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For a Lady Pope

  The origin of celibacy imposed on priests

For many centuries, priests were not bound by the laws of celibacy. Throughout the history of the Catholic Church there have been many married priests, bishops and popes. Eleven popes were themselves the sons of popes or clerics. Celibacy has been imposed progressively.

Celibacy is a discipline within the Catholic Church to which certain exceptions are made, for example priests coming from other confessions (e.g. Anglicism) or from Eastern Churches. On the other hand, in the Orthodox Church, celibacy has never been imposed on priests. Only monks are celibate.

So how did the Catholic Church come to impose celibacy on its clerics?

In Jesus’ time, in the Hebrew religion, priests were married. When they officiated at the temple, they had to abstain from all sexual relations beforehand. When the Romans destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem in the first century AD, the Jews abandoned the tradition of having priests.

At the start of Christianity, communities were led by priests (presbyters) who were, for the most part, married.

We have witnessed different trends over the centuries – sometimes in support of celibacy, sometimes in favour of free choice. In the 4th century AD, celibacy began to be slowly imposed on the clergy following successive decisions, notably those made in 306 and 315.

An important evolution came about in the 12th century. For a long time patrimony had been respected in a certain manner. Popes appointed bishops, who, in turn, appointed parish priests. As a mirror image to the nobility who bought their positions from the King, bishops and priests also bought their appointments, the bishops from the pope, the priests from the local bishop. They lived on the revenue from taxes on land owned by the Church.

In the middle Ages, the French kings wanted to make their positions hereditary. The titles of nobility thus became hereditary. The Church, however, wanted to separate itself from the principle of giving its assets and commodities away to descendants - it was becoming impoverished and could no longer afford to sell off the positions of bishops and priests. The church also wanted to keep the land in order to retain political power.

As many of the bishops and priests were married, it was agreed to declare their children ‘bastards’, thus cutting off any claims to heritage. In 1123, the Council of the Lateran declared clerical marriages invalid. In the Second Council of the Lateran, in 1139, it was the turn of the bishops, nuns and monks.

This is how and why the rule of celibacy was imposed. It was by no means a question of moral concern, but simply one of patrimony.

At the Council of Trent, which finished in 1563, any sexual relations had by clerics were violently condemned.

However it wasn’t easy for the Church to forbid cohabitation. In her book, «The Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven» (« Des eunuques pour le Royaume des Cieux ») the German Catholic theologist, Uta

Ranke-Heinemann writes (Laffont 1990, p132), “Even after the reform numerous Catholic priests continued to consider themselves married. In 1958, the bishop Philipp de Worms wrote a letter to the Dean of Wimpfen: “apart from the dean himself,” he said, “all the members of the clergy suffered from the shameful and detrimental state of being married.” A control carried out in Osnabrück in 1624/25 showed that the majority of the clergy was living with a female companion. Further on, she also reveals that: “In the 17th century, the priests’ spouses were either thrown into prison or deported by Archbishop Ferdinand de Bavière.”

If we come back to the 20th century, on the 25th March 1954, in his encyclical Sacra Virginitas, on the subject of consecrated virginity, Pope Pius XII stresses the fact that the Latin church demands of her sacred ministers that they voluntarily and willingly oblige themselves to observe perfect chastity and to abstain from marriage, not only because it is their apostolic responsibility but also because they serve at the altar.

The Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) affirmed that there was nothing whatsoever about the nature of the priesthood itself which made celibacy necessary or essential. This is clear from the practice of the early church itself and the traditions of the Eastern Churches, but at the same time the Council solemnly upheld the law of celibacy within the priesthood.

In February 1970, Paul VI also stated that the law of ecclesiastical celibacy was not up for discussion. Jean Paul II, in the papal exhortation, Pastores dabo vobis, paid particular attention to this problem of celibacy.

As for Pope Benedicte XVI, he also continues to comply with this doctrine.

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