Married Priests

Future historians may have a remarkable irony to wonder about with respect to married catholic priests. In the Middle Ages, the Gregorian Reform movement needed four councils and over a hundred years to restore celibacy to the priesthood. Today, a regional synod (Amazon) made up of a handful of hand-picked bishops took two-weeks to decide that celibacy should be divorced from the priesthood.

In the year AD 1100, historians argue, the vast majority of priests in Europe were married and raising families. Priests were forbidden from marrying but in the tumult after the collapse of Charlemagne’s empire it ignored, tolerated, or was otherwise unable to do anything about it.

Consistent with the customs of feudal society the priests regarded themselves as having a limited legal entitlement their church and its attendant properties. The married priest would earn the revenues from what he could produce off the property, which, according to the law of primogeniture, would then be passed on to his eldest son who would become the next priest.

The primary method the reformers took to end clerical marriage was legal. The matter was taken up in the First Lateran Council in 1123. Convened by Pope Calixtus II, and well attended by over 300 bishops. Laws were established explicitly directed toward priests:

Canon 21: We absolutely forbid priests, deacons, subdeacons and monks to have concubines or to contract marriages. We adjudge, as the sacred canons have laid down, that marriage contracts between such persons should be made void and the persons ought to undergo penance.

Priests were expected to banish their wives and their children from the Church property. Notice that there was no provisions made in consideration for the wives and children. Unsurprisingly, the reaction by priests was with anger and resentment, even violence. When the Bishop of Paris ordered his married priests to give up their families they attacked the cathedral and forced him to seek royal protection.

The issue was revisited in the Second Lateran Council of 1139 and the resulting laws were merciless:

Canon 6: We also decree that those in the orders of subdeacon and above who have taken wives or concubines are to be deprived of their position and ecclesiastical benefice. For since they ought to be in fact and in name temples of God, vessels of the Lord and sanctuaries of the holy Spirit, it is unbecoming that they give themselves up to marriage and impurity.

Canon 7: [W]e prescribe that nobody is to hear the masses of those whom he knows to have wives or concubines. Indeed, that the law of continence and the purity pleasing to God might be propagated among ecclesiastical persons and those in holy orders, we decree that where bishops, priests, deacons, subdeacons, canons regular, monks and professed lay brothers have presumed to take wives and so transgress this holy precept, they are to be separated from their partners. For we do not deem there to be a marriage which, it is agreed, has been contracted against ecclesiastical law.

The marriages were now declared invalid, rendering the children illegitimate and unable to inherit according to civil law. Moreover, the priest’s income would be cut off, and not permitting people to hear masses said by clerics who were married had the effect of making them social outcasts. By the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) celibacy had been fully restored to the priesthood.


Post Scriptum: Incidentally, the two canons quoted above are evidently part of the magisterium of the Church. I’m not sure they can be contradicted.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s