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Scandals Through History Part II:
Corruption, Dissent, Reform

The long effort to impose compulsory celibacy on Catholic clergy
has put the Roman Church into a trap it cannot escape.

Here are are yet more choice excerpts from the History of Sacerdotal Celibacy within the Christian Church by Henry Charles Lea. This section documents the papacy’s struggle to impose celibacy on its clergy through the High Middle Ages, the growth of clerical corruption and the repeated failure of attempts at reform, and finally, the causes and effects of the Protestant Reformation and the Council of Trent.

It is safe to say that much of this material has never been taught in parochial schools.

Back to Part I: The Rise of the Papacy

Forward to: Part III: Solicitation in the Confessional

For a short, helpful glossary, click here.

25. Business as Usual [12th - 13th Centuries]

“As in all similar attempts [to enforce discipline], the results were but temporary. Ferry, Bishop of Orleans, would scarce have been murdered in 1299, by a knight whose daughter he had seduced, had the father felt that there was any chance of punishing the criminal by having the canons enforced against him.”

— Lea, pp. 283-284.

“It would not, indeed, be difficult to understand the [large] numbers of this class [of priests’ bastards]... if ecclesiastics in general followed the example of Henry III, Bishop of Liege, whose natural children amounted to no less than sixty-five.”

— Lea pg. 285.

“As time wore on, and the clergy, despite the innumerable admonitions and threats which were everywhere showered upon them, persisted in retaining their female companions, they appear, in some places, to have gradually assumed the privilege as a matter of right; and... even had a certain measure of success in the assumption... These women thus, by reason of their sinful courses, came to be invested with a quasi-ecclesiastical character... [and] acquired a certain honourable position among their fellows from the mere fact of their ministering to the lust of their pastors...”

— Lea, pp. 287-288.


26. Cardinal Cynicism [Antipope Anacletus II, d. 1138]

“When the desires of man,... are once tempted to seek through unlawful means the relief denied to them by artificial rules, it is not easy to set bounds to the unbridled passions which... are no longer restrained... The records of the Middle Ages are accordingly full of... indiscriminate license of the worst kind [that] prevailed throughout every rank of the hierarchy.”

“... Scarcely had the efforts of [the popes] put an end to sacerdotal marriage in Rome when the morals of the Roman clergy became a disgrace to Christendom.... sufficient [votes] were given in 1130 by the sacred college [of Cardinals] to Cardinal Pier-Leone to afford him a plausible claim to the papacy [enabling him to become antipope Anacletus II – ed.], although he was notoriously stained with the foulest crimes. Apparently his children by his sister Tropea, and his being accompanied by a concubine when traveling... as a papal legate, had not proved a bar to his elevation in the Church... A severer satire on the standard of ecclesiastical morality could scarcely be imagined...”

“What were the influences of the papal court... may be gathered from the speech which Cardinal Hugo made... on the occasion of the departure of [Pope] Innocent IV in 1251 from [Lyons], after a residence of eight years — ‘Friends, since our arrival here, we have done much for your city. When we came, we found here three or four brothels. We leave behind us but one. We must own, however, that it extends without interruption from the eastern to the western gate.’ — the crude cynicism of which greatly disconcerted the Lyonese ladies present.”

— Lea, pp. 290-291.


27. Return of the Manichean Menace [11th - 13th Centuries]

“Notwithstanding its stern and unrelenting suppression... [the heresy’s] votaries multiplied in secret. The disorders of the clergy, their oppression of the people, and their quarrels with the nobles... made them many enemies among the laity; and the simplicity of the Manichean belief... and its denunciations of the immorality and grasping avidity of the priesthood... made ready converts. Towards the close of the twelfth century the south of France was... filled with heretics, among whom the names of Cathari, Paterins, Albigenses, etc., concealed the more odious appellation of Manicheans.”

“...the Catharan belief [was identical] with that of the ancient sect [of Manicheans which exercised] so powerful an influence in moulding and encouraging the asceticism of the early Church. The Dualistic principle was fully recognized. No... use of meat, or even of eggs and cheese, or in fact of anything which had its origin in animal propagation [was permitted]. Marriage was an abomination and a mortal sin, which could not be intensified by adultery or other excesses.”

— Lea, pg. 313.

“In reviving the... doctrine that the sacraments were not to be administered by ecclesiastics in a state of sin... a most dangerous and revolutionary turn was given to the widespread discontent with which the excesses of the clergy were regarded... in every age, from [Pope] Gregory [VII] to the Reformation, the measures with which [the popes] broke down the independence of the local clergy returned to plague their inventors.”

“Yet... the heretics to outward appearance long continued unexceptionally orthodox... none were more devoted to all the observances of the Church, none more regular at mass and confession, more devout... or... liberal at the offertory. Hidden beneath,... their heresy... attracted converts with unexampled rapidity. Priests gave up their churches... wives left their husbands, and husbands abandoned their wives... all professed to be bound by a vow of chastity. Yet if ... St. Bernard is to be believed, their rigorous asceticism was only a cloak for libertinism. It is possible that the enthusiastic self-mortification... led them to test their resolution by the dangerous experiments common among the early Christians... with the same deplorable results. St Bernard... argues that constant companionship of the sexes without sin would require a greater miracle than raising the dead... Be that as it may, the virtue of these puritan sects rendered chastity dangerous... [when] honest matrons who resisted the attempts of priests to seduce them were accused of Manicheeism and condemned as heretics.”

— Lea, pp. 314-315.

It is ironic, indeed, that the asceticism of the Manichees – actually a dualistic religion descended from the faith of the Persians through the martyred prophet Mani in the third century – had originally inspired the Roman Church to adopt a world-hating ascetic stance in the early ages, returned again to haunt it in the Middle Ages.

The Inquisition, it should be noted, was generally not concerned with matters relating to the practice of celibacy, save for the heretical aspects through most of its existence. The Spanish Inquisition, however, after the Council of Trent, was given full jurisdiction over cases involving solicitation in the confessional.


28. A False Christ [c. 1148]

“It was a period of transition… and men’s minds were easily led astray by any one who proclaimed a new form of belief. This explains the career of the crazy heresiarch, Éon de l’Étoile…[who,] born of a noble Breton family, abandoned himself to the savage life of a hermit in the wilderness. Drawn by a vision to attend divine service, his excited mysticism caught the words which ended… the collect, ‘Per eum qui venturus est judicare vivos et mortuos;’ [‘By him who comes to judge the living and the dead’] and the resemblance of ‘eum’ to his own name inspired him with the revelation that he was the Son of God… Éon soon had disciples who adored him as a deity incarnate. Nothing can be wilder than the tales which are related of him by eye-witnesses — the aureole of glory which surrounded him, the countless wealth which was at the disposal of his followers, the rich but unsubstantial banquets which were served at his bidding by invisible hands, the superhuman velocity of his movements when eluding those bent upon his capture. Éon declared war upon the churches, which monopolized the wealth of the people while neglecting the duties for which they had been enriched; and he pillaged them of their treasures, which he distributed lavishly upon the poor. Hugues, Archbishop of Rouen… sought to convert the heretics by an elaborate refutation of their tenets, among which he enumerated promiscuous licentiousness and disregard of clerical celibacy… More efficacious were the troops sent to quell the disturbances… He was captured and carried before [Pope] Eugenius III at the Council of Rouen in 1148. There he boldly proclaimed his mission and his power… He was pronounced hopelessly insane, but this would not have saved him had not his captor, the Archbishop of Rheims, represented that his life had been pledged to him on his surrender. He was therefore delivered to Suger, Abbot of St. Denis, to be imprisoned, and he soon afterwards died. Even this did not shake the faith of his disciples. Many of them… preferred the stake to recantation, and numbers were thus put to death before the heresy could be extinguished.”

— Lea, pp. 317-318.


29. Where’s Waldo [12th – 16th Centuries]

“When, about the middle of the twelfth century, the sudden death of a companion so impressed Peter Waldo of Lyons that he distributed his fortune among the poor, and devoted himself to preaching… nothing was further from his thoughts than the founding of a new heresy. Ardent disciples gathered around him… but their intention was to establish a society within the Church, and they applied… to [Pope] Lucius III [d. 1183] for the papal authorization. Lucius, however, took exception to their going barefoot,… neglect of the tonsure, and… retaining the society of women. They were stubborn, and he condemned them as heretics. The enthusiasm which the Church might have turned to so much account, as it subsequently did with that of the Franciscans and Dominicans, was thus diverted to unorthodox channels, and speedily arrayed itself in opposition.”

