Celibacy in the Catholic Church

Peter Berresford Ellis looks at the politics and philosophy behind the Catholic church's rules on marriage and celibacy

IN SPITE of the election of another conservative Pontiff, Benedict XVI in April of this year, liberal reformers in the Catholic Church are continuing their campaign for a return to a married priesthood.

However, the former Cardinal Joseph Alois Ratzinger, is clearly not some one who will look benignly on any attempts to liberalise the Church. He is known to be a firm supporter of Pope Paul VI's encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, which reaffirmed the prohibition on clerical marriages. Cardinal Ratzinger's Salt of the Earth: the Church at the end of the Millennium, published in 1997, showed no moderation of those views.

Some liberals argue that this attitude has been responsible for the rapid decline of members of the religious during the last thirty years. A month or so ago in Ireland, that fact that two young men were entering a seminary from one county was so unusual that it was reported as newsworthy.

In my opening I said 'a return to a married priesthood'. Yet many think that the Catholic priesthood has always been celibate one and that it was the Protestant movement in the sixteenth Century that allowed clergy to marry. Only from the twelfth Century AD did the Roman Church begin to enforce celibacy among its clerics.

In most religions, both ancient and modern, there have always been ascetics who believed that celibacy somehow brought them close to the deity. They have sublimated physical love, a natural life, in a dedication to whatever deity they worshipped. Celibacy within the western Christian movement was something that took many centuries to become a universally accepted idea; even then it was a means of causing schisms within that movement.

The first disciples of Jesus were, for the majority, married men: disciples such as Simon Bar-Jonah, nicknamed 'The Rock' (Petrus in Latin, Cephas in Greek), the man on whom Jesus is accepted as founding his Church and regarded as the first 'Pope'.

Evidence shows that many of the early Christian religious leaders were married men and women and, moreover, women often took a prominent role in the services. Even many centuries later, women in Gaul were officiating over the divine offices and other rituals and that called forth a rebuke from Rome.

One has to remember that the Christian movement, like most human movements from the religious to the political, was constantly changing and reforming. Indeed, it was with the third century that the teachings of Gnosticism began to argue that a person could not be married and be 'religiously perfect'. However, The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, lists no less than 39 Popes as being married. Even the most conservative of Catholic scholars will accept that seven Bishops of Rome were married. Moreover, some of the Popes were succeeded by their sons in office.

Some ascetics, as in other religions, became hermits, shunning society, and removing themselves from 'worldly temptation'. Such was the idea of St Anthony (born c. AD 250) who took up residence in a deserted fort in Pispir on the Nile.

It was from these first Christian 'monks'- Anthony and Pachomius - that inspired the former Roman soldier named Martin, born c. AD 315 in Pannonia. He became a hermit in Gaul. By AD 370 he was also a bishop and founder of an entire community. He built his monastery at Marmoutier, in Celtic Gaul, that still shows its original Celtic name 'mor munntir', meaning 'place of the great family'. Martin became 'Father of Celtic Monasticism' and his ideas spread from Marmoutier to Celtic Britain and then to Ireland.

Yet at this stage, the majority of priests were married and their children often rose to office in the Church. The Pope St Damascus I (AD 366-384) was the son of the priest St Lorenzo. St Innocent I, who was Pope from AD 401-417, was son of Pope Anastasius I (399-401). Popes Boniface (AD 418-422), St Felix (AD 483-492), Anastasius II (AD 496-498) and St Agapitus I (AD 535-536) were all sons of priests, while St Silverus (AD 536-537) and John XI were sons of previous Popes and at least three more Popes were also sons of priests.

Even St Patrick (a British Celt from near Carlisle whose original name seems to have been Sochet 'silent one') was the son of a deacon (Cualfornius or Calpornius) who, in turn, was son of a priest (Potitus). One interesting point, Diaconus (now translated in modern terms) at this point was an ordained priest (see Acts 6: 1-6).

Ireland was not unique within the wider Christian Church in having married clergy and mixed-sex religious communities were found not confined to Ireland but through western Christendom.

Yet the ascetic group, advocating celibacy, grew stronger as a political force within the Christian movement. In AD 308 the Council of Elvira in Spain issued a decree that a priest who slept with his wife on the night before Mass could not perform the ceremony. In AD 325 the Council at Niceae argued that, after ordination, priests should not marry.

