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“A Voice Crying Out in the Wilderness”: The Implications of Clerical Celibacy (Part II)

One of the great benefits of writing in serial format is the ability to receive and respond to criticism as the essay forms. One critique in particular, however, demands an answer before we can continue with our discussion of celibacy’s historic place in human society. Your author has been accused of making a very grave error as regards the model and theological basis for Christian priesthood. This is indeed a terrible accusation since it implies a rejection of a fundamental teaching of Christianity vis-à-vis the Old Testament, namely the supersession of the Covenant of Moses by the Covenant of Christ. There is a very good, albeit obscure, story from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers in which one of the Abbas is falsely accused of a litany of increasingly horrible sins, and denies none of them, accepting their evil and their punishment, but when he is accused of holding a rather minor divergence from Church teaching, he vigorously defends himself, to the puzzlement of the younger monks. Asked why he would not defend himself when accused of these horrific sins, but only when accused of this little heresy, he responds that there is no sin that cannot be healed by repentance, but heresy casts one out of the Church and therefore outside the hope of Salvation. Your author would, therefore, be in a very poor way indeed if he were to be found privileging the Old Testament over the New in a manner consistent with the Judaisers so assiduously condemned by S. John Chrysostom.

Most importantly, it was never intended that the first part of this series should suggest that the Levitical priesthood was the theological model on which the Christian priesthood was based. Rather, what the essay attempted to assert was that there were significant consistencies between the two priesthoods, and that, in the Early Church, these consistencies included marriage, which was not merely allowed but required of the Levitical priesthood. Likewise, Christ Himself affirms the teaching authority of the Levitical priesthood to His Apostles while he was yet alive, for they knew the Law and how to live in a pre-Christian world. After the Resurrection, however, it is made clear that the Order of Melchizedek the Priest-King, and not the Order of Aaron the Priest-Attendant, was to be the order to which Christian priests belonged. The order of priests-attendant had become incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ who needed neither support nor attendance in the way that Aaron spoke for Moses. The Levites, therefore, were superseded and made redundant by the ministry and Holy Resurrection of the God-Man Christ. This is the correct theology according to the Church.

What will receive further treatment is the cultural inheritance of the Levitical priesthood that occurred and was clearly smiled upon by the Christian Church in its earliest days. The Levites, after all, follow the same archetype as the Christian priesthood, albeit in an inferior way. Indeed, the Council of Carthage of 387 refers to the presbytery as “Levites”. It is for this reason that the Levitical requirement to marry (as opposed to a permission to do so) is significant, for it suggests consistency with the ultimate priestly archetype, and therefore links certain Levitical behaviours with the lifestyle of a Christian priest. This second part is concerned with this priestly archetype, specifically as a distinct archetype from the monastic archetype for which celibacy is a rule and a requirement. It was the overlap between the monastic and priestly archetypes in the Christian Church that contributed to the rise of universal clerical celibacy in the West. (It is also possible that clerical celibacy, because of how profoundly unique it is as a discipline, may, in fact, be Faustian in its nature). As previously stated, however, this is not a theological treatise, and your author will spend no time defending theology: it is sufficient for him to accept the doctrine of the Church and move on. If any heresy be found in any part of this series, there is but one appropriate response: revoco.

It is worth repeating at this point that, as with Part I, this is meant to be an analysis solely of the practice of clerical celibacy based on a biblical, historical, and sociological basis, and is in no way meant to be an anti-Catholic polemic. Readers are encouraged to revisit Part I, the apologia for the subject and discussion of priestly castes and the Levitical precedent of Christian priesthood. This second part deals with the practice of asceticism and the cœnobitic monk as a social type as distinct from the priesthood, and Part III will deal with the social importance of biological fatherhood and its relationship to the spiritual role of the priest as father.

