The Church Didn't Invent Celibacy

By Philip Jenkins

Francis Spufford is an English writer who writes Christian apologetics -- although from a far more liberal perspective than many Americans would find to their taste. He was recently interviewed in the New York Times. One remark he made in passing cited a well-established historical myth, which I was not expecting to see revived, but there it was. It pointed yet again to the power of myth in shaping popular views of Christian history.

Spufford was asked what in the faith gave him confidence. He replied,

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Two thousand years of church history. There have been low moments before, but Christianity is an incredibly adaptable organism, using different parts of its repertoire to mutate into new ecological niches, yet preserving intact its story of grace, of love improbably triumphant. What looks immemorial in Christianity now is often the product of previous bouts of successful adaptation, like the Catholic invention of clerical celibacy in the 10th century A.D., or the reformers' invention of marriage as a temple of affection, in the 16th century. These are turbulent times for the churches -- but then, they usually are. In a hundred years, Christianity will have mutated into something utterly unpredictable which, nevertheless, we'd recognize immediately. And same-sex marriage will be one of the fine old God-given traditions that conservatives leap to defend.

Now, there's plenty to argue with here, but I want to focus on that line about "the Catholic invention of clerical celibacy in the 10th century A.D." You'll see similar remarks commonly around the Internet, and that chronology has become an article of faith, so to speak, for reformist Catholics. It usually goes like this: Somewhere in the 10th or 11th centuries, the Western Church invented and imposed celibacy on priests, chiefly for material reasons. Church leaders did not want priests to acquire property rights in church lands, and pass them to their heirs. Hence the celibate clergy. Also, critically, because the practice began so late, in the supposedly benighted Middle Ages, celibacy cannot claim the warrant of antiquity -- it was not from the esteemed "Early Church."

There's so much wrong here it's hard to begin. True, different parts of the church have had different attitudes to celibacy. In Orthodox churches, priests marry while monks don't, and bishops are drawn from monks. (Celibacy has of course been demanded of all monks since earliest times).

But as it stands, the simple idea that the Western church "invented" celibacy around 1000 is bogus. Around 300, the Spanish synod of Elvira expressed the demands of celibacy in stark terms. (And that was very much in the era of the "Early" pre-Constantinian church). The bishops gathered at Elvira knew that clergy might have been married in their lay state, but once they were ordained, strict denial was demanded:

Bishops, presbyters, deacons, and others with a position in the ministry are to abstain completely from sexual intercourse with their wives and from the procreation of children. If anyone disobeys, he shall be removed from the clerical office.

Nor was Elvira unique. From the third century through the sixth, many Western councils sought to redraw and enforce the celibacy rules, usually in the direction of greater stringency. Bishops and priests should be celibate, of course -- but what about deacons? And subdeacons? If clergy were married beforehand, of course they should give up sexual relations, but could they still live together with their wives, in celibacy? Council after council imposed harsher rules.

Those rules were firmly and clearly in place across Western Europe by, say, 600. Over the following centuries, they certainly relaxed to the point of collapse, so that by the tenth century or so, clerical marriage had become very widespread. That in turn provoked the reform movements that Spufford is referring to -- but these, obviously, were restatements of familiar ancient ideas, rather than any kind of "invention."

Where do they get this stuff?

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and author of Laying Down the Sword.

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