Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 2, Feb. 6, 1999



Part 1

Celibacy is the state of being unmarried.  Chastity is the avoidance of all sexual activity outside the married state.  As far as Rome is concerned, any attempt to distinguish between celibacy and chastity in the priesthood is an idle exercise in semantics.  Priests who marry (without a dispensation) violate the law of the Church and the divine law of chastity. Throughout the first part of this paper, then, we will be using the word "celibacy" according to the definition proposed by theologian Leonard Weber:
"Celibacy here means not simply the fact of not being married…celibacy is here understood as the unmarried state chosen in the light of the Christian faith, and in particular as one of the duties of the state in life of the clergy of the Latin Church by which they are forbidden to marry and obliged to live in total continence." (Weber, 1975, p.178)

However, later in our paper, we hope to demonstrate that, even though celibacy (renunciation of marriage) and abstinence (renunciation of extra-marital sexual activity) have come to be identified in Roman Catholic hierarchical and populist thinking, they proceed, in fact from two separate ideologies, one born of power, the other born of sex negative asceticism.  By twinning and identifying celibacy and abstinence, the Roman Catholic Church had found the perfect formula for controlling the lives of its ordained.

One common misunderstanding (evidenced by the way people speak, e.g. "He broke his vow and married") is that celibacy is a vow taken by ordained priests of the Latin Church.  Celibacy is not a vow.  In Roman Catholic theology, a vow is a promise made directly to God.  Celibacy is an obligation imposed by the institutional Church.  We notice the use of "obligation" words in the most recent Code of Canon Law where no reference is made to celibacy as a vow:
     “Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and, therefore, are obliged to observe celibacy." (canon 277)
And, again:
     "...loss of clerical state does not entail a dispensation from the obligation of celibacy." (canon 291) (Code of Canon Law:  1983. pp. 97 & 103)


Celibacy was not part of the Hebrew tradition.  The command "Be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:28) was taken literally and seriously.  In Israel, a large family was a divine blessing, (Genesis 22:17; Psalm 127:3-4); sterility was a terrible curse (Genesis 30:1; 1 Samuel 1:6-8); virginity was a cause for mourning (Judges 11:37).  Rabbis, especially, were expected to be models of observance of God's command to "be fruitful and multiply."


As we said in the previous section, celibacy was not an integral part of the Hebrew tradition.  It would seem, however, that there were groups of ascetics in Israel who renounced marriage and sexual activity.  These groups were outside the mainstream of Jewish society and lived in a remote region near the Dead Sea.  There is no evidence to suggest that celibacy was a requirement for membership in the Qumram community of the Essenes.  A review of the available evidence makes it impossible to support the popular image of the Essenes as an all male celibate community.  Philo states that the Essenes refrained from sexual activity (Hypothetica 11:14).  Yet, according to Josephus, there were married and unmarried Essenes (JW 2.8, 2 and 13 #120. 160).  Three of the unearthed manuscripts, (classified CD, QM and IQSA), believed to be from the community's library, refer to the presence of women and children in the community.  The skeletal remains of women were found in the community's cemetery (Brown, Raymond, 1968, p.554).

The most that can be said, then, is that the Qumram community of Essenes was composed of married and unmarried males and females.  Therefore, when the Church holds up the Essenes in support of celibacy, as an example of "our ancient tradition" of celibacy, we should know that for one thing, the evidence points to the Qumram community as having a membership of married and unmarried, and, secondly, that there is no evidence at all that MANDATORY celibacy was a requirement for membership in the Essene community.


Groups who took temporary vows were known as Nazarites.  The Book of Numbers (6:2-21) lays down specific instructions for Nazarites: they were to abstain from alcoholic drink, even wine, they were to avoid all contact with corpses and they were not to cut their hair.  We mention the Nazarites here because some historians stretch the data to make a case for celibacy.  Henri Daniel-Rops, for example, writes: "And the Nazarites would vow celibacy or at least continence for a given length of time." (Daniel-Rops, 1962, p.116) The Book of Numbers gives no instructions about sexual abstinence for Nazarites and Henri Daniel-Rops quotes no source for this assertion.  The same author is even more outrageous when he refers to female Nazarites (again, giving no source): "It is probable that some young women even took a vow of virginity, either for life or for a certain time.  Our Lady's reply to the angel of the Lord has often been interpreted as meaning that the future mother of Christ had made a promise of this kind." (ibid. p. 397).

