Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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CELIBACY, Clerical


CELIBACY, Clerical, an institution of the Roman Catholic church which prohibits the marriage of her clergy. Even outside the Roman church, and in times anterior to Christianity, we find traces of a like attempt to subdue human nature by its own power. But we must here limit our considerations to that form of celibacy which has attained a real historical importance, the celibacy of the Roman Catholic clergy.


—The Old Testament knows nothing of a command prescribing the celibacy of the priesthood; neither does the New Testament, although we there find it intimated, in a general way, that under certain circumstances it may be more advisable not to take a wife (1 Cor. 7: 38); and this intimation was not without influence during the early period of Christianity and the church. During the first three centuries we find some of the clergy practicing celibacy, but always voluntarily, not because it was a law. It was far from being the rule. The fourth century, however, made a decided move in the direction of celibacy. Regulations favoring it were drawn up, as, for instance, at the council of Ancyra in 314 It was distinctly declared that the unmarried priest deserved the preference over the married priest, although marriage was not yet prohibited. Toward the end of the fourth century (375) Silicius, bishop of Rome, declared that marriage impaired the efficiency of the priesthood and their calling, and his opinion was followed by his successors in the fifth century. At first the prohibition of marriage was intended for the higher grades of the clergy only, for bishops, priests and deacons; but, before long it was extended to sub-deacons after ordination also. The temporal power did not oppose the attempts made to elevate the prohibition of marriage into a law for the priesthood; on the contrary, it favored the endeavor as much as it could, and gave it the support of its authority.


—We must not forget that there was in the development of the Catholic church something which strove to establish the supremacy and promote the universal establishment of celibacy. Opposition to celibacy was not slow in manifesting itself, an opposition which came from the ranks of the clergy themselves. It was not without foundation, therefore, that the observance of celibacy was repeatedly enjoined. Yet it was reserved for the eleventh century to decide in favor not only of this law, but to assert the triumph of the church generally. Pope Gregory VII., with whose name this triumph is connected, in this case, invented nothing, nor introduced anything new, any more than into his whole system; but he understood how to give the celibacy of the clergy enduring power and to overcome the resistance of the nations on whom the church had chiefly to lean, notably of the Germans. There can be no doubt that in considering the question of celibacy pope Gregory VII. gave much less thought to considerations of abstract morality than to expediency; and that his only object was to establish the supremacy and unity of the church through a clergy independent of the state. He declared this himself in an unmistakable manner when he said: Non liberari potest ecclesia a servitute laicorum, nisi liberentur clerici ab uxoribus. Gregory's successors remained faithful to his doctrine, and propagated it, without, however, being able everywhere to enforce it practically, as for instance in the case of the Slavonian Catholics.


—Yet however necessary the regulation may have been or have seemed to be at the time of its introduction, it was soon followed by crying evils, especially in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The complaints of the immorality of the clergy became so general that doubts as to the propriety of celibacy were soon everywhere expressed, and it was asked whether morality did not lose by the system at least as much as the power of the church gained by it.


—At the time of the reformation there were voices enough heard in the Catholic church demanding the abolition of the rule of celibacy. Several princes, even king Charles V. in interim endeavored to bring it about, in the hope of thus paving the way to a reconciliation between the Protestants and the Catholic church. Opposition was not wanting even later, noticeably in the eighteenth century, but to no purpose. LITERATURE F. A. and August Theiner, Die Einführung der erzurungenen Ehelosigkeit bei den christlichen Geistlichen und ihre Folgen, Altenburg, 1828, 2 ed. 1845, 2 vols; Carové, über das Cölibatsgesetz des römischkatholischen Klerus, Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1832, 1853, and das römische Cölibatsgesetz in Frankreich und Deutschland, Offenbach, 1834; Der Cölibat, Regensburg, 1841.


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