1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Celibacy

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CELIBACY (Lat. caelibatus, from caelebs, unmarried), the state of being unmarried, a term now commonly used in the sense of complete abstinence from marriage; it originally included the state of widowhood also, and any one was strictly a caelebs who had no existing spouse. Physicians and physiologists have frequently discussed celibacy from their professional point of view; but it will be sufficient to note here the results of statistical inquiries. It has been established by the calculations of actuaries that married persons—women in a considerable, but men in a much greater degree—have at all periods of life a greater probability of living than the single. From the point of view of public utility, the state has sometimes attempted to discourage celibacy. The best-known enactment of this kind is that of the emperor Augustus, best known as Lex Julia et Papia Poppaea. This disabled caelibes from receiving an inheritance unless the testator were related to them within the sixth degree; it limited the amount which a wife could take by a husband’s will, or the husband by the wife’s, unless they had children; and preference was given to candidates for office in proportion to the number of their children.[1] Ecclesiastical legislators, on the other hand, have frequently favoured the unmarried state; and celibacy, partial or complete, has been more or less stringently enforced upon the ministers of different religions; many instances are quoted by H. C. Lea. The best known, of course, are the Roman Vestals; though here even the great honours and privileges accorded to these maidens were often insufficient to keep the ranks filled. In the East, however, this and other forms of asceticism have always flourished more freely; and the Buddhist monastic system is not only far older than that of Christendom, but also proportionately more extensive.[2] In early Judaism, chastity was indeed enjoined upon the priests at certain solemn seasons; but there was no attempt to enforce celibacy upon the sacerdotal caste. On the contrary, all priests were the sons of priests, and the case of Elizabeth shows that here, as throughout the Jewish people, barrenness was considered a disgrace. But Alexander’s conquests brought the Jews into contact with Hindu and Greek mysticism; and this probably explains the growth of the ascetic Essenes some two centuries before the Christian era. The adherents of this sect, unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees, were never denounced by Christ, who seems on the contrary to have had real sympathy with the voluntary celibacy of an exceptional few (Matt. xix. 12). St Paul’s utterances on this subject, though they go somewhat further, amount only to the assertion that a struggling missionary body will find more freedom in its work in the absence of wives and children. At the same time, St Paul claimed emphatically for himself and the other apostles the right of leading about a wife; and he names among the qualifications for a bishop, an elder and a deacon, that he should be “the husband of one wife.” Indeed it was freely admitted by the most learned men of the middle ages and Renaissance that celibacy had been no rule of the apostolic church; and, though writers of ability have attempted to maintain the contrary even in modern times, their contentions are unhesitatingly rejected by the latest Roman Catholic authority.[3]

The gradual growth of clerical celibacy, first as a custom and then as a rule of discipline, can be traced clearly enough even through the scanty records of the first few centuries. The most ascetic Christians began to question the legality of second marriages on the part of either sex, as even paganism had often reprobated second marriages of women. Though these extremists were presently branded as heretics for their eccentric ultra-ascetic tenets (Montanists, Cathari), yet as early as Tertullian’s time (c. A.D. 220) the right of second marriages was theoretically denied to the priesthood. This was logically followed by a revival of the old Levitical rule which required that priests should marry none but virgins (Lev. xxi. 7, 13). Both these rules, however, proved difficult of enforcement and seem to have rested only on a vague basis of public opinion; twice-married men (digami) were admitted to the priesthood by Pope Calixtus I. (219–222), and even as late as the beginning of the 5th century we find husbands of widows consecrated to the episcopate. The so-called Apostolical Constitutions and Canons, the latter of which were compiled in the 4th century, give us the first clear and fairly general rules on the subject. Here we find “bishops and priests allowed to retain the wives whom they may have had before ordination, but not to marry in orders; the lower grades, deacons, subdeacons, &c., allowed to marry after entering the church; but all were to be husbands of but one wife, who must be neither a widow, a divorced woman nor a concubine” (Lea i. 28). Many causes, however, were already at work to carry public feeling beyond this stage. Quite apart from the few enthusiasts who would have given a literal interpretation to the text in Matt, xix. 12, vows of virginity became more and more frequent as the virtue itself was lauded by ecclesiastical writers in language of increasing fervour. These vows were at first purely voluntary and temporary; but public opinion naturally grew less and less tolerant of those who, having once formed and published so solemn a resolution, broke it afterwards. Again not only was the church doctrine itself more or less consciously influenced by the Manichaean tenet of the diabolical origin of all matter, including the human body, but churchmen were also naturally tempted to compete in asceticism with the many heretics who held this tenet, and whose abstinence brought them so much popular consideration. Moreover, in proportion as the clergy, no longer mere ringleaders of a despised and persecuted sect, became beneficiaries and administrators of rich endowments—and this at a time when the external safeguards against embezzlement were comparatively weak—a strong feeling grew up among the laity that church revenues should not go to support the priest’s family.[4] Lastly, such partial attempts as we have already described to enforce upon the clergy a special rule of continence, by their very failure, suggested more heroic measures. Therefore, side by side with the evidence for difficult enforcement of the old rules, we find an equally constant series of new and more stringent enactments.

