I recently discovered an extraordinary, rare book which might interest readers of this blog, and even historians and theologians researching the subject of clerical celibacy.  People writing theses on the subject should know about this unpublished book, written over a century ago, which recounts the efforts of a Spanish Cardinal to eradicate the common practice of priests “living in sin” in the Basque Country of the 15th century.

“Not exactly my cuppa tea”, I hear some readers mumble.  But it is a subject of some interest to many people today, especially those who like myself left the priesthood precisely to get married (or would like to …).  It remains one of the most controversial subjects of contemporary Catholicism.

The book in question is accessible only on the Net :

http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k1030513

It was written in French by an erudite Anglican clergyman who was ordained a priest exactly one hundred years before me.  Wentworth Webster (1828-1907) was ordained in 1861 in England, but spent his life living, ministering, researching and writing in France, and more specifically,  in my beloved French Basque Country.  His “Les Loisirs d’Un Etranger au Pays Basque” (“The Leisures of a Foreigner in the Basque Country”) – “non mis dans le commerce” (“not published commercially”) – is a fascinating study of subjects ranging from “Inscriptions in the Basque Country and its Environs” to “The Insurance of Cattle in South-West France and Northern Spain”.  But it is the chapter “The Basques Defended in 1788 by an Englishman against the Calumnies of a Spaniard, Bishop and Cardinal” that interests us.

Webster’s source is a book in English by John Talbot Dillon on the history of Peter the Great, King of Castille and Leon, in which he speaks of a certain Bishop of Gerona, during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, attacking the Basque people, and notably their clergy, as irreligious : “All their priests, without exception, have concubines, without whom they claim they cannot live, and that it was absolutely necessary so as to  convert the married men of the parish.”  Webster, a distinguished linguist, corrects Dillon’s mistranslation of the Latin text : the reason for the approval of the priests’ concubinage was not to convert husbands but to avoid priests “turning to” their wives !  It would seem, in fact, that the parish obliged the priests to have concubines to protect their own families from the clerical potential predators !  Our author suggests that this practice was already an ancient tradition, and that rather than corrupt the morality of the clergy, its effect was “plutôt le contraire” – “rather the exact opposite”.

Some might question the objectivity of a married Anglican priest in such a discussion.  But there is food for thought here.  As a young priest aged 31, I came to the conclusion that obligatory celibacy and even voluntary vows of chastity were meaningless and a contradiction of human nature.  Allowing priests to marry is not, however, a necessary concession due to the danger of their sexual exploitation of their female parishioners.  It is a fundamental human right and a source of human fulfillment and equilibrium.  Its recognition by the Church is a consummation devoutly to be wished, but unlikely to happen anytime soon.  The Vatican has forgotten what the Manufacturer said on His assembly line : “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18).  I’m glad that I, at least, woke up forty-five years ago.

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