Although we know that Nazarites existed at the time of Jesus (Matthew 15:5; Mark 7:11), there is no evidence that they were either celibate or sexually inactive and no evidence that celibacy was mandated for Nazarites.  Therefore, the practice of taking Nazarite vows was not linked to marriage in any way.


Jamake Highwater writes: "Of course, Jesus did not invent celibacy.  It existed among Jews, such as the strictly ascetic Essene sect of Palestine as well as the Therapeutae monastic groups in Egypt.  But such celibate Jews were considered extremists by the majority of their fellow Jews." Having stated that Jesus did not "invent celibacy", Highwater adds: "Though trained in Jewish tradition Jesus himself was responsible for radically changing traditional attitudes about celibacy." (Highwater, 1990. pp. 112, 113).

Elaine Pagels would appear to agree with Highwater that Jesus did introduce a revolutionary approach to celibacy in spite of having been reared in the strong Jewish tradition of marriage/fertility/family: "by subordinating the obligation to procreate, rejecting divorce, and implicitly sanctioning monogamous relationships, Jesus reverses traditional Jewish priorities, declaring, in effect, that other obligations, including marital ones. are now more important than procreation.  Even more startling, Jesus endorses -- and exemplifies – a new possibility and one he says is even better: rejecting both marriage and procreation in favor of voluntary celibacy, for the sake of following him into the new age." (Pagels, 1988).

There are some "heavy" words in the statements of Highwater and Pagels that we take issue with.  We disagree with Highwater that Jesus "radically" changed traditional attitudes about celibacy.  We find nothing to suggest that Jesus, after his death, left behind a Jewish people engaged in heated debate over the new issue of the day, celibacy.  We disagree with Pagels that Jesus proposed celibacy as a better choice than marriage.  Jesus saw celibacy as a legitimate option and one that could be used in the service of the kingdom.  His cousin John the Baptizer had chosen that option.  But, after praising his celibate cousin, Jesus added: "Yet, the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is." (Matthew 11:11).  Jesus does not make celibacy the measure of spiritual greatness.

We agree that Jesus recognized celibacy as a legitimate option, provided it were chosen for the right reason: ."...there are eunuchs who have made themselves that way for the sake of the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 19:12).  And, we agree that Jesus did not mention procreation as one of the purposes of marriage.  We find his omission of any mention of marriage-for-procreation much more significant than his acceptance of the celibate lifestyle.  The Jewish people knew about the Qumram community and, taking their strong tradition for marriage /family into account, probably regarded these desert inhabitants as "oddballs', or as sinners who did not carry out God's command to "Be fruitful and multiply." Jesus, always the champion of those on the fringes, was calling on people to be tolerant of those who were different, especially when their intentions were honorable.  Therefore, as we stated, we find it much more surprising that Jesus mentioned the unitive but not the procreative purpose of marriage.  But, really, this should not be surprising either because, when speaking of marriage, Jesus
referred back to the original purpose of marriage in Genesis where the unitive purpose ("not good to be alone") was stated before the command to be fruitful.

To return to the question before us: is there anything in the preaching of Jesus that would support MANDATORY celibacy?  We answer with a definite no!  His qualifying remark makes that clear: "Let anyone accept this who can." (Mt. 19:12).


The Christian Church has worked with the presumption that Jesus never married, never engaged in sexual activity.  Roman Catholic theologian Joan Timmerman, speaking of that presumption writes: " ... the tradition of Jesus' celibacy derives from later devotional rather than biblical or theological sources authoritative in the early communities. Timmerman concludes: "Scholars also point out the obvious, that to argue from omission is weak.  On both sides, those who assume Jesus' celibacy and those who argue for a more conventional lifestyle for his time, all that can be gathered is supposition, not fact." (Timmerman, 1992. pp. 29 & 30).

Taking this a step further, another contemporary Roman Catholic theologian, Rosemary Radford Rueter, suggests that behind the image of Jesus-the-celibate-male lies an imbedded sexism that seeks to support a social system that affords men dominance and privilege.  Consequently, the gospel is not seen as a protest but merely as having "social symbolic significance in the framework of societies of patriarchal privilege." "The protest of the gospels", she writes, "is directed at the concrete sociological realities in which maleness and femaleness are elements, along with class, ethnicity, religious office, and law, that define the network of social status." (Ruether, 1983. p.137).

