CARNAL AND CONJUGAL LOVE AMONG THE BISHOPS OF LATE ANTIQUITY
EL AMOR CARNAL Y CONYUGAL ENTRE LOS OBISPOS DE LA ANTIGÜEDAD TARDÍA
Fabian d. Zuk, March 2014
Université de Montréal ~ Universidad de Salamanca
Abstract: Though the official position of the Catholic Church demands continence and celibacy of its clergy, this was not so in the early Church. The following article outlines the evolution of sexuality among members of the higher clerical orders and presents the Late Antique episcopus as a sexual being whose need for sexual expression within the confines of his position as exemplar of Christian values was resolved through Holy Matrimony.
SEXUALITY WITHIN CHRISTIANITY
“The human person is so profoundly affected by sexuality that it must be considered as one of the factors which give to each individual’s life the principal traits that distinguish it” . For many, ‘priest’, ‘monk’, ‘minister’ and other clerical titles bring to mind an ascetic who has eschewed the carnal world in favour of spiritual pursuits and this image is not so erroneous.
Indeed the Catholic Church and most Christian denominations espouse a policy of sexual restraint for parishioners and of sexual abstinence for men and women of the cloth.
Despite this seemingly asexual vision of the clergy, sources from Late Antiquity confirm that priests, bishops, deacons and even monks actively participated in the human sexual experience. We might wonder how they achieved this in light of restrictions placed upon them by Catholic canon laws. This paper explores the sexuality of these religious figures, offering concrete examples when possible, and ultimately aims to provide a description of sexuality among the episcopi of Late Antiquity.
To further understand sexuality as practiced by the Late Antique bishops, it is important to distinguish between the following terms: chastity, celibacy, and continence. To avoid further ambiguity we define these concepts from the onset. Chastity is the broadest of the three terms and refers to the innocence, blamelessness, or sexual purity of a person. Within the church lexicon, chastity refers to a virtuous or pure sexuality, i.e. a chaste sexuality, i.e. a state free from immoral sexuality. Incest, from Latin incestum, literally ‘un-chaste’ is an example of an immoral sexuality incompatible with Christian religious life.
Infidelity within marriage or sexual intercourse outside of matrimony in the Catholic tradition are two other examples of unchaste behaviour. A Christian who partook in unchaste sex acts would be labeled a fornicator, one who participates in fornicatio(n), literally meaning ‘prostitution’ or whoredom’. The church extended the meaning of fornication to all sex acts deemed as inappropriate, including sex outside of matrimony.
Chastity is sometimes confused with the second concept, that of continence or abstinence, and indeed no later than the thirteenth century, the meaning of chastity and continence merged into ‘abstention from sexual intercourse or sexual gratification’. In Late Antiquity however these terms were distinct. Continence within our period refers to total sexual restraint, a troublesome situation if that person practicing continence was in a marriage or other romantic relationship. Therefore to remain continent, distant from the sexual pleasures of a romantic partner, some chose to live in a state of celibacy, i.e. single, unmarried, or otherwise without sexual or romantic relations with another person. Celibacy was the ultimate demonstration of Christian chastity and continence. One who forewent married life also abandoned their sexuality to live in conformity with Catholic doctrine.
The following paper presents evidence for the sexuality of the clergy, especially of the episcopi, in Late Antiquity and intends to place that sexuality within a framework that accommodates both the requirement of sexual purity of the holy man and the sexual desires of the earthly man. Ultimately, these apparently conflicting needs were satisfied through holy matrimony.
EROS –THE SEXUAL PULSION
Modern sexual theory connects the scientific name sexualitas, with the ancient concept of eros, love rooted in sexual desire, the driving creative power which finds its source in penia and poros, lacking and resourcefulness. Eros therefore is a force triggered by incompleteness and desire. The lust of worldly things however was counter to the Christian objective of reaching communion with the Holy Trinity. Christians were to seek God in spiritual, not physical pleasures citing Galatas 5.17 “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would”.