— Lea, pg. 318.

“Their principal heresy was a strict adherence to [Pope Gregory VII’s] doctrine that neither reverence nor obedience was due to priests in mortal sin… In the existing situation of sacerdotal morals, this necessarily destroyed all reverence for the Church at large… Their recurrence to Scripture… was necessarily destructive to all forms of sacerdotalism, and led them to entertain many other heretical tenets. They admitted no distinction between clergy and laity. Every member of the sect, male or female was a priest… Lying and swearing were mortal sins, and homicide was not excusable under any circumstances…”

“In the earlier period the Waldenses recognized vows of chastity and treated the seduction of nuns as incest. Later they held that… the Latin Church erred in prescribing celibacy to the priesthood, and their ministers, or barbes, were married. With incredible fortitude they maintained their faith, and when came the Reformation,… adopted most of the Protestant tenets and declared that the rule of virginity was a precept of Satan.”

— Lea, pp. 319-320.

Waldo was the first of the reformers who was reluctantly forced to become a heretic due to his treatment by the Roman hierarchy, and also the first whose followers somehow managed to survive until the Protestant Reformation.


30. Free Spirits [12th Century –?]

“Ortlieb of Strassburg is supposed to have been a disciple of Amaury of Bene, whose pantheistic speculations were condemned by the University of Paris in 1204. Ortlieb carried them to Germany, where they gave rise to a sect calling itself the Brethren of the Free Spirit… From their pantheism they drew the deduction that man is God, leading to the conclusion that he is impeccable and that whatever he may do is without sin. While this doubtless led to excesses on the part of those incapable of self-restraint, it was accompanied with the austere condemnation of all sexual indulgence, save for the exclusive object to procuring offspring. It was taught that a woman in marrying should feel the deepest sorrow for the loss of her virginity, and that no one was perfect in whom promiscuous nudity could excite passion or shame. This served as a test, and was so successfully endured that an antagonistic writer can only explain their resistance to such temptation by the assistance of Satan. The sect was condemned… ruthlessly persecuted by the ecclesiastical authorities and by the Inquisition,… but it maintained its existence with remarkable tenacity…”

“[It re]appeared in 1411, in Flanders, under the name of Men of Intelligence… They were accused of pantheism, of rejecting priestly ministrations, and of teaching that whatever they did was the work of the spirit, so that there was no sin in the grossest licentiousness. Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly… speedily suppressed them, and tradition related that the inquisitor he employed… was saved only by a miracle from the vengeance of the heretics. As the fifteenth century advanced… Bohemia, under Hussite domination, seemed to offer a favourable field for proselytism, and it was attempted by a missionary of the sect… [who] gathered numerous disciples of both sexes, to whom he taught the pre-eminent virtue of nudity, and gave them the name of Adamites. They settled on an island in the river Luznic, and speedily came into collision with the neighbouring inhabitants… they slew two hundred peasants, which attracted the attention of [Hussite general] Lizka. He made short work of them, fifty of those who escaped the sword were burnt… and the rest were gradually hunted down, sharing the same fate, which they endured with song and laughter.”

— Lea, pp. 320-321.

The Brethren of the Free Spirit existed underground for centuries. Their most extreme eruption was among the Anabaptists during the Reformation where they proclaimed the New Jerusalem in the town of Munster with horrific results.

Some say they were reborn yet again in the Hippie movement of the 1960’s and the various cults that spun off from it, such as the Children of God. Today, perhaps their legacy lives on most happily among the Rainbow Family Gatherings or at the Burning Man Festival.


31. The Danger of Dolcino [14th Century]

“There was another heretical sect, which in the opening years of the fourteenth century, attained a terrible notoriety through the exploits and fate of its leader, Dolcino. It was an unauthorized offshoot of the stricter or Spiritual Franciscans, and was founded by Gherardo Segarelli, who was burnt in 1300. Its members styled themselves apostles; they were wanderers, subsisting on charity, and teaching an austerity which, in imitation of the follies of some of the early Christians, required the crucial test of the sexes lying together in nakedness. Persecution naturally induced antagonism, and Dolcino, who succeeded Segarelli… foretold the downfall of the existing Church establishment, to be followed by an age of charity and love under a saintly pope. He proclaimed himself the special envoy of God, and virtually declared war upon the existing organization of both Church and State. Withdrawing, with some fourteen hundred followers to fastnesses in the lower Alps, he resisted four crusades directed against him, but a fifth, in 1307, was successful, and he perished by the most dreadful death that fear and hate could devise. The wandering disciples, however, continued to give occasional occupation to the Inquisition for a hundred years… in regions so far apart as Lubeck and farther Spain.”

— Lea, pp. 321-322.


32. Wickliffe and the Lollards [14th – 15th Centuries]

“In the ineradicable corruption of the Church, indeed, every effort to purify it could only lead to a heresy. Wickliffe, in his zeal to repress the disorders which had brought the Church into disrepute, swept away bishop, cardinal, and pope, the priesthood being the culminating point in his system... The [worldly possessions]... were to be abandoned, and with them... indulgences, simony, image-worship, the power of excommunication and the other devices [to convert forgiveness into] coin of the realm. ...his unpardonable error was his revival of the doctrine of [Pope] Gregory VII... which he carried out to its logical conclusions... priest and bishop were no longer priest and bishop if they lived in mortal sin, and his definition... was such as to render it scarce possible for anyone to escape.”

— Lea, pp. 322-323.

“Even the laity, in his scheme,... he pronounced [that] those who married from any other motive than that of having offspring to be not truly married.”

“It is easier to start a movement than to restrain it... his followers could see, if he could not, that... sacerdotalism... could not be destroyed without abrogating the rule which separated the priest from his fellow-men... in 1394, only ten years after Wickliffe’s death, the Lollards, by that time a powerful party with strong revolutionary tendencies, presented Parliament a petition for the thorough reformation of the Church... [They] denounced the rule of celibacy as the cause of the worst disorders... [and] attacked the vows of nuns as even more injurious, and demanded permission for their marriage with but scanty show of respect.”

“The fierce persecutions of [English King] Henry V... succeeded in depriving the sect of political power; yet its religious doctrines still continued to exist among the people... unquestionably tended to strongly shake the popular reverence for Rome, and had no little influence in paving the way for the revolt of the sixteenth century.”

— Lea, pp. 324-325.


33. Huss and the Taborites [15th – 17th Centuries]

“John Huss [of Bohemia] was rather a reformer than a heresiarch. Admirer though he was of Wickliffe... he avoided the doctrinal errors of the Englishman… His friend, Jerome of Prague, maintained... that Huss was thoroughly orthodox, and was only inspired by indignation on seeing the wealth of the Church... the patrimony of the poor, lavished on prostitutes, feasting, hunting, rich apparel, and other unseemly extravagance... During the latter half of the fourteenth century, scarce a synod was held which did not denounce their vices, gambling, drunkenness, usury, simony, and concubinage; and when... a strict visitation was made throughout... Prague, the cunning rogues sent away or secreted their partners in guilt, and openly recalled them as soon as the storm had passed... that any individual should assert the right of private judgment in reforming the Church... threatened results too formidable to the whole structure... and the condemnation of Huss was inevitable.”

“Unlike the Lollards, the Hussites maintained the strictness of the founder’s views on the subject of celibacy. If the fiercer [faction called the] Taborites cruelly revenged their wrongs upon the religious orders, it was to punish the minions of Rome, and not to manifest their contempt for asceticism.”

“One fragment of the Hussites... held wholly aloof from reconciliation to Rome... the Taborites, who were virtually destroyed at the battle of Lipan in 1434... Yet they bravely maintained their existence, until the Reformation, when they eagerly fraternized with Luther... Still it was not until the commencement of the seventeenth century that priestly celibacy was wholly abolished and that even [their] bishops... were married... after the disastrous battle of the Weiss Berg in 1620, many of the pastors [converted]... and, in the lack of Catholic priests, were allowed to retain their positions, but were obliged to expel their wives and children.”

— Lea, pp. 325-327.


