Richard Sprague

My personal website

[book] From Priest's Whore to Pastor's Wife

2018-09-29


From Priest's Whore to Pastor's Wife: Clerical Marriage and the Process of Reform in the Early German Reformation. Marjorie Elizabeth PlummerFrom Priest’s Whore to Pastor’s Wife: Clerical Marriage and the Process of Reform in the Early German Reformation. Marjorie Elizabeth Plummer by Marjorie Elizabeth Plummer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The requirement that Catholic priests take vows of celibacy dates only from the Lateran Councils of 1123 A.D, and unlike more foundational aspects of the faith, this rule can be changed. What would happen if (or when) it does?

Well Christianity has faced this situation before, immediately after the Reformation, when Martin Luther and others threw out many non-Scripture based traditions, including this one. This fascinating academic book by a Reformation history scholar doesn’t go into much of the theological or even historical reasons for the celibacy rules, but shows with carefully researched examples, how the transition happened, shedding interesting light on the actual practice of celibacy.

Although priests didn’t marry, many of them — perhaps most — did not keep their vows of celibacy. A 1480 survey of priests in rural Germany, known as the Eichstät Visitation, alarmingly concluded that “40% of clergy probably had concubines” (p.23). Most of these were kept as household servants, often bearing children who lived in the household. Fortunately for the women involved, servants were paid a lump-sum of money or property upon the death of a priest, which gave concubines a little more security than, say, a prostitute.

The issue was complicated by the long-running tension in Europe between secular and religious authority. A priest who sins is reprimanded by the Church, but what if his sin is something like adultery, that affects an angry husband in the community? How do you handle cases of rape, or alleged rape, and what happens when a far-away bishop disagrees with a local decision?

To Luther and other reformers, the situation was just a part of the inevitable corruption that had occurred as the Church fell away from its Scriptural foundations. Quoting Jesus’ words on marriage and divorce in Matthew 19, they saw celibacy as optional, and incorrectly enforced would only lead to other problems. Still, removing the rule exposed other issues, such as how to treat the celibacy vows — which were supposed to be for life — and how to integrate the new wives into the rest of the social hierarchy of these communities.

I’m struck by the speed at which major transitions like this can happen. Martin Luther, who posted his 99 theses in 1517, was married by 1525, and he wasn’t the first of the reformers to do so. If the Catholic Church ever makes a change this dramatic, I’d expect the transition to be surprisingly quick as well.

View all my reviews