Lesson #344: Clerical Celibacy

Don’t worry; I’m not here to argue for or against clerical celibacy, as it has absolutely no impact on my life. I am neither a male looking to enter the priesthood nor a Roman Catholic.

Today’s lesson came out of a fact I learned today about how Pope Pius II wrote the best-selling book of the 15th century; it’s a book of erotic fiction called The Tale of Two Lovers. This then made me wonder when, exactly, the Catholic Church made clerical celibacy a requirement, rather than an option. Because, even in the middle ages with fewer available literary choices than we have now, surely a priest with zero sexual experience won’t have the ability to write bestselling graphic eroticism.

And besides that, as I’ve touched on in previous lessons, more than one of the medieval Popes had children. They also did all manner of other totally awesome stuff; there is no soap opera better than the medieval Papacy! It’s all sorts of illegitimate children and imprisonment and simony and murder and exhumation for trial.

But it seems that the indoctrination of celibacy was already in place in the West by the time Leo I became Pope in the mid 5th century. The 33rd Canon of the 304 Synod of Elvira delivered the first edict on the subject and suggested that “bishops, presbyters, deacons, and others with a position in the ministry are to abstain completely from sexual intercourse with their wives and from procreation of children. If anyone disobeys, he shall be removed from the clerical office.”*

However, although it was the preferred state of those holding clerical positions, celibacy wasn’t compulsory until the Gregorian reforms of the 11th century. This edict on celibacy was a direct result of the “Rule of the Harlots,” the term given to the period between the ascension of Sergius III to the Papacy in 904 and the death of Gregory IV in 1048.** (I feel it should also be mentioned that the Gregorian reforms also eliminated simony. Presumably, Gregory VII didn’t need to say anything about murder and the exhumation of former Popes.)

So the answer to the question is the mid-11th century and Pius II was either writing outside of his experience or was practicing outside the faith.

For more see here, here, and here.

*Hilariously, the 35th Canon says that women should stay out of cemeteries at night because some of them “engage in wickeness rather than prayer.”

**There’s a very interesting article entitled Popes and Pornocrats that addresses this period that can be read here.


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