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The Wives of Clergy in the 12th Century

The Wives of Clergy in the 12th Century

copied from the Vatican II mail list

A member of an international list sent out an e-mail questioning the fate of the wives of priests at the time of the authoritarian destruction of clerical marriage in the 1100s. His question seems innocent, yet it is a doorway to an ugly history of church injustice, sexual hysteria, and a groundwork of pathology that underlies present day imposed celibacy. I cannot take time here to connect the public abuse of women in this era and the pedophilic and sexual abuse by clergy in our 20th century. I went to my research books, depending heavily on MARRIED PRIESTS AND THE REFORMING PAPACY, an excellent degree thesis , published in 1982. I limit this article to a brief history of the swift changes in attitude toward wives of priests in the 10th and 11th century and the disastrous consequences. In 190 pages, author Anne Llwellyn Barstow offers 36 references to the wives of priests of that day.

The 10th century saw marriage as a positive contribution to the work and life style of the priest, particularly the clergy who lived and served among the people ( known now as diocesan ). Pope Urban’s call for the first crusade in 1095 would link with the ever increasing forcefulness of the cult of the virgin, homosexuality in the clergy, and reform of monastic life, which in a few short decades would be imposed by papal authority on the non monastic clergy world wide. The mass stipend and the mechanical power of a priest at mass would swiftly change the purpose of priestly service, separating the clergy from people, and people included the legitimate wives of priests.

A 21st century marriage cannot compare to one of the 10th century. Today's emphasis on the dignity of women and their civil rights were unknown at the time. The marriage of nobles and judges were celebrated publicly so as to give credence to offspring for the purpose of succession and heritage; ordinary folk would marry in a private family setting without fanfare. Clergy marriage was public and close to what we would call today , a form/bond , a manifestation, a sacrament. The Gregorian papal decrees of 1139 c.e. destroyed the bonds of clerical marriages. There is abundant sound testimony, frequently based in the mind of Jesus and biblical background that defends clerical marriage. The works of Norman Anonymous c.1100, Bishop Ulric , 1060, and many other sensible preachers and writers were overwhelmed by the hysteria created by such as Anselm (letters to Pope Pascal 2 about priests’ sons) and Peter Damien ( “wives of priests are whores; the sacred hands of the priest must never touch the genitalia of a female”). A belief in the mechanical efficacy of the celibate (prayer and mass said for the dead in crusades) joined a monastic asceticism ( the body is evil ) ; authority flexed its papal muscle ( Popes Gregory 7th, Calixtus 2, Alexander 3, Innocent 3 ). Those who would go off to fight the Holy Crusades were called by Pope Urban to be spiritual trim and fit for battle; all priests would have to leave their wives and the comforts and pleasures of family life. Celibacy would become the norm for all clergy in the Western Church.

What then of the wives of these 11th century priests? They were forfeited property, and the secrecy in which they were disposed of hangs heavy in the closet of the Roman Church. Pope John Paul Two ( 2000 ) did not apologize for the massive abuse brought upon them. The laity at large turned against them and their children ( the word bastard originally means son of a priest ). The cleric of the day was identified by his tonsure ( clerical haircut ), unemployable outside of the fast closing employment market feudal system ); to survive he had to remain within the church, and celibacy. One need go to the streets of San Francisco today and view the vast numbers of homeless to imagine the fate of the women who had been a half century ago the dignified wives of the now broken priesthood.

The Synod of Melfi under Pope Urban II in 1089 imposed slavery on the wives of priests. It was also stipulated that, whereas ordinary slaves could be bought free, the former wives of slaves could never be redeemed.

There is rumor that many wives and children were sold into servitude in the Vatican palaces; of course no evidence is available, yet the overall picture is one of devastation. Author Barstow simply uses the word “destruction”. The history of militarist Rome backs the horrible power of such a catastrophe. Power brings an end to all issues, supposedly. With democracy the government of choice today are we not witnessing the downfall of that feudal system of which the Vatican is the last remaining remnant.

I ski regularly, now for free at 71; spring snow has its enticements, warm weather and sun lit trails; we speak of a rotting base that can collapse and cause hazards. The church of today has a rotten base supporting its male celibate priesthood. We see the collapses and continuing destructiveness incurrant in clerical sexual abuses. The clergy have become too distant from the people and too magically powerful. I have encouraged the wives of married priests to come forward to offer their wisdom to the present crisis.

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