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Expert Answer Forum

by Catherine Frakas 26 Mar 2002

Married priests QUESTION from Carolyn K. February 13, 2000 At any time in the history of the RC church were priests ever allowed to be married? Especially around the 10th century?
ANSWER by Mrs. Suzanne Fortin, B.A. on February 17, 2000 To answer this question adequately, it must be approached in two ways. First, there is the legal aspect. According to Church law, priests were technically allowed to be married, so long as they abstained from relations with their wives. In the tenth century, there was no universal Church law which forbade a priest from contracting a marriage. A priest would certainly go against the spirit of celibacy by marrying, but no church law prevented him. He would commit a transgression by consummating his marriage, but once his marriage was consummated, it was indissoluable.
By the tenth century, these canons were a dead letter for most, if not all, of Europe. Clerical marriage and concubinage (in practice, these were synonymous) were so widespread that local councils repeatedly issued decrees against them, and they became a major focus of Pope St. Gregory's VII's famous 11th century reform. He attempted to enforce a number of decrees issued by his predecessors, such as the one issued by Pope Benedict VIII in 1018 which declared that priests could no longer live with their wives, and the one emitted by Pope Nicholas in 1059 which stated that no married priest could lead the faithful in liturgical acts of worship, nor were the laity allowed to hear Mass celebrated by such a person. It took a very long time to enforce these rules. It was only in 1123 that the First Lateran Council decided that priests could no longer contract marriage. The Second Lateran Council in 1139 declared that all marriages contracted by priests were invalid. Beyond this point, it was technically illegal for priests to live as though married in any way; they could not have relations, they could not live with unrelated women, and they could not contract marriage validly.
Part of the problem with the clergy was that they were not necessarily conditioned into accepting celibacy, and they were not regarded as distinct from the laity as monks and bishops were. Today, a priest wears a Roman collar and black clothes, stays away from unseemly activities and is distinguished by his learning. This was not the case for priests in the Middle Ages. Priests didn't necessarily wear distinctive clothing; the rural ones especially were not well-learned; and they participated in many of the same unseemly activities that the laity engaged in, such as hunting and hanging out in taverns. Priests were like everybody else, and they assimilated the same worldly ideas and ambitions as the rest of society. So it's no wonder that men entered the priesthood hoping to obtain a benefice so that they could live well and pass it on to their sons when they died.
This changed beginning in the eleventh century when monks came to be seen as ideal clerics because of their celibacy. They were autonomous from the local lord, since they were not under the rule of the local bishop (who was often, de facto, appointed by the local lord). The monks were totally free to devote themselves to their religious works. Priests on the other hand had to take care of their families, and if they were ambitious, they would neglect their spiritual duties to fulfill their political aspirations. There also arose, in the Carolingian period, the practice of raising children dedicated to God (oblates) in the monastery, so that they could become priests. Being conditioned to continence, they were not averse to practicing it in adulthood. Also, since they were essentially raised by monks, they developed more affinity with their spiritual family than with their earthly one, which decreased the likelihood of them trying to obtain ecclesiastical offices for personal and family advancement.
Thank you for your question.
God Bless, Suzanne Fortin
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