The troubled history of priests, sex and the church may be at a turning point
In a new autobiography published this week, Father Edward Daly, former bishop of Derry and the handkerchief-waving priest of the famous Bloody Sunday photograph, has called for an end to the celibacy rule for Catholic priests. Pointing to the severe decline in numbers of serving clergy (while the worldwide Catholic population has almost doubled since 1970, the number of priests has remained virtually static), Daly believes crisis could be averted by allowing priests to marry. Many see clerical celibacy as fundamental to the church, but in fact it is a religious tradition rather than a strict scriptural prohibition, and it has been far from universally observed throughout its history.
The biblical foundation for a celibate priesthood is flimsy. While Saint Paul recommended celibacy, he thought anyone who cannot "contain themselves" should marry, "for it is better to marry than to be burnt" (1 Corinthians 7:9). Further, the Gospels spoke of apostles who were married, with no hindrance to their ministry. But the model of Christ's own celibacy (emulated by the priest acting "in persona Christi") marked it out as a higher calling, and ultimately an unmarried priest would be more committed to his religious duties, his celibacy giving him the "power to attend upon the Lord, without impediment" (1 Corinthians 7:35).
The first official attempt to impose celibacy on those in holy orders was made at the Council of Elvira (c 306), and efforts to enforce it followed throughout the middle ages. But how it played out in practice varied enormously, and stories of married clergy and fornicating popes abounded. Pope John XII was accused by a 10th-century synod of having "fornicated with the widow of Rainier, with Stephana his father's concubine, with the widow Anna, and with his own niece, and he made the sacred palace into a whorehouse".
Unperturbed by such examples, the First and Second Lateran Councils in the 12th century decreed that clerical marriages were invalid, but Thomas Aquinas asserted a century later that this was not the decree of God, but merely church law, reversible by papal or conciliar authority. Indeed, in the middle ages the prohibition of marriage had less to do with spiritual concerns than the conservation of church property. Married priests meant legitimate heirs and the loss of church assets through inheritances – something that couldn't be countenanced.
The 16th-century Council of Trent confirmed the celibacy rule (just as the Church of England was abolishing it), but it was only in the 20th century that priestly celibacy, along with all matters of sexual morality, became an obsession for the church hierarchy. Following the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, reaffirming the fundamental value of celibacy as allowing "a closer and more complete relationship with the mystery of Christ and the Church for the good of all mankind".
Yet the encyclical also permitted the possibility of married clergy from other Christian traditions being ordained as Catholic priests, and cracks began to show in the edifice. Although Pope Benedict rejected the idea of married priests in 2006, he has since taken up Paul VI's baton by allowing defecting married Anglican ministers to enter the church.
The absolute prohibition on married Catholic priests has gone, and with suggestions (of debatable credibility) of a link between the church's child abuse crisis and celibacy, last year's plaintive call for the abolition of the rule from Italian women romantically involved with priests, and the proliferation of groups advocating a married priesthood, a new chapter in the troubled history of priests, sex and the church may be opening.