The first church council which definitely forbade marriage to the higher clergy was the local Spanish synod of Elvira (A.D. 305). A similar interpretation has sometimes been claimed for the third canon of that general council of Nicaea to which we owe the Nicene creed (325), but this is now abandoned by the best authorities on all sides. There can be no doubt, however, that the 4th century opened a wide breach in this respect between the Eastern and Western churches. The modern Greek custom is “(a) that most candidates for Holy Orders are dismissed from the episcopal seminaries shortly before being ordained deacons, in order that they may marry (their partners being in fact mostly daughters of clergymen), and after their marriage, return to the seminaries in order to take the higher orders; (b) that, as priests, they still continue the marriages thus contracted, but may not remarry on the death of their wife; and (c) that the Greek bishops, who may not continue their married life, are commonly not chosen out of the ranks of the married secular clergy, but from among the monks.”[5] The Eastern Church, therefore, still adheres fairly closely to the rules laid down by the Apostolical Canons in the 4th century. In the West, however, a decisive forward step was taken by Popes Damasus and Siricius during the last quarter of that century. The famous decretal of Siricius (385) not only enjoined strict celibacy on bishops, priests and deacons, but insisted on the instant separation of those who had already married, and prescribed the punishment of expulsion for disobedience (Siric. Ep. i. c. 7; Migne, P.L. xiii. col. 1138). Although we find Siricius a year later writing to the African Church on this same subject in tones rather of persuasion than of command, yet the beginning of compulsory sacerdotal celibacy in the Western Church may be conveniently dated from his decretal of A.D. 385. Leo the Great (d. 461) and Gregory the Great (d. 604) further extended the rule of celibacy to subdeacons.

For the next three or four centuries there is little to note but the continual evidence of open or secret resistance to these decrees, and the parallel frequency and stringency of ecclesiastical legislation, which by its very monotony bears witness to its own want of success. At least seven episcopal constitutions of the 8th and 9th centuries forbade the priest to have even his mother or his sister in the house.[6] Nor did the only difficulty lie in such secret breaches of the law; in many districts the priesthood tended to become a mere hereditary caste, to the disadvantage of church and state alike. In northern and southern Italy public clerical marriages were extremely frequent, whether with or without regular forms.[7] The see of Rouen was held for more than a century (942–1054) by three successive bishops who were family men and two of whom were openly married.[8] In England St Swithun (d. 862) was married, though very likely by special papal dispensation; and the married clergy were apparently predominant in Alfred’s time. In spite of Dunstan’s reforms at the end of the 10th century, the Norman Lanfranc found so many wedded priests that he dared not decree their separation; and when his successor St Anselm attempted to go further, this seemed a perilous novelty even to so distinguished an ecclesiastic as Henry of Huntingdon, who wrote: “About Michaelmas of this same year (1102) Archbishop Anselm held a council in London, wherein he forbade wives to the English priesthood, heretofore not forbidden; which seemed to some a matter of great purity, but to others a perilous thing, lest the clergy, in striving after a purity too great for human strength, should fall into horrible impurity, to the extreme dishonour of the Christian name” (lib. vii.; Migne, P.L. cxcv. col. 944). Yet this was at a time when the decisive and continued action of two great popes ought to have left no possible doubt as to the law of the church.

