Clerical Celebacy: A Question of Inheritance Control?

I was going through a stack of old articles when I came across an old favourite on sexual ethics. It is called Mandatory Celibacy and Sexual Ethics in the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church.  The article explores the history of mandatory celibacy for clerics within the Catholic church the power games that undergird it.

As a former Catholic who always disagreed with this practice I thought I would throw the link up here as a reference and talking point for others who have a beef with it. I still come across people with regular frequency who seem to think mandatory celibacy is a generic Christian practice. It is interesting to note that it was not even mandatory for Catholic clerics before the Gregorian reforms of the 11th and 12th centuries.

Here are some interesting excerpts:

We agree that Jesus recognized celibacy as a legitimate option … [but] we find it much more surprising that Jesus mentioned the unitive but not the procreative purpose of marriage.  But, really, this should not be surprising either because, when speaking of marriage, Jesus referred back to the original purpose of marriage in Genesis where the unitive purpose (“not good to be alone”) was stated before the command to be fruitful. To return to the question before us: is there anything in the preaching of Jesus that would support MANDATORY celibacy?  We answer with a definite no!

At the Second Lateran Council in 1139, Pope Innocent the Second pronounced all clerical marriages invalid and the children of such marriages bastards. (Lea  p. 264).

By the twelfth century, as we have illustrated, Rome had consolidated an enormous amount of power in itself.  For the most part, however, it was “paper power,” the power flowing from signed concordats, papal pronouncements, decrees of its marriage tribunal, and so forth.  To make that power more “real” Rome needed real estate.  Many bishops were living like feudal lords, owning large tracts of land, and the priesthood was frequently passed on from father to son as an inheritance.  Part of that inheritance was land, often given as “a benefice” to the local bishop or priest by a rich patron.  Rome saw a possible bonanza here, if it could find a way to get its hands on all that real estate.  Celibacy was the key.  The inheritance lines had to be cut.  That would bring all benefices under the control of the Church’s bureaucracy and the appropriated lands could be leased out to fatten the papal coffers.  Celibacy made Rome an important power broker in the real estate business.

When St. Benedict (480-543) put together a Rule for his monks –endorsed for all monks by the Council of Tours in 567 –many prescriptions of that Rule of Benedict dealt with sexuality.  For example, monks could not sleep two to a bed, dormitory lights had to be kept burning throughout the nights. (Rule of Benedict, no. 22).  Since the struggle to establish celibacy was already under way, John Boswell wonders if the prescriptions of Benedict’s Rule do not give us a clue as to what was happening as a result of MANDATORY celibacy, namely, an increase in homosexual activity.  Boswell claims that the century following the successful establishment of MANDATORY celibacy (c. 1050-1150) witnessed an increase in homosexual activity such as the Christian Church had never known. (Boswell, 1980 p.209)

Monasticism, and the ascetical spirituality that it espoused, propagated the sex negative teachings of Augustine and Jerome, fattened itself on Aquinas’ negative attitude to women. and brought about the triumph of the via negative school of spirituality over the via positiva.  Popes who resisted the ascetical pressure of influential monks were called to task for being un-spiritual, just as Peter Damiani had called Pope Leo the Ninth to task for not doing more to insist on celibacy for the ordained. (Lea, p.132 ff). We believe that monastic power, with its ascetical approach to sexual pleasure, must be considered in concert with political and economic power as a dynamic force that brought the Church to make celibacy MANDATORY for all its ordained.

Now, I would suggest that there are significant issues here that NeoMonastics and Contemplative Spirituality advocates within the Emerging Church have to grapple with. While I am a contemplative myself I am highly critical of the ascetic / body negative flavour of medieval monastic teaching and practice. We need to run this through our critical contextualization models like everything else. Some of the monastic tradition is definitely worth retaining but the operative word is some.

4 thoughts on “Clerical Celebacy: A Question of Inheritance Control?

  1. A friend who is getting an MA in “Spirituality” and is studying the Desert Fathers and Mothers said that they believed that if a person was properly united with God in holiness here on this earth that one would need neither food nor drink because the body would be in some sort of cosmic balance with God. Clearly we know this to not be true.
    All this body-negative stuff comes from Platonism and neo-Platonism. The biblical and Jewish traditions are much more positive about the body.


  2. It is an addiction.
    Fasting and self-deprivation can connect one, cleanse and strengthen the spirit, all kinds of good things.
    But, of course, civilization is an addiction culture, so it goes to excess on everything. Management is everything.
    Hmmm… what’s your take on the Buddha’s middle way, though it is monastic as well?


  3. “Hmmm… what’s your take on the Buddha’s middle way, though it is monastic as well?”
    I think there are strong reasonances between Buddhist teaching and Christian teaching on temperance and moderation. For example, in comparison to the middle way teaching Deuteronomy 5:23 says: “So be careful to do what the LORD your God has commanded you; do not turn aside to the right or to the left.” And Ecclesiastes 7:18 says: “It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all extremes.”
    That’s just two examples but hopefully you get the idea, neither hedonism or asceticism have much in the way of Biblical support. But I think Christianity is even truer to the path of moderation as at the end of the day monasticism is far more central to Buddhism.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s