34. Failure of Hierarchical Reform [Early 15th Century]

“Neither the assaults of heretics nor the constant efforts at partial reform attempted by individual prelates had thus far proved of any avail. As time wore on, the Church sank deeper into the mire of corruption, and its struggles to extricate itself grew feebler and more hopeless… early in the fifteenth century… an organized system of concubinage was proposed to the indiscriminate licentiousness which was everywhere prevalent. Even more suggestive are the declarations of [a] Rector of the University of Paris… that the vices of the clergy were so universal that those who adhered to the rule of chastity were the objects of the most degrading and disgusting suspicions, so little faith was there in the possible purity of any ecclesiastic… that in a majority of parishes the people insisted on their pastors keeping concubines, and that even this was a precaution insufficient for the peace and honour of their families. Elsewhere he describes the mass of the clergy as wholly abandoned to worldly ambition and vices, oppressing and despoiling those subjected to them, and spending their ill-gotten gains in the vilest excesses, while they ridiculed unsparingly such few pious souls as endeavoured to live according to the… gospel. Another tract declares that in most of the dioceses the parish priests openly kept concubines, which they were permitted to do on payment of a tax to their bishops. Nunneries were brothels, and to take the veil was simply another mode of becoming a public prostitute.”

— Lea, pg. 328.

“The Council of Pisa had not succeeded in healing the Great Schism [where the Latin Church was torn between as many as three rival popes], and there arose a demand for an [Ecumenical] Council.. for the purpose of purifying… eradicating heresy, and settling definitively the pretensions of the three claimants to the papacy. John XXIII yielded to the pressure, and the call for the Council of Constance went forth…”

“So powerful a body had never before been gathered together in Europe. It claimed to be the supreme representative of the Church, and though it acknowledged John XXIII as the lawful successor of St. Peter, it had no scruples in arraigning, trying, condemning and deposing him — an awful expression of its supremacy, without precedent in the past and without imitation in succeeding ages. As regards heresy, it did the best it could… by burning John Huss and Jerome of Prague [despite their safe conducts from the German Emperor]… After the council had been in session for nearly two years, the reformers began to despair of effecting anything, and… [one member] declared that every one wanted such a reform as should allow him to retain his own particular form of iniquity.”

— Lea, pp. 329-330.

“…after the election of [Pope] Martin V [d. 1431], those who shrank from all reform could assume that it might safely be entrusted to the hands of a pontiff so able so energetic and so virtuous… The council closed its weary sessions… [in] 1418, and during its three years and a half of labour it had only found leisure to regulate the dress of ecclesiastics, the unclerical cut of whose sleeves was especially distasteful to the representative body of Christendom.”

— Lea, pg. 331.

Most Catholics don't even know that the Pope John XXIII who called the Second Vatican Council was actually the second of that name. Nor that the fact of his choosing that number put a final seal of approval of the deposition of the first by the Council of Constance.


35. The Papal Sin Tax [11th - 16th Centuries]

“…the principal result of the rule of celibacy was to afford to the officials a regular revenue derived from the sale of licenses to sin – the old abuse, which rises before us in every age from the time of Damiani and Hildebrand, and which, since [Pope] John XXII [d. 1334] had framed the tariff of absolutions for crime known as the ‘Taxes of the Penitentiary’ had the authority of the papacy itself to justify it. In the oldest form… issued by [Pope] Benedict XII in 1338, absolution and dispensation for a concubinary priest are rated at only four gros tournois, or less than half a florin, and the same price is named for the absolution of one who has been suspended for adultery. In a somewhat later tax list, dispensation for the son of a priest to be admitted to orders and preferment is rated at twelve gros, but if he desired a bishopric, it cost thirty. It is no wonder that reforming bishops and councils found their efforts baffled when the only result was to increase the revenues of the papal chancery by stimulating the demand for its interference.”

— Lea, pp. 363-364.

“How utterly impotent, in fact, were the efforts [of reform] is evident when… we find [Pope] Nicholas V [d. 1445] declaring that the clergy enjoyed such immunity that they scarcely regarded incontinence as a sin – which is perhaps no wonder, when he prohibited the members and officials of the Curia from keeping concubines, under pain of forfeiture of office and disability for preferment, unless they should previously have obtained letters of absolution from the Holy See – the perennial font of corruption which meets us at every turn.”

“… this in substance indicates the degrading source of revenue which was so energetically condemned in inferior officials. The pressing and insatiable pecuniary needs of the papal court, indeed, rendered it impotent as a reformer, however honest the wearer of the tiara might himself be… Reckless expenditure and universal venality were insuperable obstacles to any comprehensive and effective measures of reformation. Every one was preoccupied either in devising or in resisting extortion.”

— Lea, pp. 336-337.

A more telling expression of the corruption of the papal court than the actual price list for keeping a mistress or buying one's brat a bishopric can scarce be imagined. Better even than indulgences, for one did not have to wait for the afterlife to use these.


36. Gathering Clouds [Late 15th Century]

“Among the records of the reign of [English King] Henry VII is a memorial from the gentlemen and farmers of Carnarvonshire, complaining that the seduction of their wives and daughters was pursued systematically by the clergy. That the prevalence of these practices was thoroughly understood is shown in a book of instructions for parish priests… [One of] the causes for which a parson may shrive a man not of his own parish …includes the case in which the penitent has committed sin with the concubine or daughter of his own parish priest.”

“Spain was equally infected… Vainly Ferdinand and Isabella in repeated edicts sought to restrain the evil by attacking the concubines with fines, scourging, and banishment, for the male offenders were beyond their jurisdiction. The trouble continued without abatement, and the Council of Seville, in 1512, [denounced] ecclesiastics who officiated at the marriages of their children, which it prohibited… with a fine… it likewise provided for those who committed the indecency of having their children as assistants in the solemnity of the Mass.”

— Lea, pg. 339.

“That the clergy, as a body, had become a stench in the nostrils of the people is evident from the immense applause which greeted all attacks upon them. In 1476 a rustic prophet arose… in the diocese of Wurzburg… John of Niklaushausen was a swineherd who professed himself inspired by the Virgin Mary… immense multitudes flocked to hear him, so that at times he preached to crowds of twenty and thirty thousand… His doctrines were revolutionary, for he denounced oppression both secular and clerical; but he was particularly severe upon the vices of the ecclesiastical body… The unfortunate man was seized by the Bishop of Wurzburg;… his unarmed followers [were] easily subdued, and he expiated at the stake his revolt…”

— Lea, pg. 343.

“The Carmelite, Thomas Connecte, was a wandering preacher who filled France and the Low Countries with denunciations of popular vices… His eloquence won immense applause, and his auditors were reckoned in crowds of from ten to twenty thousand souls. He was especially severe on the concubinage of all ranks of the clergy, and recommended a restoration of priestly marriage as the appropriate remedy; but when… he ventured to Rome to lash the corruption of the Curia, he was found to be a heretic, and his career was ended at the stake.”

— Lea, pg. 344.

“In 1479, John Ruchrath… doctor of theology, in his capacity of preacher… openly disseminated doctrines which differed… but little from Wickliffe and Huss… The received observances of religion, prayers, fasts, indulgences, were all swept away and universal liberty of conscience proclaimed to all. Of course, sacerdotal celibacy shared the same fate, as a superstitious observance contrived by papal ingenuity in opposition to evangelical simplicity. Thus his intrepid logic far outstripped the views of his predecessors, and Luther afterwards acknowledged the similarity [with] his teachings… Yet he had not the spirit of martyrdom, and the Inquisition speedily forced him to a recantation, which was of little avail, for he soon after perished miserably in the dungeon into which he had been thrust.”

— Lea, pg. 346.


37. Eve of the Storm [Early 16th Century]

“The moral character of the clergy, indeed, had not improved during… the first quarter of the sixteenth century…[In] a curious little tract, printed in Cologne in 1505… which is directed… particularly against [concubinage] of the priests… the practices which it combats, of guilty ecclesiastics granting absolution to each other and mutually dispensing themselves from confession, show how easily the safeguards with which the Church had sought to surround her ministers were eluded. The degradation of the priesthood, indeed, can readily be measured when, in the little town of Hof… three priests could be found defiling the sacredness of Ash Wednesday by fiercely fighting over a courtesan in a house of ill-fame; or when [Pope] Leo X [d. 1521], in a feeble effort at reform, was obliged to argue that systematic licentiousness was not rendered excusable because its prevalence amounted to a custom, or because it was openly tolerated by those whose duty was to repress it.”