The two principal arguments offered against a married priesthood inevitably focus on the celibacy of the most important and obedient figures in Scripture (that is, most of the Prophets and, of course, Christ Himself, the archetype of the obedient son), as well as the break between the Hebrew past and the Christian present spelled out so clearly in Romans xi, 11-21. The first part of this series was meant to address the latter argument, answering that the relationship of father to son is a defining feature of the institutional priesthood in the Early Church and this relationship is grounded in the Levitical archetype in which a married priesthood gave rise to a tribal core or caste of priests at the heart of the Church who inherit their duties and their vocation from their fathers. Admittedly, a more thorough answer could be made by leaning more heavily on natural law. Nevertheless, on the theory that there is always a more thorough article to be written, it seems more appropriate here to begin answering the former claim. The hermit and the ascetic are universal social categories in human history, and in the form of Prophets and monastics, they have comprised the second of three principal archetypes informing saintly life in the Church.

It has already been noted that the early Christians were persecuted in Rome for their sexual ethics, especially their celibacy. On the one hand, this is because they refused to engage in the unnatural sexual ethics of the Roman world, dominated by polyamory, sodomy, contraception, infanticide, and various other abominations. In this regard, Christian celibacy after the fashion of S. Paul is a marked improvement over the malformed morality of the Classical Winter. In another sense, though, Roman resistance to Christian celibacy is quite natural: celibacy, after all, is a form of self-removal from the world, and unstable societies seek to correct themselves through the enforcement of strict conformity, making large-scale self-exile impossible. Thus, monastics, ascetics, and other secessionists come under violent attack during the Reformation, French Revolution, and Italian Resorgimento—and in the Faustian Winter, more than ever, groups are destroyed when they adopt the secessionist “live and let live” approach to a society which by its nature cannot tolerate such a philosophy. Christians in Rome, though, were worse, because rather than the lukewarm secessionism of the Benedict Option, they chose an active and open espousal of contra-Roman norms and even sought to convert Romans to this new religion.

This is also not because celibacy was unheard of in Rome—but, as with all healthy societies, the self-exile of the celibate monastic was regulated. It had its place among the priests of Cybele and the Vestal Virgins—two groups that had been socially (and legally) sanctioned to adopt a different sexual ethic than wider Roman society long before Rome became a sort of Studio 54 on a civilizational scale. What marked these groups apart—and what would subsequently mark apart Christian monastics—was that in addition to their sexual morality, they were also largely relieved of worldly responsibilities in favour of their spiritual tasks. To be celibate, that is, to willingly remove oneself from the sexual landscape and, likewise, from family living, and yet to remain worldly in all other things, was perceived as an aberration—and indeed it is a novelty unique to Christianity that is then emphasised by the emergent West. Among Christians, however, personal celibacy was neither mandated nor condemned—it was but another discipline adopted by the small ascetic cultus growing up in Roman society around the God-man Jesus Christ. As this cultus grew into a full-blown parallel society, it took on those divisions of responsibility native to all cultures and societies in human history, and a class of Christian monastics emerged, cognates of the various forms of hermitage common to the pre-Christian and non-Christian world.

The Man of God as Hermit & Monk

The word “monk” can be traced to the Greek μοναχός, “one who is alone”—a clear indication of the unique origins of Christian monasticism in the solitary hermits of the Egyptian Thebaid. It did not take long, however, for Christian monasticism to grow to look like the practice of the rest of humanity (we shall return to the origins of Christian monastics later). Nearly all cultures and societies have had a place reserved for the celibate and hermit, sometimes singular, more often in groups. More telling than those societies who furnish us historical examples of this archetype are those that do not. Sunni Islam, for example, explicitly condemns the practice, in strict imitation of Mohammed, all Mohammedans are expected to take wives, since celibacy is considered “immoderate” by the teachings of several hadiths and in the Koran itself. Likewise, the Jews are deeply critical of the practice, and while there is a historical class of Jewish abstainers, these were not expected to be celibate. In spite of this, prior to the destruction of the Temple, there were certainly celibate monastic Jews—the Essenes are the most famous community, but one does not even need to look beyond the Old Testament to find others, including the direct inspirations for Christian monasticism. Thus, the only two religious groups that do not have a class of celibate monastics are the only two “world religions” which exist explicitly in opposition to Christianity—the Jews emerged as a rejection of Christ and Mohammedanism is at its heart a Christian heresy.

