Augsburg Confession – Article 23 – Marriage of the Priests

Article 23 of the Augsburg Confession in the Book of Concord of 1580

(To read Article 22, click here.)

A loud and powerful complaint has been voiced in the world by people of every station, both high and low, about the terrible sexual immorality and boorish behavior and lifestyle of the priests who were not capable of remaining chaste, and there were always instances where such horrifying depravities reached their worst. In order to avoid so much repulsive, terrible scandal, adultery, and other sexual immorality, some of our priests have entered the married estate. As the reason, they cite that they have been compelled and moved to do so out of the deep distress of their conscience, since Scripture clearly declares that the married estate was instituted by God the Lord to avoid sexual immorality, as Paul says, “To avoid sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife”;1 likewise, “It is better to get married than to burn.”2 And since Christ says in Matthew 19, “They do not all adopt this principle,” there Christ, who knew well what humans are capable of, is indicating that few people have the gift to live in chastity. For “God has created humans male and female” (Genesis 1). Now whether it is within human power or capacity to improve upon or alter the arrangement of God the Great Majesty, without any special gift and grace of God, through one’s own undertaking or vow—experience has made that answer all too clear. For what sort of good, what sort of honorable, virtuous life, what sort of Christian, honorable, or respectable behavior results from this for many people, what horrifying and terrible uneasiness and torment many have had in their consciences on this account at the very end of their life—this is all as clear as day, and many of them have acknowledged it themselves. If then God’s word and command may not be altered by any human vow or law, these are the reasons and grounds, along with others, upon which the priests and other clergymen have taken wives.

Second page of Article 23 of the Augsburg Confession in the Book of Concord of 1580

It can also be demonstrated from the histories and the Fathers’ writings that, in the Christian church of old, the custom was that the priests and deacons had wives. This is why Paul says in 1 Timothy 3, “A bishop should be irreproachable, a one-woman man.” It also was not until four hundred years ago that the priests in German lands were compelled by force to take a vow of chastity from marriage, and they collectively resisted it, and their resistance was so very fervent and harsh that an archbishop in Mainz, who had published the new papal edict about the matter, was very nearly crushed in an uprising of the entire body of priests.3 And right from the start that prohibition was undertaken so rashly and improperly that the pope at the time not only prohibited the priests from marrying in the future, but also dissolved the marriages of those who had already been in that estate for a long time. This not only runs completely contrary to all divine, natural, and secular law, but also goes completely against the canons that the popes themselves have made4 and against the most renowned church councils.5

Also, the same talk and misgivings can often be heard from the mouths of many high-born, God-fearing, and intelligent people, namely that such forced celibacy and deprival of marriage, which God himself has instituted and left free, has never introduced any benefit, but many great, wicked depravities and much harm instead. Even one of the popes himself, Pius II, as his history demonstrates, often expressed the following sentiment both orally and in writing: There may well be some reasons to forbid marriage to the clergy, but there are many higher, greater, and more important reasons to leave marriage open to them again.6 Without a doubt, Pope Pius said this as an intelligent, wise man, out of grave misgivings.

Therefore, in submission to the Imperial Majesty, we wish to hold out hope that Your Majesty, as a highly esteemed, Christian emperor, will graciously take to heart that at present, in the final times and days of which Scripture informs us, the world is getting increasingly worse and humans are becoming increasingly frailer and weaker. It is therefore certainly very necessary, beneficial, and Christian to observe this fact diligently, so that by forbidding marriage, worse and more shameful sexual immorality and depravity does not run rampant in German lands. For there will never be anyone who can more wisely change or improve this matter but God himself, who has instituted marriage to assist human frailty and to restrain sexual immorality.

The ancient canons also say that one must at times soften and relax strictness and rigor for the sake of human weakness and to prevent and avoid frustration.7 Now that would certainly also be the Christian thing to do in this case, and most highly necessary. And if the priests and clergymen are permitted to marry, what possible downside can there be for ordinary Christian churches, not to mention for the parsons and others who are supposed to serve the church? There will certainly be a lack of priests and parsons in the future, if this harsh prohibition of marriage continues much longer.

