Expert Answer Forum
Clerical Celibacy QUESTION from Jeff Campbell September 3 I am aware that the requirement of priestly celibacy in the Roman Rite was instituted in the twelve hundred some odd, and that before then, priests and bishops were allowed to be married. I do have a few questions: What was the specific year? Who was the Pope that made that disciplinary decision? Was the earlier monastic movement part of the impetus behind this decision? Can you give any other historical context, including any reasoning cited by the source document for the change in Church discipline? Thank You
ANSWER by Mrs. Suzanne Fortin on September 11, 1999 Dear Jeff:
The issue of clerical celibacy is not as clear-cut as you make it out to be. First of all, it was the rule long before the thirteenth century. In fact, it became the norm in the fourth century. Secondly, it did not come about through a simple papal declaration. The practice grew out of a series of regional councils and papal decrees in the fourth and fifth centuries.
The concept of priestly celibacy originates from the Church's teaching on the superiority of virginity and consecrated celibacy. Since Apostolic times, virginity has always been considered more ideal because of the single-minded devotion it allows for the pursuit of holiness. Even before the imposition of celibacy, a great number of priests adopted a celibate lifestyle so they could commit themselves more wholeheartedly to God. They did not disparage marriage. Marrage is good, and has its joys, but such a lifestyle offers many distractions to those who would dedicate all of their time to God.
Clerical celiacy became so prevalent in the Early Church that by 200 AD, married priests were expected (though not required) to live as brother and sister with their wives. This expectation developed because of the high esteem the faithful had for celibacy. Only in the fourth century did the Church begin to legislate on this practice, but only on a regional level. The first recorded prohibition of clerical marriage was issued at the Council of Elvira (c. 305-306). Bishops, priests and deacons who contracted marriage were to be deposed. Notice it does not say those in orders were obliged to leave their wives. Other councils followed suit, imposing a vow of chastity on candidates. As can be expected, practices differed from region to region. It is also to be noted that bishops were often purposely selected from among the celibate, even in areas where priests were allowed the use of their marital rights. If an episcopal candidate was married, he had to have fathered no children or be beyond childbearing age.
Through a series of papal decretals from late fourth- and early fifth-century popes, clerical celibacy was the universal rule by the reign of Pope St. Leo I (440-464). But it was not observed the way it is today. While bishops were not allowed to live with their wives, priests were, so long as they did not have sexual intercourse. Various church laws were enacted to prevent scandal and sin. For example, a priest could not share a room with his spouse, and he was not to sleep in a room alone. By the sixth century, such councils as those of Gerona (517) and Toledo (589) decreed that it was preferable that a cleric in major orders (i.e. priests and or higher up) not live with his spouse.
An interesting fact about the wives of those who entered orders: they were recognized by canon law and possessed a special status.They were known as bishopesses, priestesses and deaconnnesses. They received a special blessing upon their husband's ordination, wore a distinctive garb and were not allowed to marry, even after the death of their husbands.
Between the fifth and eleventh centuries, no new disciplines were introduced on this issue. Whatever edicts were issued merely repeated what had passed before, with new measures taken to ensure a more widespread observance. This suggests that it was not universally practiced. The situation became especially grave after the Carolingian period, with the break up of Charlemagne's empire in the ninth century and the accompanying barbarian invasion. The socio-political choas led to a sense of insecurity and a decline in morality. Political decentralization created a sense of alienation from Rome, and clergy developed stronger ties with their lord than with the hierarchy. This was an age where men entered orders to get clerical benefices in order to be rich and further their family's ambitions. It was possible to transmit land from father to son, even illegitamite sons. In 1018, Pope Benedict VIII (1012-1024) imposed new penalities: the children of priests were considered serfs of the church and could not be freed or given the right to own property. He also forbade priests to live with women. These measures ensured that church property (a source of revenue) would not be lost to secularization through inheritance. In 1049, Pope St. Leo IX decreed that the wives and concubines of priests were to be ancillae (servants) in the Lateran palace. In 1059, Pope Nicholas deprived married priests, even celibates, or the privilege of performing liturgical acts of worship. He also prohibited the laity from attending Mass said by a married priest or one living in concubinage. In general, the laity were supportive of these measures. Though Pope. St. Gregory VII (1073-1085) issued no new decrees, he is credited with re-establishing the widespread observance of celibacy through his correspondence with bishops.
The First and Second Lateran Councils (1123 and 1139 respectively) were the first ecumenical councils to address clerical celibacy. The Council Fathers passed canons which declared orders to be a diriment impediment to marriage: in other words, a priest could not validly contract a marriage. This marks the beginning of the era when orders and marriage were totally mutually exclusive-- before it was not rare to be married and a priest. Today it is, and this is due to these decrees.
This question is rather difficult to answer as you can see. Historians have not reached a consensus as to when celibacy was universally imposed because of its gradual evolution-- it was certainly in Late Antiquity, but we cannot be much more certain than that. Celibacy was imposed mainly for theological reasons, but also practical ones. The celibate priest was the one least likely to have any worldly ambitions, and the one more likely to be attached to the pope. I have not come across anything in my readings which suggest that the monastic orders were on the forefront of this drive for greater observance. (I just moved to a new town and I'm a little disoriented wrt finding the right sources and so forth-- forgive me). However a couple of things are to be noted. There was a growing ascetic movement in the eleventh century, and the celibate priest became more idealized. The Mendicant Orders (The Dominicans and Franciscans) were born of a desire to create a clerical order that followed the evangelical counsels more closely. The rise of Catharism was due in part to the scandalous lives of some clergy-- they believed their own religion was purer. (The establishment of the Dominicans was a reponse to this desire for a purer clergy) This suggests, contrary to what some might think, that the laity were in favour of clerical celibacy. They mocked priests who didn't practice it.
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