Once a connection between sex and sin had been established, the thought of a non celibate Jesus was anathema to the Church Fathers of the first centuries.  Jesus, after all, was not only a priest, he was the High Priest. As St. Ambrose wrote: "The ministerial office must be kept pure and unspotted and must not be defiled by coitus." (St. Ambrose, "Duties of Clergy" 1, 258).

Iranaeus (d. 202) held that Adam and Eve were banished from Eden for copulating, and that Jesus redeemed the world by not copulating.  (St. Iranaeus, "Against Heresies" 5, 19, 1)

These early theologians found support in various Greek philosophies (Stoicism, Gnosticism, Manichaeism) that regarded the (pure) soul as a prisoner of the (vile) body.  Body negative philosophies, coupled with sex negative theologies, created a climate of thought that made the marriage of Jesus unthinkable.  The Gospel of Phillip from the second century, which refers to Magdalen as the spouse of Jesus, is dismissed as apocryphal.

We can only conclude that those who hold that Jesus lived the celibate life are going on a presumption with no facts to substantiate that position.  On the other hand, those who propose that Jesus was non celibate are also reliant on presumption.  So, to present Jesus as a model for celibates is to go beyond what the facts allow.  We agree with Joan Timmerman that the celibacy or non celibacy of Jesus is a matter of "supposition, not fact."


"The zealot of celibacy was the Christian disciple Paul," writes Jamake Highwater (op. cit. p.113). We find the word "zealot" somewhat extreme since zealots are not known to be tolerant of options.  Paul was not a man to exclude options.  Referring to his own celibate state , Paul said: “I should like everyone to be like me" but, in un-zealot fashion, adds: "About remaining celibate, I have no directions from the Lord." (1 Corinthians 7:7 and 7:25)  Reay Tannahill claims that: "He (Paul) was perhaps the first thinker in Western history to equate spirituality with sex."  We dispute the word "equate." If he equated spirituality with sex he would not have encouraged bishops to be faithful to their wives (I Timothy 3:1). How much more direct could Paul be than when he wrote: “But if you marry, it is no sin."? (I Corinthians 7:28).  Roman Catholic theologian, Dick Westley, believes that the Church so focused on I Corinthians 7, which could be accommodated to suit Stoic values, that it downplayed the call for equality in Ephesians 5. "It was a costly move for which Catholics are still paying," writes Wesley, “for it laid the foundation for what we called earlier in this book the church's rather crude and primitive understandings of natural law.  What is so ironic about the whole thing is that although it has become 'the Catholic tradition,' in reality it isn't 'Christian,' but Platonic and Stoic in origin." (Westley, 1984. p.174).

Paul did not connect sexuality and sin as is clear from his statements about marriage. However, it could be argued that he connected sexuality and grace by building "a holiness pyramid" with sex as its base: sex with Temple prostitutes is unholy; the marriage of Christians is holy; virginity and celibacy are holiest.  Virginity and celibacy he regarded as charisms, not possessed by everyone, not even by everyone ordained (as the law of MANDATORY celibacy presupposes).  "I should like everyone to be like me, but everyone has his own particular gifts from God..." (I Corinthians 7:7)  Commentators, like Stephen Sapp, believe that what Paul has to say about celibacy must be interpreted in the light of Paul's eschatology.  Paul was pre-occupied with the End Time which he believed was imminent.  In effect, Paul was saying: "The End Time is at hand.  Be prepared.  If you are married, stay married.  If you are single, stay single.  Don't complicate your lives because the Lord is about to return." As Stephen Sapp puts it: "Paul's thought was largely determined by his very strong eschatological expectation of the imminent return of Christ. (Sapp, 1977.p.69). Nothing that Paul says supports the law of MANDATORY celibacy.


ST. JEROME (331-419) was the most ardent advocate of celibacy.  Henry Charles Lea surmises that Jerome, who was familiar with Buddhism, may have been influenced by its religious folklore, especially by the story of Maya and her husband taking a vow of chastity so that she might give birth to the Buddha in purity.  Jerome, according to the same author, regarded Peter as a lesser saint that John because Peter was married and John wasn't. (Lea, 1966. p. 26 ff). Jerome considered marriage an invention of Satan and encouraged married couples who converted to Christianity to renounce their marriage vows: "How many there are who, by consent between themselves, cancel the debt of their marriage, eunuchs of their own accord through the desire of the kingdom of heaven." (Goldberg, 1958. p.186).

