The Myth of Catholic Celibacy

zaidpub (old blog)
zaidpub (old blog)

Extracts from: History of the Christian Church, Volume VI:
The Middle Ages
. Chapters 12 & 13 by Philip Schaff  see endnote [i]

In his war on Nicolaitism, Gregory VII was sustained by ancient laws of the Roman Church, but not by the genuine spirit of Christianity. Enforced clerical celibacy has no foundation in the Bible, and is apt to defeat the sacerdotal ideal which it was intended to promote. The real power and usefulness of the clergy depend upon its moral purity, which is protected and promoted by lawful matrimony, the oldest institution of God, dating from the paradise of innocence.

The motives of Gregory in his zeal for sacerdotal celibacy were partly monkish and partly hierarchical. Celibacy was an essential part of his ascetic ideal of 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. Celibacy, moreover, was an indispensable condition of the freedom of the hierarchy. He 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. The ranks of the hierarchy, even the chair of St. Peter, were to be kept open to self-made men of the humblest classes, but closed against hereditary claimants. This was a practical recognition of the democratic principle in contrast with the aristocratic feudalism of the Middle Ages. Hildebrand himself, who rose from the lowest rank without patronage to the papal throne, was the best illustration of this clerical democracy.  [As we have seen this was not so. – oz]

The power of the confessional, which is one of the pillars of the priesthood,[1] 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.  The married priests brought forward the example of the priests of the Old Testament. This argument Damiani answered by saying that the Hebrew priest was forbidden to eat before offering sacrifices at the altar. How much more unseemly it would be for a priest of the new order to soil himself carnally before offering the sacraments to God!  The new order owed its whole time to the office and had none left for marriage and the family life (1 Cor. 7:32). Only an unmarried man who refuses to gratify carnal lusts can fulfill the injunction to be a temple of God and avoid quenching the Spirit (Eph. 4:30; 1 Thess. 5:19).

These motives controlled also the followers of Gregory and the whole hierarchy, and secured the ultimate triumph of sacerdotal celibacy. The question of abolishing it has from time to time been agitated, and in the exceptional cases of the Maronites and United Greeks the popes have allowed single marriage in deference to old custom and for prudential reasons. Pope Pius II, before he ascended the papal chair (1458–1464), said that good reasons required the prohibition of clerical marriage, but better reasons required its restoration. The hierarchical interest [despotism], however, has always overruled these better reasons. Whatever may have been the advantages of clerical celibacy, its evils were much greater. The sexual immorality of the clergy, more than anything else, undermined the respect of the people for their spiritual guides, and was one of the chief causes of the Reformation, which restored honorable clerical marriage, created a pastoral home with its blessings, and established the supremacy of conscience over hierarchical ambition.

From the standpoint of a zealous reformer like Gregory, the morals of the clergy were certainly in a low condition. No practice did he condemn with such burning words as the open marriage of priests or their secret cohabitation with women who were to all intents and purposes their wives. Contemporary writers like Damiani (d. 1072), in his Gomorrhianus, give dark pictures of the lives of the priests. While descriptions of rigid ascetics are to be accepted with caution, the evidence abounds that in all parts of Latin Christendom the law of priestly celibacy was ignored. [2] Modern Catholic historians, like Hefele and Funk, [3] do not hesitate to adduce the proofs of this state of affairs. Pope Benedict IX., according to friendly testimony, was thinking of taking a wife openly. The legislation, opening with the canons of the Roman synod of 1049 held by Leo IX., and emphasized at the Roman synod of 1059 held under Nicholas II., was given by Gregory VII such a prominence that one might have supposed the very existence of the Church depended upon the enforcement of clerical celibacy. There were bishops even in Italy who openly permitted the marriage of priests, as was the case with Kunibert of Turin. In Germany, Bishop Poppo of Toul did not conceal his quasi-marital relations which Gregory denounced as fornication, and the bishops of Spires and Lausanne had hard work clearing themselves in public synods from a like charge. Married priests were denominated by synods and by Gregory VII. as “incontinent” or “concubinary priests.” Gregory spoke of Germany as afflicted with the “inveterate disease of clerical fornication.” And what was true of Italy and Germany was true of England.

The Enforcement of Sacerdotal Celibacy

Gregory completed, with increased energy and the weight of official authority, the moral reform of the clergy as a means for securing the freedom and power of the Church. He held synod after synod, which passed summary laws against simony and Nicolaitism, and denounced all carnal connection of priests with women, however legitimate, as sinful and shameful concubinage. Not contented with synodical legislation, he sent letters and legates into all countries with instructions to enforce the decrees. A synod in Rome, March, 1074, opened the war. It deposed the priests who had bought their dignity or benefices, prohibited all future sacerdotal marriage, required married priests to dismiss their wives or cease to read mass, and commanded the laity not to attend their services. The same decrees had been passed under Nicolas II and Alexander II but were not enforced. The forbidding of the laity to attend mass said by a married priest, was a most dangerous, despotic measure, which had no precedent in antiquity. In an encyclical of 1079 addressed to the whole realm of Italy and Germany, Gregory used these violent words, “If there are presbyters, deacons, or sub-deacons who are guilty of the crime of fornication (that is, living with women as their wives), we forbid them, in the name of God Almighty and by the authority of St. Peter, entrance into the churches, introitum ecclesiae, until they repent and rectify their conduct.”

