Is it true that celibacy was made obligatory because it was meant to prevent priests’ children from inheriting church property?
(And please note the specificity of my question. I’m not looking for an apologia of celibacy and I’m aware of the Biblical support as to why it’s beneficial. Nor am I asking for any practical reasoning as to why it’s beneficial today – i.e., priests’ won’t have growing families as their primary concern and can dedicate themselves wholly to the Church. I’m asking what the historical reasoning is that made it obligatory, especially at that point in time. As we all know, priestly celibacy was not always obligatory.)
No…this accusation has never made any sense to me. Church property is church property, it belongs to the church. It was never and still is not within any priests power to leave church property to others. I work for a hospital can I leave hospital property to my children whend I die? My husband works for a trucking company can he leave property from the trucking company to our kids when he dies?
It was related to the property laws that existed in parts of Europe at that time. If a cleric who held church property had sons when he died, the property legally passed to the eldest son. This is how it was explained to me in an early Church History course taught by a Catholic historian with no anti-Church or anti-celibacy agendas.
It’s because centuries ago, the priest had the right (hence “rector”) to the income from the lands attached to the parish, which had been set aside to support the priest. England, which of course maintains an established church (albeit Anglican), inherited this tradition at the reformation and it continues today (although it is a slight legal fiction these days) - Anglican clergymen technically own the the house attached to their parish outright - though not ‘actually’ because they are forbidden from selling it. But the ownership during his (or these days her) incumbency rests with the priest rather than the parish; when he/she retires or moves ownership temporarily returns to the parish in some form. The legal framework today makes it easy to prevent the inheritance issue from cropping up, but my guess it perhaps it wasn’t so clear cut in centuries past, and obviously the Church wouldn’t want all its parishes to be slowly disendowed.
Another (spurious? serious? not sure…) explanation I have sometimes encountered, is that as the clergy were generally in the middle ages the only part of the population that could be guaranteed to read, (along with doctors and lawyers I suppose), it was often clergymen who fulfilled roles in the machinery of the temporal state. Just as the Church wouldn’t want a caste of priestly “nobility” to arise, owning all the land (you might be rich as a bishop in your lifetime, but obviously inheritance doesn’t become an issue), neither would the state, as a band of highly-educated and increasingly wealthy clerics who concentrated power in their own hands through work for the secular rulers, would easily be seen as a threat in time.
Even if neither explanation is a real reason (I think tradition, scripture, and various of the Church Fathers were bigger influences), they maybe did feature in some explanations and justifications of the fact.
Already in the sixth century, Emperor Justinian realized the danger of the property of the Church being alienated through the inheritance of priests’ children who were themselves not-priests. Thus he issued decrees which were the first steps towards obligatory celibate priesthood. He demanded that «a person who had children could not be a bishop, and a married cleric must live with his wife as with a sister» (cf J.M. Ford, ‘Celibacy’ in A New Dictionary of Christian Theology). In fact, Emperor Justinian was continuing, perhaps in a more diplomatic way, the efforts already visible during the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) to try to make celibacy obligatory among clerics…
…However, the economic aspect of priestly celibacy cannot be taken as the sole or even as the main reason for maintaining priestly celibacy. First of all, this reasoning as a basic attitude of mind expresses a rather selfish spirit in the priest. Moreover, such a reason alone would easily lead to infidelity which goes together with the alarmingly increased involvement of clerics in economic enterprises.
Not quite in the Western Church it is actually because priests took on a monastic role in about the 4th century. Although diocesan priests are certainly not monks, it would be kind of difficult to have a monastic role and have a wife. That said I’ve talked to some very nice well meaning Eastern Catholics that have their facts wrong on clerical celibacy. Wonderful people just a little inaccurate likewise so many of us Latins wrongly think that clerical celibacy is a teaching this is not true. The most of you have seen my opinion on this forum if you haven’t go find it it is I believe that married priests are good for the East but not for the west for one we would have to change how things are set up in the West. Now if the Latin Church decided to abandon clerical celibacy I would not like it but I would recognize the authority of the church on the issue. Even in the Eastern Church there are still celibate priests.
This reason is, basically, true. Together with multiple other reasons.
Celibacy was introduced in the context of Investiture Controversy. Before 11th century, no strict distinction was made between clergyman’s property and the Church’s property. The secular feudal lords took advantage of that, investing the priests and bishops, personally loyal to them, with Church property as “fief”. Many bishops were at the same time secular landowners, thinking more of their family’s interests than the interests of the faithful. If they were married, they were usually married to the people their secular overlords arranged them with, thus strengthening the connections within secular/spiritual nobility. Celibacy was meant to protect the Church from such secular interest, to disentangle the clergy from the world of succession and feudal landowning.
Even after introduction of celibacy, there has for long been a remnant of that pre-celibacy reality. A local landlord often had a right of “advowson” (patronate) over the parish church, so that he could present a new priest for appointment after the church became vacant. A secular lord could no longer meddle with spiritual goods, could no longer “sell” the office to the dead priest’s successor and invest him directly with the church. However, he could still have a person personally loyal and trustworthy to him appointed as a new rector.
In Russia, where the priests could marry, a priest’s son traditionally became a new priest. Private landowning was not as widespread. However, even in Russia there were strict rules established that the priest’s house, land and relevant goods were always to go to the new priest; all other children of the priest were to receive nothing from there.