ST. AUGUSTINE (354-430 AD), after living a robust sexual life, became a strong advocate of celibacy.  "Augustine imbibed the dualistic metaphysics of Gnosticism, splitting body and spirit, this world and the other world.  Sex was always tainted, even in marriage, because the sin of Adam was passed on by intercourse and conception.  Concupiscence was a punishment for the Fall.  The only way to redeem oneself was through abstinence (Feuerstein, 1989, p.89).  In order to be true to his own logic,  Augustine had to be an advocate of celibacy since he considered an erect penis a visible sign of man's inner revolt against God, and the ordained must stand humbly before their God at all times.  Interpreting Augustine's thought, Foucault writes: "...sex in erection is the image of man revolted against God.  The arrogance of sex is the punishment and consequence of the arrogance of man." (Foucault, 1985)

When the teachings of Jerome and Augustine became the dominant sexual ethic of the Western Church, the foundation was laid for the introduction of MANDATORY celibacy.


Nothing that we have encountered thus far convinces us that MANDATORY celibacy is part of the Church's "ancient tradition." Neither the existence of pockets of celibates, nor the teachings of Jesus or Paul, support the Church's insistence on MANDATORY celibacy.  Therefore, we must look elsewhere for an understanding of why celibacy became MANDATORY in the Latin Church.  We identify three forces, all under the same umbrella that we call "power", that, cumulatively, led the Church to mandate celibacy for its ordained.


The first known public discussion of celibacy occurred at the Council of Elvira in 309.  Elvira was a regional council with no universal clout.  When we place the canons of Elvira side by side with the canons of other councils in that same century (Neocaesarea 314; Nicea One 325; Laodicea 352) we wonder if celibacy, as we know it, was the primary interest of these councils at all.  It would appear, rather, that these councils were attempting to correct clerical abuses, principally the practice of priests having mistresses.  Neocaesarea and Laodicea, for instance, OBLIGED priests TO MARRY virgins, and to dismiss unfaithful wives.

Two historically prominent councils (Carthage Three and Carthage Four 397 AD - 398 AD) had nothing to say about celibacy. So, while Elvira is fingered as the council that opened the celibacy debate, Carthage Five in 401 was really the first council with universal representation that took a position on celibacy.  This council suggested that priests separate from their wives and live as celibates.  The operative word here is "suggested." Since no penalties were attached for noncompliance. The decree was seen as a recommendation and was ignored by most.  Anyhow, just nineteen years after Carthage Five's "suggestion," we find Pope Honorius in 420 praising the wives who supported their priest-husbands in their ministry. (Lea, 1966 p. 33 ff.).

For the next four hundred years or so, various councils and popes attempted to establish MANDATORY celibacy, but with only partial success.  It didn't help the cause of those advocating celibacy when a married man became Pope Adrian the Second in 867 A.D. (Lawrence, 1989, p.142). According to Christopher Brooke, 'The Norman clergy were the most resistant to the abolition of clerical marriage". (Brooke, 1971 p. 84). Henry Charles Lea offers many instances of the brutality inflicted on priests and their wives when Rome succeeded in getting some feudal lords to fine, imprison, even starve to death, priests who refused to dismiss their wives, and how the wives of priests were humiliated and reduced to abject poverty. (Lea,  p. 99 ff.).

For our purposes here, we have a particular interest in Christmas Day 800 A.D., for on that day the surprised King of the Franks, Charlemagne, was coerced into kneeling before Pope Leo the Third who placed the Emperor's crown on his head. (Napoleon Bonaparte would later snatch the crown out of the pope's hand and crown himself).  Pope Leo's gesture was a symbolic proclamation that the pope of Rome saw himself as an equal with the Emperor of the "Holy Roman Empire." The Church had proclaimed itself a political force to be reckoned with.

