Celibacy, Misogyny, and Sodomy

The medieval insistence on clerical celibacy had dangerous and long-lasting consequences. 

The Sodomites from Dante’s Divine Comedy, Italian, 14th century © Bridgeman Images.

In 1475 John Stocker, a chaplain of the cathedral of Basel, was convicted by an ecclesiastical court for committing sodomy with John Müller, a chorister who was also Stocker’s lodger. The cleric justified his behaviour by saying that, while relations with a woman would not have been tolerated, he could have sexual relations with a boy and still be regarded a pious priest. Stocker was not alone. Around 1323 Arnold of Verniolle, subdeacon and Franciscan apostate of Pamiers, attempted to seduce a schoolboy by arguing that sodomy with another male was a lesser offence than sex with a woman. Several centuries later at least one cleric was prepared to go still further, arguing before the Spanish Inquisition that fornication with boys was not sinful, but holy and just. 

These claims seem counter-intuitive. Then, as now, the Church regarded sodomy between males as a much more grievous offence than fornication between men and women, while the secular tribunals of pre-modern Europe commonly treated sodomy as a capital crime. Yet the theologically aberrant views expressed by these clerics arguably reflect a reality that was created by the requirement of clerical celibacy. For, while sodomy may theoretically have been more sinful, clerical sodomy presented considerably fewer challenges to the Church than did clerical marriage. Clerical wives and their offspring divided a cleric’s loyalty and depleted church resources. Furthermore, because it was almost impossible for married priests to conceal their families from the public, such relations were, by definition, more scandalous. By contrast, clerical sodomy need not undermine a cleric’s commitment to the Church. In fact, because such relations were frequently what might be described as ‘in-house’ affairs, they were not only more easily concealed, but may even have enhanced a given cleric’s commitment to his vocation. 

These dynamics are clear in the 11th-century reform movement that sought to impose celibacy on the secular clergy. Those who resisted frequently accused the reformers of condemning honest and public marriages while furtively committing sodomy among themselves.  

Although the reformers were eventually successful, it is important to be clear about what success means in this context. The Second Lateran Council triumphantly declared clerical marriage to be null and void in 1139. But there is an important difference between chastity – sexual abstinence – and celibacy, which simply means unmarried. The clergy was now celibate insofar as they could not enter into marriage, but this did not render them chaste. On the contrary, in the wake of the reform, there was a flourishing of letters celebrating amorous relations between the clergy and no effort to prosecute such relations. Meanwhile, clerical relations with women went further underground: clerical wives were definitively reclassified as concubines and actively persecuted. 

It is not difficult to see how the requirement of clerical celibacy disparaged women. In fact, misogyny was central to the reformers’ arguments against clerical marriage: wives were agents of the devil, whose depraved sexuality would pollute the sacraments. But the requirement of clerical celibacy also weighed heavily on children. The disinheritance of clerical children and their reclassification as bastards is one of the most apparent consequences. More covertly, clerical celibacy also played a role in fostering a widespread culture of child abuse. Because of the clergy’s freer access to male children, they were, arguably, especially at risk. Religious communities accepted very young children as oblates (literally, ‘offerings’) to be brought up in the monastery, where young boys would be especially vulnerable to sexual predation. Despite the imbalance of authority and age, many monastic sources tended to blame the boy himself for the temptation he afforded. A commentator on the Benedictine Rule stipulated that a child who was the victim of rape should be beaten, while his assailant should endure only a light penance – especially if he was a first-time offender who happened to be drunk. An anonymous 13th-century poem captures this mentality when reflecting that: ‘The morals of the young are not corrupted in the cloister / Often the older brothers are molested by them. / Anyone who defends the young and does not reprove them is frequently duped and falls into a trap.’ 

There were exceptions. In the tenth century, Odo of Cluny laments that a boy, given as a pure offering like Samuel, should be corrupted by ‘someone whom Satan inflamed’. And, in the 12th century, Bernard of Cluny would complain that ‘the flames and ardour of Sodom are wickedly common. No one conceals or represses this wickedness’. But it is only in 1292 that the Cluniac Order’s general chapter saw fit to address the question of sodomy, indicting ‘whoever imposes the sin against nature through malice on his brother’. Even though sodomy was widely perceived as ‘the clerical vice’, prosecutions by Church courts were exceedingly rare. The few clerics who were prosecuted had either occasioned public scandal, or were accused of grievous offences, such as heresy, and the accusation of sodomy provided useful corroboration of depravity. The case of John Stocker falls into the former category, Arnold of Verniolle into the latter. 

The medieval legacy of sexual exploitation of minors casts a long shadow over the Church. Clerical celibacy continues to provide cover for this abuse, even as ecclesiastical authorities persist in concealing such crimes. Seen in this harsh light, the Church today could be construed as a time capsule for abandoned or discredited ideologies and practices. The medieval Church was heir to St Augustine’s perception of children as always already corrupted. Perhaps the longue durée of clerical pederasty is but a manifestation of this view. This is not implausible, given the Church’s traditional resistance to change: in many ways, clerical culture has remained frozen in time, much like its liturgy and vestments.


Dyan Elliott is Professor of History at Northwestern University and the author of The Corrupter of Boys: Sodomy, Scandal, and the Medieval Clergy (University of Pennsylvania, 2020).