Celibacy and the Christian tradition

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Stephen Harding.jpgPegging to the new ordinariate for Tiber-leaping Episcopalians and their married priests, NYT’s Mark Oppenheimer interviewed Fr. D. Paul Sullins of Catholic U. by way of making a gentle case for doing away with clerical celibacy in the Catholic Church. While I have no intention of rushing in to tell others how to regulate their religious leadership, anyone interested would do well to read Charles A. Frazee’s classic article, “The Origins of Clerical Celibacy in the Western Church,” which appeared in the journal Church History back in 1972. (You can find it here on JSTOR if you have access to this database.)

Frazee makes clear that it was the monastic ideal that drove the push for clerical celibacy in the first place. Inspired by the example of St. Anthony and the Desert Fathers, Christians in the West embraced monasticism in large numbers in the fourth century, and the Church at large made monastic asceticism the ideal way for Christians to live in this world. Although the Council of Nicaea (325) declined to make celibacy mandatory for the secular clergy, sexual purity was considered desirable for those charged with conducting Christian affairs in an era that took a very dim view of things of the flesh.

In fact, throughout the early MIddle Ages most clergy–including many bishops–did get married. Not until the 11th century did clerical celibacy again become an issue of concern, not least because of the tendency of church officials to treat ecclesiastical offices and property as possessions to be passed on to their offspring. Once again, however, the reforming impulse came from the monastic world, where the apostolic life had come to be conceived as living celibate and owning property in common. In those days, Western Christians could not conceive of an ideal society except in terms of a well-ordered monastery.

Those days are of course long gone, and monks are few and far between. Where once celibacy was held out as the Christian ideal, now it is the family, “based on the marriage of a man and a woman,” that serves as guarantor “of human dignity and the future of humanity itself,” as Pope Benedict put it yesterday. Under the circumstances, you might think the pope would drop mandatory celibacy and let his priests exemplify the family way. That, however, would be to undermine their status as members of a separate, quasi-monastic elite.