We see a great significance in this event because it positions the Church as a political power on the continent and prepared for what have come to be known as the 'Gregorian Reforms' of the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  One of those reforms was the insistence on clerical celibacy and Rome now had political muscles to flex for the implementation of its decrees.  "Clerical marriage," writes Raymond Lawrence Jr., "fell victim to the program of centralizing ecclesiastical power." (Lawrence, p.143). Anne Barstow says: "Ultimately, virtually every priest in the Western Church was separated from the economic and political ties of family inheritance and local politics and incorporated into a powerful international bureaucracy centered in Rome." (Barstow, 1982 p.157).

What might at first sight seem like a minor in-house event signaled, in fact, a major political tussle as Rome moved with deliberate speed to consolidate its political power.  In 1059 Pope Nicholas the Second limited control over the election of a pope to the elite House of Cardinals.  This led to a mighty struggle when Rome followed up by asserting its absolute authority over the appointment of all bishops.  Up to that time, secular potentates exercised considerable influence over ecclesiastical appointments, often promoting their friends to positions of authority in the Church.  With the signing of the Concordat of Worms in 1122, Emperor Henry the Fifth surrendered all influence over the appointment of bishops.  Rome had so succeeded in centralizing power that, some seventy years after the signing of the Concordat, Pope Innocent the Third was in a position to issue his famous "Moon and Sun" proclamation, stating that civil authorities received their power from the pope, just as the moon received its light from the sun.  (1198 A.D.)

By the twelfth century, Rome had also gained control over marriage.  At first, it was to the benefit of women that Rome involved itself in the marriage scene, according to Erwin Haeberle, because Christianity changed the "rather barbaric customs that treated women little better than domestic slaves," and "endowed a rather prosaic arrangement with a new dignity." (Haeberle, 1981 p. 433). But, with time, marriage came under the control of the papal bureaucracy.  Decisions about who could marry and who could divorce had been taken out the hands of civil courts and came to be vested in the hands of the papal tribunal.  By the twelfth century, Rome was pronouncing on the validity or invalidity of all marriages, whether they involved potentates or peasants. Priests had become the official presiders at weddings.  It was  yet another coup for Rome in its drive for power.

With secular powers reduced to equals or subordinates, with control over all ecclesiastical appointments, with the power of final decision over the validity or invalidity of marriages in its hands, Rome was now in a very strong position to insist on MANDATORY celibacy for the ordained.  At the Second Lateran Council in 1139, Pope Innocent the Second pronounced all clerical marriages invalid and the children of such marriages bastards. (Lea  p. 264).

Thus, the first pillar on which the law of MANDATORY celibacy was to rest had been driven into the ground - the pillar of papal political power.  As individuals who opposed the law of celibacy were to discover - Siegfried, Archbishop of Mainz, for example (1076) - opposing the new might of Rome was political suicide resulting in the individual's removal from office and excommunication. (Barstow,  p. 69). Control over the personal and professional lives of its priests by means of the law of MANDATORY celibacy, coupled with all the other power that had been garnered, perverted the mission of the Church.  Called to serve, it came to rule.


By the twelfth century, as we have illustrated, Rome had consolidated an enormous amount of power in itself.  For the most part, however, it was "paper power," the power flowing from signed concordats, papal pronouncements, decrees of its marriage tribunal, and so forth.  To make that power more "real" Rome needed real estate.  Many bishops were living like feudal lords, owning large tracts of land, and the priesthood was frequently passed on from father to son as an inheritance.  Part of that inheritance was land, often given as "a benefice" to the local bishop or priest by a rich patron.  Rome saw a possible bonanza here, if it could find a way to get its hands on all that real estate.  Celibacy was the key.  The inheritance lines had to be cut.  That would bring all benefices under the control of the Church's bureaucracy and the appropriated lands could be leased out to fatten the papal coffers.  Celibacy made Rome an important power broker in the real estate business.

Secular powers, too, recognized that celibacy could benefit them.  Anne Barstow recounts a typical arrangement entered into by the Church and a secular power.  When the bishop of Flanders opposed the law of celibacy, Rome released Robert, Count of Flanders, from obedience to the bishop.  Thus undercut by Rome, the bishop was at the Count's mercy.  Robert moved against the bishop and seized all his land. He also moved against priests who supported their bishop.  Their property was also seized. The Count made "an offering" to Rome out of the money collected from leases and taxes. (Barstow, p. 31)

With celibacy fairly well established, Rome was now in possession of countless benefices.  Riches poured into its coffers.  Celibacy had given Rome economic power.  But, as Martin E. Marty points out, Rome had to pay a high price for its new economic power because it "weakened the spiritual vitality and potential for holiness in the institution ... Perverted power repeatedly led to scandal and fall in the papacy.  The combination of extravagant claims and extravagant incomes with extravagant papal personalities fattened the office for scandal." (Marty, 1959. pp. 191, 192).

