In this second instalment, I examine the policy of the enforced celibacy of clergy. Within the Catholic church, priests and nuns are prohibited from marrying, based upon the belief that abstention from sex and freedom from marital ties will enable them to be more singularly devoted to God’s service. Similarly, within Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, Bishops are expected to be celibate, and priests who are not already married prior to ordination may not marry after taking their vows.
The canon law of the Latin (Catholic) Church states,
“Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven and, therefore, are bound to celibacy, which is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and are able to dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and humanity.”
The history of the development of this policy is messy. Calls for the priesthood to be celibate gained momentum in the 4th century. The Council of Elvira (306 AD) issued a decree (Canon 33) which ordered that priests were to “abstain completely from sexual intercourse with their wives and from the procreation of children”. This edict was largely ignored by the priesthood, resulting in Pope Siricius declaring, in 385 AD, “We have indeed discovered that many priests and deacons of Christ brought children into the world, either through union with their wives or through shameful intercourse.” This reference to “shameful intercourse”, refers to the widespread practice of priests having secret mistresses and concubines.
Ineffective efforts to enforce celibacy upon the clergy continued throughout the ensuing centuries, with the issue being hotly debated. Impractical calls for married priests to abstain from sexual relations with their wives continued, such as the edict of the Council of Carthage (390 AD), which stated that priests “as guardians of purity, abstain from conjugal intercourse with their wives, so that those who serve at the altar may keep a perfect chastity”.
By the 12th century, despite nearly 800 years of decrees and canons with associated harsh penalties, the church had been largely unsuccessful in stifling the natural sexual inclinations of its priesthood. Open marriages, illicit concubines and secret mistresses abounded. This eventually led to the strongest-yet denunciation of clergy marriage by the First Lateran Council (1123 AD) which stated, “We absolutely forbid priests … to have concubines or contract marriage.” The second Lateran Council (1139 AD) added to this, ordering that priests who had wives or concubines be immediately deprived of their office and that “no one attend the masses of those who are known to have wives or concubines.”
These much stricter decrees were effective only in driving the sexual practices of the clergy further underground. By the time of Martin Luther (1500’s), who would become the great protestant reformer, most priests still had a secret mistress and often had children by her, with parishioners turning a blind eye to the practice. In the larger towns and cities of Europe, there were even brothels dedicated to the servicing of priests.
BIBLICAL PRECEDENT FOR CLERGY MARRIAGE
In the Bible, celibacy is only encouraged for those who have the “gift” (1 Corinthians 7:7). This seems to indicate that some people have a naturally low libido and have no great desire towards sexual relations. Such people are, thus, able to devote themselves solely to God’s service without “being concerned about worldly things and how to please his wife” (1 Cor 7:33). Such people, however, are not the norm. Indeed, the Bible indicates that to enforce celibacy upon people with normal sexual drives is asking for trouble. Thus, Paul writes, “If you cannot exercise self-control, you should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Cor 7:9). Later in that same chapter, he continues, “I say this not to lay a constraint upon you … if their passions are strong, let them marry; it is no sin” (1 Cor 7:36). Furthermore, the Apostle Peter, from whom the Catholic Church traces the lineage of successive Popes, clearly had a wife (1 Peter 5:13, Matthew 8:14). Similarly, Jewish priests at the time of Christ also had wives (Luke 1:36).
DARK CONSEQUENCES OF ENFORCED CELIBACY
Demanding that people with healthy sexual drives suppress those desires in order to serve God has, historically and still today, had dire consequences. As enforced celibacy became more stringently enforced throughout the Middle Ages, it only served to drive the sexual practices of priests underground. Hidden concubines and secret mistresses abounded. Priests who were denied wives found sexual release in frequenting high-class brothels, some of which were specifically set up for the servicing of clergy. Indeed, it was the proliferation of these brothels specifically set up for priests in Rome that shocked Luther when he first visited that city as a young monk.
Even those who were proposing and enforcing the ecclesiastical laws of celibacy during this period of formative canonical policy-making were, themselves, unable to abide by their own proclamations. In his book, “Sex Lives of the Popes”, Nigel Cawthorne documents the many instances of secret mistresses and sexual consorts of a succession of Popes throughout the Middle Ages, resulting in the fathering of many children. Papal bastards were often raised in monasteries and were given favoured positions in the ecclesiastical hierarchy when they came of age.
Still today, we are witnessing the terrible consequences of trying to enforce celibacy upon men and women who have normal, healthy sex drives. When sex drives are suppressed, they often manifest in darker, more unhealthy ways. The tragic incidence of child sexual abuse by clergy that has been documented in recent years is a case in point.
A PERSONAL ANECDOTE
During my first year in Theological College (Churches of Christ Theological College, Carlingford) in the early 1980’s, the Principal of a Sydney Catholic Seminary visited us for a day as a guest lecturer. I sat near him at lunch and heard our Principal ask him, “What are the major challenges you face among your trainee priests?” Without a moment’s hesitation, the Catholic Principal answered, “Alcoholism and sexual immorality.” I was gob-smacked. The Catholic Principal, however, continued to candidly outline the problems. He stated that because these young men were being forced to suppress their natural sexual desires, those desires manifested themselves in other less wholesome ways. Some were turning to alcohol, and many were engaging in illicit sexual practices. He then spoke passionately about his heartfelt desire that he would live to see the day when the policy of enforced celibacy would be rescinded by the Catholic Church so that priests could marry and share the burden of ministry with a loving wife at their side.
A RISING CRY
That seminary Principal’s heartfelt hope has found increasing support within every echelon of the Catholic Church in recent decades. There is an increasing call for the church to drop its unrealistic and unbiblical prohibition of clergy marriage. The church’s historical insistence upon celibacy is based upon a distorted view of sex as a debased, even sinful, practice. It is a denial of our sexuality as a natural, healthy, God-given expression of love and intimacy. Furthermore, insisting that priests and nuns remain single and celibate not only consigns them to a life of loneliness and frustration, but also robs the church of the more balanced ministry that a married priest or nun could offer.
It is my hope that we will live to see this anachronistic, repressive policy overturned for the betterment of all.
Kevin Simington (B.Th. Dip. Min.) is a theologian, apologist and social commentator. He is the author of 14 books, and his latest, “Reconnecting with God”, is now available. Connect with Kevin on Facebook or his website, SmartFaith.net.