In the rest of the world, particularly under the influence of Buddhism, many types of monastic community have arisen, but they all share two things in common: poverty and celibacy. This separates the monastic from the world but also makes him utterly dependent on the favour and mercy of the world. Heidegger claims we define things according to what they are not; in this case, the monastic is defined not against the layman, but against the “householder”—one who possesses a house, which itself has two senses (as Lovecraft observed about Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher”), first, as a body of people bound by blood or adoption and, second, a physical place where this family dwells. To have a house, therefore, one cannot be impoverished or celibate, while a monk is both of those things. In all cases, a monk has these two basic traits because he (or she) is meant to live as a guarantor—but not necessarily a instructor—of good living for the non-monastic world.

The monk, by renunciation of the two most important human things—family and property—brings himself closer to God than a householder can be, and charity dictates that he must do spiritual work on the householder’s behalf. This may also be taken as a universal trait of monasticism. In Russia, the Kremlin was once home to Chudov Lavra, built on the orders of S. Alexei in part on behalf of S. Dmitri Donskoi, Grand Prince of Moscow. In England, local magnates like Roger Bigod (5th Earl of Norfolk, 2nd creation) were prominent benefactors to Tinturn and Waverly Abbeys, and in return the monks prayed in perpetuity for their souls. In China during the T‘ang, the Imperial court sponsored the construction of T'ien-chang Abbey, which would eventually become the White Cloud Monastery, one of the holiest sites in Taoism, in order to preserve harmony in the Imperial house. Countless other examples in Japan, India, Indochina, Europe, and Russia exist—in all cases, the monastic community served the purpose of guaranteeing the spiritual well-being of the people or local benefactor, whether that meant grace for the escape from Samsara, favour, and prayers before the dread Judgement seat, or the “field of merit” from which householders can harvest merit by giving to the impoverished monks. Such a category inevitably also includes the Vestal Virgins—for while they would in older age sometimes be married, therefore indicating a temporary position, what were they if not nuns whose service guaranteed the well-being of the Eternal City?

The other important trait of the monastic is his closeness with God. Among the Hebrews, celibacy and monasticism were hardly rules, but even among the Prophets some clearly fit this role. The celibate Prophets are all uniquely significant in their otherworldliness; Jeremiah, Elijah, John the Baptist, and the prophet Daniel were all uniquely close to God, as is indicated by the subject of their prophecies—all, directly or indirectly, were prophets of the Eschaton. Daniel gives a unique exception only in that he lived at court rather than in the wilderness like Jeremiah and John the Baptist, but he was still a celibate (in fact, he was likely a court eunuch) and received special protection from God. It is particularly worth highlighting that in the incident of his condemnation to be fed to lions, he remains untouched due to the protection of God extended to him by two things, his faith, and his way of life, while the courtiers (not eunuchs or celibates) who demanded him to be condemned are cast in with the lions and immediately rent to pieces.

Furthermore, whatever later Jewish practices might suggest about the religious role of celibacy among the Hebrews, there can be no doubt that among the early Hebrews, praxis and trust in God went hand-in-hand (we also see this connexion demonstrated with Abraham and Hagar), so the celibacy of Daniel cannot be discounted. Elijah, too, received special favour: a prophet so close to God that he was miraculously transported, body and soul, into heaven. This indicates a special kind of holiness that the Hebrews attached to celibacy, practiced only by those who are indisputably closest to the Living God. Not all holy people are thus—indeed, not all prophets—but it is certainly true of those to whom the mystical revelation of God’s plan are revealed (cf. Psalm L – “the secret and hidden things of Thy Wisdom hast thou made manifest unto me”) live the strictest ascetical lives.

This state of affairs continues into the early Christian community: while the Church leadership, the Apostles, were not universally celibate (Peter, for example, was married), those two whom mystical revelations were made—Ss. Paul and John in particular—were noted for their strict ascetical living, of which celibacy was a central part. Indeed, the contrast between which members of the early Church community were celibate and which were not illustrates a great deal about the role celibacy played in universal Christian discipline in the early days of the Church.