Third page of Article 23 of the Augsburg Confession in the Book of Concord of 1580

So now this position, namely that priests and clergymen may get married, is founded on the divine Word and command. In addition, the histories prove that the priests used to be married. So too, the vow of chastity has produced so much repulsive and unchristian scandal, so much adultery, terrible, unbefitting sexual immorality and horrifying depravity that even some of the more honest canons, and even some of the courtiers in Rome, have themselves often acknowledged this and lodged complaints that, since such depravity among the clergy is too horrifying and out of control, God’s wrath is going to be stirred up. With all this being the case, it is therefore all the more deplorable that Christian marriage has not just been forbidden, but treated as grounds for the swiftest punishment as if it were a serious crime, even though God has commanded in Holy Scripture that we treat the married estate with all respect. So too, the married estate is highly praised in the imperial laws and in all the monarchies that have ever had laws and rights. It was not until recently that the people began to be innocently martyred just because of marriage – including priests, who should be the first to be spared – and this takes place not just contrary to divine law, but also contrary to the canons. Paul the apostle, in 1 Timothy 4, calls the doctrine that forbids marriage the devil’s doctrine. Christ himself says in John 8 that the devil was a murderer from the beginning, which then perfectly agrees that it certainly must be the devil’s doctrine to forbid marriage and to undertake to uphold such doctrine with bloodshed.

But just as no human law can set aside or alter God’s command, no vow can alter God’s command either. That is why Saint Cyprian also gives the advice that the women who do not keep the chastity they have vowed should get married, and this is what he says in Epistle 11: “But if they do not want to or are unable to keep chastity, then it is better for them to get married than to fall into the fire through their desire, and they should be very careful not to cause the brothers and sisters to be scandalized.”8

In addition, all the canons similarly practice great lenience and moderation toward those who made a vow in their youth,9 which is exactly how the priests and monks in the majority of cases have entered that estate – in their youth and in ignorance.

(To continue to Article 24, click here.)

Notes

1 1 Corinthians 7:2

2 1 Corinthians 7:9

3 According to Lambert of Hersfeld’s (c. 1028-no later than 1085) Annales, which had been published in 1525 at Melanchthon’s instigation, the archbishop in question was Siegfried I, Archbishop of Mainz from 1060-1084, and the uprising in question took place at the synods in Erfurt and Mainz in 1075.

4 See Gratian’s Decretum, Part 1, Distinction 82, Chapters 2-5, and Distinction 84, Chapter 4 here (type 331 and 337, respectively, in the “Jump to page” field and click Go).

5 See the accounts of Bishop Paphnutius’ exhortations at the First Council of Nicaea by Socrates Scholasticus (born c. 380; history penned c. 440) and Sozomen (born c. 400; history penned c. 445).

6 Platina (1421-1481), in his book on the lives of Christ and all the popes, cites this among the statements made by Pope Pius II (r. 1458-1464): Sacerdotibus magna ratione sublatas nuptias maiori restituendas videri (see e.g. fol. 128b, lines 33-34, in the 1485 Treviso edition).

7 See Gratian’s Decretum, Part 1, Distinction 34, Chapter 7, and Part 2, Subject 1, Question 7, Chapter 5 here (type 180 and 465, respectively, in the “Jump to page” field and click Go).

8 Epistle 61, 2 (Oxford ed.: 4, 2), available in English here and in Latin (where it is numbered 62) in cols. 366,367 here. (Melanchthon is citing the letter according to Erasmus’ numbering.)

9 See Gratian’s Decretum, Part 2, Subject 20, Question 1, Chapters 5, 7, 9, 10, 14, and 15 here (type 872 in the “Jump to page” field and click Go).

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