§ 12. Gregory VII. as a Moral Reformer. Simony and Clerical Marriage.
Gregory VII. must be viewed not only as a papal absolutist, but also as a moral reformer. It is the close connection of these two characters that gives him such pre-eminence in history, and it is his zeal for moral reform that entitles him to real respect; while his pretension to absolute power he shares with the most worthless popes.
His Church ideal formed a striking contrast to the actual condition of the Church, and he could not actualize it without raising the clergy from the deep slough of demoralization to a purer and higher plane.
His reforms were directed against simony and Nicolaitism. What he had done as Hildebrand, by way of advice, he now carried out by official authority.
In the war on simony he was altogether right from the standpoint of Protestant as well as Roman Catholic ethics. The traffic in ecclesiastical dignities was an unmitigated nuisance and scandal, and doubly criminal if exercised by bishops and popes.
In his war on Nicolaitism, Gregory was sustained by ancient laws of the Roman Church, but not by the genuine spirit of Christianity. Enforced clerical celibacy has no foundation in the Bible, and is apt to defeat the sacerdotal ideal which it was intended to promote. The real power and usefulness of the clergy depend upon its moral purity, which is protected and promoted by lawful matrimony, the oldest institution of God, dating from the paradise of innocence.
The motives of Gregory in his zeal for sacerdotal celibacy were partly monkish and partly hierarchical. Celibacy was an essential part of his ascetic ideal of a priest of God, who must be superior to carnal passions and frailties, wholly devoted to the interests of the Church, distracted by no earthly cares, separated from his fellow-men, and commanding their reverence by angelic purity. Celibacy, moreover, was an indispensable condition of the freedom of the hierarchy. He declared that he could not free the Church from the rule of the laity unless the priests were freed from their wives. A married clergy is connected with the world by social ties, and concerned for the support of the family; an unmarried clergy is independent, has no home and aim but the Church, and protects the pope like a standing army.
Another motive for opposing clerical marriage was to prevent the danger of a hereditary caste which might appropriate ecclesiastical property to private uses and impoverish the Church. The ranks of the hierarchy, even the chair of St. Peter, were to be kept open to self-made men of the humblest classes, but closed against hereditary claimants. This was a practical recognition of the democratic principle in contrast with the aristocratic feudalism of the Middle Ages. Hildebrand himself, who rose from the lowest rank without patronage to the papal throne, was the best illustration of this clerical democracy.
The power of the confessional, which is one of the pillars of the priesthood, came to the aid of celibacy. Women are reluctant to intrust their secrets to a priest who is a husband and father of a family.
The married priests brought forward the example of the priests of the Old Testament. This argument Damiani answered by saying that the Hebrew priest was forbidden to eat before offering sacrifices at the altar. How much more unseemly it would be for a priest of the new order to soil himself carnally before offering the sacraments to God! The new order owed its whole time to the office and had none left for marriage and the family life (1 Cor. 7:32). Only an unmarried man who refuses to gratify carnal lusts can fulfil the injunction to be a temple of God and avoid quenching the Spirit (Eph. 4:30; 1 Thess. 5:19).47
These motives controlled also the followers of Gregory and the whole hierarchy, and secured the ultimate triumph of sacerdotal celibacy. The question of abolishing it has from time to time been agitated, and in the exceptional cases of the Maronites and United Greeks the popes have allowed single marriage in deference to old custom and for prudential reasons. Pope Pius II., before he ascended the papal chair (1458–1464), said that good reasons required the prohibition of clerical marriage, but better reasons required its restoration. The hierarchical interest, however, has always overruled these better reasons. Whatever may have been the advantages of clerical celibacy, its evils were much greater. The sexual immorality of the clergy, more than anything else, undermined the respect of the people for their spiritual guides, and was one of the chief causes of the Reformation, which restored honorable clerical marriage, created a pastoral home with its blessings, and established the supremacy of conscience over hierarchical ambition.
From the standpoint of a zealous reformer like Gregory, the morals of the clergy were certainly in a low condition. No practice did he condemn with such burning words as the open marriage of priests or their secret cohabitation with women who were to all intents and purposes their wives. Contemporary writers like Damiani, d. 1072, in his Gomorrhianus, give dark pictures of the lives of the priests. While descriptions of rigid ascetics are to be accepted with caution, the evidence abounds that in all parts of Latin Christendom the law of priestly celibacy was ignored.48 Modern Catholic historians, like Hefele49 and Funk,50 (do not hesitate to adduce the proofs of this state of affairs. The pope Benedict IX., according to friendly testimony, was thinking of taking a wife openly.51 The legislation, opening with the canons of the Roman synod of 1049 held by Leo IX., and emphasized at the Roman synod of 1059 held under Nicholas II., was given by Gregory VII. such a prominence that one might have supposed the very existence of the Church depended upon the enforcement of clerical celibacy. There were bishops even in Italy who openly permitted the marriage of priests, as was the case with Kunibert of Turin.52 In Germany, Bishop Poppo of Toul did not conceal his quasi-marital relations which Gregory denounced as fornication,53 and the bishops of Spires and Lausanne had hard work clearing themselves in public synods from a like charge. Married priests were denominated by synods and by Gregory VII. as "incontinent" or "concubinary priests."54 Gregory spoke of Germany as afflicted with the "inveterate disease of clerical fornication."55 And what was true of Italy and Germany was true of England.