One fascinating point is that the Council of Laodicea in AD 352, ordered that women should no longer be ordained as priests. So women were being ordained as priests at this time. Early Irish references show that St Brigid of Kildare, (who died AD 525) herself was ordained as a bishop. She founded her conhospitae, or mixed, house with Bishop Conláed. St Hilary in Northumbria is also referred to as being ordained bishop.

In AD 494 Pope Gelasius I (492-496) decreed that woman could no longer be ordained as priests. It is fascinating, therefore, that we find Bishop Pelagio, in the twelfth century, complaining that women were still being ordained in the western Church and hearing confessions. K.J. Torjesen's book When Women Were Priests, discusses the implications of this.

In AD 385, Pope Siricius (AD 384-399), supporting the ascetic lobby, abandoned his wife and children, and ordered that priests should no longer sleep with their wives. But he did not go so far as prohibiting marriage.

Clerics marrying remained an unchanging factor of religious life through the sixth century. In AD 567, at the second Council at Tours, it was decided to recommend that any cleric found in bed with their wives should be forbidden to perform church rituals and reduced to a lay state. However in AD 580 Pope Pelagius II (AD 579-590) was not so much bothered with married clergy but with inheritance to their offspring. He ordered that married priests should not bequeath property acquired in their office as a member of the church to their sons or other heirs.

The Roman Church was becoming conscious of the value of property and wanted what had been acquired to remain within the church. Throughout the seventh century there is much documentary evidence showing that in Frankia and Gaul the majority of clerics, priests, abbots and bishops, were married. In the following century, St Boniface of Crediton (c. AD 675-755), comments that almost no priest, including bishops, in Germany followed the idea of celibacy.

Well into the ninth century, it was reported at the Council of Aix-la-Chapelle that the inhabitants of monasteries and convents were living together and that where the bishops and abbots were trying to enforce celibacy there were a number of abortions and infanticides taking place to cover up these relationships.

St Ulric of Augsburg (890-973) argued that the Holy Scriptures and logic demanded that the only way to purify the western Church from these worst excesses was to continue to allow the clerics to marry. He pointed out "When celibacy is imposed, priests will commit sins far worse than fornication." His letter on this matter was later claimed to be a forgery by the pro-celibacy lobby. Ulric's stand is discussed in Married Priests and the Reforming Papacy: the 11th Century debates.

Pope Benedict IX was elected when he was fifteen years old in 1032 because he was connected with the powerful Counts of Tusculum. He resigned the Papacy in order to marry. Gregory VI took over but Gregory was banished after a few months. Re-elected in 1045, the married Benedict IX was deposed by Clement II who died shortly after and Benedict IX was re-elected for a third time before finally being deposed in 1048.

Peter Damian (AD 1007-72) was a high-ranking ecclesiastic and theologian who became the leading advisor to successive Popes and drew them firmly into the celibacy camp. Peter Damian called the wives of clerics "harlots, prostitutes... unclean spirits, demigoddesses, sirens, witches" among other vicious rhetoric. He found an enthusiastic pupil in Hildebrand di Bonizio Aldobrandeschi of Sovana.

When Hildebrand was elected as Pope Gregory VII (AD 1073-1085), he declared, in 1074, that "priests must first escape the clutches of their wives", and then take a pledge of celibacy. But it was Pope Urban II, in 1095, who decided to order that the wives of priests be rounded up and sold into slavery, the money used to boost the Papal finances.

Riots took place in Germany, Italy and France as priests rejected this order. So far, no research has been done on how Ireland reacted to this order. Pope Urban even allowed the nobles to forcibly abduct the wives of priests and sell them into slavery.

When the Count of Veringen took part in this, he found his own wife murdered in her bed. Pope Calixtus II (AD 1119-1124) at the Lateran Council of 1123 decreed that all clerical marries were invalid, a decree later confirmed by Pope Innocent II (1130-1143). But, by the fifteenth Century, it was reported that 50 per cent of Catholic priests were still married but, of course, this figure actually shows that the long transition from marriage to celibacy had finally begun to take effect.

