In the sexual department of John XII (955 – 64) was not a lot better than his grandmother Marozia. He was sixteen when he took holy orders and his heart was just not in it. It was said that he invented sins that had not been known since the beginning of the world and whole monasteries spent days and nights praying for his death.
John was an insatiable bisexual and gathered about him the loosest young nobles of either sex. He was accused of running a brothel out of St. Peter’s. He used papal treasury to pay off his gambling debts, and enjoyed pranks such as ordaining a ten-year old boy as bishop. He gambled with pilgrim’s offerings. His lovers were given gold chalices from St. Peter’s (Nigel, 72).
The defrocked Bishop of Liège was eventually murdered by a Flemish knight who was outraged at what the former bishop had done to his daughter. It was St. Bonaventure, a close friend of Innocent V (1276) who compared Rome to the harlot of the Apocalypse, drunk with wine of her whoredom.
In Rome, Bonaventure said, there was nothing but lust and simony, even in the highest ranks of the church. It was quite simple, he explained, Rome corrupts the prelates. The prelates corrupt the clergy. And the clergy corrupts the people (110). Responding to the temple prostitution which was introduced to Rome in the thirteen century, Urban II (1261 – 64) wrote a letter condemning this sacrilegious debauchery, to little effect. The pope’s secretary, Bishop Dietrich of Niema had this to say about the goings-on in Norway and Iceland:
“When the bishops go twice a year to pay visits to the curates, they have to take their mistresses with them. The women will not let them make the trip without them, because the bishops are magnificently received by the curates and their own concubines and the bishop’s mistresses fear that they will find the concubines of the priests more powerful than they are and become amorous of them.”
As the Catholic Church grew more powerful, some priests even assumed the lord of the manor’s feudal ‘jus primae noctis.’ They insist in sleeping with the bride on her wedding night before the husband enjoyed his conjugal rights. In his letters to the Pope, Bishop Dietrich of Niema, goes into great detail when describing the debauchery of his nuns. According to him, they were prey to the lust of bishops, monks and lay brothers (108). He also wrote of convents being ‘assemblages of prostitutes.’ Shocking as these things are to your ears now in this present century, it was no surprise to Urban IV. He had been familiar with a woman named Eva before he became Pope. His successor Clement IV (1265 – 68) had been married and had two daughters – some say three – before he took holy orders.
There were more problems in France too. Around that time, Robert Arbissel, who ran a convent of 4000 nuns, was roundly criticized. He declared himself to be a sinner and one of his penances was ‘frequently to sleep amongst and with the women’ to mortify his flesh. And the punishments he imposed on the nuns usually involved them stripping naked (196).
It was at the Council of Piacenza (1095) under Pope Callistus who decreed that clerical marriages were invalid. And to show that they meant business, they sold the priests’ wives into slavery. Soon the Pope introduced the infamous ‘exillagium.’ This was a sex tax. It allowed a clergyman to keep a concubine as long as he paid a regular annual fee. A little poem was written to this effect:
The clergy now thee, good Callistus hate;
For heretofore each one might have his mate,
But since thou mounted hast the papal throne
They must keep punks or learn to lie alone.
Many indeed kept ‘punks’ – catamites- rather than learn to lie alone. Callistus’s successor, Honourius II (1124 – 30), was equally tough on sex and the clergy. In September 1126, the Pope instructed Cardinal John of Crema to declare (as papal legate to England) that it was a humble sacrilege on the body of Christ that the mass should be performed by a man who had just left the bed of a harlot.
However, the Council of Brixon in 1080 condemned Pope Gregory VI (1075 – 85) for ‘sowing divorce among legitimate spouses.’ Eventually, Gregory, relented in his campaign against ‘fornication.’ Had he carried out his threat of sacking all sexually incontinent priests, he would have wiped out the Catholic Church. His reasoning was simple: “the Church cannot escape from the clutches of the laity unless priests first escape from the clutches of their wives.”
Gregory’s attempt to impose clerical celibacy met with fierce resistance especially in Germany and France. One critic’s exasperation at Gregory’s edict was summed in the words: “This Pope, as filthy and adulterer and fornicator as he was, forbade chaste matrimony to the priests’ (97).
Alexander II (1661 – 73) took a more practical approach. He gave up the struggle against sexual sin almost completely. In 1064, he never sacked a priest who had sex with his father nor did he, in 1066, when a priest from Padua had comitted incest with his mother.
According to the reports of Byzantine ambassadors, every priest about to be consecrated a bishop in the Catholic Church was asked four questions;
**Have you sodomized a boy?
**Have you fornicated with a nun?
**Have you sodomized a four-legged animal?
**Have you committed adultery?
It is not clear which question you were supposed to answer yes to and which no. After all, according to the “The Book of Gomorrah,” venality, lechery, bestiality and murder were common among prelates. Leo IX (1949 – 54) on the other hand just couldn’t expel sodomites from the clergy; if he got rid of the gays, perhaps he feared he would have no one left.
In the eleventh century, there was a new attempt to clamp down on immorality. Distinguished theologians began discussing once more, in all solemnity, the appropriate penances for masturbation, impure thoughts, swallowing semen, drinking menstrual blood and kneading bread on a woman’s naked buttocks. Sodomy was particularly frowned on at this time. St. Peter Damian’s long treatise called, “The Book of Gomorrah” was written about homosexuality and the priesthood. He also came up with his own list of punishment. These naturally included a good deal of flogging (84).
Paul VI on the 24th June, 1967 wrote an encyclical (sacerdotalis caelibatus) letter on priestly celibacy. One cannot but marvel at the euphemism used almost throughout the encyclical. There is an outright denial of the crooked ways of the past ‘sexual sins’ as narrated above when it stated: “Priestly celibacy has been guarded by the Church for centuries as a brilliant jewel and retains its value…”
The encyclical refreshingly acknowledges the troubling yet reasonable questions thrown to the Church concerning her unabashed stand on celibacy. She discusses this in her “Objections Raised Against Celibacy” ( Austin F., page 287) even as she confirmed this law of celibacy to be divinely ordained. Hence, there’ll be never ending series of difficulties to those who ‘cannot receive this precepts,’ and who do not know or who forget the ‘gift of God’ and who are unaware of the higher logic of that new concept of life, its wonderful efficacy and abundant riches (288).
To further galvanize this new found mystery and to register celibacy among the logical, the Church had in the same encyclical stated the reasons for celibacy as well as its salvific significance. Further comforting reasons for the continuing of the discipline of clerical celibacy was seen in the exaltation of virginity by the Eastern Fathers. St. John Chrysostom, intent in throwing light on the harmony which must exist between private life of him who ministers at the alter and the dignity of the order of which his sacred duties belong, he affirmed: “…it is becoming that he who accepts the priesthood be as pure as if he were in heaven.”
In the final analysis therefore, one can, like many reasonable people, hope that the majority of the human race, understand at least the processes that led to today’s Catholic clerical celibacy. It has been a long journey, from the mouth of the prophets, of Jesus the Christ, to the early apostles, to strangers who turned Christians, to the States and empires, to temple prostitutes and lustful Popes and bishops, to an imposition of celibacy and the reactions that follow, to the rejection by a Council and an affirmation by another and then to a re-interpretation of the concept of celibacy, to the explanations of the ‘mystery’ behind it and to the unquestioned dogma of priestly celibacy.
We can now just wait for the tidings of the next century or millennia!
Austin Flannery, “Vatican Council II,” Vol. II, NY: Costello Publishing Company 1982.
Nigel Cawthorne, “Sexual Lives of the Popes,” Great Britain, London, 1996.
Author: David Francis E.