How celibacy became common and why it became required are two very
different things. In the third and fourth centuries it became common in
primitive Christianity for men to choose asceticism as a way of expressing
their devotion to God. Asceticism is a general term to describe the
philosophy that one becomes close to God through radically denying oneself
the pleasures of life. Asceticism throughout history has included
celibacy, ritualistic fasting, cloistering (removal from all outside human
contact in monasteries), willful injury of oneself (walking on knees many
miles, cutting oneself in places where Jesus was wounded, etc.), becoming
a hermit, purposefully wearing only rags,… The list could go on.
Celibacy has certainly not been limited to Christianity. The Essenes were
an ascetic Jewish sect active at the time of Jesus Christ. Hinduism,
Buddhism and especially Jaina are world religions which have inspired many
to turn to asceticism.
Getting back to Christianity, there was a strong movement in Christianity
toward asceticism by the third century AD. This was especially dominant in
the North African churches. Many, in their misguided, but perhaps sincere
desire to become godly chose to become hermits, to practice celibacy and
so forth. By the fourth and fifth centuries, orders of monks became
common, including vows of celibacy and poverty.
During this time, one might be surprised that celibacy amongst priests was
not overwhelmingly common. In fact, in the eighth ninth and tenth
centuries AD, polygamy and concubinage was very common amongst Roman
Catholic priests. Eventually, Rome even sanctioned catholic priests taking
a second wife if their first became sick. However, this clear violation of
biblical teaching led to a problem. With so many children of priests
running around, inheritance became a huge problem. In an effort to protect
church property, Pelagius I required all priests to sign an agreement not
to allow any of their children to inherit church property. In AD 1022 Pope
Benedict VIII officially declared that priests were banned from taking on
wives or mistresses in order to protect church property rights, although
those who were married before entering the priesthood were allowed to keep
their wives. Finally, in AD 1139, Pope Innocent II declared all priest
marriages annulled, declaring celibacy the rule for all Catholic priests
from that day forward. To be fair to Innocent II, his reforms were at
least as much directed toward eliminating the blatant sin in the
priesthood as toward protecting church property. There were a number of
attempts from within the catholic priesthood to reinstate marriage as a
possibility right up until the sixteenth century.
To summarize, asceticism in general and asceticism in particular were
begun as a very misguided but probably mostly sincere attempt by some
early Christians to express their spirituality. When celibacy was finally
enforced for the priesthood it was principally as a rather cynical means
of protecting church property from inheritance by the children of priests.
As a final note, consider two passages from the New Testament which have
bearing on the foolishness of asceticism as a means of spirituality.
Colossians 2:20-23 teaches that asceticism–the enforced denial of normal
(but not sinful) human pleasure has absolutely no value in protecting us
from real temptation. Also 1 Timothy 4:1-5 teaches that those who seek to
enforce asceticism (specifically celibacy, fasting from certain foods and
so forth) are from “deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons.” Let us not
fall into this temptation.
John Oakes, PhD