An Historical Sketch of Sacerdotal Celibacy in the Christian Church

By HENRY C. LEA. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1867.
THIS exhaustive treatise of Mr. Lea upon ecclesiastical celibacy we take to possess, like his excellent work upon “Superstition and Force,” all the capital requisites of an historical monograph,−an immense body of information and of reference on the subject in hand, a sufficiently coo! and dispassionate manner of presenting facts, and a severe adherence to the central question. The amount of research and indeed of scholarship involved in the preparation of this volume is such as to command the warmest recognition. In these days of “ picturesque ” histories, of hasty criticism, and of precipitate generalizations, it is very gratifying to encounter a writer who construes his obligations with such austerity as Mr. Lea. He is content to marshal his facts and his data into such an order that under a close inspection no one of them conceals the half-genuine look of its neighbor. He lets them tell their own story for good or for evil, and is never guilty, through the wish to be vivid and effective, of spreading his colors outside of the lines drawn by his authorities. Within these lines even his tints are sober and discreet, and careful not to depart too widely from those somewhat neutral hues which, wherever man’s knowledge of the past rests upon accidentally preserved documents and monuments, must continue to be the colors of history. Nevertheless, with all the various merits of a well-executed monograph, Mr. Lea’s work has certain of the corresponding defects. Perhaps, indeed, it were more just to say that these defects correspond to the limitations of the general reader’s knowledge, rather than to any imperfection in the author’s programme. In the course of a special history executed on such a scale as the present one, and with all its soberness of style, so little mechanical in spirit, and so free from chronological dryness, it is almost inevitable that the reader’s impressions should become somewhat overbalanced. He is likely to forget that he is taking a partial view of a great subject, and that he must hold his opinions liable to correction when he has surveyed the whole field. A dishonest writer, we conceive, may readily take advantage of this perfectly logical error. He has accumulated an immense mass of material bearing on a particular point, extracted and expressed, by long labor, from a field in which it has lain interfused with material of a very different, and even of a directly opposite significance. There are a hundred literary arts by which a writer may put forward his fractional gleaning as a representation of the whole. In this matter of ecclesiastical celibacy, for instance, the result of Mr. Lea’s researches is that practically the thing has never existed in the Christian Church. That is to say, the regulations enforcing it have at all times been more violated and eluded than obeyed. With the Reformation a large section of the Church ceased to admit its needfulness, and the field of its enforcement was very much curtailed. But the Catholic Church continued to cling to it as almost the central principle of its being, and continued likewise to connive at an inveterate system of escape from its harsh conditions. Mr. Lea’s volume is a long record of reiterated legislation and exhortation against unchastity, formal and actual, and of a series of equally uninterrupted disclosures of the futility of such legislation. And, nevertheless, there is no doubt that, during all the long ages of its history, the Church was the abode and the refuge of a vast deal of purity and continence, to say nothing of the various other virtues by which its members have been distinguished. But the reader sees only the obverse of the medal: he sees a custom of prodigious bearings, if duly carried out, honored chiefly in the breach ; and he will be very apt to close the book with an impression that the Church has been through all time a sink of incurable corruption. It is superfluous to say that this impression will be quite as erroneous as it would be to assert that, on the other hand, its practice has kept pace with its high pretensions. Neither view of the case is just. If there is one thing that strikes us more than another, in reading Mr. Lea’s work, it is that, on the whole, the Church must have been at any moment a tolerably faithful reflection of the manners and feelings of the time. Its empire was practicable only by means of a constant renewal of the exquisite and everlasting compromise between man’s transient interests and his external destiny. Taken as a whole, it never pretended to ride rough-shod over his natural passions and instincts. It pretended to convert them to its own Service and aggrandizement. It respected them, it handled them gently. And as these passions and instincts have never been exclusively evil or exclusively good, so the Church has never been wholly corrupt or wholly pure. It has been animated by the average moral enlightenment of the time, and it has grown with men’s moral growth. Reared, as it was, upon the primitive needs of men’s nature, it is difficult to see how the result should have been different. And if the Catholic Church has lost that firmness of grasp upon, human affection which it once possessed, it is not that laymen have become more virtuous than priests; it is that they have become more intelligent. The intellectual growth of the Church has lagged behind its moral growth. Secular humanity is perfectly willing to admit that its sacerdotal counterpart observes the Decalogue equally well with itself; but it contests the right of an institution, of whose long spiritual efforts this insignificant accomplishment is the only surviving result, to impose itself further upon men’s respect and obedience. The reader has only to remember, then, that Mr. Lea’s volume is not a history of the Church at large, but only a history of a single province, and he will find it full of profit and edification.
