Jesus christ questions priestly celibacy
RACHEL This is Emisoras Latinas in Jerusalem, a city where cultures and religions meet and intermingle. And where once again we meet up with Jesus Christ, in these historic days of his second coming to earth. Good morning, Jesus.
JESUS Good morning to you, Rachel.
RACHEL In our last interview we spoke about priests. Now it’s time to treat an especially polemical topic celibacy, forbidding priests to marry and have a family.
JESUS I can see where you’re coming from, Rachel! Are you going to make me responsible for that law also?
RACHEL You have nothing to do with that?
JESUS Nothing at all. I did not place that yoke on anybody. How could I do that if all the men in our movement had wives? Philip, Nathaniel, Peter, Matthew, all of them.
RACHEL But the Bible forbids priests to get married.
JESUS The Bible? What God says is that it is not good for a man to be alone. Even Paul, they tell me, a man who was pretty severe, recommended that the bishops have wives. Just one, of course. He said, and rightly so, that if the bishops could not manage their own household well, much less could they manage the community.
RACHEL So when did the law of celibacy come in?
JESUS Who knows? Why don’t you consult your friends?
RACHEL Hold on a moment… I’m going to make a call … Hello, do you hear me okay?… Here we are in Jerusalem, listeners, on the line with Iván Vargas, who is a specialist in this topic. Iván, we want to know when celibacy for priests was established.
IVÁN Well, that’s a rather curious question. It was in the Council of Nicea, in the year 325, when it was decided that priests could not get married.
RACHEL Why do you say it’s curious question?
IVÁN Because a few years before this Council, the Roman emperor Constantine had given the bishops and the priests large amounts of land and money.
RACHEL And what does that have to do with priests not marrying?
IVÁN It has a lot to do. Imagine that a bishop has a hundred acres of land and a bunch of money saved up. If that bishop is married, who will get his land and his savings when he dies?
RACHEL His wife and children, naturally.
IVÁN But if he’s not married, then the church receives all that. Consequently, the church was not interested in having bishops and priests married and with kids, as long as … [chuckles].
RACHEL As long as what?
IVÁN As long as they didn’t recognize them. What was prohibited was that legally recognizing them, because concubines and illegitimate children had no rights, they could not inherit.
RACHEL And that was the reason for the law of celibacy?
IVÁN That was it, Rachel. Prohibiting priests from marrying was necessary to protect the church’s patrimony.
RACHEL It seems incredible.
IVÁN That’s how the Church accumulated ever more properties and vast estates. Eventually the church became the largest landholder in all of Europe. The popes, the bishops and the priests kept having women and children, but they didn’t recognize them, they left them illegitimate. That way they couldn’t inherit anything.
JESUS And you make me responsible for all that!
IVÁN The funniest part is that Pope Paul III, who had “quite a few” illegitimate children, was the one who definitively imposed celibacy for all priests at the Council of Trent.
JESUS Hypocrites. They load heavy burdens onto the shoulders of others, but they don’t raise a finger to help them.
RACHEL Thank you, Iván. After hearing all this, Jesus, are you in favor of optional celibacy? Do you approve of priests getting married?
JESUS Of course. Let each person decide. Let each one choose his or her own way. The Kingdom of God is a struggle and requires much effort. But it is also a celebration, so the burden must be light and the yoke easy to bear.
RACHEL The law of celibacy. Obligatory celibacy. What do the churches think about all this? And above all, what is the opinion of all those women and children who are not acknowledged as wives and as sons and daughters? We’ll see you all in our next program. Meanwhile, receive a greeting from Rachel Perez, special correspondent for Emisoras Latinas in Jerusalem.
ANNOUNCER Another God is Possible. Exclusive interviews with Jesus Christ in his second coming to Earth. A production of María and José Ignacio López Vigil, with the support of the Syd Forum and Christian Aid.
*More information about this polemical topic…*
An ascetical practice
Asceticism derives from a dualistic school of thought that opposes body to spirit and considers spirit superior to body. As a form of asceticism, celibacy is practiced in many religious traditions: in Buddhist monasteries, in Jainism, in Hinduism…. The practice was also found in ancient Judaism, for example, among the Essenes. However, the priests of the Old Testament did not practice celibacy; they got married and had families. The elders and other leaders of the first Christian communities also got married, as the New Testament makes clear. Saint Paul’s only recommendation in this regard was that those who attained the position of bishop should be married with just one woman (1 Timothy 3,2-5).
