“Plainly Diabolical”: Bishop Davenant Weighs in on Clerical Celibacy


By Michael Lynch

“It is unbelievable to think that the Roman Catholics, by imposing celibacy, are thinking about the holiness of the priesthood seeing that they are not able to hide the fact that this coercive celibacy of priests has morally polluted nearly the whole class of massmongers through their abominable lusts.”

“I believe it is a wholesome law, and that for the good and health of souls, that those who desire it should be free to marry, because experience teaches us that an opposite effect results from that law of continency. Since nowadays, they do not live spiritually, nor are they clean, but are polluted with their great sin by illicit sexual intercourse, when they should be chaste with their own wives.”

These quotes are not referencing the most recent set of sexual abuse scandals noted in Pennsylvania, nor are they in reference to the rampant homosexuality of the Roman Catholic priesthood. No. The first quote was written in the early 17th century by John Davenant. The second quote is from the early 15th century by Cardinal Niccolò Tedeschi (Panormitanus) of the Order of Saint Benedict. This is old news. The Roman Catholic theologian Albert Pighius, with whom Calvin debated, wrote that it was a lesser sin to fornicate than for a priest to marry. Not to be outdone by Pighius, the German Roman Catholic Matthias Aquensis (also known as Matthias Kremer) argued that is was better to fornicate with a hundred different people than to break one’s vow of celibacy. And who can avoid mentioning the sophistry behind the various Roman Catholic interpretations of the bull of Pope Pius V on sodomy and the priesthood? One cannot help but wonder what might have been their motivation.

Such was the milieu in which Davenant, as Lady Margaret Professor of Theology at Cambridge, gave his lecture in the 1610’s defending the thesis that: “Thus, marrying in the Sacerdotal Order is lawful, and the decree for its prohibition in the Church of Rome is unlawful, anti-Christian, and plainly diabolical.” In this post, I want to highlight some of the more pertinent parts of Davenant’s lecture as they relate to the present problems facing the Roman Catholic Church.

Davenant began his lecture laying out four different positions on celibacy and the priesthood among Roman Catholic theologians. Some theologians held that priestly celibacy is by divine right, that is, divine law. Others taught that while it is not a divine law, it is apostolic, that is, the universal practice of the early church. Third, some suggested that it is merely a plain law, which could be abrogated at any time by church. Fourth, among those who believed it was a plain law, there were some who proposed that the law ought to be altogether abrogated, as the formerly-mentioned Panormitanus argued.

Davenant defended his thesis that celibacy is not necessarily annexed to the various sacred orders by way of four main arguments.

  • First, he did not believe it was biblical. Instead, both in the Old and New Testaments, priests are permitted to marry. In fact, Scripture warns of those false teachers who forbid marriage (1 Tim 4:3).
  • Second, Davenant noted that the Eastern church has always allowed married priests, which would be surprising if the ancient church forbid it.
  • Third, if apostolic authority forbid marriage to the priesthood, Davenant asks, “why is it that so many children of Priests were promoted to the Roman Episcopate in the Western Church?”
  • Fourthly, although Davenant admitted that, at times, church councils have attempted to bind the church to a celibate priesthood, he noted the adage of the great Canon lawyer, Gratian: “laws are established when promulgated; confirmed when approved by rendered obedience; sometimes abrogated by contrary customs” (cf. Distinction 4). According to Davenant, the demand for a celibate clergy never took the force of a general rule in the Western Church until the “violence and tyranny” of Gregory VII, who began vigorously enforcing celibacy upon the priesthood.

One of the more interesting parts of Davenant’s lecture is his objection to Cardinal Robert Bellarmine’s views on clerical celibacy. Bellarmine argued not only that the law of celibacy is just, but that it was not advantageous to abrogate this law in the early modern period. Davenant responded to Bellarmine’s first assertion (i.e., that requiring priestly celibacy is just), claiming that marriage is a law of nature, and, therefore, it is unjust to deprive the priesthood from this right. Bellarmine argued that celibacy was not forbidden to anyone, but on the condition of entering the sacerdotal office. Yet, Davenant thought that this was ridiculous. After all, if the priesthood is a necessary part of any church or state, then it necessarily follows that such a law prohibits some in that community from their natural right to marriage. Davenant illustrates:

If a King should forbid all lawyers or merchants from marrying, it might be truly said that many were excluded from matrimony, although he should offer no impediment to anyone from becoming a merchant or taking up the profession of the law, because the State could not exist without the services of many such. In a similar way, also, the Pope prohibits matrimony to many thousands, whilst he prohibits it to all priests, without whom the Church cannot exist.

In short, Davenant denied the right of the church to forbid a natural right, like marriage.

Davenant’s second response, to Bellarmine’s belief that a celibate priesthood is a just law, is apropos to the problems facing the Roman Catholic church today. Davenant claimed that a conditional prohibition is iniquitous and unlawful if it cannot be observed without leading many into sin. It would be as if the church should make it a rule that those who wish to be priests could never take medicine, regardless of their disease. Davenant writes:

“They no less offend who make it a decree that no one shall be initiated into Orders, unless he will first take a vow not to adopt the remedy of matrimony, although he may be in imminent danger of suffering from incontinence.”

This brings us to Davenant’s reply to Bellarmine’s belief that, in his own early modern context, celibacy should still be enforced. Davenant said that when the salvation of souls is at stake, such celibacy laws must be relaxed:

If we admit that that decree was originally neither unjust nor impious, yet now, when all the world attests that it tends to the ruin of souls, something of the rigor of the law ought to be relaxed; for the salvation of souls is a law above all others, to which equity demands that Canons of this description should give way.

One cannot imagine a more fitting argument against the contemporary problems facing the Roman Catholic Church. When the lives of children are at stake, when the souls of priests are at stake, who in their right mind would not abrogate such a law?

Davenant approvingly quoted from the first canon of the Council of Neocæsarea: “If a presbyter marry, let him be removed from his order; but if he commit fornication or adultery, let him be altogether cast out [i.e. of communion] and put to penance.” Yet, as Davenant speaks of the practice of the Roman Church in his own day: “‘Priests who contract matrimony are not suspended from the office, but from a tree’ (as Melancthon wrote); but fornicators are treated much more gently.” In fact, the ordinary gloss on distinction 82 of the first part of Gratian’s Decrees expressly said that “unless he should persist in [fornication], because our bodies are more frail nowadays than they used to be formerly” a priest should not be deposed from the ministry. Even in the Decretals of Gregory the IX, it is said that: “Clericus concubinarius in officiis vitandus non est, nisi sit notorius” [A cleric keeping concubines should not be refused in his duties, unless it is notorious].

Previous to the Reformation, as Davenant mentioned, John Gerson wrote that in his day, “this evil [of lust] has gained such a height that now there is greater reason for putting up with priests who live in fornication, than with prostitutes, lest more flagitious vices be the consequence.”

Is it time to get rid of mandated celibacy amongst the priesthood? Yes.

Michael Lynch is a PhD candidate at Calvin Theological Seminary and teaches Latin and Greek at Tall Oaks Classical School in Delaware.

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