At the Second Lateran Council in 1139, the Catholic Church implemented a rule requiring all priests to remain celibate. Although the Church has already talked about being celibate for the previous 1000 years or so, it was not a required or enforced rule for everyone. What caused this to change in 1139? To clarify, I am looking for reasons outside of scriptural reasons, as the scriptural reasons are fairly cut and dry, that would influence the catholic church to re-address/solidify the rules on celibacy.

Some things I've seen from just googling are ideas that the priests were favoring there children in church appointments, or that the churches land was being given out to priests children, but I cant find any reliable sources on these matters.

  • I believe that it's, indirectly, one of the themes of Georges Duby's Le chevalier, la femme et le prêtre. I am not able to offer a summary, unfortunately. – Relaxed Sep 8 '15 at 20:31
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    Didn't this rule get implemented at a much earlier council? – Joe Sep 9 '15 at 0:20
  • @Joe it was a rule since about 300, but it wasnt followed at all and it became a big issue in the 900-1100's with people putting their children into appointed positions and essentially bogging the church hierarchy down – user12288 Sep 9 '15 at 2:23
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    @A.K, if it was already a rule, the question really should reference that, as it's very important to the context. – Joe Sep 9 '15 at 3:37
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    @Himarm, so you're asking why the church implemented the rule, but you don't want to know the reasons the church claims they implemented the rule? – Joe Sep 9 '15 at 7:15

Celibacy was part of the Church's identity, as well as a strategy for keeping wealth within the Church. The American historian and Vanderbilt Professor Katherine Crawford writes that:

Celibacy set the clergy apart, and instantiated patristic suspicions about sexuality as weakness and distraction from God within the moral architecture of the Church. The Church benefited practically from denying clerics the right to pass on property to their offspring: the property of the Church did not diminish. As with the laity, sexuality for the clergy had pragmatic elements at its core.

- Crawford, Katherine. European Sexualities, 1400-1800. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Although the question sought to set aside biblical reasons, realistically, people's actions throughout history have been influenced by their belief system. In this case, Christian scriptures provide ample ideological reasons for celibacy, and moreover treats chastity as a virtue.

Quite logically, therefore, clerical celibacy was adopted as a badge of the church's spiritual superiority over the civil society at large. The late Belgian theologian Edward Schillebeeckx states, for example:

Continence among the clergy demonstrated the church's distinction from society.

- Edward Schillebeeckx. Celibacy. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1968.


Sexual continence was difficult to maintain, so the Catholic Church hit upon the idea of utilizing the celibacy of the clergy to mark both their separation from and their spiritual superiority to the laity ... Christians in Late Antiquity valorized sexual absitnence to such an extent that this became a marker of the spiritual elite.

- Crawford, Katherine. European Sexualities, 1400-1800. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

By the 4th century, the chastity of the priesthood was enough of a universal concern that it was a topic at the first ecumenical council, held in Nicaea.

However, the requirements for celibacy in that council did not forcibly invalidate the unions of married clergy. Instead, their wives were regarded to be above suspicion. The University of Reading Professor Helen Parish describes the Eastern interpretation following Nicaea to be:

[R]eferences to the third canon in the East, including fifth century Theodosian Code, tended to make explicit reference to clerical wives in the list of women with whom clergy could be permitted to reside ... At the second Council of Nicaea in 787, and in the views of later canonists, it was assumed that the third canon of 325 referred only to unmarried bishops, celibates and monastics, and was not intended in any way to limit the activity of married clergy and their wives.

- Parish, Helen. Clerical Celibacy in the West: c. 1100-1700. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2013.

For obvious reasons, expecting married clergy to abstain from sex with their wives was unenforceable and widely ignored. This was particularly problematic because the Church had established celibacy as a core element of its identity. Although Eastern, and later Orthodox, Christianity continued down a moderate path, in the West reform-minded theologians were sufficiently troubled to be galvanised into action during the High Middle Ages.

That chaste marriage attained some popularity among the laity made claims for clerical superiority murky ... Recurrent complaints that clerics had failed to maintain celibacy (usually the children were the big tip off) led to efforts under the Carolingians to enforce it, but many priests lived openly with their wives or concubines.

Because the Church staked so much on celibacy, clerical sexual transgressions were a source of criticism.

- Crawford, Katherine. European Sexualities, 1400-1800. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Sexual transgressions of the priesthood were thus, in modern terms, a public relations disaster. It was the need to address this situation that (with ample help from ideological biases) helped fulled a renewed push for strict clerical celibacy in the 11th century and later.

