Emory Report

July 26, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 36

Exhibit traces origins of church debate on celibacy and gender

Should the Catholic Church permit its clergy to marry? The question is part of current church debate, but its roots lie in the 16th century, the beginning of the early modern period, said religion professor Eugene Bianchi. Using books and items from the Pitts Theology Library's Special Collections, Bianchi has organized a new exhibit, "Celibacy and Gender in 16th Century Christianity," which will open with a reception on Thursday, July 29, at 4:30 p.m. in Woodruff Library's Special Collections.

Bianchi organized the exhibit to coincide with the meeting on campus July 28-Aug. 1 of the Fifth Congress of the International Federation of Married Priests, also called Corpus. Knowing that attendees from across the globe would be on campus, Bianchi decided to draw on Pitts' collection of 16th century books and documents to show the history of both the Protestant and Catholic debates on clergy marriage and celibacy.

"The 16th century was a time of major transitions in society, culture and religion," said Bianchi. "The Protestant Reformation re-established a married clergy in the Western church, while Catholic reformist efforts at the Council of Trent consolidated the discipline of a celibate clergy, which had been widely imposed since the 12th century."

The books on display, along with 16 large wall images, also address the status of women during the period. With the Reformation came not only the eventual closing of convents and monasteries, but also many social changes that affected women's roles in both the family and within the economy, said Bianchi.

"In urban areas, women's roles became increasingly important to the economic structure of the family; women had to keep the family going, especially if the husband was involved in the guild movement," he explained. Convent life--an option which allowed some women to pursue goals beyond home and family, including art, music and literature--gradually declined in Protestant regions after the Reformation; the Protestant movement stressed the spiritual role of women in the home.

To the average person, said Bianchi, the Reformation was less about theological concepts of grace versus works, or authority of scripture versus the pope, than it was about everyday religious practice. "What you saw was this striking change of pastors having wives and children," he said, "and a movement toward trying to get priests to stop living in concubinage," a common practice of the period.

These developments are well documented in the exhibit, which includes a 1563 book by Jesuit priest Jerome Torrens that uses St. Augustine's life and writings to extol the benefits of celibacy and the problems of sexuality. Also included is a tract from Martin Luther to a friend who was an abbot on why monks should leave monasteries and marry.

"Celibacy and Gender in 16th Century Christianity" will be on display in Special Collections through Sept. 30. Hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday. For information call Special Collections at 404-727-6887.

--Elaine Justice

Return to July 26, 1999, contents page