— Lea, pg. 363.

“In Switzerland… in 1533… the citizens of Lausanne [complained] of the conduct of their clergy. They rebuked the incontinence of the priests, whose numerous children were accustomed to earn a living of beggary in the streets, but the canons were subjects of their especial [odium]. The dean of the chapter had defied an excommunication launched at him for buying a house near the church in which to keep his mistress; others… had taken to themselves the wives of citizens and refused to give them up; but the quaintest grievance of which they had been guilty was the injury which their competition inflicted on the public brothel of the town.”

— Lea, pg. 365.

“A Spanish priest and doctor of canon law, residing in [Rome], became enamoured of several young nuns at once, and endeavoured to seduce them by teaching them that, as they and he were alike spouses of Christ, carnal affection between them was their duty. Failing in this,… he composed a number of prayers of singular obscenity, and bribed various ignorant priests to recite them [during] Mass, hoping thus to obtain the aid of Heaven in overcoming the chastity of his intended victims. At length he [offered] one of these prayers to a priest of somewhat better character, who was sufficiently shocked by it to communicate with the authorities… the guilty Spaniard sought to justify himself by alleging various Scriptural texts, but upon being warned that such a defense would subject him to a prosecution for heresy, he recanted… For this… his only punishment was a short banishment from Rome. When the papal court set such an example, what was to be expected of less enlightened regions?”

— Lea, pp. 365-366.


38. Luther’s Revolt [16th Century]

“Luther at first, like Wickliffe and Huss, paid no attention to the subject [of sacerdotal asceticism]. In fact, when, on 31 October, 1517, he nailed on the church door of Wittenberg his celebrated ninety-five propositions, nothing was further from his expectation than to create a heresy, a schism or even a general reform of the Church. He had simply in view to vindicate his ideas on the subject of justification… so much had been said that was inimical to the… Church, without calling forth the thunders of Rome, that men seemed to think the day of toleration had at last come… Still his progress was wonderfully slow… yet when [Pope] Leo X [d. 1521], in June 1520, issued his celebrated bull, ‘Exsurge Domine,’ to crush the rising heresy, in the forty-one errors enumerated… there is no allusion to any doctrine specially inimical to ascetic celibacy…”

“The papal condemnation, followed as it was by the public burning of his writings, aroused Luther… he attacked the sacrament of ordination, denied that it separated the priest from his fellows, and ridiculed the rule… which excluded from the priesthood a man who had been the husband of any but a virgin, while another who had polluted himself with six hundred concubines was eligible to the episcopate or papacy. Finally, on 10 December 1530, he proclaimed war… by burning at Wittenberg the books of the canon law, and justifying his act by a manifesto recapitulating the damnable doctrines contained in them. Among these he enumerates the prohibition of sacerdotal marriage as the origin and cause of excessive vice and scandal… Soon after this, in a controversy… he stigmatized the rule of celibacy as angelical in appearance, but devilish in reality, and invented by Satan as a fertile source of sin and perdition.”

— Lea, pp. 353-355.

“Finally, Luther gave the… most unquestionable proof of his adhesion to the practice of sacerdotal marriage by espousing Catharine von Bora, who [escaped] two years before from the convent… Scandal, it would seem, had been busy with the intimacy between the pious doctor and the fair renegade who had spent nearly the whole period of her liberty at Wittenberg, and Luther suddenly resolved to put the most effectual stop to rumours which his enemies doubtless were delighted to circulate. On the evening of 13 June, 1525, without consulting his friends, he… had the ceremony performed. It took his followers completely by surprise; many of them disapproved of it…”

— Lea, pp. 361.


39. The Reformation’s Appeal [16th Century]

“It is not difficult to explain why there was so ready and general an acquiescence in the [abandonment] of a rule… of so many centuries… The ecclesiastical foundations had long neglected the duties of charity, hospitality, and education, on which were grounded their claims to their broad lands and rich revenues. While therefore, the temporal princes might be delighted with the opportunity… of seizing the Church possessions, the people might reasonably hope that the increase of their rulers’ wealth would alleviate their own burdens, as well as release them from the direct oppression which many of them suffered from the religious establishments. Even more potential was the disgust everywhere felt for the flagrant immorality of the priesthood. The dread experienced by every husband and father lest wife and daughter might at any moment fall victims to the lust of those who had every opportunity for the gratification of unholy passions led them to welcome the change, in the hope that it would result in restoring decency and virtue to a class which had long seemed to regard its sacred character as the shield and instrument of crime.”

— Lea, pp. 362-363.

“When the legate Campeggio was sent to Germany to check the spread of heresy, in his reformatory edict… in 1524 he declared that the efforts of the Lutherans had no little justification in the detestable morals and lives of the clergy,… confirmed by his unsparing denunciation of their licentiousness, drunkenness, quarrels, and tavern-haunting; their traffic in absolution for enormous offences; their unclerical habits and hideous blasphemy; their indulgence in incantations and dabbling in witchcraft.”

— Lea, pg. 365.


40. Free Spirits Born Again [16th Century]

“If Luther found it no easy task to break the chains which… kept in check the spirit of free inquiry, he discovered that it was impossible to control that spirit once let loose; and the wild excesses of Anabaptism were at once the exaggeration and the opprobrium of Lutheranism. Originally earnest and self-denying, the.. ensuing development was in some sort a resuscitation of the Brethren of the Free Spirit, remnants of whom doubtless existed in many hidden quarters. The inner light was the guide which every man should follow, and this was to result in the Kingdom of God, wherein all should be equal and live in brotherly affection, without subjection to government of any kind. These alluring dreams spread through the populations with amazing rapidity, calling forth the severest repression by the authorities, who recognized in them the danger not only to religion, but to the whole social organization. The sectaries manifested the sincerity of the their convictions by the steadfast cheerfulness with which they endured imprisonment, torture, and the stake; but this ardent fanaticism also found expression in lawless licentiousness among those who mistook the impulses of the flesh for the dictates of the spirit. There is doubtless much exaggeration in the description of the igneum baptisma [baptism of fire] by which in Munster John Mathison encouraged promiscuous license among the elect, but the history of mystic ardour furnishes too many examples of such aberrations for us to question the probability of their occurrence among such an assemblage…”

“Luther, moreover, was quite as resolute in setting limits to his movement as Rome had been in forbidding all progress, and the Anabaptists were to him enemies as detestable as Catholics.”

— Lea, pp. 372-373.

The fate of Munster, to which Lea alludes, was, like Jonestown and Waco, a particularly dreadful example of how seeking the End Times can bring about an end far different than that which was prophesied. Luther’s defiance of Rome had given rise to great millennial expectations, but he had immediately condemned the peasants’ revolt of the mid-1520s with a pamphlet entitled “Against the thievish, murderous gangs of the peasants” which did much to rouse the princes. However, the violently apocalyptic expectations that had been engendered spread widely even after the farmer’s rebellion was ruthlessly crushed.

In early 1534, Anabaptists from Holland, believing that the Holy Spirit had descended upon them, converged upon and took over the German city of Munster. They declared the town to be the New Jerusalem, and that the world would be destroyed by Easter. Their messiahs, Jan Matthys (or Mathison) and his successor, John of Leyden, quickly established an absolute dictatorship, communistic living, and a reign of terror, started by expelling all Lutherans and Catholics from the town in the midst of a blinding snowstorm.

The local Catholic bishop and Lutheran prince soon joined forces to besiege the city. Meanwhile, the Anabaptists’ strict code of sexual morality came to an abrupt end, as forcible polygamy was introduced. There were at least three times as many women as men in the town and all under a certain age were forced to marry. Despite numerous executions, domestic quarreling continued, and once divorce was permitted, quickly devolved into sheer promiscuity.

Mathison died, but after some military successes, John of Leyden proclaimed himself king with an elaborate coronation, and thereby missed his best chance to escape. The siege tightened; by April, 1535, the defenders were reduced to cannibalism while their king sought to amuse them with plays. Finally, he agreed to permit those who wished to leave, but the Catholic bishop feared to allow any escape despite his promises lest they spread their beliefs, so most who left perished from slow starvation, trapped in the no-mans-land outside the walls.