The denial of eros and the perceived evil of the flesh are two ideas which took root in Christianity at an early stage through contact with eastern Gnostic and Manichaean beliefs; the suppression of one’s eros and control of one’s lust were viewed as virtues. Christianity however, as a religion accepting of sinners and the deject, was open to those willing to live a Christian life. Paul, aware that humanity was driven by eros, wrote: “if they cannot [remain chaste], let them marry, for it is better to marry than to burn [of lust]”. There is ample evidence for eros among the clergy of Late Antiquity. Saint Augustine attests to his own erotic passions in his confessiones. Augustine writes that the relationship he held with a long-term mistress was “a mere bargain of lustful love.” based on sexual gratification and though he remained with this one woman during fourteen years, he writes: “What held me so fiercely bound was principally the sheer habit of sating a lust that could never be satisfied.”
An exceptional letter from a Hispano-Roman Monk, Tarra, attests to the difficulty of the monastic community in resisting sexual urges. He writes that “there is no lack of monks desiring women.” In his defense against accusations of fornication by his local bishop, Tarra writes to his king “[since the passing of my wife] never again has a woman touched my lips with her embrace… [and neither] in the city of Emerita nor in all of Lusitania, have I ever known a prostitute. Rather the first and last woman of Lusitania to reside with me was my wife alone, who by fatal fortune was snatched from me by death.” Tarra’s language is surprisingly sensual and attests to the monk’s carnal relationship with his late wife. The letter is ambiguous as to whether the marital relationship continued during the monk’s life in the clergy or whether this marriage predated his ordination. The accusations do however attest to the importance of maintaining a chaste image. Indeed accusations concerning non-chastity were used to discredit political opponents such as Hispano-Roman bishop Priscillian of Abula, who in the late fourth century was persecuted and executed before a civil court under accusations of sexual deviance among other crimes. Accusations of non-chastity were powerful tools against political adversaries.
Regardless of the accuracy of these charges, Tarra’s letter is evidence that even monks devoted to a chaste life of asceticism were victims of their natural sexual desires. If ascetic monks were tempted by the flesh, there is no reason to believe that worldly and charismatic priests and bishops, were immune to sexual and romantic desires. In fact, we know from written account that even great leaders of the Christian faith felt sexual passion at one time or another. Augustine’s confesses his romantic and sexual experience in Carthage, writing “To love and to be loved was sweet to me, and all the more when I gained the enjoyment of the body of the person I loved. I thus polluted the stream of friendship with the filth of concupiscence and dimmed its lustre with the hell of lust…, I was not only beloved but also I secretly reached the climax of enjoyment” Most authors assume that the passage refers to Augustine’s relationship with his long-term mistress whom he never married. Had he, the guilt of his later years would have been much reduced on account of the sanctity of marriage, a theme to which we now turn.
MATRIMONY IN LATE ANTIQUITY
In the Roman Empire, marriage was a social contract made between a man and a woman of the same social class to formalise the bond of affection and respect between two people and to ensure the legitimacy and safety of progeny. The marriage was initiated by the transfer of a dowry from the bride’s family, and the giving of gifts by the groom. The arrival of Germanic peoples into the Empire, the Völkerwanderung, as of the fourth century introduced Germanic marriage customs to Western Europe. The Kaufehe, in which the groom negotiated an appropriate price for custody over his future wife, was similar in this regard to the Roman marriage custom. Christianity however, more than any other force affected Late Antique marriage customs, especially Christianity’s inheritance of Roman stoic ideals which saw marriage as the only legitimate context for sexual relationships between free man and woman. Sex was denigrated, especially by theologians such as Hieronymus who on account of his radical values, which shocked and irritated the citizens of Rome, was forced into exile for challenging the Roman people to renounce material lives in favour of virginity, chastity, and poverty.
By the late fourth century, Christian marriage had been summarised by Augustine of Hippo in the words: proles, fides et sacramentum, i.e. progeny, fidelity, and holy mystery. Augustine recognised that marriage existed for the purpose of procreation, to engender proles, i.e. offspring. The sexual relationship was therefore at the heart of Late Antique Christian marriage because it led to the creation of proles, which was the ultimate purpose of the sex-act: the reproduction of the species to assure survival. To Christians, it is the life giving power of intercourse that was sacred and not the erotic passion of eros. Also essential to both Christian and pagan marriages alike was the concept of fides, fidelity, especially, but not exclusively, that of the wife. Fides is the quality of the conjugal pact, the trust and honour which gives each spouse exclusive right to the body of the other. It is through fidelity that the paternal lineage and legal right to inheritance was assured. Perhaps unknowingly, it was through fidelity that sexual health was preserved, and on a psychological level, it contributed to the wellbeing of the couple and their children. Fidelity was thus integral to the definition of marriage while on a personal level it protected the psychological wellbeing of the family unit.
