Celibacy in the Catholic Church: a brief history

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Issue 4 (Winter 1995), Medieval History (pre-1500), Pre-Norman History, Volume 3

The sick call by Matthew Lawless.(Courtesy of The National Gallery of Ireland)

The sick call by Matthew Lawless.
(Courtesy of The National Gallery of Ireland)

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, church 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 as ‘the jewel in the crown of the priesthood’. And some, notably Pope Gregory XVI in 1832 and Pius IX in 1846, have suspected that attacks on celibacy were part of a vast conspiracy to undermine Catholicism.

In 1832 Pope Gregory XVI suspected that attacks on celibacy were part of a vast conspiracy to undermine Catholic.

In 1832 Pope Gregory XVI suspected that attacks on celibacy were part of a vast conspiracy to undermine Catholic.

A spiritual Red Adair

Clerics on recruitment drives in schools presented celibacy as an advantage: 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 Adair and the marine corps of the army of Christ. If this B-movie romanticism seems far-fetched, then consider 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’. Nineteenth-century defenders of celibacy, realising that the local clergy had neither the energy of a Red Adair nor the mobility of the marines, presented an image of the priest ever-available to administer to the needs of the sick and the needy. 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 problem of drunken

A late fiftennth century woodcut showing a woman leaving the alter with a demon riding the tail of her cloak.

A late fiftennth century woodcut showing a woman leaving the alter with a demon riding the tail of her cloak.

priests, but a range of situations which if made 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 housekeepers, a prohibition on a priest absolving his sexual partner of her sin, a warning to bishops to watch the domestic arrangements of priests in isolated areas, prohibitions on priests dancing, going to certain entertainments, having women sitting beside them in the front of a car: the list goes on and on. The origins of such a phenomenon as celibacy, provoking so much public defence by 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 timely.

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 (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). But by the fourth century the first signs of disquiet about the compatibility of marriage and the priesthood

An image of the priest ever available to administer to the needs of the sick and needy - from Lisheen or, the test of the spirits by P.A Canon Sheehan.

An image of the priest ever available to administer to the needs of the sick and needy – from Lisheen or, the test of the spirits by P.A Canon Sheehan.

began to emerge. 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 passed at the Council of Nicea (325), which legislated for the whole empire, he was rebuffed. 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 moves towards celibacy were afoot elsewhere.
First, there was the growth of monasticism, with its implicit celibacy, and the notion that this was the ideal of a Christian and holy life. Second, a group of influential writers, notably 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 sex. 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. It has appeared repeatedly in different guises over the centuries—although since the Reformation, official praise of celibacy has usually attached a caveat like: ‘but no one should understand this as a denigration of marriage’. Third, over the course of the fourth and fifth centuries the clergy emerge as a distinctive group within the church, with a developing theological identity—the notion of ‘orders’ and of a divide between clergy and laity. Likewise, in civil society the church and the clergy developed a new public profile (distinctive dress is mentioned for the first time) and a corporate identity that was defined in law.
These changes were reflected in a series of legal documents. Pope Damasus, a close friend 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 (e.g. before saying Mass). Similar laws can be found in a series of local councils (mainly southern Gaul) from the fifth to 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. Another feature of this legislation was its recognition of the danger of church property being alienated by passing to a wife on the death of a priest.
This early body of legislation is often cited as evidence for the antiquity of the practice of celibacy. But all it shows is that one small, influential group believed it should be mandatory. The decrees were local in intent, and had little or no effect for they are often repeated verbatim from one council to the next. While they indicate 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. When, in the eighth century, the first great systematisation of church law took shape, this legislation was not included, evidence that these early laws were not considered universal and had little impact. While these law-books praise monasticism and virginity, citing 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 these early decrees had little effect in reality, the idea that the ideal priest was a celibate had been born.

Illustration from A Spoiled Priest by P.A. Canon Sheehan.

Illustration from A Spoiled Priest by P.A. Canon Sheehan.

Conflict and reform

The next phase in the development of the practice of celibacy came in the eleventh century as part and parcel of what medievalists call the ‘investiture struggle’ and church historians call ‘the Gregorian reform’. The first issue was power. Whose law, imperial or papal, had primacy in church administration, to whom did clergy owe first loyalty, and who had the power to make appointments? Was 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’). 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; any improvement was, therefore, a ‘going-back’ [reformare] to that perfect age). A ‘reform’ of the church meant a ‘reform’ of the clergy: but what was the ideal? There was no need to construct it from history, there and then they had ideal Christians and ideal priests: monks. Therefore, the monk-priest became 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, argued that if the church was Christ’s bride, and the priest Christ’s representative, it followed that a married priest was an adulterer. Those who opposed his extremism, or suggested he was getting his metaphors mixed 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. For all its political expediency, it should be remembered that attempts to impose celibacy sprung also from a genuine desire for the good: what could be more noble than ideal priests, and—from this point of view—priests who engaged in sexual activity had to be less holy than those who were celibate; so, if spiritual ‘reform’ can be effected through law, then make it law. And this is exactly what happened.
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. Those in orders could not marry, and those already married could only become a priest if the marriage was 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. 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 interest in celibacy might have petered out, were it not for 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 4,000 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.

Bishop Brendan Comiskey - anyone who questions celibacy has to be marginalised as in error or disloyal.

Bishop Brendan Comiskey – anyone who questions celibacy has to be marginalised as in error or disloyal.

Reformation and Counter-Reformation

By the sixteenth century the law on celibacy was widely known; in most places it was adhered to; in others it was ignored or by-passed. The evidence for this comes from bishops arriving in their dioceses wielding new brooms. Usually their first complaint (and the proof of the uselessness of the former regime) was the ‘awful morals of their priests’ where ‘house-keepers’ were in fact—and all knew it as they often had children—the priests’ wives. Other evidence is cases presented to Rome by priests requesting the legitimisation of their sons, so that they could inherit or be ordained. Not only were these requests very common, but they were looked upon most favourably by the Roman Curia as they were among the most expensive dispensations to be had, costing twelve Gros Tournois. Finally, in sixteenth-century tax returns from Germany a sure guide for assessing the spread of the Reformation was the description of those who shared their living quarters with the clergy. In many cases where a woman was listed, while the priest remained in union with Rome, the term ancilla (house-keeper) was appended. The year the break occurred and the priest considered himself Protestant, the word uxor (wife) appeared beside the same woman’s name. Little, but the formalities, seem to have changed.
Luther marks the next stage in the story. He argued that something one did, such as making a vow or becoming celibate, could not add to ones holiness (1522). Later, he condemned

Bishop Eamom Casey - his problem was not new, but it was public.

Bishop Eamom Casey – his problem was not new, but it was public.

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 Protestant reformers. For example, Calvin held that some are called by God to celibacy, but that it should not be prescribed by law and nor be considered a more spiritual, nor 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 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 theology text books. Jerome was to be used with caution, and this came from Calvin who on other matters of interpretation and linguistics considered Jerome a hero.
The opposition of Protestants 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 and 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 was further eroded. 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’.
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 Denning, said of a another clash of law and reality, it opened ‘an appalling vista’ that a whole system could be wrong on something like celibacy and 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, as part of a vast conspiracy against God and his Church.

Thomas O’Loughlin is a research scholar in the School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies.

Further reading:

P. Delhaye, ‘Celibacy, History of’ in the New Catholic Encyclopaedia 3 (1967).

C. Brooke, The Medieval Idea of Marriage (Oxford 1989).

U. Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven (Harmondsworth 1991).


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