Magazine article The Spectator

Priests and Pagans

Magazine article The Spectator

Priests and Pagans

Article excerpt

The Catholic tradition of priestly celibacy (Latin caelebs, 'unmarried'), by which Cardinal O'Brien was bound, is not a dogma, but a discipline. In other words, it can be altered at the rotation of an encyclical. Like much else in the Catholic tradition, it has its roots in the pagan world.

Asceticism derives from the Greek askesis, 'training, practice'. Pagans had long believed that humans could be transformed through mental and physical discipline. Pythagoras, for example, thought that the element of the divine in us could be brought out by fasting and contemplation. Diogenes in his clay wine jar rejected the whole concept of 'society'; the millionaire Seneca, committed to the idea of public service, withdrew into a life of private philosophical study.

For pagans, this was essentially a 'lifestyle' statement that only the rich could afford to indulge. But for Christians, the ascetic life was open to anyone. The point was that Christians regarded the body as a distraction from spiritual matters: its tyranny meant that their spirit would always be earthbound. …

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