The Virgin and the Celibate

Much is made of the countless virgin martyrs, for example, who are put to death for their refusal to wed a pagan man—but in only a few of those cases were the women dedicating their virginity to God explicitly. In most cases, the holy maiden in question was resisting a marriage arrangement made by her pagan family, not renouncing marriage and sex altogether. It would be in error to regard these women as ascetics or monastics in the way we would regard later nuns to be—not that the world is without female monastics, though they are rarer. Buddhism and Christianity seemingly stand alone in having celibate female communities from the inception of their religious movements. Among Buddhists, the followers of Gautama’s mother formed monastic communities in imitation of the followers of Gautama himself. This came in stark contrast to the role of women among the Hindus—who, strictly speaking, could never actually escape samsara. Not only that, but childbearing was universally regarded as essential to caste function, meaning that celibacy was an obstacle to this goal. In a religious community in which a woman sought to reach Nirvana of her own efforts in this life, though, celibacy becomes decidedly more attractive form of asceticism. Among Christians, no such cultural and social shift occurred regarding women, since Christ, speaking through S. Paul specifically, held up most of the defined roles of men and women in Christian society (then again, no one in first century Judea expected their living wife to jump into their grave with them—whereas the practice of sati was almost certainly common in the days of Siddharta Gautama). Nevertheless, women in the early Church seized upon the strictness of the ascetic life with particular enthusiasm—the best example of which would be S. Mary of Egypt, a former prostitute whose repentance entailed her journeying into the desert to live as a hermit in imitation of S. Anthony the Great.

Female monasticism in the ancient world otherwise seems quite rare; in likelihood, this has two reasons: first of all, women could not eliminate the physical obstacles to celibacy, as men could through castration and, secondly, virginity in women had a place of value already assigned in most communities connected with marriage. In other words, a woman’s value and her virginity have direct correlation in the sexual marketplace itself: outside of the context of marriageability, a woman’s virginity has very little objective value. This is not true of men—a man’s marriageability has historically been evaluated according to different standards, specifically what he can do rather than the condition of his person. Put simply, virginity and celibacy for men, which has no pronounced value on the marriage market, can only gain value when a man removes himself from that market, while a woman’s virginity and celibacy, which has incredibly high value on the marriage market, loses value when she removes herself from that market.

This has not, of course, prevented virgins from being dedicated to the service of certain deities, but typically this is understood in a sexual context, and this continued well into Christian society. What the ancients called oracles, who had sexual contact with the gods, Christians recognised as witchcraft, which in all witch-hunting manuals (the Malleus Maleficarum merely being the most famous) is rooted not in magical praxis but in the giving over of female sexuality to demonic forces, or, in the most literal sense, having sexual intercourse with the Devil. Therefore, in most cases, ancient temple virgins (outside of Hebrew practice, wherein the Temple virgins resembled the Vestal Virgins more, taking a vow of chastity lasting for most of their reproductive lives) were in fact consorts of the deity or deities in the temple they served. The existence of temple prostitutes among the Babylonians, in particular, speaks to the universality of this notion of temple “virgins” actually being sexually active (if only in a mystical sense outside of Mesopotamia) but removed either permanently or semi-permanently from the marriage market. The extreme punishment reserved for such priestesses (Vestal Virgins were buried alive if sexual contact was discovered with a man,) can, therefore, be interpreted as punishment for cuckolding the god.

Communities of women who separated themselves off from the marriage market for other reasons—such as the circle surrounding Sappho on Lesbos—also speak to the different nature of female celibacy and the real peculiarity of Buddhist and Christian nuns. Monasticism among men, however, means that throughout human history, all advanced civilizations have had a class of male who cut himself off from society, taking the life of a celibate as one of the signs of his secession, and with that secession, he grew closer to the mystical reality of God. This class of ascetics were not priests and did not serve a priestly role, either, though obviously, some overlap did occur. Rather, the two represented distinct categories in the minds of the people in question—and the reason for this should be obvious, since the virtue of the priest is often in his deeper understanding of humanity and shared experience with those people he serves and worships with, while the virtue of a monk often resides in precisely the avoidance of all of those things. Indeed, this also opens the monk up to vices that the priest does not have, as seen among the celibate priesthood (the “Elect”) of the Manichees and other Gnostic sects, whose ascetical lifestyle, not coupled with secession from the world, created individual cults of personality. A similar problem arises among the gurus of India—a similar group of celibates and ascetics who do not combine their other monastic traits with eremitic or cœnobitic living. There are far fewer cases of priests falling into such guruism, though it is a risk that a man takes who performs an indispensable function within a community but whose lifestyle is outside social norms (which celibacy is and must be).