Local bishops and local priests felt powerless in the face of an authority that wielded great political power, had the resources to enforce its decrees and was able to manipulate secular powers to carry out its demands.  Resistance to the new requirement of
MANDATORY celibacy was rendered powerless by the new political and economic power of the Church.


Augustine and Jerome, in particular. had set the Church on an ascetical course that considered sexual desire one of the unfortunate remnants of the Fall.  When St. Benedict (480-543) put together a Rule for his monks --endorsed for all monks by the Council of Tours in 567 --many prescriptions of that Rule of Benedict dealt with sexuality.  For example, monks could not sleep two to a bed, dormitory lights had to be kept burning throughout the nights. (Rule of Benedict, no. 22).  Since the struggle to establish celibacy was already under way, John Boswell wonders if the prescriptions of Benedict's Rule do not give us a clue as to what was happening as a result of MANDATORY celibacy, namely, an increase in homosexual activity.  Boswell claims that the century following the successful establishment of MANDATORY celibacy (c. 1050-1150) witnessed an increase in homosexual activity such as the Christian Church had never known. (Boswell, 1980 p.209)

By the eleventh century, monasticism was a formidable force in the Church.  Its leaders urged the popes to require celibacy of all priests.  One monk who dedicated his life to the establishment of celibacy was the fiery orator, St. Peter Damiani, who exercised considerable influence in Rome.  He called on feudal lords to persecute priests who were still living with their wives. He successfully convinced the pope to dissuade people from attending Mass celebrated by a married priest.  The very influential St. Bernard of Clairvaux used his considerable influence to pressure Rome into taking a more definitive stand on celibacy. (Barstow,  p.103).

The ascetical element in the Church found a powerful ally in St. Thomas Aquinas (1225 -1274).  His theories about women gave Rome another justification in its drive for MANDATORY celibacy.  Matthew Fox writes: "Having taught that women are inferior beings, he (Thomas) also teaches that their bodies are part cause of this inferiority and that their emotions rule over their reason." (Fox, 1992, p.41).  Priests needed to be removed from these “inferior beings.” Celibacy became a convenient necessity for their spiritual well-being.

Monasticism, and the ascetical spirituality that it espoused, propagated the sex negative teachings of Augustine and Jerome, fattened itself on Aquinas' negative attitude to women. and brought about the triumph of the via negative school of spirituality over the via positiva.  Popes who resisted the ascetical pressure of influential monks were called to task for being un-spiritual, just as Peter Damiani had called Pope Leo the Ninth to task for not doing more to insist on celibacy for the ordained. (Lea, p.132 ff).

We believe that monastic power, with its ascetical approach to sexual pleasure, must be considered in concert with political and economic power as a dynamic force that brought the Church to make celibacy MANDATORY for all its ordained.


Since celibacy was one of the issues that surfaced early in the Protestant Reformation we would like to examine what significance it had as an issue at that time of upheaval in Christendom.  While the Protestant Reformation is usually presented as a struggle over the primacy of scripture, justification by faith, the sale of indulgences, and so forth, we feel that it would be wrong to come away with the impression that this was a struggle between greedy, power-hungry popes and pure minded, humble reformers.  When Henry the Eight of England (1509-1547) divorced Catherine and Catholicism and embraced Anne and Protestantism, one of his first acts was the seizure of Roman Catholic properties in England, Scotland and Ireland.  The statue of Zwingli in Zurich showing him with two swords (one symbolizing conquest; the other symbolizing the Bible) is a clear statement of his twinning of spiritual and political power.  John Calvin built a theocracy in Geneva and was not shy about seeing himself as the de facto ruler of church and state.  John Knox used his pulpit to consolidate Scottish nationalism.

So. where does celibacy come in? Martin Luther recognized that Rome had been blinded by power. "When a cardinal farts" he said with exquisite sarcasm, " we are supposed to believe a new article of faith is born." (Todd, 1982, p. 320).

