Report of ‘Clerical celibacy in context’

Apr 16, 2013

    A few nights ago, some fifty people went to the Veech Library, at Strathfield, to hear a retired history professor, Ed Campion, give a lecture entitled Clerical Celibacy in Context.  The next day people telephoned the library to get copies of this lecture but there was none to be had because the lecturer performed without the safety net of a text.

He started with the story of the Mass, showing how the clergy became more and more dominant in worship.  Parallel to this, their privileged civil status grew until by the time of Thomas Becket and Henry II they were a separate entity in society with their own courts, tax system and much besides.  This growth accentuated the division between clergy and laity, giving the clergy power over other Christians.  Clericalism was about privilege and power.  Prohibitions reinforced this distinction, keeping the clergy out of pubs and theatres, tonsuring their hair and dressing them in drab clothes, and barring them from trade, the money market, surgery and warfare.

Compulsory celibacy was perhaps the most significant element in the development of a separate clerical caste.  Most history, especially grassroots history, is simply lost.  It is clear, however, that in the parishes the ban on clerical marriage was widely ignored.  The Norman Conquest (1066) brought into England Norman bishops eager to further the reform agenda of the papacy, who had supported the invasion for this purpose.  It was a slow process because bishops needed the coercive power of the Crown to succeed and Kings seemed happy to let priests keep their wives on payment of a fine.  The second Lateran Council (1139) drew a line in the sand for it made clerical marriage invalid as well as illicit – after that, a girl couldn’t marry a priest any more than she could marry a tree.  Spare a thought for the clergy consorts, Ed Campion urged:  the church treated them harshly in its attempts to clean up its act.

But public opinion was against the consorts, as respect for monks and their vows grew alongside the development of education and regard for the law.  As well, there was an expansion in reverence towards the Eucharist when theologians went deeper into the mystery of Christ’s presence there.  This impacted on the lifestyle of priests:  the Body on the altar was the same as that born of Mary;  and since Mary was a virgin so the priest should be celibate.

Then the Counter-Reformation came up with the idea of seminaries, where youths would be isolated from the world and enculturated as clerics.  The dominant culture of the seminaries, clericalism, is a source of the current sex abuse tsunami – clericalism that uses its power for personal gratification whether its targets are children or adults.

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