The Christians of Late Antiquity did not seek to redefine the Roman concept of marriage in which the pacto coniugalis, the will to be joined, made the marriage. In fact they themselves lived under Roman civil marriage for over three centuries. While the above two qualities were common to both pagan and Christian marriages, Christianity introduced a third element, sacramentum , to the concept of marriage. Augustine characterised this sacramentum as “the in-dissolvable perseverance of a man and woman united as a couple as long as both shall live”.
Though marriage as an unbreakable bond was an ideal of the church fathers, the harsh punishment placed on those who remarried may find its origins in a more practical place. One hypothesis has it that woman had a great deal of liberty both financially and personally in Late Antiquity and that many were quite libertine with their sexuality. If the church fathers were so adamant on preserving marriage and punishing those who found a second spouse, it may be that the church fathers were themselves victims of women’s whims. Alternatively the church patriarchs were concerned that changing loyalties between partners would cause societal instability and negatively affect the church and the spread of Christianity.
In time, marriage ceased to be a legal bond of inheritance and was raised to the level of a holy relationship equal to that between Christ and his church. The sacramentum is the most complex aspect of Christian marriage. In short it united husband and wife in a sacred bond of love derived from God. In the best of cases it integrated the Roman concepts of honor matrimonii and affection maritalis, care and affection that a husband showed for his wife, which otherwise are absent from Augustine’s definition.
This final point, the sacramentum, conflicted with the secular tradition as it applied heavy moral devaluation to separation and divorce, freedoms which had been available to Roman citizens of the pre-Christian empire. Marriage in the Christian sense ceased to be a mutually beneficial state of accommodation and instead became an institution of social organisation allowing for legitimate sexual access to another person. This ordering of the marital elements: proles, fides et sacramentum is hierarchical. Though chastity was prized, this was not so if it went against a husband’s desire procreation.
Morally a husband could refuse his wife’s desire for chastity until the birth of requisite heirs was attained, a position reinforced by Augustine who chastised a woman for living in continence against her husband’s desire. Unsurprisingly, the new Christian marriage designed by the church fathers, was construed to continue the ancient roman social ideal of patriarchal dominance in the home and in society.
THE CELIBATE, THE CHASTE, AND THOSE WHO PROCREATE
The world of early Christendom redefined acceptable sexual practice especially among the clergy who were drawn from among the well-off decurional and senatorial classes. This was especially true of the bishops, men of great education, great wealth, great prestige, and descendants of powerful aristocratic families. Though holy men, the bishop in the late Roman world was a successful self-realised man, professionally, intellectually, personally, and spiritually. With that self-realisation, we can imagine that bishops were also successful in their sexual endeavours. The role of the pensive and chaste holy man was reserved to monks and other ascetics, who as we have seen, were themselves tempted by sexual desire. The bishop meanwhile as the public face of the early Christian church was a father unto his flock, a lover of the poor, a family man, a defender of his wife, a role model for his children, a teacher in his community, and yes, the bishop was a sexual being driven by hormones and power as much as the next.
We can confidently assume that the majority of clergymen desired sexual and romantic contact; Restraint from these activities was therefore a direct testament to one’s will power and devotion to God. In Antique society, modeled and maintained on the preservation of family units in the objective of procreating and society, it was only natural that a preacher should have a family just as any other man. The New Testament provides clear evidence of married Christian ministers. In fact as of the second century, marriage was a characteristic feature of the bishop. He is described as faithful to his one wife, a manager of his household [and] responsible for the proper behaviour of his children. Just as politicians today endeavour to display themselves as “family men” to gain political clout, the bishops of Late Antiquity, as heads of a family, demonstrated their capacity to guide with love and govern his church. Indeed, “… if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he care for the church of God?” Marriage and the rearing of children were thus evidence of a man’s capacity to lead the early Church.
