Pope Urban II decreed that the wives of priests should be enslaved?

In 1089, Pope Urban II ruled at the Synod of Melfi that the wives of priests were to be enslaved.

From: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_Church_and_slavery

I googled it, and it is on many other websites. So my question is, is this true? And if so, how would you explain it? I vaguely remember reading about something like this before, but I don’t remember where. How did they justify it? Could the wife of a priest be punished for the priest’s crime (I think this was after the celibacy rule was decreed)? I also heard that the children were also enslaved or disowned or something.

I also remember reading in St Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologicae that it can be justified for children to be punished for their parents sins. Could that somehow have anything to do with how they justified punishing the children and wives of the priests?

Thanks for any help

I can help you with Aquinas. St. Thomas states that an individual, may and sometimes does, receive physical punishment for another’s sin. This would be punishment inflicted by nature, i.e. fetal alcohol syndrome, or by society, i.e. accessory to a crime. But he clearly states that no one incurs spiritual punishment for another’s sin.

“With regard to spiritual punishments, these are not merely medicinal, because the good of the soul is not directed to a yet higher good. Consequently no one suffers loss in the goods of the soul without some fault of his own.”
Summa Theologica: Article 8. Whether anyone is punished for another’s sin?

In article 7: Whether every punishment is inflicted for a sin? He does discuss how physical punishment for another’s sins may be taken on voluntarily. In relation to penal punishment he states: “If, however, we speak of punishment simply, in respect of its being something penal, it has always a relation to a sin in the one punished.”

Never trust a summary of Aquinas, he is often misrepresented.

New Advent has an excellent copy of the Summa on its website.

Furthermore; As Aquinas was born in 1225 and Urban II died in 1099,Aquinas’ writings would have had nothing to do with this issue .

I never, ever trust wikipedia for anything to do with Church History, as they usually either get it wrong or twist the meaning of it, so please find a more reliable source.

What source does wikipedia list?

The Catholic Encyclopedia


the more high-principled and more learned section of the clergy was enlisted in the cause of celibacy. The incidents of the long final campaign, which began indeed even before the time of Pope St. Leo IX and lasted down to the First Council of Lateran in 1123, are too complicated to be detailed here. We may note, however that the attack was conducted along two distinct lines of action. In the first place, disabilities of all kinds were enacted and as far as possible enforced against the wives and children of ecclesiastics. Their offspring were declared to be of servile condition, debarred from sacred orders, and, in particular, incapable of succeeding to their fathers’ benefices. The earliest decree in which the children were declared to be slaves, the property of the Church, and never to be enfranchised, seems to have been a canon of the Synod of Pavia in 1018. Similar penalties were promulgated later on against the wives and concubines (see the Synod of Melfi, 1189, can. xii), who by the very fact of their unlawful connection with a subdeacon or clerk of higher rank became liable to be seized as slaves by the over-lord. Hefele (Concilienge-schichte, V, 195) sees in this first trace of the principle that the marriages of the clerics are ipso facto invalid.

It seems the purpose of the decree was to dissuade clerics from getting married.

Ah, that’s better. :stuck_out_tongue:

None, from the wiki link.

In 1089, Pope Urban II ruled at the Synod of Melfi that the wives of priests were to be enslaved.

While most of the web sites that came up in a search for the Synod of Melfi are also pushing for female priests, I did find this.


Lateran II 1139


Summary. Sons of priests must be debarred from the ministry of the altar.

Text. We decree that the sons of priests must be debarred from the ministry of the altar, unless they become monks or canons regular.

Comment. To put an end to clerical incontinence various kinds of disabilities were enacted and as far as possible enforced not only against the wives but also against the children of ecclesiastics. Wives and concubines were liable to be seized as slaves by the overlord, while the children were relegated to the category of servile rank, debarred from sacred orders, and declared incapable of exercising hereditary rights, because saepe solet similis filius esse patri. The Synod of Toledo (655) in canon 10 decreed that the sons of clerics in major orders are to be held forever as serfs of the church which their father served .[30]] In 1031 the Synod of Bourges in canon 8 decreed that the sons of priests, deacons, and subdeacons, born after the reception of these orders, are excluded from the clerical state, because they and all others born of illegitimate unions are stigmatized by the Sacred Scriptures as semen maledictum. They are deprived of all hereditary rights in accordance with the civil law, and their testimony is not to be accepted. Those who already are clerics are to remain in whatever order they are, but are not to be promoted to higher orders. [31]]. Urban (1088-99) forbade the ordination of the illegitimate sons of clerics, unless they became members of approved religious orders. [32]]

The present council, following earlier decisions, permits promotion to the ministry of the altar in case such candidates should choose the religious life of approved orders. The irregularity incurred ex defectu natalium is obliterated by religious profession. Moreover, the solitude and enviroment of the religious life, as well as the protection it offers a sufficient guarantee that they will not follow in the sin-stained footsteps of the fathers. From ecclesiastical benefices and from all ecclesiastical dignities they are forever excluded. Religious profession opens the way to sacred orders, but it does not unseal the gateway to dignities or even to regular prelacies.

Note 32. Synod of Melfi (1089), canon 14, Mansi, XX, 724; Hefele-Leclercq, V, 345. Cf. also Lib I, tit. 17 of the decretals of Gregory, and Catalani, Sacr. concilia oecumenica,III, 107-111

This one, too.


Lateran I 1123


Summary. Clerics in major orders may not marry, and marriages already contracted must be dissolved.

Text. We absolutely forbid priests, deacons, subdeacons, and monks to have concubines or to contract marriage. We decree in accordance with the definitions of the sacred canons, that marriages already contracted by such persons must be dissolved, and that the persons be condemned to do penance.

Comment. This canon, together with the preceding and following canons, does not appear to have originated in the First Lateran Council. This seems to be true especially of the present one; for the matter dealt with in it had already been considered in canon 3, and it is hardly probable that the council dealt with the same subject in two distinct decrees. It is very probable that these three canons originated in a provincial council under Urban II and were later wrongly ascribed to this Council of the Lateran.

Although at the time of our council clerical celibacy had long been an established rule for ecclesiastics in major orders, the extent of its observance was reduced practically to a minimum during the period of war and moral disorder that followed the dissolution of the Carolingian Empire. In the maelstrom of corruption and lawlessness that prevailed, clerical morality reached its lowest ebb, and all sense of vocation had apparantly disappeared. During this dark period, this “Iron Age,” there was no dearth of synodal enactments directed against the evil. But when all too frequently the government of monasteries was usurped by rude and ignorant laymen, and when into bishoprics were intruded creatures whose only gods were Greed and-Lust, synodal decrees meant nothing. The reforms initiated by Gregory VII with so much determination and vigorously continued by his successors, struck at the root of the evil and finally brought it under control.[19]]

Note 19. The earliest conciliar enactment on the subject of clerical celibacy is canon 33 of the Spanish Synod of Elvira (305), which imposed it on the three higher orders, bishops, priests, and deacons. If they continued to live with their wives and bring forth-children after their ordination, they were to be deposed. An attempt to impose celibacy on the clergy was made at the first general council, but it seems the argument of Paphnutius againts it prevailed. The council then contented itself with the prohibition expressed in canon 3. Justinian permitted no one to be consecrated bishop who had children. The Synod of Melfi (1089) in canon 12 ruled that a subdeacon who refused to separate himself from his wife, was to be deprived of his office and benefice. If, on being warned by the bishop he did not put her away, the overlord was permitted to take here as a slave. Leclerq, “La législation conciliaire relative au célibat ecclésiastique,” in Histoire des conciles, II, 1321-48, where an abundant literature on the subject is given.

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