It is no exaggeration to repeat, as we have said, that the Church never achieved anything like complete celibacy. A rapid survey of the ground under Mr. Lea’s guidance will confirm and explain this statement. During the first three centuries there is no evidence that celibacy was deemed essential to the clerical character, or even that it was thought especially desirable. It was natural that during the early years of the Church, and under the stress of persecution, it should not multiply the restrictions placed upon the freedom of its adherents. Up to the period of the Council of Nicæa, therefore, the virtues of chastity were maintained only by isolated groups of ascetics, animated by that spirit of Puritanism which seems to have existed in every faith in every stage of its history. When men are looking about them for means to mortify the flesh and to stifle the heart, a prohibition of marriage is the first expedient that suggests itself. Until this is done away with, further severities are impossible. Marriage, however, was not condemned at a single blow. The first step was to forbid second marriages. A bachelor in holy orders might marry with impunity ; a widower did so at his peril. Having effected this concession, the ascetic spirit found means to increase its influence. It received a strong impulse at the close of the second century, as Mr. Lea affirms, by the rise of the Neoplatonic philosophy, with all its mystical and stoical tendencies, and by the introduction into Europe and the rapid spread of the great Manichæan heresy. In the view of this doctrine, man’s body was the work of the Devil, and condemned as such to ceaseless abuse and mortification by his soul. Among the ascetic excesses which were the logical consequences of such a dogma, inveterate chastity was, of course, not the last to be enjoined. Manichæism was an object of violent detestation to the Church ; but as the latter could not afford to let itself be outdone in austerity by a vulgar heresy, it began to adopt a similar uncompromising attitude towards marriage. The Council of Nicæa was held in 325. This body, however, was chiefly occupied with debates upon Arianism, and is responsible but for a single enactment bearing on the subject in hand. The bearing of this enactment is, moreover, indirect, inasmuch as Mr. Lea conclusively proves that it refers not to lawful wives, (as in later ages of the Church it became needful to assume that it did refer,) but to female companions of the unlicensed sort. For more than half a century after the Nicæan Council, the movement of the celibatarian spirit is lost sight of in the all-absorbing disputes on the Arian heresy. A strong reaction, however, is signalized by the issue, under Pope Damasus, in the year 385, of the first definite command imposing perpetual celibacy as an absolute rule of discipline on the ministers of the altar. This was very well as an injunction, but it was nothing without enforcement. More than half a century again elapsed before the new discipline was substantially acknowledged. By the mass of the servants of the Church−among which several names stand apart as those of its more eminent opponents−it was received with bitter resentment and incompliance. But it had the popular favor for it on one side, and on the other the passionate energies of the three great Latin fathers,− Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome. The people had not yet reached that state of mind when it clamored imperiously either for priestly marriage, or, in simple self-defence, for an organized substitute. Mr. Lea at this point devotes a chapter to the Eastern Church, of which it is sufficient for us to say, that in this establishment the question of celibacy was less violently agitated than among its neighbors, and that a final decision was more speedily reached. Early in the sixth century, Justinian published an edict which still forms the basis of its celibatarian discipline. Marriage in orders is forbidden, and men who have been twice married are inadmissible. Monks are of course bound to chastity, but the lower grades of the secular clergy are free to marry.
