By Karen L. Garst | 25 August 2018
We have all read about the recent grand jury report of the abuse of over 1000 children by priests in the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania. This report, of course, is not the first to charge the Roman Catholic Church with sexual abuse of children nor the first accusing leaders of the church of covering up the allegations and sending priests to other parishes.
But were priests always celibate? Why did the Catholic Church require priests to be celibate? These are the questions that will be examined in this essay.
Early Jesus followers, as portrayed in the New Testament, included women. At times, he treats them as equals. As the early church formed in the second century, a structure was beginning to take place including the designations of deacons, priests, and bishops. In the beginning, some of these roles were assigned to women. Often, it was women who invited people to their houses to hear about the preaching of Jesus. Priscilla, who was unusual in that she was a well-educated person and a merchant, was acknowledged by Paul as an early leader in the church. Luke mentions the four daughters of Philip who were prophets. The Statutes of the Apostles contain information of two widows who were ordained. There were other women mentioned as active leaders throughout the gospels.
However, the roles these women played were in direct conflict with the Greco-Roman society that they were operating in. Greek women were not allowed in the public forum. It was reserved for men. Women were to remain in the household. As the early church moved away from the Jewish community within which it arose and centered in the gentile community, these societal and cultural pressures began to mount. By the third century, the growing church began to adapt to the current social norms and women were by and large excluded from church leadership.
Tertullian (d. 250 CE) was a prolific early Christian author from Carthage in the Roman province of Africa. His diatribes against women are infamous including the following:
It is not permitted for a woman to speak in church, but neither is it permitted for her to teach, nor to baptize, not to offer, nor to claim for herself any manly function, least of all a public office.
By the late 300’s, one hears the pronouncement of John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople (d. 407 CE), regarding women:
To women is assigned the presidency of the household; to man, all the business of the state, the marketplace, the administration of justice, government, the military, and all other such enterprises…
Chrysostom also lauded virginity in the following:
Virginity is as much superior to marriage as heaven is to earth, as the angels are to men, and to use far stronger language, it is more superior still.
Augustine, considered a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, renounced his sexuality (he had previously been married) when he converted to Christianity and considered this renunciation a key to his conversion. Augustine is also credited with identifying sin with sexuality. Not surprisingly, sexuality was associated with women. Remember Eve eating the fruit in the Garden of Eden? Right.
The first official decree of celibacy came with the Council of Elvira in 305.
(Canon 33): It is decided that marriage be altogether prohibited to bishops, priests, and deacons, or to all clerics placed in the ministry, and that they keep away from their wives and not beget children; whoever does this shall be deprived of the honor of the clerical office.
Thus, priests could be married but they had to refrain from sexual activity with their wives.
However, there was another angle to the requirement for celibacy. When priests were allowed to be married, their property upon death returned to their wives. One of the benefits of celibacy and requiring priests to be unmarried allowed anything that the priest might accumulate in terms of wealth be ceded to the church. Garry Willis, in his book Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, maintained that control of the priests’ income derived from religious activities allowed the institution of the church to grow in power.
Because of this negative view of sexuality as evidenced in the celibacy requirement, the Church also postulated that sex was only to be conducted for procreation. It deemed that sex that was not associated with procreation was sinful lust. While Vatican II in 1962 finally reversed this very negative view of sex, it did not condone birth control.
Martin Luther, during the Protestant Reformation, reversed this negative view of sex and with it celibacy, one of the many differences that distanced the movement from the Roman Catholic Church. Luther viewed sex as a natural act.
Although there have been many attempts to change the requirement of celibacy, none has turned into cannon law in the Roman Catholic Church.
Recent reports of sexual abuse may again spark the discussion although pedophilia is a specific psychiatric disorder that may not be solved by allowing priests to marry.
What is amazing as I read what I have written is that in 2018, we still have millions of people who worship in Catholic churches. The majority of those in the pews are often women. Why can’t women see that this religion, like many others, and all monotheistic religions, was created by men and for men with denunciations about women abounding. It’s time for a change. Women – open your eyes and walk out of these churches. Now!
 Most of the information in this essay, unless otherwise noted, comes from the book When Women Were Priests by Karen Jo Torjesen. Specific quotes are noted by page numbers.
 Torjesen, p. 114
 Torjesen, p. 113.
 Patricia Cox Miller, Women in Early Christianity (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2005), 106.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
Karen Garst holds a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin. She has worked as a field representative for the Oregon Federation of Teachers and has served as executive director of the Oregon State Bar. She blogs at faithlessfeminist.com.
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