Clerical Celibacy

Clerical Celibacy


THE voice of lamentation which was called forth by the irregularities of the clergy in the preceding centuries was heard all through the sixteenth century. The presence of a rival power had not yet wrought an effectual shame in the mass of offenders, nor led the officials of the Church to a politic concealment,--the exercise of that worldly discretion which is more concerned to suppress scandal than to eradicate sin. Hence we find repeated and most outspoken complaints against clerical license. In interpreting these complaints we may make some allowance for the tone of the censor, which is apt to be quite as emphatic as the facts may warrant. But even then the testimonies will be found sufficiently weighty. A few of them will be tribute enough to an unpleasant subject.


The custom of making revenue out of the frailty of ecclesiastics was not obsolete. In not a few districts they paid a tax for the privilege of keeping concubines. This is indicated by a statement in the Concordat with Francis I., presented at the Lateran Council in 1516.

1 "Quia vero, in quibusdam regionibus nonnulli jurisdictionem ecclesiasticam habentes, pecuniarios quaestus a concubinariis percipere non erubescunt, patientas eos in tali foeditate sordescere; sub poena maledictionis aeternae praecipimus, ne deinceps sub pacto, compositione, aut spe alterius quaestus talia quovis modo tolerent, aut dissimulent." (Raynaldus, Anno 1516, n. 19.)
The Diet of Nürnberg, in 1522, declared that in most of the dioceses a concubinary tax was annually levied on all the clergy, who were thus in a manner invited to an unchaste life, since abstinence did not excuse them from paying the fee.
1 "Item in locis plerisque episcopi, et eorum officiales, non solùm sacerdotum tolerant concubinatum, dummodo certa persolvatur pecunia: sed et sacerdotes continentes, et qui absque concubinis degunt, concubinatus censum persolvere cogunt; asserentes episcopum pecuniae indigum esse, qua saluta, licere sacerdotibus ut vel coelibes permaneant, vel concubinas alant." (Goldast, Collectio Constitutionum Imperialium, i. 477, Gravam., cap. lxx.) Another chapter in the same list of complaints presents an almost incredible picture of audacious vileness in priests: "Pudicitiam matronarum, virginum, laicorum scilicet uxorum, filiarum, sororumque attentant, ac noctu interdiuque sollicitant. Efficiunt quoque per assiduum ac indefessum laborem, partim muneribus, donis ac blanditiis, ut complures honestae alioqui virgines at matronae, partim etiam in secretis, quas vocant, confessionibus (id quod eventu ipso compertum est) diuturna opera labefactentur, ad peccata, offendiculaque commoveantur. Nec rarò etiam evenit, ut ii uxores ac filias maritis patribusque detineant, et remorentur; minantes interim gladio, aqua, ignive, ulturos repetitas uxores." (Cap. xxi, p. 464.)

In many instances the abandoned morals of the clergy were denounced as being among the chief instigations to religious revolt. At the Council of Cologne, in 1527, it was represented that the priesthood was both leading the people into sin, and inviting their contempt by its licentious excesses. 2 H. C. Lea, History of Sacerdotal Celibacy, 2d edit., p. 514. The orator of the Council of Augsburg, in 1548, admitted that the charge of criminal laxity against the clergy, which heretics were continually repeating, was far from being groundless. 3 "Negare certe non possumus, quin maximam ad nos accusandos occasionem saepe dederimus." (Lea, p.515.) Faber, the associate of Loyola in founding the Order of the Jesuits, wrote from Germany, at the close of the year 1540, that it was not so much the sermons of the Lutherans as the scandalous lives of the clergy which were constraining people to turn their backs upon the Church. In a second letter, written in January of the following year, he used this language: "Would to God that in this city of Worms there were as many as two or three ecclesiastics who were not living with concubines, or were not soiled with other notorious crimes, and who had a little zeal for the salvation of souls! For then they might do anything they pleased with this simple and well-disposed people. I speak of the towns where they have not abolished all the laws and practices, or thrown off entirely the yoke, of the Roman religion; but the part of the flock which is in duty bound to lead the unbelieving into the fold is precisely that which, by its dissolute manners, invites and forces Catholics to become Lutherans." 1 Quoted by Crétineau-Joly, Histoire de la Compagnie de Jésus, i. 166.