The rise of the monastic orders in the West dates from the close of the fifth century, when St. Benedict founded in the Latian Apennines the community which subsequently became famous as the Convent of Monte Cassino. With this enterprise begins the real growth of the Church, which, of course, we do not propose to trace. With each succeeding century its area expanded, its power increased, and its responsibilities multiplied. It was called to preside at the organization of a new Europe, to witness and to accelerate the extinction of the Roman Empire and the foundation of the new nationalities, to save whatever was worth saving from the wreck of the old society, to stand firm against the Barbarians, to prosecute constant and wholesale conversions, and to preserve in the midst of these various cares the integrity of the idea of sacerdotal chastity. The idea, we say; for we may be sure that the practice was left to take care of itself. We are told that the Barbarian invaders were inexpressibly shocked by the licentiousness and immorality of the Latin civilization; and if this were so, it promised well for a thorough purgation of the Church in proportion as the new-comers were admitted into its fold. But as we continue to read, we see that, although upon society at large their arrival may have produced in certain directions a healthful and renovating effect, they speedily became converted to the general tolerance of ecclesiastical laxity. Italy and France, up to the domination of Charlemagne, were the only important countries in Europe. The history of France from Clovis to Charlemagne is a long record of disorder and iniquity, in which, if the Church plays no worse part than the state, it at least plays no better. In Italy religion and politics are involved in an inextricable tangle of convulsions and dissensions. During this time there is no better proof of the practical neglect into which the canon of celibacy had fallen, than the continual iteration to which it is subjected by councils and synods. Gregory the Great, in his conscientious efforts in the seventh century to enforce sacerdotal chastity at least,−or rather to check the flagrant violation of it,−in default of celibacy, had to contend, where France was concerned, with the powerless imbecility of the Merovingian monarchs.
His successors found more effectual assistance in the first strong-handed Carlovingians. Pope Zachary, in concert with Carloman, and St. Boniface, the great apostle of the Saxons, for the first time attached the penalties of deposition, degradation, and penance to proved impurity of life. This was the beginning of a series of reforms, of which Boniface was the leading spirit, and Pepin and Charlemagne the rigid guardians. But, although sacerdotal marriage became really the exception rather than the rule, in consequence of these enactments, it is doubtful whether morality was improved. It was a licentious age, and the clergy as well as the laity belonged to their age. In the tenth century clerical marriage began again to prevail, and again the strong hands of Gregory VII., and of the Popes who reigned under his direction, were needed to restore some degree of discipline. But vigorous as were their measures, and persevering their efforts, it was restored chiefly in name. Gregory’s dissensions with the Empire offer Mr. Lea an occasion to exhibit the condition of morality in the German Church. We are unable to see that at this moment, as for some time to come, it differed materially in any of the countries of Europe. In many outlying provinces−in Wales, in Bohemia, in Sweden−lawful marriage took the place of simple cohabitation ; but in the great central states the vices of the laity were still those of the clergy. If there was one spot indeed where these vices were more flourishing than elsewhere, all through the Middle Ages and into recent times, that spot was the very head-quarters of sanctity,− Rome itself. But this circumstance admits doubtless of a sufficiently logical explanation. Rome was the spiritual head of Christendom, but she was also a great temporal power, and to a great extent the social metropolis of the world. This character necessarily involved a vast deal of magnificent corruption.