The growing tendency of the clergy to look upon their endowments as hereditary fiefs, their consequent worldliness and (it must be added) their vices, aroused the indignation of two very remarkable men in the latter half of the 11th century. St Pietro Damiani (988–1072) was a scholar, hermit and reformer, who did more perhaps than any one else to combat the open marriages of the clergy. He complained that exhortation was wasted even on the bishops, “because they despair of attaining to the pinnacle of chastity, and have no fear of condemnation in open synod for the vice of lechery. . . . If this evil were secret [he adds], it might perhaps be borne.”[9] His Liber Gomorrhianus, addressed to and approved by St Leo IX., is sufficient in itself to explain the vehemence of his crusade, though it emphasizes even more strongly the impolicy of proceeding more severely against the open marriages of the clergy than against concubinage and other less public vices.[10] Damiani found a powerful ally in the equally ascetic but far more imperious and statesmanlike Hildebrand, afterwards Pope Gregory VII. Under the influence of these two men, five successive popes between 1045 and 1073 attempted a radical reform; and when, in this latter year, Hildebrand himself became pope, he took measures so stringent that he has sometimes been erroneously represented not merely as the most uncompromising champion, but actually as the author of the strict rule of celibacy for all clerics in sacred orders. His mind, strongly imbued with the theocratic ideal, saw more clearly than any other the enormous increase of influence which would accrue to a strictly celibate body of clergy, separated by their very ordination from the strongest earthly ties; and no statesman has ever pursued with greater energy and resolution a plan once formulated. In order to break down the desperate, and in many places organized, resistance of the clergy, he did not shrink from the perilous course, so contrary to his general policy, of subjecting them to the judgment of the laity. Not only were concubinary priests—a term which was now made to include also those who had openly married—forbidden to serve at the altar and threatened with actual deposition in cases of contumacy, but the laity were warned against attending mass said by “any priest certainly known to keep a concubine or subintroducta.”[11]

But these heroic measures soon caused serious embarrassment. If the laity were to stand aloof from all incontinent priests, while (as the most orthodox churchmen constantly complained) many priests were still incontinent, then this could only result in estranging large bodies of the laity from the sacraments of the church. It became necessary, therefore, to soften a policy which to the lay mind might imply that the virtue of a sacrament was weakened by the vices of its ministers; and, whereas Peter Lombard (d. 1160) concludes that no excommunicated priest can effect transubstantiation, St Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) agrees with all the later Schoolmen in granting him that power, though to the peril of his own soul.[12] For, by the last quarter of the 13th century, the struggle had entered upon a new phase. The severest measures had been tried, especially against the priests’ unhappy partners. As early as the council of Augsburg (952) these were condemned to be scourged, while Leo II. and Urban II., at the councils of Rome and Amalfi (1051, 1089), adjudged them to actual slavery.[13] Such enactments naturally defeated their own purpose. More was done by the gentler missionary zeal of the Franciscans and Dominicans in the early 13th century; but St Thomas Aquinas had seen half a century of that reform and had recognized its limitations; he therefore attenuated as much as possible the decree of Nicholas II. His contemporary St Bonaventura complained publicly that he himself and his fellow-friars were often compelled to hold their tongues about the evil clergy; partly because, even if one were expelled, another equally worthless would probably take his place, but “perhaps principally lest, if the people altogether lost faith in the clergy, heretics should arise and draw the people to themselves as sheep that have no shepherd, and make heretics of them, boasting that, as it were by our own testimony, the clergy were so vile that none need obey them or care for their teaching.”[14] In other passages of his works St Bonaventura tells us plainly how little had as yet been gained by suppressing clerical marriages; and the evidence of orthodox and distinguished churchmen for the next three centuries is equally decisive. Alvarez Pelayo, a Spanish bishop and papal penitentiary, wrote in 1332, “The clergy sin commonly in these following ways . . . fourthly, in that they live very incontinently, and would that they had never promised continence; especially in Spain and southern Italy, in which provinces the sons of the laity are scarcely more numerous than those of the clergy.” Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly pleaded before the council of Constance in 1415 for the reform of “that most scandalous custom, or rather abuse, whereby many [clergy] fear not to keep concubines in public.”[15]

