In three previous articles, we asked the question whether priests should be allowed to marry or not? We said that for most of early Church history, celibacy was optional. We also quoted Pope Francis who recently said that celibacy is not dogma and that Church policy on the matter could change.
Readers continued to ask why celibacy has become the accepted practice in the Catholic Church despite the absence of a clear and unequivocal biblical mandate.
I promised the readers (including former Foreign Affairs Secretary Bert Romulo) that I will try to get back to them. After reading through Church historical materials (principally online), I was able to piece together the following chronological explanation.
The idea of celibacy may have been inspired by St. Paul who wrote of the advantages which celibacy allowed a man in serving the Lord. Early Church theologians like Saint Augustine of Hippo and Origen likewise advocated celibacy for practical reasons.
In 306 , the earliest statute on celibacy was promulgated in the Council of Elvira in Spain. Canon 43 mandated that “a priest who sleeps with his wife the night before Mass will lose his job.”
In 385, Siricius left his wife in order to become pope. Thereafter, Pope Siricius decreed that priests may no longer sleep with their wives.
In 401, St. Augustine wrote: “Nothing is so powerful in drawing the spirit of a man downwards as the caresses of a woman.”
In 567, the Council of Tours decreed that “any cleric found in bed with his wife would be excommunicated for a year and reduced to a lay state.”
Just a few years later, however, Pope Pelagius II decreed leniency. His policy was not to bother married priests “as long as they did not hand over church property to wives or children.”
Two centuries later, St. Boniface reported that in Germany almost no bishop or priest was celibate.
But then came the reformer Pope Gregory VII, known as Hildebrand before becoming Pope. He was pontiff from 1073 to 1085. He distinguished himself for his strong stands on the following: 1. Investiture Controversy ( where Gregory VII successfully asserted the authority of the Pope, over that of the Holy Roman Empire monarch, to install powerful local church officials) 2. simony (sale of Church offices) and 3. clerical celibacy.
Gregory VII strongly supported clerical celibacy on the following grounds: 1. as an ascetic ideal 2. on hierarchical grounds 3. other grounds.
Gregory VII asserted that “ Celibacy was an essential part of his ascetic ideal as a priest of God, who must be superior to carnal passions and frailties, wholly devoted to the interests of the Church, distracted by no earthly cares, separated from his fellow-men, and commanding their reverence by angelic purity.”
He further declared that he “could not free the Church from the rule of the laity unless the priests were freed from their wives.”
“A married clergy is connected with the world by social ties, and concerned for the support of the family; an unmarried clergy is independent, has no home and aim but the Church, and protects the pope like a standing army.”
Another motive for opposing clerical marriage “was to prevent the danger of a hereditary caste which might appropriate ecclesiastical property to private uses and impoverish the Church.”
Observers during that period noted that: “The power of the confessional, which is one of the pillars of the priesthood, came to the aid of celibacy. Women are reluctant to entrust their secrets to a priest who is a husband and father of a family.”
Gregory VII had just humbled the Holy Roman Emperor during the Investiture Controversy. In its aftermath, one can therefore imagine the power and influence of Gregory VII over the rest of the clergy.
Gregory VII’s pronouncements became the basis of the First Lateran Council which was convened by Pope Calixtus in 1123 as well as the Second Lateran Council which confirmed the former’s decrees.
Canon 21 of the First Lateran Council decreed: “We absolutely forbid priests, deacons, sub-deacons and monks to have concubines or to contract marriage. We decree…that marriages already contracted by such persons must be dissolved and that the persons be condemned to do penance.”
Canon 3 also decreed: “We absolutely forbid priests, deacons, and sub-deacons to associate with concubines and women, or to live with women other than such as the Nicene Council…. for reasons of necessity permitted, namely, the mother, sister, or aunt, or any such person concerning whom no suspicion could arise.”
The rest, as they say, is history.