In the course of the Middle Ages it is apparent that the clergy not only continued to possess their share of the general unchastity, but to carry it to excesses by which they alone were distinguished. The amount of legislation bearing on this subject, recorded by Mr. Lea with immense patience and care, is such as to defy memory and imagination, and almost to challenge belief. There can be assuredly no better proof of the very imperfect observation of the canons than this unceasing repetition of them. By the time the Middle Ages had passed away, and the masses had emerged into the comparatively brilliant light of the Renaissance, sacerdotal unchastity had grown into an enormous evil. The disparity between the theory of the priestly character and its actual form had become too flagrant to be endured. Popular protests accordingly became frequent. The abuse of those intimate relations into which the priest is brought with the life of families, and that of the confessional more especially, acquires horrible proportions. And as the question grows more complex on the side of the people, so it grows more complex with regard to the general government of the Church. This government had long since made up its mind, with a firmness destined to be proof against even the most formidable remonstrance, that, whatever might be the manners of its servants, they were to remain inviolably single. The mere ascetic and sentimental reason for celibacy had long been supplanted by good logical and material reasons. A wife and children were speedily found to be incompatible with the exclusive service of the Church. To it alone, if the ambition of its great rulers was to be fulfilled, its ministers were to be devoted. When, with the development of the feudal system, the transmission of property and of functions from father to sons became the groundwork of social order, ecclesiastical benefices were disposed of in the same way as manors and baronies, to the utter prejudice of the temporality of the Church. With this tendency the Church waged a long and violent contest, in which she was finally victorious. But she purchased her victory only at the price of the most scandalous concessions ; and by the system of immorality reared upon these concessions she found her hands almost fatally entangled at the Reformation. Dispensation to unchastity in her ministers had become a prominent feature among those various indulgences against which the consciences of the early Reformers rose in wrath. In every country in Europe the people had grown weary of crying out for the abolition of these dispensations, and the reintroduction of marriage. In Germany, accordingly, the marriage of apostate monks and priests was among the foremost measures of the more ardent Reformers. Luther, whose discretion was as great as his courage, was content to wait ; but he, too, finally gave in, and united himself with a nun. It is characteristic of the English people, that the monarchs under whose guidance they embraced the Reformation should have shown in this particular more than the hesitation of Luther. Henry VIII. broke short off with Rome, overturned the monasteries, and filled the land with the beggared servants of the old ecclesiastical order, but he would not hear of the marriage of the Reformed clergy. It was certainly not from a general disapproval of the institution. Under Edward, the old restrictions on this matter were done away; but under Mary they were of course restored with a high hand. With Elizabeth they were eventually removed forever ; but it is known that the measure had very little sympathy from the queen, and that her assent was grudgingly bestowed.
The Council of Trent was expected to do great things toward the pacification of the Reformers and the healing of the great schism, and among others to pave the way for the gradual abolition of clerical celibacy. The measure had the approval of Charles the Fifth, and of Ferdinand and Maximilian, his successors. The Council of Trent did very little that was expected of it, however, and least of all did it accomplish this. It contented itself with a reenactment of certain obsolete and threadbare canons in favor of chastity, and launched an anathema against all those who affirmed the validity of such marriages as had been made or should yet be made by the apostate clergy. This was the last word of the Catholic Church for some time to come upon this important subject. Animated with a new vitality by the great Jesuit reaction, she had no apprehension that her hour had come, and that she was brought so low as to be compelled to belie the sagacity of her great founders and lawgivers. For the past three hundred years she has firmly adhered to the principle of celibacy, and assuredly with incontestable wisdom. With the universal elevation of the moral tone throughout Europe, she has been less frequently mortified by having to look with indulgence upon the licentious manners of her priests.
It seems to us that this rapid survey of the immense subject treated by Mr. Lea is calculated to confirm rather than to enfeeble an unprejudiced reader’s sense of the marvellous achievements of the Church. The enumeration, made in the volume before us, of its enactments with regard to celibacy and chastity, constitutes a chapter in its internal history. This is, to our perception, the worst that can be said of them and of the state of things which they reveal. If the Catholic Church is to be pronounced an institution of the past, a mockery, a delusion, and a snare, it is not on these grounds alone, or on any exclusive grounds, but from a broadly comprehensive point of view. Every human institution has a private history which is very different from its public one. In some respects the former is the more, in others the less, admirable of the two. In the present case, the element in the picture which appeals to our admiration is the heroic patience and perseverance, the fortitude, the tact, and the courage with which the Church applied herself to the healing of her internal wounds when they were curable, and to the enduring of them when they were not, in order that, at any cost, she might produce upon the world the impression of unity, sanity, and strength.