Fidelity towards one’s wife could translate as a greater capacity for fidelity to God’s law and to the community. The early bishops testify to the importance of personal fidelity, even beyond marriage. Augustine demonstrated this fidelity in his dedication to his mistress and to his son through her. He wrote, “I took one woman, not joined to me in lawful marriage … yet I had but that one woman, and I was faithful to her”. This pact with his mistress occurred quite young, before his nineteenth birthday surely, in Carthage and ended a couple of years before his 387 AD baptism. He had one other mistress before joining the clergy in his mid-thirties. “Augustine lived the rest of his life, forty-three years, until he died in 430 at the age of seventy-six, without further sexual activity at all. Even by today’s Western standards or the standards of idealist Christians, Augustine’s sex life was quite typical.”
EPISCOPÆ AND EPISCOPAL DYNASTIES
Who were these women married to the bishops, these episcopæ? Often they were themselves daughters of wealthy decurional families, educated, and dedicated to the church. One Gallic episcopa, Magnatrude the wife of bishop Badegesil of Le Mans was a formidable woman who on the passing of her husband entered into conflict with the newly elected bishop over the inheritance of material goods which she claimed for her family and which the bishop claimed for his church. The episcopa was evidently powerful; her private army resisted an attempt by the constable of the Bergundian to kidnap her daughter. Despite her personal power, Magnatrude was heavily criticised by bishop Gregory of Tours for her supposed corrupting influence on her late husband. In Gregory’s words, she led her husband, the bishop, to torture men and women and to lead a life of excess.
Episcopal marriages were often political.
In fact, the marriage of a clergy member to the daughter of a prestigious family could raise a man’s prestige, increasing his chances of being elected to the episcopacy as in the case of bishop Leontius II of Bordeaux who married an aristocratic woman, Placidina, who through her father Arcadius was descended from the Gallic emperor Avitus. Obviously, it was also advantageous to the bride’s family to have a bishop in the family. Considering the distinguished origins of the bishops, and the origins of their wives, it is apparent that the continued pre-eminence of their families was of high importance.
The survival of the family and the establishment of dynasty were therefor assured by marriage and the procreation of children prior to the assumption of sacerdotal office. This was the case of Lupus, bishop of Troyes from 426-478 who as a young man had married, only to leave that sacred bond after six years to enter the Abbey at Lérins. The case of Lupus is intriguing, as his wife was none other than Pimeniola, sister of bishop Hilarius of Aquileia. Lupus’ divorce after six years of marriage allowed him both to beget offspring and to enter the priesthood; perhaps more premeditated than coincidental. The marriage of aristocratic families with close ties to the Gallic episcopacy confirms the intent to establish episcopal dynasties.
Episcopal sees in Gaul and Hispania were often inherited between family members.
Venantius Fortunatus, a Latin poet, and eventually himself bishop of Poitiers, left us epitaphs which illustrate episcopal inheritance such as that of the Ruricii, grandfather and grandson, bishops of Limoges. The epitaph of bishop Eumarius of Nantes likewise declares the succession of his own son to that same see. One bishop, Cronopius of Périgreux was even descended from distinct episcopal families both on his mother’s and his father’s sides. Pope Gregory the Great himself was descended from a clerical family of patrician Romans. His own mother and two of his paternal aunts were sainted by the Catholic Church. Furthermore, Gregory’s great-great grandfather had been Pope Felix III. Gregory was thus descended from a long line of patrician-ecclesiastics: a veritable dynasty. Though the family was obviously powerful, Gregory’s youngest aunt, a nun who had been renowned for her sanctity, renounced religious life in order to marry the steward of her estate. In response to the scandal Gregory replied that “many are called but few are chosen”. Gregory’s vision of clerical celibacy is echoed in the comments of rogue Catholic priest, Bernard Lynch who commented in a recent interview that “celibacy is a gift from God [but only] a very small minority of women and men are gifted with this”.
Paul himself wrote that his chastity was a gift from god and though he wished celibacy upon all man, he recognised that “every man hath his proper gift of God…”. Though few were chosen to live in total abstinence; temperance and moderation were respected in the ancient world, just as they are today. Stoic philosophy, which was popular in the Late Roman Empire, propounded that “human beings needed only to control their passions … to live in tune with nature and its laws”. Control of sexual urges was a part of stoic behaviour. Chaste sexuality was among the key elements of temperance and a sign of a strong will. Of the lay-Christian, the church demanded sexuality within respect of Christian values, and of the clergy, continence.
