Celibacys history of power and money
By ARTHUR JONES
Whoa, slow down a minute on the celibacy talk and married priests. Lets remind ourselves how the Catholic church got into the celibacy mess.
It didnt have anything to do with sex, purity and holiness.
It was the money.
And when one mixes money and the Catholic church, theres usually a mess. Thats how we got a Reformation. Selling indulgences -- guarantees of time off in purgatory.
If the church tried selling indulgences today it would be prosecuted under the RICO law.
Indulgences were and are guarantees signed and sealed by folks in no position to deliver on the promise. Indulgences were sold by those who had invented the idea of purgatory in the first place (there is no biblical basis for purgatory).
Having created this terror -- a sort of Universal Studios for the visiting soul -- the church convinced the same people they could (for a modest beneficence in cold hard cash) ameliorate the terrors worst effects.
Martin Luther, a sort of one-man medieval equivalent of the Securities and Exchange Commission (indulgences division) blew the whistle. And signaled the fate of all future whistleblowers. Obloquy, and a formal apology 400 years too late.
Religions have always had a place for virgins. But it customarily meant women, as in pagan Romes vestal virgins. Emperor Augustus, incidentally, frowned on celibacy. Celibate males werent allowed to inherit property. (Hold that thought from Roman law. A thousand years later it gave us todays problems.)
Then came Jesus, and then came priests.
In the Jewish tradition, priests were the sons of priests -- it was a local family firm. Jesus had no trouble with that. He chose Peter, a married man, to be his first pope.
The following isnt just an aside, its a steppingstone to where were headed. Theres no evidence Jesus intended Peter to be the first ruler of an absolute monarchy. And theres every evidence thats what it became -- giving rise to the Catholic Lord Actons comment on the papacy: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. (Acton was an earnest man and a deep thinker who served the church by refusing to be bamboozled by it. Acton spoke for many of us -- he loved the church deeply, it was dearer to him than life itself.)
Onward. Jesus knew about men living abstemious lives for spiritual reasons. The desert-dwelling Essenes had been around for a couple of centuries. Hed been in the desert himself. Theres every reason to think he admired their discipline -- and he certainly never condemned them the way he did the Scribes and Pharisees.
St. Paul wasnt arguing for celibacy. Admittedly, he said it was easier to be a member of a missionary group if you werent encumbered with a wife and children, but the CEO of many a corporation harbors the same feelings (though perhaps remains reluctant to voice them publicly).
When Paul dealt with qualifications for bishops, elders and deacons, his restriction was only that they be the husband of one wife. By the third century, bishops were being denied the right to a second marriage.
The problem for Christianity was it started to become financially prosperous.
The rich, the thoughtful ones who understood that their earthly goods were barriers to heaven, were delighted to hand over chunks of wealth to the priests and bishops as a down payment on easier transmission from one place to the next. (The souls equivalent, the wealthy presumed, of time-sharing a jet instead of having to stand in line at a purgatorial Southwest counter.)
Not only were priests and bishops becoming wealthier, they were becoming worldier. Many were married, others just had open marriages -- concubines. Worse than that -- in the churchs eyes -- the priests and bishops begetting sons regarded the endowments being made to the church as personal property. So the same rollicking clerics were setting themselves up as landed gentry and passing the fortunes along to their primogenitor sons and heirs.
In the 11th century, five popes in a row said: Enough already. Then came tough Gregory VII. He overreacted. He told married priests they couldnt say Mass, and ordered the laity not to attend Masses said by married priests and naughty priests. The obvious happened. Members of the laity soon were complaining they had nowhere to go to Mass.
The edict was softened a bit to allow Mass-going. As usual, the women were blamed. Concubines were ordered scourged. Effectively though, the idea of priestly celibacy was in -- though not universally welcomed among the clerics themselves. And handing over church money to sons of priests and bishops was out.
The early, reforming religious orders, Franciscans and Dominicans, were scandalized by the licentious priests. And thats the point -- it was the concubinage scandal and money, not the marriage that was at issue.
Indeed, at two 15th-century church councils, serious proposals were made to reintroduce clerical marriage.
These proposals were fought back -- how modern it all seems -- by a group of ultra-orthodox church leaders (for whom marriage was probably too late a possibility anyway) because theyd come up with a better idea. Theyd started to give out the impression that celibacy was of apostolic origin -- that it had been built in at the beginning.
Thats power. Reinvent history.
Naturally, this is all tied in with the notion of the pope as the supreme power. Like celibacy, supreme power was an 11th-century imposition, too.
The same Gregory VII declared himself the supreme power over all souls and bishops and priests and people. Lets face it, there wasnt much people could do about it, except nod their heads. Or shake them. (To illustrate how some things never change, Gregory drafted a few ideas; his curia embellished them into a theocratic constitution. The more powerful the boss, the more powerful the minions.)
And then in the 19th century, supreme power was transformed into the ultimate big stick -- infallibility. (Though at least two American bishops voted against the infallible idea, and some Europeans didnt go along either.)
So there we have it.
A thousand years, a millennial mindset on celibacy and papal supremeness, created out of chaos and ordained as if it were something God had enjoined on the world.
I mean it really is enough to make one ask not: WWJD? But: ITWJI? (Not: What would Jesus do? But: Is this what Jesus intended?) Enough to make one realize also that the whole issue of clerical celibacy is nothing more than a power play with incense for the smoke, as in smoke and mirrors.
Arthur Jones is NCRs editor at large. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org
National Catholic Reporter, April 12, 2002