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.
Full article: http://www.associationofcatholicpriests.ie/2012/05/celibacy-in-the-catholic-church-a-brief-history/