The ideal of continence is in direct contradiction to the tradition of Palestinian Judaism in which procreation was the religious obligation of every Jewish male. Complete abstention from sexual intercourse was therefore a development within Christianity that differentiated it from its Jewish origins and the clergy and bishops were meant to exemplify this virtue. As Christian role models, the clergy fell under increasing pressure to demonstrate chastity as testified to in fourth-century cannon law from the province of Hispania Bætica, where it was declared that:
“… bishops, priests, and deacons who engaged in illicit sexual activity while exercising their clerical duties, shant receive communion until the end of their days on account of the scandal and the baseness of their crime”.
Clerical chastity was thus a real concern by the 306 Council held at Illiberis and in this regard Hispania was at the forefront of the struggle. Henceforth bishops were to withhold from sexual contact with their wives. Thus in the fourth century, we are witness to an effort by the church to legislate the charisma of continence. Still today clerical circles debate whether charismata can be legislated. The thirty-third canon of that same Council held in Illiberis states that clergymen should avoid (sexual contact with) their wives. Intrinsically linked to abstaining from their wives, they should also avoid putting children into the world. Despite this legislation, bishops and clergy continued to reside with their wives. The late fourth century Concilium Carthagenensis passed a similar canon stating “that bishops, priests and deacons, guardians of purity, abstain from conjugal intercourse with their wives”.
The need to repeat such laws suggests that legislation was insufficient to compel the clergy to comply. Then as now the clergy was divided on this point. A century and a half later, in 458, Pope Leo the Great wrote: “in order for the union (of bishops, priests, deacons) to change from carnal to spiritual, they must, without sending away their wives, live with them as if they did not have them, so that conjugal love be safeguarded and nuptial activity cease”. The fifth century Codex Theodosianus also supports this cohabitation stating that “those women who lawfully obtained marriage before their husbands assumed the priesthood should not be deserted for those women who made their husbands worthy of the priesthood … are not unsuitably joined to clerics”. As the above passage indicates, the clergyman and his wife were to live in a brother-sister relationship, that is, one without sexual contact. Pope Gregory writes that:
“In the [ ] province of Nursia … a priest dwelt … and although he had taken orders, he still loved his wife, as a sister, yet he avoided her as his enemy and never would he permit her to come near him upon any occasion, abstaining wholly from all intercourse of familiarity, for this is a thing proper to a holy man, oftentimes to deprive themselves of those things which be lawful … therefore this man not to fall into any sin, utterly refused all necessary and requisite service at her hands”.
If the anecdote presented above suggests an imperfect relationship, more striking still are the last words of the “bishop on his dying bed, [who] when approached by his wife … spoke out with great fervour “get thee away woman!” The bishop did not dare jeopardise his entry into heaven on account of end of life inchastity.
Despite the difficulty of continence, church fathers are claimed to have respected these canon laws. Tertullian, a married man, writes that some lay people practice continence within marriage. Hieronymus and Augustine also practiced continence. Though continence in matrimony was seemingly possibly, for many this ideal was unattainable. Continence was in diametric opposition to the desire for progeny and sexual gratification, and on account of the temptation that a wife could place in the path of a holy man there was increasing pressure within the ecclesiastical community that the clergy remain not only chaste, but also celibate. The spread of celibacy was slow however. In mid-fifth century-Gaul, married clergy are still attested. Canon law mandated that bishops publicly declare their devotion to continence in order to prevent lapses on account of presumed ignorance of the canons.
In 325 AD, roughly twenty years after the council of Illiberis, it was proposed at the First Council of Nicæa that all married clergy forgo conjugal relations with their wives. The motion was blocked at the behest of the ascetic Paphnutius a highly regarded bishop of Upper Thebais in Egypt. Paphnutius was himself unmarried and chaste; he had lost his sight in one eye and had suffered mutilation during Diocletian’s persecution of the Christians, yet despite his own state he upheld that clerics should have it within their power to choose chastity for themselves. At the Council of Nicæa, Paphnutius declared:
“too heavy a yoke ought not to be laid upon the clergy; that marriage and married intercourse are of themselves honourable and undefiled; that the Church ought not to be injured by an extreme severity, for all could not live in absolute continence: [and by not prohibiting married intercourse] the virtue of the wife would be much more certainly preserved. The intercourse of a man with his lawful wife may also be a chaste intercourse. It would therefore be sufficient, according to the ancient tradition of the Church, if those who had taken holy orders without being married were prohibited from marrying afterwards; but those clergymen who had been married only once as laymen, were not to be separated from their wives”.
