Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Today on the Almanac, we look at the history of celibacy in the Catholic Church.

*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 16th of November 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.

So, back in the 1980s, there was an African Archbishop named Emmanuel Milingo who had to step down because he was practicing unsanctioned exorcisms and faith healings. But he remained a bishop. In 2001 at the age of 71, he married a Korean woman who was chosen for him by Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church. In 2006 he ordained 4 American men to be priests despite those men being married. On account of that action, he was officially defrocked and stripped of all titles and authority. He argued that the shortage of priests would only be eliminated if married men could also be ordained. Pope Benedict called a summit to discuss the Milingo situation and the role of priestly celibacy in the church. It was on this, the 16th of November in 2006 that Pope Benedict reaffirmed the value of the choice of priestly celibacy and noted that it was firmly based in the tradition of the Catholic Church.

So, on account of this- let’s break down the history of priestly celibacy in the church.

The New Testament seems ambivalent towards marriage. For example, in 1 Corinthians 7 Paul affirms the legitimacy and usefulness of marriage and a physical relationship but notes that for him, it is a concession, not a command. He states that he would prefer if people remained single like him. In 1 Timothy 3 Paul notes that he believes Bishops and Deacons should only be married once.

The early church was a mixed bag of local regulations- a Spanish council in the early 300s proclaimed that priests should not marry, but it was not an ecumenical council nor a universal rule. Things seem to have changed with the new asceticism the came with the Constantinian Revolution. That is: when Constantine legalized Christianity and persecution was minimized it set off a new extreme Asceticism- if the Romans won’t smack you around on account of your faith- you’ll do it to yourself! This is the era of desert life, early monasteries, and the idea that celibacy is a special charis for the "especially” faithful. With the sacralization of church offices, Christian ministers became part of a “higher-order”.

The Post-Nicene Church Fathers seemed almost preoccupied with sexual sins- Augustine, of course, was notoriously opposed to what he called that “special caress”. Like many things in the early church, the practice was local. Some men have ordained priests after they had been married. In some cases, they were permitted to be married, in other places they could remain married but observe a “spiritual wedding” with none of those physical components.

The two times the church nailed down their teaching on the subject occurred during the reforms of Gregory the Great and then during the era of Reformations in the 16th century.

(Please note: the celibacy of priests is an official “teaching” of the church and not an official dogma. Therefore, it can be changed without much fuss and this is why Benedict's meeting aroused interest).

Gregory the Great, the 6th century Pope, was the first to proclaim all sexual desire to be sinful, and thus priests needed to be celibate. It was official. But then, the farther your church was from Rome the more likely your priest was married.

Being against the official teaching of the church these relationships were hidden- abortions were known to take place amongst nuns and other women who had relations with priests. Despite the problem, the church doubled down on the teaching of Clerical celibacy at the Lateran Councils of the 12th century.

The Council of Trent in the 16th century, a response to the Protestant Reformation, declared that celibacy was in fact preferable to marriage and thus priests would need to display that special grace in order to be ordained.

But, on account of this being a “teaching” and that celibacy is “preferable” there have been and are married priests in the Roman Catholic community. This usually occurs when a Protestant minister who is married decides to join the Roman church in a priestly capacity.

At the 2nd Vatican Council in the 1960s the Roman church allowed for the position of “permanent Deacon” who could be married. Until Pope John Paul II it was common for the Pope to give out special dispensations for married priests.

There was no thought that Pope Benedict would change the church’s teaching, but the issue with Bishop Milingo and the subsequent summit led some to wonder if priestly celibacy might be an area of reform. It wasn’t to be as the church announced its decision to stay the course with priestly celibacy with affirming its (somewhat) historical position on the matter on this day in 2006.

The last word for today comes from 1 Timothy:

14 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you so that, 15 if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth. 16 Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great:

He was revealed in flesh,
 vindicated in spirit,
 seen by angels,
proclaimed among Gentiles,
 believed in throughout the world,
 taken up in glory.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 16th of November 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.

The show is produced by the very married Reverend: Christoper Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who really needs to tell you the story of the Unification Church- it’s wild. I am Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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