The Popes themselves were hardly obeying their own rules on celibacy. We know that Popes such as Innocent VIII (AD 1484-1492), Alexander VI (1492-1503), Julius II (1503-1513), Paul III (1534-1549), Pius IV (1559-1565) and Gregory XIII (1572-1585), each had many illegitimate children. Of these, one of the most notorious was Alexander VI (1492-1503), a Borgia Pope, who had seven illegitimate children when he was a cardinal and, as Pontiff had an affair with Giulia Farnese, a 19 year-old married girl.

In Ireland celibacy was not an issue in the early Church. Indeed, the decisions in the documentary recounting 'The First Synod of Patrick' simply takes married clerics for granted and says that "any cleric from ostiary to priest ...whose wife walks about with her head uncovered shall be despised by the laity and separated from the Church." Dr Patrick Power, in Sex and Marriage in Ancient Ireland (Mercier Press, 1976), points to the fact that a later Brehon Law actually grades ecclesiastical marriages indicating that married bishops and priests were allotted only two-thirds of the honour price of an unmarried bishop or priest.

In spite of attempts to 'sanitise' things by those who want to present celibacy as a strict rule of faith from early times, the evidence to the contrary is absolutely clear. Attempts to reduce bishops and abbots in Ireland to semi-religious officials holding hereditary office, sort of like managers for the community shows no understanding at all of early Irish society.

One of the problems has been that the surviving literature comes from a period when the scribes were members of the accepted orthodoxy of late medieval Rome and were writing with a consciousness of their new dogma. Superficial readings could easily mislead just as one encounters the new religion influencing the bowdlerisation of the concepts and themes of the original versions of Irish mythological tales. But not all the records could be successfully expunged.

As writers have tried to 'sanitise' references to married religious, they have presented many curious arguments. Some even argue that the Irish terms for 'monk' and 'nun' were used strictly in the same way as they were used in the late medieval Roman church, implying that any union between them was forbidden. Of course, the Latin 'monachus' is taken from the Greek word for 'solitary' - 'he that dwells alone'. When one is talking about an entire community of 'monks' it is obvious that word has changed its meaning.

To overcome the clear references that many Irish monks and nuns were married, it has been argued that Ireland had 'religious monks' and these were celibates whereas references to monks who were clearly married was explained that they were not 'religious monks'.

Certainly, in the later period, this term 'manach' eventual made its way into the laws at a latter period as a 'a tenant of church lands' both as - 'sóirmanaigh' and 'doirmanaigh'.

One has to remember that word meanings were not cast forever in stone. There is, indeed, another definition of 'manach'. That was a name given to one who performs feats of skill such as bareback riders who appear at fairs. That conjures up an interesting picture.

The term 'nun' derives from the Latin 'nonnus' and 'nonna' originally applied as terms of respect for elderly people. For example, most Italian speakers will easily recognise the modern terms 'nonno' and 'nanna' (grandfather and grandmother respectively). The same idea occurs in Old and Middle Irish when the word 'caillech' was used for a nun. An abbess was a 'cenn caillech'. But the word also applied to an elderly Irish woman or a matron and the same word, in the sagas, applied to a hag, witch or crone. It also became used as the word for a 'veil'.

Those who tend to rely on claims that the words 'monk' and 'nun' have meant a celibate religious since the start of the Christian movement would do better to reflect on the changing linguistic values.

One important thing to remember is that from the 7th Century, Irish society was clearly in a state of flux, of tremendous stresses and changes. Nothing about the time can be regarded as static especially in the fluidity of church and social matters.

The conhospitae, or mixed sex houses, in which the religious lived, raising their children in the service of the Faith, existed at the very same time the more ascetic religious were founding solitary hermitages or single sex communities, to pursue the path to the deity. Attitudes were not uniform.

In Ireland, from the 8th Century, the changing Roman orthodoxy was having its influence on the changing religious practices. Many religious houses were adopting ecclesiastical rules and laws and displacing the native Brehon Law system. Indeed, even Brehon Law itself was being regularly amended and altered by the incoming ideas. But, as we have demonstrated, the changes with slow.

It was only in AD 494 that Pope Gelasius I, issued various decrees among which was banning women priests. Women were still being ordained and officiating at the mass. He ordered this to stop. What was the excuse given as to why women should not play a full and equal part in the religion? "Only man, through natural resemblance to Christ, can express the sacramental role of Christ in the Eucharist."

In spite of evidence to the contrary, Rome began to deny the early role of women in the priesthood.