So hopeless seemed the task of enforcing clerical celibacy, or making out of the requirement anything else than a fruitful occasion of hypocrisy and libertinism, that some Roman Catholic rulers began to advocate in earnest the privilege of marriage for the clergy. This was the case with the Duke of Bavaria and the Emperor Ferdinand I., both of whom urged their conclusions upon the Council of Trent. In support of their position, some very pungent facts were presented. Thus Augustus Baumgartner, the representative of the Bavarian Duke at the Council, declared that out of a hundred clergy scarcely three or four could be found who were not living secretly or openly in concubinage.

2 "Aggiunse, che il clero era infame per la libidine, che il magistrato politico non comporta alcun cittadino concubinario, e pur nel clero il concubinato è così frequente, che di cento non si sono trovati tre o quattro che non siano concubinarii o maritari secretemente, o palesemente; che in Germania anco i Cattolici prepongono un casto matrimonio ad un celibato contaminato." (Sarpi, Istoria del Concilio Tridentino, lib. vi.)

The proposal of the secular rulers received no serious consideration in the Council. It was the opinion of the doctors that family ties on the part of the clergy would antagonize the bonds of the hierarchy and weaken allegiance to central authority. So far were they from making any concession, that they passed canons which not merely ordain the practice of sacerdotal celibacy, but exclude all question respecting its legitimacy. It is, therefore, with considerable show of reason, that it has been contended that the celibacy of the priesthood in the Romish Church is not merely a prescription of discipline, but a matter of dogma. The canons in question read as follows: "If any one saith, that clerics constituted in sacred orders, or regulars, who have solemnly professed chastity, are able to contract marriage, and that being contracted it is valid, notwithstanding the ecclesiastical law, or vow; and that the contrary is nothing else than to condemn marriage; and that all who do not feel that they have the gift of chastity, even though they have made a vow thereof, may contract marriage: let him be anathema; seeing that God refuses not that gift to those who ask for it rightly, neither does he suffer us to be tempted above that which we are able. If any saith that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity, or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony: let him be anathema."

Session xxiv. canons ix. and x. In the light of these canons, it is obvious that the superiority of virginity to marriage is a dogma in the Romish Church. It is also a matter of faith, that one who has taken the vow of celibacy is bound thereby, and has no just plea for release, since he can have the gift of chastity. The law of priestly celibacy is thus placed beyond challenge so long as it stands; and the obvious inference is that it should stand forever. For why should priests be allowed to forsake a state which is both practicable and superior? If anything therefore is wanting here to make sacerdotal celibacy undeniably a matter of dogma, it is simply a formal statement that the law imposing the vow of chastity ought to remain permanently in force.

Such canons may have checked the free discussion of theories, but the usual strain about the practice of the clergy was still heard with painful frequency. Pius V, found occasion to complain, in a brief to the Archbishop of Salzburg, that the Catholic religion was exposed to great harm and danger through the bold profligacy of ecclesiastics.

1 "Plerosque, abjecto Dei timore et sine ulla hominum verecundia, concubinas palam habere, easque perinde, ac si legitimae eorum uxores essent, in ecclesiis et aliis locis publicis conspici, vulgo iisdem, quibus illi vocantur, officiorum et dignitatum nominibus appellatas; eoque haereses tantopere crevisse, ac multiplicatas fuisse; quod ecclesiastici tam turpiter et nequiter vivendo, omnem plane existimationem amiserint, et in summam non apud haereticos modo, sed etiam Catholicos contemptionem venerint. . . . Nisi enim tam nefandum concubinatus vitium extirpetur, nullam spem reliquam esse videmus reprimi posse haereses." (Quoted by Lea, p. 548.)

In subsequent years synods repeatedly issued measures for the correction of the scandalous irregularity. But, in spite of the increased earnestness which was developed in connection with the Romish reaction, the inveterate plague was healed but slightingly, if we may judge from the bitter comments which still found expression. The darkest phase of the subject was the abuse of the confessional for purposes of seduction. That this diabolical and infinite wickedness was of frequent occurrence, in the sense that the sacramental occasion itself was used to debauch the mind of the penitent, we are very reluctant to believe. It is scarcely surprising, however, that some ugly facts are on record. In a moral atmosphere not specially bracing, it is necessarily a perilous combination which takes place when the ears of a celibate priest of the coarser fibre are made receptacles for all the whisperings of impurity.