Celibacy was not always a requirement for Catholic priests. From Christianity’s beginnings to the 12th century, clerical wives and families were quite common. However, that didn’t mean the Church didn’t attempt to enforce clerical celibacy. They did. And they tried to do it a lot. You can read my first post about the Church’s attempts to enforce clerical celibacy here.
This begs the question, why enforce clerical celibacy in the first place?
Why Did Medieval Catholic Reformers Want Priests to Take a Vow of Celibacy?
Like most questions about why people want anything, the answer isn’t a simple one. Reformers had a few reasons for enforcing clerical celibacy. Today’s post will focus on the religious and financial reasons reformers had when advocating for clerical celibacy.
Religious Reasons For Clerical Celibacy
One argument for clerical celibacy was that priests needed to be pure to uphold sacramental purity. Priests performed holy rituals and held holy items. The only way to maintain that the sacraments had the ritual purity they deserved was to make sure the person performing them was pure as well. Sex is unclean and impure, thus, priests should not have sex.
Now, I’m sure some readers are indigent about the idea of sex being dirty. Well, sexual uncleanliness isn’t just a ritualistic concept. Practically speaking, it’s reality. There are fluids involved. Would you really want to receive communion from someone who just had sex and possibly didn’t wash their hands that well afterward?
As clerical marriage was a reality for the first thousand or so years of Christianity, there were practical rules in place to ensure ritual purity. When a priest had sex, he needed to wait a certain amount of time before he could perform sacraments, touch the Eucharist, etc. If he did have sex within the allotted time frame that allowed him to regain his ritual purity, he had to find another priest to say mass for him.
Medieval priests were on call 24/7, so reformers argued they should be celibate all the time. That way a priest wasn’t scrambling to find someone else to perform Last Rites at 3am because a parishioner is dying and the priest and his partner were having a bit of fun before he received the news someone needed him.
Another religious reason for clerical celibacy was from a moral standpoint. I don’t mean moral in a “sex is bad” way. I mean moral from a “once sex is involved, there’s a greater chance of vile acts occurring.” Reformers were aware priests had a lot of power over their parishioners. Even if a relationship is between two consenting adults, power dynamics make things extremely complicated at best and disgustingly immoral at worst.
(Also we’re talking about the Catholic Church. You know, the institution that’s infamous for the copious amount of sexual abuse cases (some ongoing) that have happened over its 2000 year history. (As a side note, I know some people claim that clerical celibacy causes sexual abuse. To that I say, the average person doesn’t prey on children when they haven’t had sex in a while. I’m extremely suspicious of anyone who says otherwise.))
Financial Reasons For Clerical Celibacy
Sacramental purity wasn’t the only reason for clerical celibacy. Like with most rules people make, money is usually a factor. And clerical celibacy was no different.
Generally speaking, when a man and a woman marry (or are just not celibate with each other) there’s a good chance of babies happening. In an era with not super reliable birth control (though it did exist) babies happened a lot.
That, combined with the fact medieval masculinity depended on how many children you had and the Christian view married couples should only have sex to conceive a child (Note: in theory, medieval Christians followed this. In practice they didn’t.), meant some priests had a lot of children.
Babies are expensive.
And so is educating children and finding good dowries and making sure your children can financially support themselves as adults. For medieval clerical sons, the priesthood was a family business. Priests, especially ones in positions of power such as bishops and archbishops, sought to make sure their sons inherited their prebends and benefices.
In short, priests used Church money to support their families. Reformers did not like this.
Reformers also did not particularly like priests spending lots of Church money on their wives/concubines/girlfriends. They claimed priests “create public spectacles by taking their women, decked out lavishly in fine clothing and jewels, to weddings and to church” (Thibodeaux 30).
(Of course, the extent of how bad this supposed “lavishing” was could very well have been exaggerated by reformers in certain situations. I’m sure some priests spent too much money buying their partners nice gifts and I’m also sure other priests could have put in a bit more effort making sure their partners had something nicer than what they currently own. In situations like these, there wouldn’t be one absolute that applied to every single English/Norman Catholic priest from the beginning of Christianity to when priests actually started following the reforms.)
By lavishing their special lady friends with expensive things, reformers thought priests were paying more attention and in a sense worshiping women more than the church they were supposed to serve. I will go more into the medieval gender implications for priests “serving” women in a later blog post where I’ll discuss the gender-based reasons for and against clerical celibacy.
Thibodeaux, Jennifer D. The Manly Priest Clerical Celibacy, Masculinity, and Reform in England and Normandy, 1066-1300. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.