Celibacy in the Early Middle Ages


Clerical celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church is usually traced to the 4th Century CE and was subsequently strengthened and reaffirmed by the papacy. By 1123, at the First Lateran Council presided over by Pope Callistus II, Canon 7 (29) expressly forbade “priests, deacons, or sub deacons to live with concubines and wives…” Several reasons are given for the rise and enforcement of clerical celibacy, including the ascetic tradition in the Church following the Great Persecution as well as the marginalization of women. Celibacy was the “more perfect way,” supported, ostensibly, by Holy Scripture.

Marriage in the Early Church and the Passage in Matthew

Matthew 19: 10-12 is one of the most frequently used passages in Church writings of the Early Middle Ages to support Jesus’ advocacy of celibacy and it is still used today to defend celibacy. Yet nowhere in the passage does Jesus promote celibacy as the mandatory state for his disciples. Peter, the “rock” upon whom the Church was built, was himself married. Additionally, the passage is part of a larger dialogue concerning marriage and divorce.

In I Timothy 3:12 Paul states that “deacons” or “bishops” (depending upon the translation) should be “husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households.” Early Church History recounts the lives of numerous married bishops. In some cases, according to W. H. C. Frend, Professor of Ecclesiastical History, children accompanied their fathers to places of execution, fathers that were bishops or in other overseer positions.

Factors Contributing to the Rise of Enforced Celibacy

Numerous views seek to explain why clerical celibacy became the norm in the medieval Church and continues so into the current century. Initially, during the early 4th Century, celibacy was strongly identified with the ascetic traditions associated with hermit monasticism. The ideal of the virgin was nothing new: it had been part of pagan beliefs for centuries. Early ascetics merely followed a path that was already characteristic of mysticism and an individual encounter with the sublime. The Essenes, for example, included members that advocated celibacy.

At the same time, the Church was developing a system of morality that placed celibacy above marriage and demeaned sexual activity. Tierney and Painter recount the suggestion of 9th Century Bishop Jonas of Orleans as to when married couples “should abstain from sexual relations.” These times included, “forty days before Christmas, forty days before Easter, eight days after Pentecost, every Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday, the eve of all great feasts, and five days before taking communion.”

Celibacy also set the clergy apart from other people. This process began in the 4th Century. Eventually, this enabled the Church to maintain greater authority in Western Europe through its agents. Church Historian Williston Walker, referring to Pope Gregory VII’s Church reforms, states that clerical celibacy became, “…not only the theoretical but the practical rule of the Roman Church.”

Yale Professor John Boswell cites the role of rural ethical codes, applicable in the Early Middle Ages in Western Europe. According to Boswell, “The exemption of the celibate from all reproductive pressure in rural value systems is a salient and innovative characteristic of Catholicism as a religion, imposed on it, at least in the view of Catholics, by Jesus.” Additionally, the relationships formed by a system of feudal obligations had to be addressed lest the clergy found itself between secular and Church allegiances.

The Marginalization of Women

Celibacy was defended by early Church writers who viewed women as weaker than men. Identified with Eve, they were seen as prone to temptation and sin. At the same time, celibacy assisted in further marginalizing women. The Church hierarchy was only open to men who believed that celibacy was the best way to serve God. Jerome, the producer of the Latin Vulgate, castrated himself. St Benedict cut his flesh when overcome by thoughts of lust. St Kevin of Ireland inadvertently caused the death of a local peasant girl who pursued him. Throughout the Middle Ages, one of the few avenues open to women was as a nun in a cloister or convent.

Defenders of celibacy point to men like St Augustine. Augustine sent way his concubine, but, according to historian Peter Brown, “…it was not moral scruples…It was ambition.” Brown also notes that Augustine defended marriage, although eventually electing a celibate life when he entered the priesthood.

Upholding Celibacy throughout the Middle Ages

Celibacy became a mandatory practice for members of the clergy during the Early Middle Ages. Numerous popes addressed celibacy as part of Church reform efforts to combat concubinage among members of the clergy. Pope Leo IX, at the Easter synod of 1049, renewed the Church position and sought to actively enforce it.

The Reformation ultimately challenged this view, allowing priests and ministers to marry and raise families. Within the Catholic Church, however, celibacy remains a requirement for all members of the clergy.