On the night of June 24, the besiegers launched a surprise attack and took the town, massacring most of those who surrendered. The king and remaining leaders were, of course, slowly tortured to death.

In contrast, non-militant Anabaptists have survived to the present day, as the Mennonites, among others.

— Summarised from chapters XI and XII of Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium, 1961.


41. Defender of the Faith [King Henry VIII, d. 1547]

Despite his notorious split with the papacy over his divorce, Henry VIII of England was a most reluctant reformer. Before he broke with Rome, he even wrote a tract against Luther, for which a grateful Pope Leo X [d. 1521] awarded him the title of Fides Defensor, “Defender of the Faith”, still used as one of the monarch’s titles to this day. His path to reform was erratic and halting, and he did not want to share the marital privileges that he so enjoyed. The reforms he ordered were for his own benefit rather than anything else, and those politicians and clerics who advanced too eagerly ahead of him often paid the price with their heads.

Infamous for destroying the centuries-old monastic system in England, the plan was set in motion by his Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, and later the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, largely to fill the king's coffers and bribe the gentry for support with the seized monastic lands. It was a drawn-out process, beginning with visits of inspection even before the king declared his supremacy over the Church in England in 1536. Old charges often heard before were dusted off, in reports of new visitations that emphasized the dissolute living of the monks.

“Public opinion, however, did not move fast enough for the rapacity of those in power, and strenuous exertions were made to stimulate it. All the foul stories that could be found or invented respecting the abbeys were raked together; but these proving insufficient, the impostures concerning relics and images were investigated with much success, and many singular exposures were made which gave the king fresh warrant for his arbitrary measures, and placed the religious houses in a more defenceless position than ever.”

— Lea, pg. 392.

“Cranmer and [Vicar General] Thomas Cromwell favoured the Reformation; [Cranmer] was himself secretly married [twice], and even ventured to urge the king to reconsider his views on priestly celibacy... There had been a visitation [in the diocese of Bangor] in which the petitioners admit... fault, they pray [for] some means to have their consorts... restored. Nothing can be more humiliating than their confessions of the relations existing between themselves... and the flocks entrusted to their spiritual care. After pleading that without women they cannot keep house and exercise hospitality, they add: ‘We ourselves shall be driven to seek our living at ale-houses and taverns, for mansions upon the benefices and vicarages we have none. And as for gentlemen and substantial honest men, for fear of inconvenience, knowing our frailty and accustomed liberty, they will in no wise board us in their houses.’” [Emphasis in original.]

— Lea, pp. 396-397.

Corrupt though they were, the monasteries and convents still formed the basis of the support structure of much of society, and their destruction merely increased the suffering of the poor and ultimately sparked an insurrection, “The Pilgrimage of Grace.” Smaller houses were first made to join the larger, and in time, these too were taken over and the inhabitants ejected with a small pension. A number of monks chose martyrdom rather than become vagabonds.

“It is computed that the number of monasteries suppressed... was 645; of colleges, 90; of chantries and free chapels, 2374; and of hospitals, 110.”

— Lea, pg. 393.

“In this Act [of Edward VI, in 1547], the magnitude of the evil [of former monks wandering] is indicated by the rigorously inhumane measures deemed necessary for its abatement. Every able-bodied man loitering... for three days... was to be branded on the breast with a letter V, and be adjudged a slave for two years to any one who would bring him before a justice of the peace.”

— Lea, pg. 395.

“Any opposition [to the 1536 Act of Supremacy], either in word or writing subjected the offender to imprisonment.... repetition... constituted a felony, to be expiated with the life of the culprit. Priestly marriages were declared void, and a priest persisting in living with his wife was to be executed... Concubinage was punishable with deprivation of benefice and property, and imprisonment.... a second lapse [with] a felon’s death, while... the wife... shared the fate... Vows of chastity were only binding on those who had taken them of their own free will when they were over twenty one years of age.”

“Cranmer argued... that it was a great hardship, in the case of the ejected monks, to insist on the observance of the vow of chastity, when those of poverty and obedience had been dispensed with, and the unfortunates had been forcibly deprived... of monastic life. The matter, however,... was decided by the whimsical perversity of a self-opinionated man, who unfortunately had the power to condense his polemical notions in the blood of his subjects.”

— Lea, pp. 401-402.


42. England Swings [King Edward VI, d. 1553, Queen Mary, d. 1558, Queen Elizabeth I, d. 1603]

Here is how the state of England was described at the end of Henry’s reign:

“John Hooper, afterwards [Protestant] bishop... during the exile into which he was forced by [Henry’s] Act...: ‘Our king has destroyed the pope, but not popery; he has expelled all the monks and nuns, and pulled down their monasteries; he has caused all their possessions to be transferred into his exchequer; and yet they are bound, even the frail female sex... to perpetual chastity. England has at this time at least ten thousand nuns, not one of whom is allowed to marry.”

— Lea, pp. 403-404.

Only when 10-year-old Edward ascended the throne did the Reformation in England really begin under the guidance of Archbishop Cranmer.

“The reforms speedily found... opposition. The masses throughout England were in a state of discontent. The vast ... abbey lands acquired by the gentry and now enclosed bore hard upon many; the raising of rents showed that secular landlords were less charitable...; and the savage enactments... against the unfortunate expelled monks show how large... influential disaffection was actively at work... Numerous risings took place which were readily quelled.”

— Lea pp. 406-407.

“Cranmer... now had leisure to consolidate... and organize a system that should be permanent.... In 1551, he... prepared... a series of forty-two articles... which was ordered to be signed by all men in orders and all candidates for ordination... under Elizabeth... it resulted in the famous Thirty-Nine Articles — the foundation-stone of the Episcopalian edifice. Of these... the thirty-first declared that ‘Bishops, priests, and deacons are not commanded by God’s law to... abstain from marriage.”

— Lea, p. 407.

When the Catholic Queen Mary took over in 1553, the situation reversed itself again. Commissions were quickly established to remove the now-illegally married clergy, including bishops. In less than four years, 277 men, including Cranmer and other leaders, were burnt, the New Catholic Encyclopedia admits.

“ appears that men were deprived without citation or opportunity for defence; ... [frequently] against offenders of the highest class,... to strike terror into the hearts of humbler parsons.”

— Lea, pg. 411.

“Everything thus being prepared, the purification of the Church from married heretics was prosecuted with vigour. [Anglican] Archbishop Parker states there were in England some 16,000 clergymen, of whom 12,000 were deprived... most summarily;... without trial. Some renounced their wives, and were yet deprived, while those who were deprived... were also forced to part from their wives.”

— Lea, pp. 411-412.

“Her wishes [for reunification with Rome] were fulfilled... and [Pope] Julius III [d. 1555] had issued his bull of indulgence.... An obedient Parliament lost no time in repealing all statutes adverse to... the Holy See, but... one class.. had sufficient influence to maintain its heretical rights. The Church lands granted or sold to laymen were not restored.”

— Lea, pg. 415.

“Some [priests] found the restrictions so onerous that they endeavoured to release themselves from the bonds of the Church rather than submit longer to the separation from their wives; and this threatened so great a dearth in the ranks of the clergy that... [the] Archbishop of Canterbury in 1556 forbade the withdrawal of any one from the... functions of the altar, under pain of the law.”

— Lea, pp. 415-416.

Elizabeth somewhat reluctantly restored the balance in favor of Protestantism, though the Virgin Queen approved of celibacy.

“... the royal power passed into the hands of a princess, who, though by nature leaning to the Catholic faith and disposed to tread in the footsteps of her father, was placed by the circumstances of her birth in implacable hostility to Rome, and... held her throne only... [by] waging eternal warfare with reaction. The reformers felt the doom of Catholicism was sealed.”

— Lea, pp. 417-418.

“Yet Elizabeth never overcame her repugnance to the marriage of the clergy, nor is it to be wondered at,... when we consider the contempt in which she held the Church... and her general aversion from sanctioning... the matrimony which she herself was always toying with and never contracting... So in Ipswich, in August 1561, she found great fault... especially with the number of wives and children in cathedrals and colleges... it is doubtless to this occurance that we may attribute the last relic of clerical celibacy enforced among Protestants, that of the fellows of the English universities.”

