owe the Nicene creed (325), but this is now abandoned by the best authorities on all sides. There can be no doubt, however, that the 4th century opened a wide breach in this respect between the Eastern and Western churches. The modern Greek custom is “(a) that most candidates for Holy Orders are dismissed from the episcopal seminaries shortly before being ordained deacons, in order that they may marry (their partners being in fact mostly daughters of clergymen), and after their marriage, return to the seminaries in order to take the higher orders; (b) that, as priests, they still continue the marriages thus contracted, but may not remarry on the death of their wife; and (c) that the Greek bishops, who may not continue their married life, are commonly not chosen out of the ranks of the married secular clergy, but from among the monks.” The Eastern Church, therefore, still adheres fairly closely to the rules laid down by the Apostolical Canons in the 4th century. In the West, however, a decisive forward step was taken by Popes Damasus and Siricius during the last quarter of that century. The famous decretal of Siricius (385) not only enjoined strict celibacy on bishops, priests and deacons, but insisted on the instant separation of those who had already married, and prescribed the punishment of expulsion for disobedience (Siric. Ep. i. c. 7; Migne, P.L. xiii. col. 1138). Although we find Siricius a year later writing to the African Church on this same subject in tones rather of persuasion than of command, yet the beginning of compulsory sacerdotal celibacy in the Western Church may be conveniently dated from his decretal of A.D. 385. Leo the Great (d. 461) and Gregory the Great (d. 604) further extended the rule of celibacy to subdeacons.
For the next three or four centuries there is little to note but the continual evidence of open or secret resistance to these decrees, and the parallel frequency and stringency of ecclesiastical legislation, which by its very monotony bears witness to its own want of success. At least seven episcopal constitutions of the 8th and 9th centuries forbade the priest to have even his mother or his sister in the house. Nor did the only difficulty lie in such secret breaches of the law; in many districts the priesthood tended to become a mere hereditary caste, to the disadvantage of church and state alike. In northern and southern Italy public clerical marriages were extremely frequent, whether with or without regular forms. The see of Rouen was held for more than a century (942-1054) by three successive bishops who were family men and two of whom were openly married. In England St Swithun (d. 862) was married, though very likely by special papal dispensation; and the married clergy were apparently predominant in Alfred’s time. In spite of Dunstan’s reforms at the end of the 10th century, the Norman Lanfranc found so many wedded priests that he dared not decree their separation; and when his successor St Anselm attempted to go further, this seemed a perilous novelty even to so distinguished an ecclesiastic as Henry of Huntingdon, who wrote: “About Michaelmas of this same year (1102) Archbishop Anselm held a council in London, wherein he forbade wives to the English priesthood, heretofore not forbidden; which seemed to some a matter of great purity, but to others a perilous thing, lest the clergy, in striving after a purity too great for human strength, should fall into horrible impurity, to the extreme dishonour of the Christian name” (lib. vii.; Migne, P.L. cxcv. col. 944). Yet this was at a time when the decisive and continued action of two great popes ought to have left no possible doubt as to the law of the church.
The growing tendency of the clergy to look upon their endowments as hereditary fiefs, their consequent worldliness and (it must be added) their vices, aroused the indignation of two very remarkable men in the latter half of the 11th century. St Pietro Damiani (988-1072) was a scholar, hermit and reformer, who did more perhaps than any one else to combat the open marriages of the clergy. He complained that exhortation was wasted even on the bishops, “because they despair of attaining to the pinnacle of chastity, and have no fear of condemnation in open synod for the vice of lechery.... If this evil were secret [he adds], it might perhaps be borne.” His Liber Gomorrhianus, addressed to and approved by St Leo IX., is sufficient in itself to explain the vehemence of his crusade, though it emphasizes even more strongly the impolicy of proceeding more severely against the open marriages of the clergy than against concubinage and other less public vices. Damiani found a powerful ally in the equally ascetic but far more imperious and statesmanlike Hildebrand, afterwards Pope Gregory VII. Under the influence of these two men, five successive popes between 1045 and 1073 attempted a radical reform; and when, in this latter year, Hildebrand himself became pope, he took measures so stringent that he has sometimes been erroneously represented not merely as the most uncompromising champion, but actually as the author of the strict rule of celibacy for all clerics in sacred orders. His mind, strongly imbued with the theocratic ideal, saw more clearly than any other the enormous increase of influence which would accrue to a strictly celibate body of clergy, separated by their very ordination from the strongest earthly ties; and no statesman has ever pursued with greater energy and resolution a plan once formulated. In order to break down the desperate, and in many places organized, resistance of the clergy, he did not shrink from the perilous course, so contrary to his general policy, of subjecting them to the judgment of the laity. Not only were concubinary priests—a term which was now made to include also those who had openly married—forbidden to serve at the altar and threatened with actual deposition in cases of contumacy, but the laity were warned against attending mass said by “any priest certainly known to keep a concubine or subintroducta.”
But these heroic measures soon caused serious embarrassment. If the laity were to stand aloof from all incontinent priests, while (as the most orthodox churchmen constantly complained) many priests were still incontinent, then this could only result in estranging large bodies of the laity from the sacraments of the church. It became necessary, therefore, to soften a policy which to the lay mind might imply that the virtue of a sacrament was weakened by the vices of its ministers; and, whereas Peter Lombard (d. 1160) concludes that no excommunicated priest can effect transubstantiation, St Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) agrees with all the later Schoolmen in granting him that power, though to the peril of his own soul. For, by the last quarter of the 13th century, the struggle had entered upon a new phase. The severest measures had been tried, especially against the priests’ unhappy partners. As early as the council of Augsburg (952) these were condemned to be scourged, while Leo II. and Urban II., at the councils of Rome and Amalfi (1051, 1089),
- Hefele, Beiträge zur Kirchengesch. u.s.w. i. 139.
- See the quotations in Lea i. 156. These prohibitions were renewed in the 13th and 14th centuries (ibid. i. 410).
- Ratherius, Itinerarium, c. 5 (Migne, P.L. cxxxvi. col. 585). Gulielmus Apulus writes of southern Italy in 1059: “In these parts priests, deacons and the whole clergy were publicly married” (De Normann. lib. ii.).
- Dom Pommeraye, S. Rotomag. Eccl. Concilia, pp. 56, 65; cf. similar instances on p. 315 of Dr A. Dresdner’s Kultur-und Sittengeschichte d. italienischen Geistlichkeit im 10. und 11. Jhdt. (Breslau, 1890).
- Opusc. xvii. praef. The saint’s evidence is carefully weighed by Dresdner (l.c.), especially on pp. 309 ff. and 321 ff.
- Even Pope Innocent III. was compelled to decide that priests who had kept two or more concubines, successively or simultaneously, did not thereby incur the disabilities which attended digamists; or, in other words, that a layman who had contracted two lawful marriages and then proceeded to ordination on the death of his second wife, could be absolved only by the pope; whereas the concubinary priest, “as a man branded with simple fornication,” might receive a valid dispensation from his own bishop (Letter to archbishop of Lund in 1212. Regest. lib. xvi. ep. 118; Migne, P.L. ccxvi. col. 914). As the great canonist Gratian remarked on a similar decretal of Pope Pelagius, “Here is a case where lechery has more rights at law than has chastity” (Decret. p. i. dist. xxxiv. c. vii. note a).
- The actual originator of this policy was Nicholas II., probably at Hildebrand’s suggestion; but the decree remained practically a dead letter until Gregory’s accession.
- Peter Lombard, Sentent. lib. iv. dist. 13; Aquinas, Summa Theol. pars iii. Q. lxxxiii. art. 7, 9.