Saturday, November 3, 2012

Clergy, Celibacy, & Economic Incentive: Teach Yourself

Found something else that caught my interest. Again, there’s no real point to it. But it’s interesting. 

Mistresses: The History of the Other Woman is an interesting read. It mainly covers largely committed affairs (as opposed to fly-by-night relationships) between men of influence and women seeking to maintain or gain ground in class structure in Western and Asian superpower societies.  The book is almost unbelievably non-judgmental, always considering class structure, socioeconomic mobility, and shared or conflicting human motivations. The author, an academic research associate who has written various books on the history of sugar, celibacy, and Haiti, remains very aware of the larger picture throughout.

At one point, the book provides some perspective regarding celibacy and marriage in church leadership. The original intent behind encouraging abstinence and vilifying intimacy, says the author, was more a matter of controlling, conserving, and growing the economic wealth of the church, and maintaining an image that would allow it to do so. Actual religion or Christian doctrine had little to do with the practice.

"In the earliest days of Christianity, priests and monks loved and lived with women just as laymen did. But by the 4th century, the doctrine of clerical celibacy began to take root. Theology, asceticism and practical and property considerations dominated the Church Fathers’ campaign to impose clerical celibacy.  The attack was multipronged and president. The theologians invoked doctrines about the seductive and immoral nature of Eve’s daughters, the sinfulness of sexual intercourse with them and the valor of Christian officials accused sexually active clerics of lacking the moral superiority they needed to minister to others. They added that sexual relationships distracted priests, who should focus exclusively on their ministry and spirituality.
Quite apart from theology, the most compelling argument for clerical celibacy was the Church’s growing wealth.  Married or not, priests with family obligations consumed resources that would otherwise accumulate in Church’s coffers – unlike celibates, they spent money to support wives, mistresses and children, and bequeathed property to them rather than to the Church.
The Church’s Synod of Elvira, held in Spain in 305, imposed celibacy on all married bishops, priests and deacons. The Synod assumed that celibacy would raise clergymen’s moral standards and justify their higher social status. It also decreed that those who continued to have sex would be defrocked.” 

She goes on to say that, in a mixture of economic self-interest, PR, and religious belief, upcoming and existing leaders were pressured to meet the new celibacy standard now considered a marker of “moral superiority.” Clergy recognized meeting the standard was good for one’s career, even if they kept to wives, families, and bachelor relations away from the public eye.  

“From 370 onward, papal dicta tightened the noose, banning sexual relations and not just marriage. The ideal of clerical celibacy was becoming widespread, though the practice was not; most married priests continued to have sex with their wives, though a stream of edicts persuaded bachelor clerics that they should not marry after they were ordained. Ambitious priests, however, recognized that celibacy was a good career move.”

This is more of an introductory observation, a way to add context in the beginning of a chapter in the book, than a final observation. What’s interesting though, is how the concept of and reason behind celibacy and church leadership has cemented itself in the minds of many modern church-goers (in my personal experience). If one were to suggest that the original motivations behind clergy celibacy had more to do with money and power than doctrine, would such an audience consider the possibility?

The text does not say or suggest that celibacy among church clergy is wrong or that it is right.  But it does suggest, that if you support the idea church clergy must be celibate, to do so based on religious doctrine may very well be inaccurate or misguided.

But it’s only one book. If you take a strong stance on either side, or getting to the bottom of it all really matters to you, then the best thing may be to go seek to learn more yourself.  With something like this, simply listening to those who have decided based on what others have told them may lead to conviction, but it can easily be conviction based on not knowing enough.

I suppose this is indirectly related to a couple of my last posts. Just that if you really place more value on knowing than being certain, it pays to be a little curious.

I dunno. This was done on a whim.