— Lea, 421-422.


43. Calvin and the Huguenots [16th Century]

“By the time Jean Calvin formulated the system of theology which bears his name, sacerdotal marriage had... everywhere become recognized as one of the inevitable incidents of the revolt against Rome...”

“Calvin himself manifested his contempt for all the ancient prejudices by marrying, in 1539... the widow of [an] Anabaptist... he had converted. The Huguenot Confession of Faith was drawn up by him, and was adopted by the first national synod held at Paris in 1559. Of course the Genevan view of justification swept away all the accumulated observances of sacerdotalism, and ascetic celibacy shared the fate... The discipline of the Calvinist Church with regard to the morality of its ministers was necessarily severe. The peculiar purity expected of a pastor’s household was shown by the rule which enjoined any Church officer whose wife was convicted of adultery to dismiss her absolutely under pain of deposition, while laymen... were exhorted to be reconciled to their guilty partners. Any lapse from virtue [by] a minister was visited with peremptory deposition; nor was this a mere idle threat... for the proceedings of various synods show that it was carried sternly into execution. A list of such vagrant... ministers was even kept and published to the churches, with personal descriptions of the individuals, that they might not be able to impose on the unwary.”

— Lea, pg. 428.

“The Church was obliged to submit to this... tolerance of evil, and condescended to entreaty... In 1581 the Council of Rouen, while deploring the number of monks and nuns who had left their convents, apostatized, and married, directs that they shall be tempted back, treated with kindness, and pardon sought for them from the Holy See... When the reaction came, however, these provisions were held to be only retrospective... and were not admitted as legalizing subsequent marriages... based on the principle that the celibacy of ecclesiastics was prescribed by municipal as well as by canon law...”

— Lea, pp. 437-438.


44. Scottish Stubborness [c. 1530]

“How little concealment was thought requisite with regard to these scandals [in Scotland] is exemplified in the case of Alexander Ferrers... Taken prisoner by the English... for seven years in the Tower of London, he returned home to find that his wife had been consoled and his substance dissipated in his absence by a neighbouring priest, for which cause he not unnaturally ‘spake more liberally of priests than they could bear.’ By this time heresy was spreading, and severe measures of repression were considered necessary... and he was accordingly brought up for trial... The first... accusation read to him was that he despised the Mass, whereto he answered, ‘I heare more Masses in eight dayes than three bishops there sitting say in a yeare.’ The next article accused him of contemning [sic] the sacraments. ‘The priests,’ replied he, ‘were the most contemnors of the sacraments, especially of matrimony.’ ‘And that he witnessed by many of the priests there present, and named the man’s wife with whom they had meddled, and especially Sir John Dungwaill, who had seven years abused his own wife and consumed his substance, and said: because I complain of such injuries, I am here summoned and accused as one that is worthy to be burnt: For God’s sake, said he, will ye take wives of your own, that I and others whom ye have abused may be revenged on you.’ Old Gawain Dunbar, Bishop of Aberdeen, not relishing this public accusation, sought to justify himself, exclaiming, ‘Carle, thou shalt not know my wife’; but the prisoner turned the tables on him. ‘My lord, ye are too old, but by the grace of God I shall drink with your daughter or I depart.’ ‘And thereat there was smiling of the best and loud laughter of some, for the bishop had a daughter married... in that town.’ The prelates who sat in judgment found that they were exchanging places with the accused, and fearful of further revelations from the reckless Alexander, commanded him to depart; but he refused, unless each one should contribute something to replace the goods which his wife’s paramour had consumed, and finally, to stop his evil tongue, they paid him and bade him to be gone.”

— Lea, pp. 431-432.


45. Papal Procrastination [Mid 16th Century]

The Council of Trent, which conservative Catholics refer to in hushed, nostalgic, tones as the font of all things venerable, good, and true, was hardly a peacefully inspired assembly. For one thing, it took forever -- first agreed to almost twenty years after Luther nailed up his debating points, it took almost three decades to get the job done. Secondly, it was ill-attended by the bishops and after the first sessions, rejected by the Protestants. Most of its real work was done in its final days when its most important decrees came almost as an after-thought. Thirdly, as an instrument of real reform and renewal, it failed utterly.

Its importance lies in rendering permanent the schism in the Christian Church, and elevating celibacy to a dogma of faith. Henceforth, there would be no turning back.

“In the Council of Trent itself, the Bishop of St. Mark, in opening its proceedings with a speech, 6 January, 1546, drew a fearful picture of the corruption of the world, which had reached a degree that posterity might possibly equal but not exceed. This... was attributable solely to the wickedness of the pastors, who drew their flocks with them into the abyss of sin. The Lutheran heresy had been provoked by their own guilt, and its suppression was only to be hoped for by their own reformation. At a later session, [a] Bavarian orator... told the assembled fathers that the... Reformation was [due] to the scandalous lives of the clergy, whose excesses he could not describe without offending [their] chaste ears... He even asserted that out of a hundred priests there were not more than three or four who were not either married or concubinarians – a statement repeated in a consultation... drawn up in 1562 by the order of the [Holy Roman] Emperor Ferdinand, with the addition that the clergy would rather see the whole structure of the Church destroyed than submit to even the most moderate measure of reform.”

“...the Christian world had long... demanded the convocation of an [Ecumenical] council which should represent all parties,... have full powers to reconcile all differences, and give... the purification which was recognized as the only efficient means of healing the schism. This was a remedy to the last degree distasteful to the Holy See... The recollection [of previous councils] were full of pregnant warnings as to the almost inevitable antagonism between the Viceregent of Christ and an independent representative body... claiming autocratic supremacy... and convoked for the special purpose of reforming abuses the most of which were fruitful sources of revenue to the papal court... By delaying it until the reactionary movement had fairly set in... the papal court exposed itself to little danger when, under the urgent pressure of the Emperor, in 1536, it... proposed to convoke the long desired assembly at Mantua.”

“A place so completely under papal influence [was unacceptable] to both the Lutherans and [King] Henry VIII [of England] [who] refused to connect themselves with such a council... The formality of its opening, 17 May 1537, was therefore an empty ceremony... in May 1542 [Pope] Paul [III, d. 1549] finally convoked it to assemble at Trent. The Reformers were no better satisfied than before... They accordingly kept aloof... when at length the assembly was formally opened, on 13 December [1545] the number [of bishops was only twenty-five] For fifteen months the council... completely under the control of the pope, [was] occupied with formulating as doctrine the speculations of the schoolmen... As these constituted the principal dogmas against which the Reformation was a protest, the labours... were directed, not to effect a reunion of the Church, but to erect an impassable barrier between Latin and Reformed Christianity.”

— Lea, pp. 446-448.


46. Convents Condemned [Mid 16th Century]

“Ten years passed; the faithful impatiently demanded the continuation of the work which had only been commenced, and at last... [Pope] Pius IV [d. 1565] was obliged to reassemble the council... it was not until twenty years after Trent had witnessed the first convocation that [it reconvened] and on 18 January, 1562, the council resumed its oft-interrupted sessions...”

“In 1536, [Pope] Paul III called to his aid nine of his prelates most eminent for virtue and piety, as a commission to prepare a scheme for internal reformation... For two years the commission laboured... and finally produced the ‘Consilium de emendanda ecclesia’ [Recommendations for Reforming the Church].”

“The stern and unbending Cardinal Carrafa was head of the commission... As regards celibacy, they were disposed to make no concession; indeed, they protest at the facility with which men in holy orders were able to purchase from the Roman Curia dispensations to marry... however,... they had so little confidence in the possibility of purifying the conventual religious Orders that they actually recommended their abolition... they proposed that the convents should not be immediately abolished, but only that all novices should be discharged and no more admitted, thus allowing the Orders to die out gradually... and meanwhile they urged that, to prevent further scandals, all nunneries should be removed from the supervision and direction of monks, and be handed over to the ordinaries [local bishops]. The ‘Consilium,’ in fact was so candid a confession... that Luther forthwith translated it and published it with a commentary, as an effective pamphlet in aid of his cause. Caraffa himself, after he had attained the papacy, under the name of [Pope] Paul IV [d. 1559], quietly put his own work... into the Index Librorum Prohibitorum [The Index of Forbidden Books].”

— Lea, pp. 455- 456.