These decrees caused a storm of opposition. Many clergymen in Germany, as Lambert of Hersfeld reports, denounced Gregory as a madman and heretic: he had forgotten the words of Christ, Matt. 19:11, and of the Apostle, 1 Cor. 7:9; he wanted to compel men to live like angels, and, by doing violence to the law of nature, he opened the door to indiscriminate licentiousness. [4]  They would rather give up their calling than their wives, and tauntingly asked him to look out for angels who might take their place. The bishops were placed in a most embarrassing position. Some, like Otto of Constance, sympathized with the married clergy; and he went so far as to bid his clergy marry. Others, like St. Altmann of Passau, were enthusiasts for sacerdotal celibacy. Others, like Siegfrid of Mainz, took a double attitude. Archbishop Anno of Cologne agreed with the Hildebrandian principle, but deemed it impracticable or inopportune. When the bishops lacked in zeal, Gregory stirred up the laity against the simoniacal and concubinary priests. He exhorted a certain Count Albert (October, 1074) to persist in enforcing the papal orders, and commanded Duke Rudolf of Swabia and Duke Bertolf of Carinthia, January, 1075, to prevent by force, if necessary, the rebellious priests from officiating, no matter what the bishops might say who had taken no steps to punish the guilty. He thus openly encouraged rebellion of the laity against the clergy, contrary to his fundamental principle of the absolute rule of the hierarchy. He acted on the maxim that the end sanctifies the means. Bishop Theodoric of Verdun, who at first sided in the main with Gregory, but was afterwards forced into the ranks of his opponents, openly reproached him for these most extraordinary measures as dangerous to the peace of the Church, to the safety of the clerical order, and even to the Christian faith. Bishop Henry of Spires denounced him as having destroyed the episcopal authority, and subjected the Church to the madness of the people. When the bishops, at the Diet of Worms, deposed him, January, 1076, one of the reasons assigned was his surrender of the Church to the laity.

But the princes who were opposed to Henry IV and deposed him at Tribur (1076), professed great zeal for the Roman Church and moral reform [here we see the true Roman Cult (ancient Latin Royalty dating to Victor I) coming to the rescue of Satan’s long term plan – oz]. They were stigmatized with the Milanese name of Patarini. Even Henry IV., though he tacitly protected the simoniacal and concubinary clergy and received their aid, never ventured openly to defend them; and the anti-pope Clement III., whom he elected 1080, expressed with almost Hildebrandian severity his detestation of clerical concubinage, although he threatened with excommunication the presumptuous laymen who refused to take the sacrament from immoral priests. Bishop Benzo, the most bitter of imperialists, did not wish to be identified with the Nicolaitan heretics.

A contemporary writer, probably a priest of Treves, gives a frightful picture of the immediate results of this reform, with which he sympathized in principle. Slaves betrayed masters and masters betrayed slaves, friends informed against friends, faith and truth were violated, the offices of religion were neglected, society was almost dissolved [creation of anarchy – the ancient device]. The peccant priests were exposed to the scorn and contempt of the laity, reduced to extreme poverty, or even mutilated by the populace [like good Chinese communists – oz], tortured and driven into exile. Their wives, who had been legally married with ring and religious rites, were insulted as harlots, and their children branded as bastards [Hildebrand’s Cultural Revolution ala Chairman Mao– oz]. Many of these unfortunate women died from hunger or grief, or committed suicide in despair, and were buried in unconsecrated earth. Peasants burned the tithes on the field lest they should fall into the hands of disobedient priests, trampled the host under foot, and baptized their own children.

In England, St. Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury (d. 988), had anticipated the reforms of Hildebrand, but only with temporary success. William the Conqueror made no effort to enforce sacerdotal celibacy, except that the charge of concubinage was freely used as a pretext for removing Anglo-Saxon prelates to make room for Norman rivals [an honest conspirator and Merovingian opportunist – oz]. Lanfranc of Canterbury was a Hildebrandian, but could not prevent a reformatory council at Winchester in 1076 from allowing married priests to retain their wives, and it contented itself with the prohibition of future marriages. This prohibition was repeated at a council held in London, 1102, when Anselm occupied the see of Canterbury. Married priests were required to dismiss their wives, and their children were forbidden to inherit their fathers’ churches. A profession of chastity was to be exacted at ordination to the subdiaconate and the higher orders. But no punishment was prescribed for the violation of these canons. Anselm maintained them vigorously before and after his exile. A new council, called by King Henry at London, 1108, a year before Anselm’s death, passed severe laws against sacerdotal marriage under penalties of deposition, expulsion from the Church, loss of property, and infamy. The temporal power was pledged to enforce this legislation. But Eadmer, the biographer of Anselm, sorrowfully intimates that the result was an increase of shocking crimes of priests with their relatives [incest, fornication, adultery and pederasty – oz], and that few preserved that purity with which Anselm had labored to adorn his clergy.

