Sex and the (Vatican) City: a brief history of clerical celibacy

Amid an ongoing papal debate about whether to relax a rule against married men becoming priests, and with the Church of England calling for Christians in gay or straight civil unions to be abstinent, Emma J Wells considers the history of celibacy in the Christian church

Pope Francis celebrates a priesthood ordination and mass in St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. (Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP via Getty Images)

In a scene that wouldn’t be amiss in Netflix’s The Two Popes, a standoff between the current Pope Francis and his predecessor, Benedict XVI, is playing out across the world. The pontifical sticking point is the sexual relations of priests – or, lack thereof. In his forthcoming book, From the Depths of Our Hearts, the Pope Emeritus (the first retired pope to relinquish office in more than 600 years, hence his ‘retired’ title) and his co-author, Cardinal Robert Sarah, issue a warning against relaxing the rules on Catholic priesthood as the rainforest runs dry of priests in some remote South American areas.

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Although some suggest Pope Francis has signalled a renewed acceptance towards priestly marriage, debate over the tradition of celibacy in the Christian Church is nothing new. Its repeated newsworthiness, however, lays bare the whole thrust of the matter.

Pope Francis celebrates a mass in St Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican. Although some suggest the pope has signalled a renewed acceptance towards priestly marriage, debate over the tradition of celibacy in the Christian Church is nothing new, writes Emma J Wells. (Photo by Massimo Valicchia/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Pope Francis celebrates a mass in St Peter’s Basilica, at the Vatican. Some suggest the pope has signalled a renewed acceptance towards priestly marriage, writes Emma J Wells. (Photo by Massimo Valicchia/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The issue of retaining what Pope Paul VI called the “precious jewel” – that’s priestly, not crown – has continued for centuries. Many myths abound about what the ex-pontiff claims is a “necessary” centuries-old tradition, but there were never any hard and fast homogenous rules surrounding clerical celibacy, hence the complexities that still exist to this day. Has committing the sexual cardinal sin always been a one-way ticket to ministry on Craggy Island? Or has the modern Church knotted its tippet far too tightly where sex is concerned?

Divine chastity: what is it?

What does a vocation of divine chastity entail – and why is it practiced?

There’s no background check per se, but being an ordained priest is no easy slog. You must forgo a spouse, progeny and sexual fulfilment for a relationship with God alone, so you’ll be expected to make the greatest self-sacrifice in following Christ’s (alleged) chaste example. And the rationale is as much practical as symbolic: without distraction you’re able to give your greatest holier-than-thou performance – that’s devoting yourself entirely to the whole Christian community, the highest calling – which is no simple nine-to-five job. Still, your only nagging bride is Christ.

When were priests first required to abstain from sex?

First off, is the issue Biblical? For some, the precedent is sought in the New Testament. Yet Jesus made no real connection between the ministry and celibacy. Inviting his followers to accompany him in being a “eunuch” (metaphorically-speaking, of course) for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, the unmarried life was valid – but a gift rather than obligation. Paul, too, the most influential apostle of the early Christian movement, believed marriage should be a concession, though recommended “remain[ing] single as I do”. But, he suggested, “if [one] cannot exercise self-control… marry”, for being “aflame with passion” was above the divine elite club. Peter, the Catholic Church’s first regarded pope, was married, yet boasted that he later “left all things and followed” Christ. Claims that clerical continence – abstinence of formerly married men – is of apostolic origin [i.e. descended from the apostles] are thus simply fictitious.

In fact, the first written mandate requiring priests to be chaste did not arrive, it appears, until the early 4th century, when the Council of Elvira insisted that “bishops, presbyters… deacons and all other clerics” should “abstain completely from their wives and not… have children”. Ordained married men weren’t problematic but were forced to wave goodbye to their wives beforehand to uphold continence above celibacy. Two decades later, bishops at Emperor Constantine’s Council of Nicaea similarly argued for a consistent celibacy practice to address dissension (though this was voted down) as demand emerged from the prevailing concept of sexuality and its affect on the sacrificial minister.

The Great Schism

After six centuries in the making, the debate resurfaced in the second half of the 11th century, but still without uniform agreement. This time, the private lives of priests was plunged into a little matter now known as the Great Schism: “when the final separation between the Eastern Christian church, centred on Constantinople, and the Western church of Rome occurred in 1054 and clerical marriage (which the Eastern Orthodox favoured) sat high on the ecclesiastical docket of contentious bones. In retaliation for the Schism and belief that the Orthodox Church’s married clergy were far from tradition, Pope Gregory VII issued a decree urging them to escape the clutches of their wives or lose their jobs. The Eastern Orthodox Church, however, contested the situation. Once more, abstinence after ordination was the issue; being a bachelor priest (the Italian celibe translates to ‘unmarried man’) was never officially imposed by the Catholic Church.

As the corrupt goings-on of the papacy were forced into the 10th- and 11th-century spotlight, with reform came conflict – and the business of celibacy was flung into a grey area. The first Lateran Council (1123) condemned priests, deacons and sub-deacons cohabiting with wives or, perhaps unsurprisingly, concubines. And at the Second Council 16 years later, the law of clerical continence, not celibacy, was reemphasised as marriage after ordination was rendered invalid. Henry I’s hubristic attempt at ensuring English clergy obeyed the new rule by taxing offenders (though hypocritically many married priests were under his employment) backfired when too few emerged to worthy his fee.

For the medieval clergy of the reform era, women were in the firing line

So, what was the deal with women? For the medieval clergy of the reform era, as conflict between the celibate and sexual male body grew, women were now in the firing line. Viewed as succubi, priests might be swayed by these “sexual temptresses” designed to steal their purity, “money and property…[and] also…good name and honour”, poor Cambro-Norman archdeacon Gerald of Wales preached.

Cheating with God

By the 13th century, ordained married men were a rare sight. Why? All due to another grave sin: adultery. But not for the reason you might expect. Theologians such as Hugh of St Victor rendered marriage a sacrament, therefore it was undesirable for a man to leave his wife for ordination. Now, rather than another female, cheating was with God – and even that set tongue’s wagging.

Come the Reformation-era, the issue had still not been put to bed. A significant factor in its split from Catholicism, Protestantism repeatedly attacked the requirement for priestly celibacy, arguing that it promoted homosexuality, illicit fornication and masturbation – the gravest offence that practicing celibates could have a hand in, declared Martin Luther. But after centuries of dithering, the Council of Trent reacted to the reforming attempts and finally decreed the practice of celibacy in 1563.

Debate over the “delicate dance” has raged on among Christian denominations ever since. Today, the Catholic Church’s position takes the Council’s ruling: celibacy symbolises commitment to God and duty, but it’s only a discipline, not dogma – so the “special gift of God” is still up for grabs.

Consequently, following Pope Benedict’s warning, should we expect imminent change? That is doubtful. But the dynamism of religion ensures a response to changing practices and beliefs. After all, Benedict’s are far from St Pope Paul VI’s infamous words: “I would rather give my life than change the law on celibacy.” It does mean, however, that the pope can change his mind as much as his cassock – so we are perhaps in for a bumpy ride yet.

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Emma J Wells is an ecclesiastical and architectural historian at the University of York. Her book Heaven on Earth: The Lives and Legacies of the World’s Greatest Cathedrals is forthcoming from Head of Zeus.