Returning to celibacy, Dr Patrick Power, in Sex and Marriage in Ancient Ireland, points out that a Céili Dé Penitential does not order the excommunication and expulsion of any member who was married or had a sexual relational but prescribes only a penance.

The Céili Dé (Servants of God) monastic order, founded in Tallaght by St Mael Rúain (d. 792) certainly approved of celibacy and in the Martyrology of Oengus they believed that a priest could not baptise anyone if they had sexual intercourse beforehand. "Baptism comes not from him, after visiting his nun (nonna)." Professor Edward C. Sellner (The Celtic Soul Friend, 2002) actually picked up on the fact that in later years the Céile Dé, which movement had lasted into the 14th Century in parts of Gaelic Scotland, its members were often married. "This movement consisted of both lay people and ordained, many of whom were married, who wanted to recover the lost traditions of their spiritual ancestors, and thus bring new life into their own churches and monasteries."

In fact, the marriages among the Céili Dé had been remarked back in the late 15th, early 16th Century by Canon Alexander Myln (1474-1548) of Dunkeld who wrote his Dunkeldensis Ecclesiae Episcoporum, c. 1516. Myln wrote:

"In this monastery (Dunkeld) Constantine, King of the Picts, placed religious men, commonly called Kelldedei, otherwise Colidei, that is, God-worshippers, who, however, after the Eastern Church, had wives (from whom they lived apart when taking the sacred offices) as afterwards grew to be the custom in the church of the blessed Regulus, now called St. Andrews.'

When Dr William Reeves published his The Culdees of the British Isles as they appeared in history, Dublin, 1864, he, too, remarked on the marriage of the Céli Dé quoting from Myln and pointing to such married abbots as Crinan (sometimes Cronan) the Abbot of Dunkeld who married Bethoc, daughter of Maol Callum II (1008-1034) of Scotland, whose son was Duncan I (1034-1040). Duncan, after a disastrous reign, was overthrown by MacBeth, son of Maol Callum II's second daughter Doada. He reigned from 1040-1057 having married Gruoch, grand-daughter of Coinneach III (997-1005).

A century before this period, in Ireland, some Kings like Cormac mac Cuileannáin (836-908) were not simply Kings but, in Cormac's case was Bishop of Cashel as well as King of Cashel. He married Gormflaith, daughter of the High King, Flann Sionna mac Maelsechnaill (879-916). Indeed, he was not the first King at Cashel to fulfil a religious role. Fergus Scandal mac Crimthain Airthir Chliach (d. AD 583) was also abbot of Imleach (Emly). Cenn Fáelad gua Mugthigirn (d. 872) not only became King at Cashel but also was another abbot of Imleach, as, indeed, his uncle, Rechtabra (d. 819) had been. Cenn Fáelad's son Eoghan, was not elected to the kingship but succeeded his father as abbot of Imleach. However, Olchobar mac Cináeda (d. 851) succeeded as both King as well as abbot.

The Irish annals and chronicles are replete with references to the sons of abbots and bishops. As surnames began to emerge in 11th and 12th Century Ireland, we find that Mac an Mhanaigh (MacEvanny) was 'son of the monk'; that Mac an tSagairt (MacEntaggart) was 'son of the priest' (the same name as McTaggart in Scotland); that Mac Giolla Easpuig (MacGillespie) was 'son of the bishop' and Mac Giolla Iosa (MacAleese) was 'the son of the devotee of Jesus' - applied to the son of a religious leader.

The rights and education of children of clerical marriages, as given in Brehon Law, has been studied in papers printed in Studies in Early Irish Law, 1936.

While King Bishops or King Abbots might be explained as powerful men combining the secular and the religious functions, if anyone really thought that the abbots and bishops in Ireland were only 'semi-religious' figures then they should spend a few hours with the Irish Annals, Chronicles and other texts.

The law text the Córus Béscnai, 'the regulation of proper behaviour' dealing with the mutual obligations of clergy and laity, can be traced from at least the 8th Century. It becomes the third section of the Senchus Mór. It is quoted in both the Ancient Laws of Ireland (volume III) and in the Corpus Iuiris Hibernici, ed. by D.A. Binchy, Dublin, 1978. It states that the monks (manaigh) were of the fine erluma, of the kin of the founder of the monastery.

