Medieval Clerical Celibacy, Part 1: The Start, Hypocrisy, and Attempts at Reform

NOTE: This post is shorter and a bit sillier in tone than what I normally write.

In my last post, I discussed monastic masculinity versus secular masculinity. To summarize, monastic masculinity was basically the Church’s way of saying “being celibate is cool and masculine you guys, we swear!!!”

For centuries, convincing secular priests celibacy was super cool, holy, desirable, and something they should start doing right this second was a losing battle. So how exactly did the Catholic Church convince their priests to embrace celibacy? To fully understand the process, we have to start at the beginning of Christianity.

A Priest Celebrating Mass | Ms. Ludwig IX 5 (83.ML.101), fol. 171 | Source: The Getty Museum

Clerical Celibacy’s Beginnings

From the beginning of Christianity, secular priests (meaning they weren’t monks so they didn’t take a vow of chastity) could and often did get married. The third century Church suggested priests should be chaste. After all, priests handled the Eucharist. It wasn’t exactly a good look to touch something so holy with unclean hands. However, in the third century clerical celibacy was more of a suggestion than a mandate.

Then in the fourth century, the Council of Elvira occurred. The Council of Elvira is notable as it was the first time the Church mandated clerical celibacy. As it was a local council, it didn’t have widespread authority. It had some influence because other councils/synods started mandating clerical celibacy too.

Between the fourth and tenth centuries, many more local councils mandated clerical celibacy. So there was some effort to stop clerical marriage. However, a lot of the rules came from local councils/synods so they didn’t have widespread authority. 

Based on the number of times the church made the rule “priests can’t marry” it’s pretty obvious that a majority of priests went “how about we do anyway?” It didn’t help that a lot of the Church’s efforts to actually enforce the no marriage rules were pretty lackluster. (Think Willy Wonka going “no. Stop. Come back.”) 

The Hypocrisy of Enforcing Clerical Celibacy

So why didn’t the Church enforce all the rules they made?

One reason was that many bishops and archbishops (AKA the people who enforced rules) were married. Clerical celibacy was already an unpopular reform. If you want people to follow an unpopular rule and you break that rule, people won’t follow it. After all, if it’s okay for the bishops and archbishops to get married, why can’t priests?

The Church Gets Serious (Sort Of)

Things changed around the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Now Church became serious about enforcing clerical celibacy. This change was partially due to more monastic priests gaining higher positions in the church. 

Punishments for non-celibate priests included:

  • Fines
  • Excommunication 
  • Losing his benefice 

That being said, some reformers didn’t actually give priests punishments. Married priests could go years with constant slaps on the wrist before they received a serious punishment.

Source:

Thibodeaux, Jennifer D. The Manly Priest Clerical Celibacy, Masculinity, and Reform in England and Normandy, 1066-1300. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

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