Clerical Celibacy in the West: C. 1100-1700

By Hornbeck, J. Patrick | Anglican and Episcopal History, June 2013 | Go to article overview

Clerical Celibacy in the West: C. 1100-1700


Hornbeck, J. Patrick, Anglican and Episcopal History


Clerical Celibacy in the West: c. 1100-1700. By Helen Parish. (Farnham, Surrey, and Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate, 2010, Pp. xi, 282. $124.95.)

"Clerical marriage was not simply a matter between man and wife; it was also an issue of authority, broadly interpreted" (208) . Thus Helen Parish concludes her magisterial study of clerical celibacy in the western church, proposing that arguments about the celibacy or marriage of the clergy have often served as proxies for deeper concerns about church governance, doctrine, and practice. In this detailed volume, which fills a neglected gap in the historiography of medieval and early modern Christianity, Parish makes it her objective to trace debates over clerical marriage from the time of the Gregorian reforms through the reformations of the sixteenth century. In reality, the chronological reach of her study extends both farther back and farther forward than the dates in her title suggest; two chapters are devoted to clerical celibacy in the early church, and her insightful conclusion brings this study up to the present day, with an examination of the theological and canonical rationales for the practice of celibacy among contemporary Roman Catholic priests.

Parish observes that throughout the history of Christianity, two principles have undergirded clerical celibacy. The first, more pragmatic than theological, is that "freedom from marriage equipped the priest with the ability to devote himself to the service of God . . . and the service of his flock," whereas the second, more theological than pragmatic, is that "purity, by which is understood sexual purity, is a necessary companion to the sacred function of the priest" (5). In successive chapters, Parish sketches the history of clerical celibacy as a history of the interaction between these two principles and between these principles and other theological trends. The first chapter focuses on the early church; the second on the nuances of eastern and western perspectives on clerical celibacy; and the third on the period of the Gregorian reform, although Parish is at pains to point out that opposition to clerical marriage was on the rise decades before Gregory VII was elected pope. …

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