Though filled with theological rage and resentful of the absolutist claims of Rome, our proposition is that Luther was more angry with Rome's power over his conscience than anything else.  That anger manifested itself in the advice he gave to both Henry the Eight and Philip of Hesse, advice that flew in the face of what Rome stood for, they were free to take second wives.  Reflecting on his own monastic experience, he said: "There is never less chastity than in those who vow to be chaste." (Atkinson & Lehman, 1966, p. 369). When struggling with his own decision to abandon celibacy, he wrote to Wolfgang Reissenbusch who was in torment over the same decision: "Stop thinking about it and go to it right merrily.  Your body demands it." (Tappert,  1960, p. 275). We do not agree with the harsh judgment of Heinrich Denifle that Luther's attacks on the Church were a projection of "his own diseased, over sexed soul." (Denifle, 1968, pp. 472-496).  However, we feel that he resented the hold that Rome had on his conscience.  That hold was symbolized for him in the obligation of celibacy.  Therefore, to break the power of Rome over his soul, and over others, he had to renounce celibacy.  He operated a kind of underground railroad and marriage mating service for fleeing monastics," writes Raymond Lawrence Jr. ( p.175).

It was a case of power on power.  MANDATORY celibacy was born of power.  It was one plank in Rome's power platform that had to be ripped up.  Our proposition, then, is that celibacy was a pawn in a bigger power play.  Civil authorities were not blind to the significance of the celibacy issue.  When the principle cuius regio, eius religio (each religion adopts the religion of its ruler) was formulated at Augsburq in 1555, civil authorities broke loose from Rome's grip and regained control over marriage and divorce.  While celibacy, marriage and divorce appeared to be the issues, the underlying issue was power personal and
political on both sides of the Alps.


The Council of Trent convened, with interruptions, between 1545 and 1562.  One item on the agenda, celibacy.  Not to be discussed, but to be reaffirmed.  Appeals from Heads of State in Germany, France and Spain to abolish MANDATORY celibacy were ignored. (Lea, p. 448). Trent added marriage to its list of sacraments and declared celibacy and virginity to be nobler callings than marriage.  Priests who married were excommunicated.  Marriages of Roman Catholics before civil authorities would be invalid.

Of special significance is the fact that Trent positioned the scholastic theology of Thomas Aquinas as the official theology of the Church.  This meant that Thomas' teachings on sexuality were given the official stamp of approval.  The Roman Catholic Church painted itself into a corner here because, as Matthew Fox points out: "What is most important to remember is that Aquinas' ethics is based on false biology.”  (Fox,  p. 44)


Trent had closed out MANDATORY celibacy as a negotiable item.  It remains so to this day.  No pope since Trent has allowed the matter to be discussed in Council.  In 1965, the Second Vatican Council reaffirmed the law of celibacy: "Let them (seminarians) be warned of the very severe dangers with which their chastity will be confronted in present-day society.  Aided by appropriate helps, both divine and human, may they learn so to integrate the renunciation of marriage into their life and activity that these will not suffer any detriment from celibacy..."  (Vatican Two, 1986, p. 447) In its decree on priests, the Council, while acknowledging the different discipline in the Eastern Churches, reaffirms the Latin Church's insistence on celibacy. (ibid. p. 565)

There are two interesting points about Vatican II's decree reaffirming celibacy: the word "choose" is used, a word that sounds cacophonous next to the word "mandatory" that we have been using throughout this paper: "...in addition to all bishops and those others who by a gift of grace choose to observe celibacy..." (ibid. p. 565).  We also find this statement in the same decree interesting: "It (celibacy) is not, indeed, demanded by the very nature of the priesthood." (ibid. p. 565).

In a July 1953 audience, the present pope, John Paul the Second, echoed the words of Vatican II when he said: "Celibacy does not belong to the essence of the priesthood.  Jesus didn't make a law, but proposed an ideal of celibacy for the new priesthood that he was establishing.'' (National Catholic Reporter, July, 30th., 1993)  If celibacy does not belong to the essence of priesthood, if Jesus didn't make a law about it, if Paul didn't insist on it, then why is it MANDATORY?  Thus far, in this paper, we have attempted to answer that question.

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