Meanwhile, as has been said above, the custom of open marriage among clergy in holy orders (priests, deacons and subdeacons) was gradually stamped out. A series of synods, from the early 12th century onwards, declared such marriages to be not only unlawful, but null and void in themselves. Yet the custom lingered sporadically in Germany and England until the last few years of the 13th century, though it seems to have died out earlier in France and Italy. There was also a short-lived attempt to declare that even a clerk in lower orders should lose his clerical privileges on his marriage; but Boniface VIII. in 1300 definitely permitted such marriages under the already-quoted conditions of the Apostolic Canons; in these cases, however, a bishop’s licence was required to enable the cleric to officiate in church, and the episcopal registers show that the diocesans frequently insisted on the celibacy of parish-clerks. As the middle ages drew to a close, earnest churchmen were compelled to ask themselves whether it would not be better to let the priests marry than to continue a system under which concubinage was even licensed in some districts.[16] Serious proposals were made to reintroduce clerical marriage at the great reforming councils of Constance (1415) and Basel (1432); but the overwhelming majority of orthodox churchmen were unwilling to abandon a rule for which the saints had fought during so many centuries, and to which many of them probably attributed an apostolic origin.[17] This conservative attitude was inevitably strengthened by the attacks first of Lollard and then, of Lutheran heretics; and Sir Thomas More was driven to declare, in answer to Tyndale, that the marriage of priests, being essentially null and void, “defileth the priest more than double or treble whoredom.” It is well known that this became one of the most violently disputed questions at the Reformation, and that for eight years it was felony in England to defend sacerdotal marriage as permissible by the law of God (Statute of the Six Articles, 31 Hen. VIII. c. 14). The diversity of practice on this point drew one of the sharpest lines between reformers and orthodox, until the disorders introduced by these religious wars tempted the latter to imitate in considerable numbers the licence of their rivals.[18] This moved the emperor Charles V. to obtain from Paul III. dispensations for married priests in his dominions; and his successor Ferdinand, with the equally Catholic sovereigns of France, Bavaria and Poland, pleaded strongly at the council of Trent (1545) for permissive marriage. The council, after some hesitation, took the contrary course, and in the 9th canon of its 24th session it erected sacerdotal celibacy practically, if not formally, into an article of faith. In spite of this, the emperor Joseph II. reopened the question in 1783. In France the revolutionary constitution of 1791 abolished all restrictions on marriage, and during the Terror celibacy often exposed a priest to suspicion as an enemy to the Republic; but the better part of the clergy steadily resisted this innovation, and it is estimated that only about 2% were married. The Old Catholics adopted the principle of sacerdotal marriage in 1875.

The working of the system in modern times is perhaps too controversial a question to be discussed here; but one or two points may be noted on which all fairly well informed writers would probably agree. It can scarcely be denied that the Roman Catholic clergy have always owed much of their influence to their celibacy, and that in many cases this influence has been most justly earned by the celibate’s devotion to an unworldly ideal. Again, the most adverse critics would admit that much was done by the counter-Reformation, and that modern ecclesiastical discipline on this point is considerably superior to that of the middle ages; while, on the other hand, many authorities of undoubted orthodoxy are ready to confess that it is not free from serious risks even in these days of easy publicity and stringent civil discipline.[19] Lastly, statistical research has shown that the children of the married British clergy have been distinguished far beyond their mere numerical proportion.[20]

Authorities.—Henry Charles Lea, History of Sacerdotal Celibacy (3rd ed., 1907, 2 vols), is by far the fullest and best work on this subject, though a good deal of important matter omitted by Dr Lea may be found in Die Einfuhrung der erzwungenen Ehelosigkeit by the brothers Johann Anton and Augustin Theiner, which was put on the Roman Index, though Augustin afterwards became archivist at the Vatican (Altenburg, 1828, 2 vols.). The history of monastic celibacy has not yet been fully treated anywhere; the most important evidence of the episcopal registers is either still in MS. or has been published only in comparatively recent years. The most learned work on clerical celibacy from the strictly conservative point of view is that of Francesco Antonio Zaccaria, Storia Polemica del celibato sacro (Rome, 1774); but many of his most important conclusions are set aside by the abbé E. Vacandard in his contribution to the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique (vol. ii. art. “Célibat ecclésiastique”).  (G. G. Co.) 

