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§ 75. Clerical Morals.


1. Social Position. The clergy stood, during the middle ages, at the head of society, and shared with kings and nobles the rule of the people. They had the guardianship of the souls and consciences of men, and handled the keys of the kingdom of heaven. They possessed nearly all the learning, but it was generally very limited, and confined to a little Latin without any Greek. Some priests descended from noble and even royal blood, others from slaves who belonged to monasteries. They enjoyed many immunities from public burdens, as military duty and taxation. Charlemagne and his successors granted to them all the privileges which the Eastern emperors from the time of Constantine had bestowed upon them. They could not be sued before a civil court, and had their own episcopal tribunals. No lay judge could apprehend or punish an ecclesiastic without the permission of his bishop.

They were supported by the income from landed estates, cathedral funds, and the annual tithes which were enacted after the precedent of the Mosaic law. Pepin, by a decree of 764, imposed the payment of tithes upon all the royal possessions. Charlemagne extended it to all lands, and made the obligation general by a capitulary in 779. The tithes were regarded as the minimum contribution for the maintenance of religion and the support of the poor. They were generally paid to the bishop, as the administrator of all ecclesiastical goods. Many nobles had their own domestic chaplains who depended on their lords, and were often employed in degrading offices, as waiting at table and attending to horses and hounds.

2. Morals. The priests were expected to excel in virtue as well as in education, and to commend their profession by an exemplary life. Upon the whole they were superior to their flock, but not unfrequently they disgraced their profession by scandalous immorality. According to ancient discipline every priest at his ordination was connected with a particular church except missionaries to heathen lands. But many priests defied the laws, and led an irregular wandering life as clerical tramps. They were forbidden to wear the sword, but many a bishop lost his life on the battle field and even some popes engaged in warfare. Drunkenness and licentiousness were common vices. Gregory of Tours mentions a bishop named Cautinus who, when intoxicated, had to be carried by four men from the table. Boniface gives a very unfavorable but partizan account of the French and German clergymen who acted independently of Rome. The acts of Synods are full of censures and punishments of clerical sins and vices. They legislated against fornication, intemperance, avarice, the habits of hunting, of visiting horse-races and theatres, and enjoined even corporal punishments.328328    It seems incredible that there should have been an occasion for legislation against clergymen keeping houses of prostitution; and yet the Quinisexta or Trullan Synod of 692 enacted the canon: “He who keeps a brothel, if a clergyman, shall be deposed and excommunicated; if a layman, excommunicated.” Hefele III. 341.

Clerical immorality reached the lowest depth in the tenth and eleventh centuries, when Rome was a sink of iniquity, and the popes themselves set the worst example. But a new reform began with the Hildebrandian popes.

3. Canonical Life. Chrodegang, bishop of Metz (a.d. 760), reformed the clergy by introducing, or reviving, after the example of St. Augustin, the “canonical” or semi-monastic life. The bishop and lower clergymen lived in the same house, near the cathedral, ate at the same table, prayed and studied together, like a family of monks, only differing from them in dress and the right of holding property or receiving fees for official services. Such an establishment was called Chapter,329329    Capitulum, from the chapter of the Bible or of the monastic rules which were read in common every day. The name was applied both to the clerical brotherhood and to their habitation (chapter-house). The plural, Capitula or Capitularia designates codes of law ecclesiastical or civil, digested under chapters. See Martene, De Antiqu. Eccl. Ritibus, 1, IV. c. VI. § 4, and Haddan In Smith and Cheetham, I. 347. and the members of it were called Canons.330330    Canonici, either because they were bound by canons, or enrolled on the lists of ecclesiastical officers. They occupied an intermediate position between the secular clergy and the monks. See Du Cange, and Smith and Cheetham, sub Canonici.

The example was imitated in other places. Charlemagne made the canonical life obligatory on all bishops as far as possible. Many chapters were liberally endowed. But during the civil commotions of the Carolingians the canonical life degenerated or was broken up.

4. Celibacy. In the East the lower clergy were always allowed to marry, and only a second marriage is forbidden. In the West celibacy was the prescribed rule, but most clergymen lived either with lawful wives or with concubines. In Milan all the priests and deacons were married in the middle of the eleventh century, but to the disgust of the severe moralists of the time.331331    Hefele IV. 794. Hadrian II. was married before he became pope, and had a daughter, who was murdered by her husband, together with the pope’s wife, Stephania (868).332332    Ibid. p. 373. The wicked pope Benedict IX. sued for the daughter of his cousin, who consented on condition that he resign the papacy (1033).333333    Ibid. p. 707. The Hildebrandian popes, Leo IX. and Nicolas II., made attempts to enforce clerical celibacy all over the West. They identified the interests of clerical morality and influence with clerical celibacy, and endeavored to destroy natural immorality by enforcing unnatural morality. How far Gregory VII. succeeded in this part of his reform, will be seen in the next period.



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