Pope Francis and the End of Clerical Celibacy

Pope Francis, already deemed a great herald of progressive change in the Catholic Church (more so as his more traditional arguments get little or no attention in the general press), a few weeks ago hinted at changes to the rules of clerical celibacy in what turned out to be an explosive interview in Espresso.

As the pope acknowledged, clerical celibacy was not widespread even in the Latin Church for the first 900 years of its existence – and maybe even after that. Today, however, that specific sacerdotal vow has come to be a major identity marker for Catholics. This might have a lot to do with the fact that neither mainstream Orthodox nor mainstream Protestant churches practice it; the very distinction makes it all the more important.

This makes sense from a sociological point of view, as group identity is strongly dependent on real or fictional differences to the outside world that can serve as boundaries between insiders and outsiders.

In both Orthodox and Protestant theology, moreover, it also makes intuitive sense that being different is a sign of virtue: for the Orthodox, it is a sign of not having veered off the path; for the Protestant, is a sign of having scraped away man-made tradition and found the path again through scripture.

For the Catholic Church, however, Francis’s reference to the traditions of the Eastern Church as a legitimate concern makes sense. Being ‘catholic’ in the literal sense invariably involves seeing your organization as a big tent in which all divisions, no matter how many millennia they span, are ultimately temporary. Thus, while both Eastern and Northern Christians can be content with being part of the few who are saved, the Catholic shepherd must always try to gather his flock, even if that means changing the way he does so.

Historically, the introduction of clerical celibacy was part of a wider shift of family practices that the Catholic Church successfully imposed upon itself and the elites of Europe; it is one of the biggest intentional programs of social engineering not carried out at the tip of a sword in European history. The Church successfully disbanded with a number of Germano-Roman family practices, including the wider clan system (since marrying even remote family members was outlawed), the Roman adoption practice, the Judaic levirate (otherwise commanded by God in the story of Onan) – and the inheritance of clerical office.

Obviously, the change was not fast-paced: for most dynastic leaders, giving up their right to pass on any kind of inheritance to their progeny was deeply illogical and contrary to the very reason of power. The change did occur, however, not least as orders of monks gained in importance within the Church, and the canon regular – clergy who have taken monastic vows –became a more prominent figure.

The celibate faction also had a strong, anti-Semitic argument on its side: inheritance of office seems Jewish, since Jewish tradition has it that the Kohanim and other priestly clans are granted specific priestly rights and duties – and Jesus, the highest priest, was not of the Kohanim. As anti-Semitic sentiments were often running high in Latin Europe (and much more so than in the Arab world), being seen as pro-Jewish was a major legitimacy problem.


Pope Francis,  photo from vatican.va

The issue of issue: a question for the father.

Theologically, the major argument for clerical celibacy is, as many other doctrines that seem contrary to parts of scripture, a Pauline one. As celibacy has been practiced in many religious traditions both before and after the birth of Christianity, the discussion about the value, positive or negative of worldly signs of piety, was already raging in the first centuries CE.

Famously, 1 Timothy 4 reads (in the English Standard Version): “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.”

Timothy thus, like Pauline readings, can be enacted as a an argument for the New Covenant as replacing the old one, and that the Mosaic rules governing human behavior – such as which foods to eat or to abstain from – have been cancelled, since such foods (and, presumably, other objects regulated in especially Leviticus, such as clothes) are ‘made holy by the word of God and prayer’.

However, it obviously also contradicts the notion of holiness through abstinence, a fact that has been pointed out by both Orthodox Christians (who never adopted celibacy in the first place) and various Protestants (who revolted against it, and made marriage a litmus test for priests and bishops to prove their anti-papist stance).

The Bible, however, is obviously an anthology whose editors were not too concerned with the coherence of its message. The Pauline argument for celibacy is scripturally based on 1 Corinthians 7, especially verses 7-8: “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am.” Out of its context, it indeed does seem that Paul advocates celibacy as a purer way of life (purity being a main concern of the ascetic faction that Timothy argues against).

Even Corinthians, however, deals with the seemliness of marriage and says nothing explicitly about clerical abstinence. That such leeway is granted to the unmarried and widows does appear, in context, to be more of a matter of respite given to those unfortunate enough to become spinsters or to have husbands who passed early: to make sure that they were not treated as outcasts as was often the case, especially in the lower orders of society.

The Catholic stance admits as much: “we grant that the motive here appealed to is in some measure utilitarian”, states the Catholic Encyclopedia on 1 Corinthians 7.

However, the cult of virginity is strong within the Church, and today, 1100 years after inheritance of office was a major concern for the Church, this explanation has become the strongest official one, together with the paternal allegory that also serves the reasoning behind barring women from clerical office: the priest as the father of his parishioners, whom he guides and looks after. If he had biological children of his own, he would have to look after them first, and his parishioners second, with which they would not be served properly.

What was novel about Francis’s statement, then, was that he acknowledged a historical reality that Catholic scholars are fully aware of: the institution of celibacy is purely a man-made one, also in a theological sense (i.e., not just for the outside observer, but also for the inside practitioner). The Catholic Church traditionally has had few problems with admitting as much, as it has given much weight to what is also itself saw as derived practices.

Lately, however, conservative Catholics, just as conservative Protestants – traditional opponents – have reacted with similar conviction in galvanizing their stances on a number conservative issues as they have found themselves pushed further and further back by a liberal world order. That is why issues of sexuality became the main focal point for both groups: anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-contraception.

Francis’s statements were thus explosive because they reminded Catholics who might otherwise have forgotten about Catholicism not being defined by the distinction to other Christian traditions; that the Catholic Church could indeed endure, as Catholic, without clerical celibacy.

How plausible is this change, then? In the short term, not very. Francis is unlikely to survive long enough to see such a change carried through. His immense popularity in an age of rising inequality and social liberalization, however, might make it difficult for his detractors in the Church to elect another Retzinger as his successor. The unwillingness and inability of the conservative Popes in handling pedophilia in the Church – the immediate reason for Francis to even discuss celibacy – have also made the progressive cause easier.

Still, Francis is more likely to let a hundred flowers bloom and let non-celibate practice slowly seep into the mainline Church, apart from its already existing enclaves within Anglican converts and many Eastern Catholics. The main strength of the Roman organization has always been its ability to contain various practices and only enforce a very small core of beliefs upon all. Francis just signaled that celibacy might be leaving that core, signaling to those for whom it matters that they could find amnesty, and with time even acceptance, if they were to take up official family lives.

Ask Foldspang Neve is currently pursuing his PhD in sociology at the University of Oxford. Ask Foldspang Neve