Gregory's actions against the married clergy did not come from concerns surrounding the purity of those who celebrated the sacraments alone. Gregory's rhetoric was laden with references to obedience and obligation, and the eradication of clerical incontinence, like the eradication of simony, was part of a more general attack on a base manner of life that undermined the reputation of the church.

- Parish, Helen. Clerical Celibacy in the West: c. 1100-1700. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2013.

Married clergy were an obvious target for the reformers, who thus imposed increasingly forceful measures against clerical marriages in a bid to ensure clerical celibacy. Contrary to the impression of the question, however, clerical celibacy was not eliminated over night. The reforms were deeply and bitterly resented, and it took centuries for clerical marriages to go out of fashion.

  • great answer, i saw this alot in googling, "The Church benefited practically from denying clerics the right to pass on property to their offspring: the property of the Church did not diminish." but i could never find anything other then passing reference to this, would it be prudent to ask about this issue in a separate question? – Himarm Sep 9 '15 at 13:45
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    @Himarm Follow up questions should always be asked in a separate thread, though I'm not sure what/how you want to ask about it. – Semaphore Sep 9 '15 at 14:00
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    "a strategy for keeping wealth within the Church"..? doubtful since if church property would never have been given to the priests in the first place there would not have been a "need" to supposedly block them from passing it to their offspring. Anyway there would have been other mechanism to block the anyone inheriting such property rather than making draconian religious rules as this became (it could have been made a non-religious contract principle, for example). As it is now the church is unable to remove celibacy because it is perceived as coming from God rather than a human tradition. – alec Jun 19 '19 at 3:49

It's wrong to ignore the biblical reasons (e.g. In Matthew 19:11-12) for celibacy but it's true that there were worldly ones.

The celibacy rule wasn't the only thing passed during that council.

Canon 2: Anyone who has bought a honor or office, shall be deprived of that. The person illegitimately dispensing that honor also shall be punished.

Canon 4: Injunction to bishops and ecclesiastics not to cause scandal by wearing ostentatious clothes but to dress modestly.

CANON 5 The Property of Dead Bishops Stays With the Chuch

Canons 6, 7, 11: Repeated the First Lateran Council's condemnation of marriage and concubinage among priests, deacons, subdeacons, monks, and nuns. It also deprives them of their income.

CANON 16 Ecclesiastical Office is Given According to Merit

CANON 21 Sons of Priests Must Be Debarred

CANON 24 Sacraments Shall Be Provided Free of Charge

(As evidenced by the gaps in numbering there were even more rules)

All those rules have a common theme: It should be really hard for anyone to personally profit from their position.
A motive for the wish to gain wealth (apart from the obvious one: greed) is to make your family and kin better off - which would take the money from the Catholic Church.

Lawrence Cunningham, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, said the mandatory celibacy rules were adopted for many reasons, both theological and practical. Among the latter, he said, was the need to avoid claims on church property by priests’ offspring. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/22/nyregion/22egan.html


Terminological precision:

  • Celibate = unmarried (cælebs = single, unmarried)
    • The Church has allowed married men to become priests. St. Peter, for example, was married.
  • Continent = not having sexual relations
    • The Church has
      • always required all (married or celibate) clerics to be 100% continent and
      • never allowed priests to marry after their ordinations.

The earliest condemnation of clerical incontinence is canon 33 of the Spanish Council of Elvira (ca. 305 A.D.):

  1. We decree that all bishops, priests and deacons in the service of the ministry are entirely forbidden to have conjugal relations with their wives and to beget children; should anyone do so, let him be excluded from the honour of the clergy.

Quoted in Priestly celibacy in patristics and in the history of the Church by Roman Cholij

Prior to Lateran II, clerics could contract valid marriages, but they were illicit (illegal). Lateran II made such marriages also invalid:

  1. Adhering to the path trod by our predecessors, the Roman pontiffs Gregory VII, Urban and Paschal, we prescribe that nobody is to hear the masses of those whom he knows to have wives or concubines. Indeed, that the law of continence and the purity pleasing to God might be propagated among ecclesiastical persons and those in holy orders, we decree that where bishops, priests, deacons, subdeacons, canons regular, monks and professed lay brothers have presumed to take wives and so transgress this holy precept, they are to be separated from their partners. For we do not deem there to be a [valid] marriage which, it is agreed, has been contracted against ecclesiastical law. Furthermore, when they have separated from each other, let them do a penance commensurate with such outrageous behaviour.

Historical context of Lateran II

Pope Innocent II, who convened Lateran II, was a strong reformer pope who had been in hiding the prior 8 years of Antipope Anacletus II's anti-papacy. Anacletus II came from a rich family who bought him the anti-papacy with a fortune made off economic crimes like usury.

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