Note to would-be reformers: even a future pope noted for his austere morality thought the religious orders, especially those which lived in convents or monasteries, as incapable of being purified, and recommended their complete, albeit gradual, elimination. Something that time, in the post-Vatican II era, seems to be finally accomplishing, unaided by decree.


47. Reform Refused [Mid 16th Century]

As the Council of Trent dragged on and on, strong pressure built for the abolition of mandatory celibacy. The French king, the Holy Roman Emperors Ferdinand and Maximilian with the German princes, even the Polish Diet, all pleaded for an end to it, according to Lea. Of major Catholic powers, only King Philip II of Spain opposed any concessions whatsoever to the heretics – including clerical matrimony.

“All this was useless, and, in fact, it is difficult to imagine how any one could expect a reform of this nature from a body composed of prelates all of whom were obliged by [Pope] Pius IV, in a decree of 4 September, 1560, to solemnly swear to a profession of faith containing a specific declaration that the vows of chastity inferred on entering into holy orders, or assumed in embracing monastic life, were to be strictly observed and enforced. The question was prejudged.”

— Lea, pg. 460.

“The pope and the Curia were wrathful at the reforms enacted... by the council, and were anxious to dissolve it at any cost, while the Emperor... was resolved to prolong its sessions until he should obtain his desires.”

— Lea, pg. 461.

“Evidently the honest Germans were ill fitted to cope with Italian diplomacy. Relying on papal promises, they held their hands off from the council, which enabled the pope to control it absolutely... Accordingly it went on its accustomed way to render the breach with Protestantism as impassable as possible...”

“The result of thus skillfully shielding the council from all pressure from Germany and France was that the question of retaining sacerdotal celibacy was prevented from becoming the subject of serious debate. This, indeed, was a foregone conclusion... No debates or diversity of opinion [were permitted]... and even the appeals made by the emperor and other potentates are passed over in silence, for... the papal legates, who controlled all the business of the council, refused to allow them to be read.”

— Lea, pg. 463.

“It was not, however, until 11 November [1563] that the canons on matrimony were finally adopted and formally published.... The first one pronounced the dread anathema on all who should dare to assert that clerks in holy orders, monks, or nuns, could contract marriage, or that such a marriage was valid, since God would not deny the gift of chastity to those who... sought it nor would He expose us to temptation beyond our strength. The other similarly anathematized all who dared to assert that the married state was more worthy than virginity, or that it was not better to live in celibacy than married... About this period the Spanish Inquisition commenced to treat as a heresy the assertion that the married state is preferable to the celibacy prescribed for the clergy, when the number of cases which speedily appeared in the records... for nearly a century show how widely spread... was this belief.”

— Lea, pg. 464.

The pope playing politics to defuse a council is an ancient tradition, and future councils, including Vatican II, were controlled in much the same way, by controlling the agenda of what could be debated.

The actual documents of the Council of Trent may be read here.


48. Reaction Reigns Supreme [Mid 16th Century]

“Thus, while keeping the Germans and French quiet with delusive promises, the Church devoted its energies to... separating itself from those who had left it. Its rulers seemed to imagine that their only hope of safety lay in entrenching themselves... The faithful ... might endure yet more from the unrestrained passions of wolves in sheep’s clothing let loose among their wives and daughters, but the Church... dreaded even more to lose the aid of [its] monastic army... ; it selfishly feared that the parish priest who might legitimately [have] wife and children would lose the devotion which a man without ties should entertain for the... glory of the ecclesiastical establishment; and perhaps, more than all, it saw with terror avaricious princes eager for ... [its] immense property to which it owed... the splendour which dazzled mankind,... the influence which rendered it powerful, and... the luxury which made its high places attractive... To put an end, therefore, at once and for ever, to the mutterings of dissatisfaction... it was resolved to place the canon of celibacy where none of the orthodox should dare to attack it, and to accomplish this the simple rule of discipline was elevated to the dignity to a point of belief. ...the Church had already been forced, in defending the rule... to attribute to it apostolic origin, but we cannot easily appreciate the reasons that would justify the anathema launched against all who regarded the marriage of those in holy orders as binding. The dissolution of such marriages... was not suggested until the middle of the twelfth century, and the decision of the council thus condemned as heretics the whole body of the Church during three-quarters of its previous existence.”

“Although the doctrinal canon threw the responsibility of priestly unchastity upon God, yet... it did not hesitate to employ human means to remove, if possible, the scandals which God had permitted... The decree of reformation published in December 1563, contained provisions [that] were little more than a repetition of what... [had been] enacted in every century...”

“Such were the regulations which this great general council... considered sufficient to remove the... curse which had hung around [the Church] for a thousand years. There is nothing in them that had not been tried a hundred times before... the undignified haste of the closing sessions and the domination of Rome rendered them unable to accomplish more... Heretics, indeed, who asserted there was in reality no intention to suppressing concubinage, could point in justification to the curious fact that, while previous councils had provided heavy penalties against the concubines of priests, that of Trent passed them over as though they were guiltless...”

— Lea, pp. 465-467.


49. Roman Relapse [Late 16th Century]

“The reformation of the Church, postponed by the skilful policy of the popes, had been reached in the closing sessions and hurriedly provided for... the prevailing belief [was] that any comprehensive effort to enforce the required chastity... would result in driving the mass of the Catholic clergy into Protestantism... it was thought that they would rather marry their concubines as Lutherans rather than give them up as Catholics. Possibly the fear of such an untoward result may explain the slender effect... from a scheme of reform so laboriously reached and so pompously heralded as the panacea for the woes... destroying the Church.”

“[Pope] Pius IV had allowed the most public and scandalous immorality to flourish [in Rome] unchecked by his immediate supervision... [Pope St. Pius V, d. 1572] at first proposed to banish all the public women who would not...immediately [marry], and, when forced to abandon this as impracticably harsh, he restricted their residence to certain houses, and forbade their plying their vocation in the streets... [yet] such reform was deemed insufferable. The clergy were ashamed to offer open opposition, but urged the Senate to strenuous resistance. The remonstrance presented... not only shows the prevalent immorality, but also the conviction that immorality was inseparable from celibacy. It was represented that... the prosperity of the city would be destroyed and... amid so vast a number of men condemned to celibacy... it would be impossible to preserve the virtue of the wives and daughters of the citizens. The contest was stubbornly continued until at length Pius was driven to declare that if further difficulties were interposed, he would leave the city.”

— Lea, pp. 479-480.

50. Another Failure [Late 16th – 18th Centuries]

“In fact, the Tridentine reform, so loudly heralded as a panacea for all the evils afflicting the Church, was everywhere confessedly a failure. When, in 1583, [the president of the assembly] presented to [King] Henry III [of France] a memorial against the publication of the [decrees of the] council in France, he drew his arguments from the greater corruption of the Italian Church, where, though the council was received without demur, yet none of its orders reforming the morals of the clergy received the least attention.”

— Lea, pg. 481.

“The papacy had succeeded… it had every opportunity and every motive for vindicating itself from the aspersions of its enemies, and yet… it at once [returned] to the old machinery of local councils enacting canons whose frequency and… severity are the inverse measure of their efficiency.”

— Lea, pp. 481-482.

“It was not, however, only concubinage which the Council of Trent failed to extirpate. Even the denial of sacerdotal marriage, which it had elevated to the dignity of a point of faith, was stubbornly opposed, and was not accepted until after a protracted struggle.”

— Lea, pg. 483.

“It is evident from all this that the standard of ecclesiastical morals had not been raised by the efforts of the Tridentine fathers, and yet a study of the records of church discipline shows that with the increasing decency and refinement of society during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the open and cynical manifestations of licence among the clergy became gradually rarer. It may well be doubted, nevertheless, whether their lives were in reality much purer. A few spasmodic efforts were made to enforce the… canon, prohibiting the residence of women, but they were utterly fruitless, and were so recognized by all parties; and the energies… were directed to regulating the character of the hand-maidens, who were admitted to be a necessary evil. Among the [insufficient devises] one new feature shows itself, which indicates the growing respect paid to the appearance of decency – complaints that concubines are kept under the guise of sisters and nieces.”

— Lea, pp. 490-491.