In Spain, which was as much isolated from the Continent by the Pyrenees as England by the sea, clerical celibacy was never enforced before this period. The Saracenic invasion and subsequent struggles of the Christians were unfavorable to discipline. A canon of Compostella, afterwards bishop of Mondonego, describes the contemporary ecclesiastics at the close of the eleventh century as:

reckless and violent men // ready for any crime // prompt to quarrel

and occasionally indulging in mutual slaughter.

The lower priests were generally married; but bishops and monks were forbidden by a Council of Compostella, in 1056, all intercourse with women, except with mothers, aunts, and sisters wearing the monastic habit. Gregory VII sent a legate, a certain Bishop Amandus, to Spain to introduce his reforms, 1077.  A Council at Girona, 1078, forbade the ordination of sons of priests and the hereditary transmission of ecclesiastical benefices. A Council at Burgos, 1080, commanded married priests to put away their wives. But this order seems to have been a dead letter until the thirteenth century, when the code of laws drawn up by Alfonso the Wise, known as “Las Siete Partidas,” punished sacerdotal marriage with deprivation of function and benefice, and authorized the prelates to command the assistance of the secular power in enforcing this punishment. “After this we hear little of regular marriage, which was replaced by promiscuous concubinage or by permanent irregular unions.”

In France the efforts of reform made by the predecessors of Gregory had little effect. A Paris Synod of 1074 declared Gregory’s decrees unbearable and unreasonable. At a stormy synod at Poitiers, in 1078, his legate obtained the adoption of a canon which threatened with excommunication all who should listen to mass by a priest whom they knew to be guilty of simony or concubinage. But the bishops were unable to carry out the canon without the aid of the secular arm. The Norman clergy in 1072 drove the archbishop of Rouen from a council with a shower of stones. William the Conqueror came to his aid in 1080 at a synod of Lillebonne, which forbade ordained persons to keep women in their houses. But clerical marriages continued, the nuptials were made public, and male children succeeded to benefices by a recognized right of primogeniture. William the Conqueror, who assisted the hopeless reform in Normandy, prevented it in his subject province of Britanny, where the clergy, as described by Pascal II in the early part of the twelfth century, were setting the canons at defiance and indulging in enormities hateful to God and man.

At last, the Gregorian enforcement of sacerdotal celibacy triumphed in the whole Roman Church, but at the fearful sacrifice of sacerdotal chastity. The hierarchical aim was attained, but not the angelic purity of the priesthood. The private morals of the priest were sacrificed to hierarchical ambition. Concubinage and licentiousness took the place of holy matrimony. The acts of councils abound in complaints of clerical immorality and the vices of unchastity and drunkenness.  The records of the Middle Ages are full of the evidences that indiscriminate license of the worst kind prevailed throughout every rank of the hierarchy.

The corruption again reached the papacy, especially in the fifteenth century.  John XXIII and Alexander VI rivaled in wickedness and lewdness, the worst popes of the tenth and eleventh centuries.


[1]     Jesuits disclose these confidences to their superiors, they are required to do so by oath, and this breech of confidence is one of the chief aids to their intelligence services. – oz
[2]     Mirbt, Publizistik, 259, says that there was no such thing as a general observance of celibacy in Western Europe.
[3]     Kirchengesch., 271. It will be remembered that in Spain, in the eighth century, King Witiza formally abolished the law of clerical celibacy.
[4]       This, in addition to enforced monogamy, assured the continuance of lucrative prostitution, often under church auspice where ecclesiarchs collected their due and Mafioso monitored the bordellos, much like the ancient insititutions of temple whoredom.  – oz]


[i]               Bibliography: Sacerdotal Celibacy Appendex II
  • Literature, special works: Henry C. Lea: A Hist. Sketch of Sacerdotal Celibacy in the Christian Church, Phil. 1867, 2d ed. Boston, 1884.
  • A. Dresdner: Kultur und Sittengeschichte der italienischen Geistlichkeit im 10 und 11 Jahrhundert, Berlin, 1890.
  • Mirbt: Publizistik, pp. 239–342; Hefele, V. 20 sqq. The chief contemporary sources are Damiani de coelibatu sacerdotum, addressed to Nicolas II. and Gomorrhianus, commended by Leo IX., and other writings,
  • Gregory VII.’s Letters. Mirbt gives a survey of this literature, pp. 274–342.