Professor Thomas Charles-Edwards, an expert on the laws, has no problem with this and sees this as a single kin-related tuath or tribe (clan). One writer has actually argued that this terminology should not be taken literally. That it was symbolic and the kingship was not blood related and that legal writers were employing familiar social and economic ideas of the times to explain things.

Yet it is perfectly clear that in many monasteries in Ireland, those habitants were families that were bound by blood as well as religion. As Professor Lisa M. Bitel, in spite of her later arguments, confessed in Isle of the Saints: Monastic Settlement and Christian Community in Early Ireland, (Cornell University Press, 1990):

"Abbots and officers openly supported wives, sons and other kin. They sent their relatives to become officers in nearby monasteries, or they kept sons, brothers, and nephews within their own communities to succeed to offices there. Successive generations of the Maicc Cuinn na mBocht, for example, controlled major monastic offices at Cluan Moccu Nois (Clonmacnoise) for about three centuries. Another family, the Uí Sinaich, battled for and won control of Ard Macha, remaining in power for generations. There is no reason to assume that other monks ignored the example of their abbots and officers."

Kathleen Hughes in her Church In Early Irish Society, argues that there was no reason to assume that the brethren in these abbeys remained celibate ignoring the example of their abbots, the officers of the religious houses and, indeed, the bishops and priests. The family within the monastic communities allowed knowledge as well as property to pass on to sons and other family members. T. O'Donoghue, examining the 10th Century poem, 'Advice to a Prince' shows that the writer argues that abbots could most efficiently be succeeded by their sons.

Indeed, this was happening in many religious houses throughout Ireland.

In the Annals of Ulster just for the year AD 793 we find recorded not only Dubh Da Leithi, the son of Sinaich, the Abbot of Armagh, but of Cinaed, son of Cumascach, the abbot of Demag, Flaithgel, son of Taichlech, abbot of Druim Rátha and so on. Sons of abbots certainly reached high rank in the Irish Church. For example, Bishop Flann, who died in AD 812, was the son of Cellach, abbot of Finnglas.

And even if one doesn't want to take Irish sources as evidence, let us take the evidence of St Bernard of Clairvaux (c.1090-1153) who knew St Malachy (Mael Maedoc ua Morgair- AD1094-1190) of Armagh. Now surely few intelligent people can claim that Armagh and its archbishopric was a 'lay' or 'semi-religious' house and its archbishop was a 'lay manager'? By the time Bernard was writing, the Irish High Kings and, indeed, the Bishop of Rome had accepted Armagh, as the primacy, or chief ecclesiastical centre in Ireland. This was mainly due to the political intervention of the High King, Brían mac Cennétig (d. 1014) perhaps better known as Brían Bórumha. According to the Annals of Ulster, in 1005, Brían acknowledged Armagh as the primatial jurisdiction of Ireland for the first time.

Yet Bernard points out that even 'this primatial Holy See' was "held in hereditary succession for they (the Irish) suffered none to be bishops but those who were of their own tribe and family". He mentions that the abbots and bishops of Armagh were married and fifteen bishops had succeeded by hereditary right at Armagh prior to the election of Archbishop Celsus.

In fact it was not until 1101 at a Council at Cashel, convened by the High King Muirechertach Ua Bríain (d. 1119), who was not only High King but King of Munster (Muman), that the first serious moves were made to enforced clerical celibacy in Ireland. It was at this Council that Muirchertach handed over the historical royal lands of Cashel to the church "without any claim of layman or cleric upon it, but to the religious of Ireland in general". It was, for Ireland, a point where church and state began a separation and, indeed, the pro-celibacy lobby began to have its most significant impact.

What many later scholars who attempt to square the circle, arguing for the tradition of celibacy, try to claim is these married religious were not ordained but were laymen. Such a claim was made for St Celsus, otherwise Cellach Mac Aodh (1079-1129) who inherited the bishopric of Armagh in 1105. Now if St Celsus was a laymen, we have a problem. How was he then able to ordained St Malachy (Maelmadoc ua Morgair) as a priest, commission him to reform the church, and then, as he lay dying, appoint him his successor as Archbishop of Armagh?

Those who attempt to deny that there was clerical marriage in Ireland and deny the existence of many mixed communities can only put forward their argument by distorting or ignoring the evidence.

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