Though clerical celibacy was not accepted into the fundamental tenants of orthodox Christianity, the grounds had been laid for reformed chastity in the Roman occident. By the end of the fourth century, patristic writers such as Hieronymus (c.347) and Ambrosius (c.339-397) maintained in their writing that though marriage was a noble pursuit, celibacy was an even greater spiritual condition and that abstinence from sexual contact was angelic. Ambrosius writes: “they who marry not nor are given in marriage are as the angels in heaven”. Another bishop, Origen of Alexandria (ca. 185-254) believed that lifelong celibacy “suppressed the claims of the body and so enabled the speedier progress of the soul towards its ultimate, posthumous reconciliation with God.” Indeed numerous authors cite the benefits of periodic abstinence from sex for health reasons. And thus to separate the presbyter from base human desires and to bring him closer to God, clerical continence grew in popularity.
Under the pressure of ascetic ideals, chastity in its nth degree came to be embodied in total abstention from sex. Ascetics increasingly eschewed earthly things, seeking proximity to God through denial of earthly needs such as food, hydration, and sexual satisfaction. Sex, as the only of these nourishments which could be foregone entirely without causing death was highly praised by the ascetic communities. Continence was so powerful because it “… involve[d] turning the great magical force of human fertility, unspent and unweakened by normal usage, into a magical channel.” Though Christianity did not associate fertility with magic; the preservation of sexual powers was well grounded in Judaism and the Hellenistic cults from which Christianity sprang. Continence was therefore recommended as a path to spiritual power and oneness with God and as previously noted was integrated into cannon law at the first Concilium Illiberi. By the fourth century, the bishops of Bætica had assimilated the notion that sex “in some mysterious way … defiles the celebrant of the Eucharist”. This belief was not novel, in fact the Jews had similar constraints on religious activity while ritually ‘unclean’, citing Leviticus 15.16, “if a man’s seed of copulation go out from him, then he shall wash all his flesh in water, and be unclean until the even”.
In addition to the taboo surrounded sex, theologians argued that celibacy sought to transform clergymen from the selfish, self-replicating concerns of the layman into a “man of service to humanity”. It is this law of continence that inhibited and obliged clerical celibacy, for how could a man join himself in matrimony with a woman yet forego the carnal consummation of their passion. In fact, on account of proles, a marriage without consummation through intercourse was no marriage at all. Thus is the Roman west, the imposition of continence on the upper orders of the clergy made celibacy a requirement. The ideal of celibacy however was overridden by the sacramentum, the sacred bond of marriage. If a man was married upon his ordination, it was a greater sin to abandon his wife than to be tempted by sexuality. Thus men who had married in youth and come to the church at same later point in life were permitted to remain in holy matrimony. A man wishing to have wife and children was thus wise to begin his family before entry into the clergy. For those however who as young men failed to contract a marriage and beget offspring, the illicit option of having sex despite canon law would have been a constant temptation. Though ritual confession did not develop until the 13th century, the concept of penitence existed in early Christianity and among the patristic writers. This absolution of sins may have aided the clergy in navigating the difficult balance between respecting canon law submitting to human desires.
A SOCIETAL CONFLICT
Augustine in his confessiones writes with regards to his late conversion to Christianity: “The plain truth is that I thought I would be impossibly miserable if I had to forego the embraces of a woman”. Indeed, many clergymen could state the same. Sex was the picayune against “which Augustine’s God had to compete.” Perhaps to some, chastity came naturally, though asexuality in the population is very low. Literary sources attest to asexuality. In his confessiones Augustine writes with regards to a close friend, Alypius, who in 394 became bishop of Thagaste in Roman Africa that “[Alypius] was quite extraordinarily chaste. Early in adolescence he had had the experience of sexual intercourse, but it took no hold upon him. Indeed he regretted having done it and despised it and from then on lived in complete continence” Still, we cannot assume that most asexual people had the inclination to join the clergy nor that the clergy was made up primarily of asexuals.
