a majority of the priesthood, as well as the laity in America, favored the right of priests to wed. Perhaps the sentiment of those advocating a change in the church’s policy is best summed up in the words of St. Paul: “It is better to marry than to burn.”

List of Metroland Stories by Glenn Weiser                          ©2002 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.

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