The Monastic Rule of Western Christendom

The strict sexual ethic of the Western world is often credited to (or blamed on) S. Augustine of Hippo. This is, however, inaccurate: S. Augustine, it is true, had a great influence on Western religious thought, but his teaching on continence, concupiscence, and celibacy are among the least original of his ideas. Before him, S. Anthony the Great and S. Mary of Egypt had already wandered off into the desert, all the martyrs of the Roman Empire had already been crucified or murdered in the arena. S. Augustine comes into a Christianity that is maturing swiftly—especially in North Africa, where the Church was at its strongest among the local population, and where radicalism was no stranger—Berber Christians like Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine were part of a long-standing tradition of strict personal asceticism that crossed over into the extremes personified by Novatian, Donatus Magnus, and Montanus (though this last merely became most popular in Africa, it originated in Phrygia). If anything, S. Augustine was a moderate in comparison to predecessors like Ss. Cyprian and Athanasius, or Origen of Alexandria (especially the latter—a celibate by means of self-castration). The influence of Africa on Western Europe is a defining feature of the difference between Western and Eastern Church; to this day, Western Christian scholars still regard Tertullian and Origen to be appropriate subjects of Patristic studies, despite both being condemned as heretics and therefore largely ignored in the East (and Tertullian was among the first to insist that all the Apostles were celibate except S. Peter). The impact of African attitudes towards celibacy and asceticism, therefore, cannot be overstated when considering the Western decision to mandate clerical celibacy.

Christianity, in general, has been defined by persecution—the differences in how the Church developed in different parts of the world likewise depends largely on how each population handled persecution. In Rome itself, escape was impossible; near major urban centers where the Empire was strongest, Christians could not hope to hide for long from the hand of the Roman state. The European countryside was no friendlier, populated as it was by powerful local landowners and far more brutal pagans than one found in the urban settings of the Roman city. Indeed, so unwelcoming to Christians was the countryside that its residents—the pagani—would lend their name to the Christian vocabulary, describing the religious practices of those who persecuted the Church. As such, Christian communities formed in the catacombs and in private house churches. In Africa, however, a third option presented itself: flee to the desert to live out one’s life as a Christian beyond the reach of the Roman state. This was, no doubt, an extreme measure, but one that many Christians chose, giving rise to the earliest Christian monastics. Africans were well-acquainted with these holy men of the desert, and therefore less tolerant of Christians who had renounced their faith and later repented but avoided martyrdom. This was the Christianity that came to Rome in the 340s with S. Athanasius, bringing disciples of S. Anthony the Great in tow. S. Martin of Tours was one of their imitators—and soon, the admiration Roman Christians felt for these men had them looking to the monks as elders. Various monastic communities formed—each developing within the cultural framework of the place. The dire need for leadership and solidity in society would, of course, make the Western church very powerful—and it was important that the Church be led by the most reliable members, who were increasingly coming from monastic backgrounds. S. Martin became bishop of Tours. It became more and more common for local monks to preach to the people, and with the plague of Justinian, countless people fled into the monasteries for safety—transforming these isolated communities from desert-like pockets of a few devoted monks to oases for the laity.

Finally, a monastic pope was chosen—S. Gregory the Great—at the end of the 6th century. (S. Gregory will appear again in a discussion of inherited traits—this pope being a direct descendant of Pope Felix III, who was himself the son of a Roman priest.) Gregory followed closely in the footsteps of S. Benedict of Nursia, who essentially codified the Western reception of African monasticism into a new, uniquely Western, institution that would define the Western church. However, even at this high-water mark of African-style monasticism in the West, the debate surrounding the sexual discipline of priests was unsettled. A Synod of Carthage at the end of the fourth century had declared,

It is fitting that the holy bishops and priests of God as well as the Levites, i.e. those who are in the service of the divine sacraments, observe perfect continence, so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God.