  1. W. Smith, Dict. of Greek and Roman Antiquities (3rd ed.), vol. ii. p. 44.
  2. “In the 14th century, the city of Ilchi, in Chinese Tartary, possessed 14 monasteries, averaging 3000 devotees in each; while in Tibet, at the present time, there are in the vicinity of Lhassa 12 great monasteries, containing a population of 18,500 lamas. In Ladak the proportion of lamas to the laity is as 1 to 13, in Spiti 1 to 7, and in Burmah 1 to 30” (Lea i. 103).
  3. 1 Cor. vii. 25 sq., ix. 5; 1 Tim. iii. 2, 11, 12; Titus i. 6; E. Vacandard in Dict. de Théol. Cath., s.v. “Célibat.”
  4. This was a natural argument for the defenders of clerical celibacy even in far later times. St Bonaventura (d. 1274) puts this very strongly: “For if archbishops and bishops now had children, they would rob and plunder all the goods of the Church so that little or nothing would be left for the poor. For since they now heap up wealth and enrich nephews removed from them by almost incalculable degrees of affinity, what would they do if they had legitimate children? . . . Therefore the Holy Ghost in His providence hath removed this stumbling-block,” &c. &c. (In Sent. lib. iv. dist. xxxvii art. i. quaest. 3).
  5. Hefele, Beiträge zur Kirchengesch. u.s.w. i. 139.
  6. See the quotations in Lea i. 156. These prohibitions were renewed in the 13th and 14th centuries (ibid. i. 410).
  7. Ratherius, Itinerarium, c. 5 (Migne, P.L. cxxxvi. col. 585). Gulielmus Apulus writes of southern Italy in 1059: “In these parts priests, deacons and the whole clergy were publicly married” (De Normann. lib. ii.).
  8. Dom Pommeraye, S. Rotomag. Eccl. Concilia, pp. 56, 65; cf. similar instances on p. 315 of Dr A. Dresdner’s Kultur- und Sittengeschichte d. italienischen Geistlichkeit im 10. und 11. Jhdt. (Breslau, 1890).
  9. Opusc. xvii. praef. The saint’s evidence is carefully weighed by Dresdner (l.c.), especially on pp. 309 ff. and 321 ff.
  10. Even Pope Innocent III. was compelled to decide that priests who had kept two or more concubines, successively or simultaneously, did not thereby incur the disabilities which attended digamists; or, in other words, that a layman who had contracted two lawful marriages and then proceeded to ordination on the death of his second wife, could be absolved only by the pope; whereas the concubinary priest, “as a man branded with simple fornication,” might receive a valid dispensation from his own bishop (Letter to archbishop of Lund in 1212. Regest. lib. xvi. ep. 118; Migne, P.L. ccxvi. col. 914). As the great canonist Gratian remarked on a similar decretal of Pope Pelagius, “Here is a case where lechery has more rights at law than has chastity” (Decret. p. i. dist. xxxiv. c. vii. note a).
  11. The actual originator of this policy was Nicholas II., probably at Hildebrand’s suggestion; but the decree remained practically a dead letter until Gregory’s accession.
  12. Peter Lombard, Sentent. lib. iv. dist. 13; Aquinas, Summa Theol. pars iii. Q. lxxxiii. art. 7, 9.
  13. Labbe-Mansi, Concilia, vol. xix. col. 796 and xx. col. 724. Dr Lea is probably right in suggesting that it was a confused recollection of these decrees which prompted one of Cranmer’s judges to assure him that “his children were bondmen to the see of Canterbury.” Strype, Memorials of Cranmer, bk iii. c. 28 (ed. 1812, vol. i. p. 601).
  14. Bonaventura, Libell. Apologet. quaest. i.; cf. his parallel treatise Quare Fratres Minores praedicent. The first visitation of his friend Odo Rigaldi, archbishop of Rouen, shows that about 15% of the parish clergy in that diocese were notoriously incontinent (Regestrum Visitationum, ed. Bonnin, Rouen, 1852, pp. 17 ff.). Vacandard (loc. cit. p. 2087) appeals rather misleadingly to this record as proving the progress made during the half-century before Odo’s time. It is probable that there were many more offenders than these 15% known to the archbishop.
  15. Alvarus Pelagius, De Planctu Ecclesiae, ed. 1517, f. 131a, col. 2; cf. f. 102b, col. 2; Hermann von der Hardt, Constantiensis Concilii, &c. vol. i. pars. viii. col. 428.
  16. This more or less regular sale of licences by bishops and archdeacons flourished from the days of Gregory VII. to the 16th century; see index to Lea, s.v. “Licences.” Dr Lea has, however, omitted the most striking authority of all. Gascoigne, the most distinguished Oxford chancellor of his day, writing about 1450 of John de la Bere, then bishop of St David’s, says that he had refused to separate the clergy of his diocese from their concubines, giving publicly as his reason, “for then I your bishop should lose the 400 marks which I receive yearly in my diocese for the priests’ lemans” (Gascoigne, Lib. Ver. ed. Rogers, p. 36). Even Sir Thomas More, in his polemic against the Reformers, admitted that this concubinage was too often tolerated in Wales (English Works, ed. 1557, p. 231, cf. 619).
  17. One of Dr Lea’s few serious mistakes is his acceptance of the spurious pamphlet in favour of priestly marriage which was attributed in the 11th century to St Ulrich of Augsburg (i. 171).
  18. Janssen, Gesch. d. deutschen Volkes, 13th ed., vol. viii. pp. 423, 4, 9; 434; Lea ii. 195, 204. ff.
  19. Lea (ii. 339. ff.) gives a long series of quotations to this effect from church synods and orthodox disciplinary writers of modern times.
  20. Havelock Ellis, A Study of British Genius (London, 1904, p. 80), “Even if we compare the church with the other professions with which it is most usually classed, we find that the eminent children of the clergy considerably outnumber those of lawyers, doctors and army officers put together.” Mr Ellis points put, however, that “the clerical profession . . . also produces more idiots than any other class.”