Where the law of celibacy comes from: a short history of fourteen centuries
Chilean historian and writer Iván Ljubetic Vargas participates in our program thanks to his ability to instruct us on the great variety of topics that he treats in his many books. He provides the following synthesis of the history of the law of celibacy:
In the first three centuries of the Christian era most elders (priests) were married. Starting in the fourth century, the idea that priesthood and matrimony were incompatible began to gain ground. At the council of Elvira (306 CE) a decree was approved which stated: Any priest who sleeps with his wife the night before celebrating mass will lose his status. The Council of Nicea (325) issued the first decree forbidding priests to get married. This disposition, however, was not observed in practice.
The Second Council of Tours (567) established that any cleric who is found in bed with his wife will be excommunicated for one year and reduced to the lay state. Pope Pelagius II (575-590) ordered that married priests should not be chastised as long as they did not turn church properties over to their wives or children. His decree in this regard (580) is revealing: it exposed explicitly for the first time the true material and economic reasons for the requirement of priestly celibacy: the inheritance of properties.
From the Council of Nicea until the tenth century many local synods were held in which the matter of celibacy was treated. Some synods required married priests to abandon their wives, some allowed them to continue to live with their wives, and some allowed cohabitation so long as the priest promised to remained with only one woman. In that period of six centuries there were eleven Popes who were children of Popes or other clerics.
In the seventh century most French priests were married. The eighth Council of Toledo (653) established that the wives of priests could be sold as slaves. Pope Leo XI, who governed the Church in the eleventh century, determined that the women living with priests should serve as slaves in the Roman Lateran palace.
In spite of all this, in the eighth century Saint Boniface informed the Pope that in Germany hardly any bishop or priest was celibate. The Council of Aix-la-Chapelle (836) admitted that abortion and infanticide was being practiced in convents and monasteries to cover up the sexual relations of clergy.
It is important to keep in mind the economic backdrop of all this. From the fifth century on, the Catholic Church gradually became the most powerful body in Europe, the largest landholder of the continent. The most powerful economic entities were the monasteries. In the tenth century the monastery of Cluny stood out especially. At the head of this network of monasteries and convents stood the Pope of Rome, who possessed enormous wealth and property. At the time Popes, cardinals, archbishops, bishops and abbots all belonged to the feudal nobility, which was permanently expanding its properties thanks to lay people who made donations and bequests to the church authorities as a way of obtaining pardon for their sins.
When in the tenth and eleventh centuries the serfs began to rise up against the lords, the church became fearful about what would happen to their extensive properties. Given this situation, the leaders of the “Cluny movement” made efforts to strengthen the church by imposing severe rules, among which was celibacy. In the year 1073 the monk Hildebrand, a leader of the “Cluny movement”, was made Pope, taking the name Gregory VII. As Pope, he conceived himself to be the absolute sovereign of a worldwide state. To achieve that goal it was necessary that the lands which belonged to the church not be dismembered. He is known for this statement: The church will never be free of the claws of the laity if the priests do not first manage to free themselves from the claws of their wives.
In 1095 Pope Urban II ordered that the wives of priests be sold as slaves, leaving their children abandoned. In the twelfth century five councils were held at the Lateran in Rome, in the first of which it was decreed that all marriages of clergy were invalid.
Despite these efforts, history shows that imposing clerical celibacy was not an easy task. In the fifteenth century, about 50% of the priests were married, and eight Popes contracted matrimony after the first Lateran Council. Between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, since it was quite normal and customary for priests to have concubines and so not comply with the law of celibacy, the bishops imposed the so-called “whores’ tax”, which set the amount that a priest had to pay the bishop each time he engaged in sexual relations. These charges did not cease to be applied until 1435.
It was the Council of Trent (1545-1563) that definitively established the discipline of obligatory celibacy for priests and explicitly prohibited married men from being ordained priests.
In the Eastern Orthodox churches today, priests are able to marry, and celibacy is required only of bishops. The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century resolutely rejected clerical celibacy.
Pope Paul VI in his 1967 encyclical “Sacerdotalis Coelibatus” reaffirmed the doctrine of obligatory celibacy, stating that celibacy gives a fullness to life, it is the source of apostolic fruitfulness, it is the most intimate and complete relation with the mystery of Christ and the Church, and it gives the highest expression to the most elevated human values.
In the 1970s there arose in Spain and other countries of Europe and the world the Movement for Optional Celibacy, which was made up mainly of married Catholic priests who remained connected to Christian “communities of equals”, communities without hierarchies. Along with their families, they work to declericalize the ecclesial ministries and to promote a church made up of persons who are all co-responsible for bringing to the world the good news of justice and equality that Jesus of Nazareth announced.