Two interpretations emerged: in the West, heavily influenced as it was by African-style monasticism, where the line between monastic and lay clergy was already blurred, this was widely taken to be a declaration of clerical celibacy. In the East and in the Celtic Church, where monasticism had taken on a different role and the Church saw much clearer divisions between monastic and lay clergy, it was taken to instruct priestly continence as part of the Eucharistic Fast. Thus, when the Council in Trullo would discuss the matter in the seventh century, they made the following declaration:

Since we know it to be handed down as a rule of the Roman Church that those who are deemed worthy to be advanced to the diaconate or presbyterate should promise no longer to cohabit with their wives, we, preserving the ancient rule and apostolic perfection and order, will that the lawful marriages of men who are in holy orders be from this time forward firm, by no means dissolving their union with their wives nor depriving them of their mutual intercourse at a convenient time. Wherefore, if anyone shall have been found worthy to be ordained subdeacon, or deacon, or presbyter, he is by no means to be prohibited from admittance to such a rank, even if he shall live with a lawful wife. Nor shall it be demanded of him at the time of his ordination that he promise to abstain from lawful intercourse with his wife: lest we should affect injuriously marriage constituted by God and blessed by his presence.

This would provoke strong reactions in the West; Pope Adrian I approved of the Council generally and promulgated its canons, but a young S. Bede regarded it as a “reprobate” council and Paul the Deacon likewise insisted its irregularities made it unenforceable on Christians. Indeed, the Pope at the time of the council, Sergius I, refused to sign onto the council’s decisions, albeit in protest not against the above passage, but in rejection of the 28th canon of Chalcedon, which no Pope since Leo I had recognised, and against the ban on allegorical depictions of Christ (specifically the “Lamb of God” allegory that had become popular in the West—Sergius went as far as to insert the Agnus Dei hymn into the Roman Liturgy in rejection of Trullo). Other opposition was more explicitly grounded in the celibacy question, and it is worth noting that neither Sergius nor Adrian were monastics, while both Bede and Paul the Deacon were. Examining opposition to the council, it is not a stretch to say that opposition generally came from monastic circles while approval came generally from lay circles—meaning the celibacy question was certainly a driving concern. The conflict, however, would continue, and throughout the ninth and tenth centuries, priests throughout Western Christendom continued to be married and raise families—some even getting married after ordination, a practice explicitly condemned and likewise rare in the East. The most outspoken opponents of this included Peter Damian, a Benedictine monk who railed against clerical immorality on a broad scale but spent a great deal of time on clerical marriage specifically alongside his condemnations of sodomy in his Liber Gomorrhianus.

Peter Damian’s prescription is to enforce monastic disciplines on the clergy—and over the next two hundred years, his advice would be largely enforced. What one observes, therefore, in the West, is the increasing absorption of the clerical vocation by the monastic vocation, until one and the other ceased to be recognisably different in essentials. This places Western Christendom largely at odds with all the other cultures and religious disciplines that recognise the two as essentially different; as a result, monastics are increasingly seen as one of the many diverse forms taken by the broader religious vocation rather than a unique vocation unto itself. The priestly caste, therefore, ceased to have any means to reproduce itself, depending on the second and third sons of noblemen and peasants of no religious background, leading to a professionalization of the Western priesthood (perfected by the Council of Trent), which itself developed a dedication to secular academic virtues that it still possesses.

The development of expectations that certain families would “donate” sons to the ascetic life also contributed to periodic laxity in discipline, creating cycles of decay and reform in the Western church. Another result was the decay and marginalisation of the monastic vocation, as mendicant orders like the Dominicans and missionary orders like the Jesuits adopted models more amenable to the needs and attitudes of the secular priesthood—orders which even today draw greater vocations than the secular priesthood, which is already suffering significant decline in numbers. Cœnobitic and eremitic monks are now the exception in a branch of worldwide Christendom in which they were once the defining rule, while lavritic, cœnobitic, and eremitic monastics have remained more or less stable in the Eastern Christian world proportional to the number of believers.

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