51. New World, Old Problems [16th – 19th Centuries]

“In the New World the licentiousness of the priesthood… began to vex the infant Church as soon as it was organized among the heathen. Little more than half a century had passed since… Columbus, when Oviedo, the first chronicler… speaks of the licentiousness of the clergy as inviting the destruction of the Spanish Colonies… The earliest synods and councils which were held contain the customary denunciations… Many, [according to] the first Council of Mexico, held in 1555, brought with them from Spain their concubines under the guise of relatives. For the most part, however, they formed connections with the natives.”

“In fact, the institution of slavery… gave rise to fresh problems, which the Church sought perseveringly, but vainly, to solve… A curious experiment in dealing with the troubles arising from slavery is seen in the Mexican canons, which directed that if an ecclesiastic had children by his slave, the ownership of the woman was to be transferred to the Church and the children were to be set free. [Whereas] in 1022 the Church insisted upon the continued servitude of clerical bastards whose mothers were serfs to the Church; and the contrast between this and the regulation which proclaimed the freedom of the children as a punishment inflicted upon the father is perhaps the sorriest exhibit that could be made of the character of those… engaged in spreading the teachings of Christ among the heathen.”

“… it is equally unquestionable that a majority of the ecclesiastics who sought the colonies were men of evil character. The councils held in the several provinces deplore the bad example which they set to their newly converted flocks, and the regulations… show the impossibility of keeping them under control.”

— Lea, pp. 492-493.

“A curious rule adopted by the first Council of Mexico… shows how much more scandal was dreaded than sin… it prohibits… the prosecuting officer, from taking cognizance of cases of adultery committed by ecclesiastics, unless the husband be a consenting party, or the adulterer makes a public boast of it, or the fact is so notorious that it cannot be passed over in silence; and even then… in no case is the name of the woman to be mentioned… As might be expected, these regulations by giving practical immunity, led to an increase in crime, and the third Council… in 1585, tells us that many of the clergy indulged in it, in preference to ordinary concubinage, in the confidence that they would not be prosecuted… And, this,… is the existing state of ecclesiastical law in Mexico…”

— Lea, pg. 495.


52. Polluted Priests [?]

“That the awful sacrifice of the Mass should be performed by a priest fresh from [sexual] pollution is a sacrilege, but even more to be dreaded would be the omission of the function which would reveal his weakness to his flock. For centuries the question has troubled the Church… The Council of Cambrai, indeed, devised a tolerably effective remedy, about the year 1300, when it ordered celebrants to confess daily to the episcopal penitentiaries, but… only [in] the cathedral town and even there was too cumbersome… Aquinas… attested that if a sinful priest could not confess before celebrating, he could qualify himself by making a vow to confess. The Council of Trent prescribes preliminary confession for a priest conscious of mortal sin, but this is not always easy,… complicated with questions of jurisdiction and reserved sins, and it adds that if this is impossible, he must confess subsequently as soon as practicable. [Rigorous moralists] offered the suggestion that the [sinful] minister should scratch his thumb with a knife, bind up his hand and proclaim himself incapacitated. The ordinary practice, however, with those who are scrupulous, seems to be to perform an act of contrition or a hasty confession before going to the altar.”

— Lea, pg. 491-492.


Conclusion: Clergy Crime in the 19th Century

“How powerfully and how unscrupulously [the Church’s] influence is exerted to this end [of hiding priestly weaknesses] may be judged from a few examples. In 1817, at Availles, in France, the sacristan complained to the mayor that his daughter was received every night by the curé, to the scandal of the people. The mayor thus invited entered the priest’s house suddenly one night, and found the girl [undressed], hidden in a corner. He drew up an official statement of the facts and forwarded it to the authorities, and the response to this was his summary dismissal from office on the ground of having violated the domicile of the [priest] and thus increased the scandal... Antoine Mingrat, who as a priest... near Grenoble, created scandal by his amours, when, in place of being punished, he was transferred... Here he was attracted by a young married woman... An unsuccessful attempt upon her virtue rendered it necessary to dispatch her. He choked her to death in the parsonage, and dragged the body three-quarters of a mile... where he cut off the legs and threw the fragments into the river. Suspicion pointing to him, he was about to be arrested, when he escaped across the frontier and found refuge... Protected by a mysterious influence, he was never surrendered, although he was condemned to death in absentia by the court of Grenoble, [in] 1822, and the only result was the persecution of the family of his victim, who had dared to complain. Similarly, in 1877, the Abbé Debra, condemned at Liège, in default, for no fewer than thirty-two offences, was, after proper seclusion in a convent, was given a parish in Luxembourg. In the case of the Abbé Mallet... in 1861, the Church was unable to save the culprit from punishment, but it did what it could to conceal his crimes from the faithful. As a canon of Cambrai, he seduced three young Jewish girls and procured their confinement in convents under pretext of labouring for their conversion. One of his victims lost her reason in consequence... and the court... sentenced him to six years at hard labour... [It was] announced by an orthodox journal ... [as an] offense of religious proselytism [which] elevate[d] the worst of criminals into a martyr of the faith. It is quite within the bounds of probability that... he may, since the expiation of his sentence, have been enjoying... the opportunity of repeating his missionary experiments.”

— Lea, pp. 572-573.

“One deplorable feature in so many of these cases is the large number of victims frequently represented in a single prosecution, and that the perpetrator had often been afforded the opportunity of continuing his crimes in successive situations. Thus, in the affair of the Abbé Debra... thirty-two offenses charged..., and of those occurring in the single year of 1878, Frère Marien was condemned for no fewer than 299, Frère Mélisse... for fifty, Frère Climène... for twenty-five, and Frère Adulphe... for sixty-seven. It would be a libel on human nature to assert that this catalogue of sin does not represent more than an average of wickedness, and the responsibility for the existence of so shocking a condition of morality must, at least in part, be attributed to the rule of celibacy.”

— Lea, pp. 572-574.

“A sacerdotal caste, divested of the natural ties of family and of the world, with interests in many respects antagonistic to the communities in which its members reside, with aims which... must be for the temporal advancement of its class, is apt to prove a dangerous element in the body politic, and the true interests of religion as well as of humanity are almost as likely to receive injury as benefit at its hands, especially... armed with the measureless power of... absolution, and is held in strict subjection to a hierarchy. Such a caste would seem to be the inevitable consequence of compulsory celibacy... and the hierarchy based upon it can scarce fail to become an enemy of human advancement, as long as the priest continues to share the imperfections of our common nature. How little the aims of that hierarchy have changed with the... ages may be seen in the pretensions which it still advances, as of old, to subject the temporal sovereignty of princes and peoples to the absolute domination of the spiritual power. The temper of [popes] Innocent III and Boniface VIII is still the leading influence in its policy, and the opportunity alone is wanting for it to revive in the twentieth century the all-pervading tyranny which it exercised in the thirteenth. Even the separation of Church and State is condemned as a heresy...”

“There were ages in which the Church was the leader in knowledge and enlightenment; that it has become obscurantist is due to the use... of its leadership [for] temporal and spiritual domination [so] that further development of human intelligence could only be accomplished through revolt, and it thus became the enemy... of human advancement. The policy then adopted rendered a reactionary position inevitable, because in support of its theocratic aspirations it framed a system of dogma assumed to be of divine revelation, and therefore unalterable as the will of God. Entrenched behind this, it has, with varying success, defended its position for more than three centuries... – a triumph which culminated in the [First] Council of the Vatican. This was too complete, and since then signs are not lacking of a growing restlessness which may be provoked to schism or... soothed by wise concessions. The spirit of the age is not propitious for... blind obedience, and the Church may find that only by yielding can it preserve its unity. The lesson of the sixteenth century should not be forgotten, when unwisdom cost it nearly half its membership.”

— Lea, pp. 575-576.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Not much has changed in the century since this text was last revised. Indeed, the situation may seem more hopeless than ever. For as Lea has shown, sacerdotal celibacy has become more than a doctine but the keystone of the entire Roman Catholic structure. The time has long past when it could have been rejected as a failed experiment. If the Roman Church were at this late stage to repudiate clerical celibacy now, what would become of all its other dogmas and its authority?

Nonetheless, the situation must change. The clergy sex abuse scandal, the sins of the fathers, are now resting firmly on the Church. No more will the ancient cover-ups and evasions work. If the Roman Catholic Church cannot deal with the weight of its many sins, it will ultimately be buried by them.


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