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Ancient and modern

Priests and pagans

9 March 2013

9:00 AM

9 March 2013

9:00 AM

The Catholic tradition of priestly celibacy (Latin caelebs, ‘unmarried’), by which Cardinal O’Brien was bound, is not a dogma, but a discipline. In other words, it can be altered at the rotation of an encyclical. Like much else in the Catholic tradition, it has its roots in the pagan world.

Asceticism derives from the Greek askêsis, ‘training, practice’. Pagans had long believed that humans could be transformed through mental and physical discipline. Pythagoras, for example, thought that the element of the divine in us could be brought out by fasting and contemplation. Diogenes in his clay wine jar rejected the whole concept of ‘society’; the millionaire Seneca, committed to the idea of public service, withdrew into a life of private philosophical study.


For pagans, this was essentially a ‘lifestyle’ statement that only the rich could afford to indulge. But for Christians, the ascetic life was open to anyone. The point was that Christians regarded the body as a distraction from spiritual matters: its tyranny meant that their spirit would always be earth-bound. The purpose of asceticism was therefore to purge the body of its desires and needs in order to bring about closer communion with God.

As with pagans, many options were open: holy men and women could abstain from food and drink, deprive themselves of sleep, demonstrate their disgust for the body by actively causing it pain and discomfort, and most famously deny their sexual feelings, the very basest of physical urges. The ultimate symbol of man’s renunciation of the world was living alone in the desert.

But the Church, as an organisation, could hardly be run by Simeon Stylites, atop his pillar miles from nowhere. How, then, to reconcile bureaucratic needs with a gesture of other-worldliness among Church leaders? Renunciation of the demon sex seemed the least bad option. The ultimate intellectual basis for all this, however, is the classical idea that body (mortal, bad) and mind/spirit (eternal, good) are two quite separate entities. But are they? Over to you, Holy Father, and the best of luck.


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