The question of marriage was very much a Catholic problem; Arian Christians show no signs of inhibiting marriage among their clergy. In Visigothic Hispania, clerical marriage was among the distinguishing features between the Arian and Catholic clergy. When in 589, the Third Council of Toledo was held to resolve religious tensions between Arians and Catholics within the kingdom of Visigothic king Reccared, it was commanded that previously Arian bishops, priests, and deacons should cease to live with their wives upon conversion to Catholicism. Even after conversion, the Arian tradition remained strong in Hispania, and at the 592 second Concilium Cæsaraugustamun, the Catholic clergy was forced yet again to crack down on those previously Arian bishops who refused to give up a common life with their wives.
It was not only Arians who refused to follow the laws of chastity. Indeed the constant repetition of laws treating clerical continence at the ecclesiastical councils strongly suggest that the canon laws were not respected. The reoccurring canons treating the marriage of the clergy through the fourth to seventh centuries suggest that matrimony was an enduring problem within the church of Late Antiquity both in Gaul and Hispania. Not even in Italy, nor Rome were complete clerical chastity, continence, and celibacy observed. A sixth century bishop who became Pope Homisdas (514-523) was married. Furthermore Homisdas’ own son Silvarius, became Pope in turn from 536-537. In the middle east as well, as late as the seventh century, bishop Theodorus of Jerusalem had a son who would go on to become Pope Theodorus from 632-649.
How we me might wonder, were the married bishops judged by the community? There is little evidence that the marital status of the episcopi affected their prestige or esteem in the eyes of the population. The fifth century sermons of the poet and later bishop, Sidonius Apollinaris are favourable to episcopæ and to episcopal marriage. An eventual bishop of Poitier Venantius Fortunatus was also favourable to episcopal marriage as attested to by the epitaph he wrote for Euphrasia the wife of bishop Namantius of Vienna who died in 559/560. Venatius Fortunatus’ was in the pay of his episcopal patrons, and his epitaphs therefor paint a positive image of these episcopal families but for lack of testament from the common man, we are unable to draw conclusions about society’s reaction to episcopal marriages.
One might wonder how, if a large number of bishops disregarded the laws regarding chastity, did these canons pass the test of a majority vote during the episcopal councils. On the one hand, great senatorial families of clarissimi occupied numerous episcopal sees. We can see in their faction the desire to expand the power of their families using the episcopacy as a title among many to increase their own regional dominance. On the other hands the clarissimi had to compete with every other brand of Christianity which also wished to gain recognition as officially orthodox. Perhaps most powerful among these, were the monastic communities which saw their numbers swell from the later third century onwards, especially in Egypt where Christianity was characterised by a strong Gnostic tradition. These ascetic movements were based on the withdrawal from family, community and urban culture including the church hierarchy which held power in the civitates.
In isolation, these ascetics sought direct contact with God, free of intervention by intermediaries. Some of these communities were massive such as that of the White Monastery of San Shenute, which at the end of the fourth century counted 4000 monks. Furthermore, Arianism, had become a concern to religious leaders in the fourth century, and the then bishop of Alexandra, Athanasius was successful in bringing the monastic communities onto the side of the Nicene Christians, especially through his work the Vita Antonii.
Of equally great importance was the contribution of bishop Basil of Cæsarea, classically educated and descended from an aristocratic family who pushed for balance between work and prayer in monastic communities and is considered the father of eastern monasticism. Basil greatly influenced Saint Benedict who in the sixth century established the Benedictine tradition in the west.
Indeed, bishops of the fifth century seem to be drawn from these two distinct groups, the monastic communities and the families of local aristocrats, with the later losing ground theologically to the former who pushed for clerical celibacy. Indeed, it may be that the conflict between these factions was resolved when the aristocracy came to accept ascetic ideals. Christianity was very much dominated by the Eastern Church in Late Antiquity; Rome after all had shifted its political center to Constantinople. It is therefore not surprising to see the bulk of eastern influence in those areas of Western Europe which were the most heavily Romanised and subject to oriental-Roman influence. Hispania Bætica with its long tradition of Roman urban structure is unsurprisingly the source of that fourth century canon urging clerical chastity.
DA MIHI CASTITATEM ET CONTINENTIAM, SED NOLI MODO.
Though chastity and celibacy were in effect legislated by the end of Late Antiquity, it is extremely doubtful that clerics and bishops alike, even the most devout, were able to live up to the ideal of total continence imposed by the religious canons. Celibacy, as more than a lack of sexual activity, is a state of mind only achieved through a process of developing relationship patterns conducive to celibacy, the internalisation of celibate ideals, and the integration of this celibacy into the cleric’s life, a journey which the clergy navigated with great difficulty. Even today only an estimated 50% of Catholic priests are practicing celibacy.
In the late sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great wrote a guidebook on pastoral care, the liber regulæ pastoralis, yet nowhere within it does he offer advice on the handling of conjugal relations, which suggests that the marital status of bishops and clergymen remained a controversy too delicate to treat in a handbook. At the time of writing, Italy was divided between Gothic kings and the Byzantine forces of Justinian I. Furthermore plague had swept through Italy. On account of the fragile political situation and the scarcity of labourers, the church in its relative weakness was accommodating compared to that of the twelfth century for instance when Pope Calixtus II went so far as to order that for clerics of the major orders “marriages already contracted … be dissolved, and that the perpetrators be condemned to do penance”. Chastity remained a concern however. In a letter to Symmachus the defensor concerning the construction of a fortified monastery, Gregory writes, “that priests who abide in Corsica shall be forbidden to have contact with women, except if she be his mother, sister, or wife, towards whom chastity should be observed.” A letter to subdeacon Anthemius states that even in the face of flight before the barbarian invaders, monks should under no circumstances shelter woman if any other option avails itself.
The decline in married episcopi was slow, echoing the words of Augustine: da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo. Still in the seventh century married bishops such as Arnulf of Metz are present in our sources. Arnulf’s own son Chlodulf even went on to became bishop of his father’s diocese. In the Byzantine East, Emperor Justinian legislated that “A bishop is not permitted to have a wife, and if he is proved to have one, he shall be degraded from the rank of which he has rendered himself unworthy”. Thus as of the sixth century bishops were increasingly chosen from among celibate monks rather than from among married priests. The eastern opposition to married episcopi may also have contributed to the decline of married bishops in the post-Roman occident. The real death of episcopal marriage in the west came however with the expansion of Benedictine monasticism in the Early Middle Ages. Only in the eighth century do we cease to note episcopæ in Gaul and only then did the domus ecclesiæ cease to accommodate them. There may still have been occasional cases of episcopal marriages in the west, but by 1139 a decree by Pope Innocent II at the Second Lateran Council rendered all clerical marriages void.
Without access to historical statistics, our best tool in evaluating clerical chastity in Late Antiquity is the consistency of human biology and behaviour. Multiple cases of episcopal marriage and clerical lust have been presented throughout this paper assuring us that clerics of Late Antiquity were sexually active. Then as now, sex was a taboo subject and being found in the clasp of lust was an embarrassment for the guilty clergyman and the church as a whole; it is unsurprising that the evidence for clerical sexuality is not more abundant. Still, for every text which explicitly refers to a married bishop, we should expect there to have been many more undocumented cases. In the early centuries this would be on account of the banality of episcopal marriage, and from the sixth century onward, the lacunæ in our evidence likely stem from intentional omission and suppression of these details. Alas, though celibacy was imposed upon the clergy, the sexual desire and the eros of priests, young and old, was never fully sublimated.
There was of course a conscious desire by the clergymen themselves to suppress their sexual desires and environmental contexts in monasteries, rectories and the episcopal palaces were also non-conducive to romantic-sexual relations.
This paper has demonstrated the sexual attitudes of the clergy in Late Antiquity and argued that for the bishops descended from aristocratic families and preoccupied by the survival and expansion of their family, matrimony represented the ideal context in which to prosper both in the religious and civil spheres. Marriage among the upper orders of the clergy was common in the first through sixth centuries, but was increasingly contested by ascetic factions which pushed for celibacy among the clergy. With the expansion of monasticism in the post-Roman occident, episcopal marriage became increasingly difficult until it was abolished altogether in the twelfth century. Despite canon legislation, continence remained a problem for the clergy on account of eros, a prime motivation in all people. Though the official celibacy policy of the Catholic Church has pushed eros and even legitimate matrimony among the clergy into the obscurity of time, it is my hope that this paper will have contributed to unmaking the myth of clerical asexuality.
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