What I Learned From Victorian Literature about Priestly Celibacy

I’m thankful that we have priests who prefigure the joy of the Resurrection through their gift of themselves to God alone, for the sake of the Church.

Frederick Waddy, “Anthony Trollope”, 1872
Frederick Waddy, “Anthony Trollope”, 1872 (photo: Public Domain)

As I recently reread Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers I commented to my husband that one could use the events of the novel to argue for why the Catholic Church should not have married priesthood be the norm. The novel tells of the conflicts within the Anglican hierarchy of the fictional cathedral town of Barchester set in the fictional English county of Barsetshire in the mid-19th century. It shows what a hierarchical church looks like after nearly 300 years of mostly married clergy running the church from the curates to the bishops. I know that a church where the Queen is the head and the politicians appoint bishops does not perfectly show truths about the modern Catholic Church, but we can still learn lessons from their experience, even those expressed in novels. (I must confess from the get-go that most of my knowledge of the Church of England comes from my extensive reading of Victorian literature, so bear with me.)

Before we go any further let’s take a look at what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about clerical celibacy:

All the ordained ministers of the Latin Church, with the exception of permanent deacons, are normally chosen from among men of faith who live a celibate life and who intend to remain celibate "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven." Called to consecrate themselves with undivided heart to the Lord and to "the affairs of the Lord," they give themselves entirely to God and to men. Celibacy is a sign of this new life to the service of which the Church's minister is consecrated; accepted with a joyous heart celibacy radiantly proclaims the Reign of God. (CCC §1579)

What we have now in the Church are men who serve us in the priesthood with a total commitment to the service of the Church. It is a hard and beautiful vocation, and only possible because Holy Orders is a sacrament through which our priests receive extraordinary grace to prefigure in their lives how we will all live in Heaven and in the Resurrection with God.

Let’s get back to this novel. If you have never read a novel by Trollope, I highly recommend all six of his Chronicles of Barset, of which Barchester Towers is the second. (In fact, I have already recommended them in this list of good books.) He writes all of his characters in a very honest, yet forgiving manner.

For example, he presents us with the High Church Archdeacon in a very sympathetic manner, but then does not gloss over the loud, domineering, almost rigid way in which the Archdeacon presents his views. The Archdeacon has good principles in which he grounds himself, but is not very tactful.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the controlling, power-hungry wife of the Bishop. She bosses her Bishop-husband about, tells him how to run the diocese and pushes her own rigid Evangelical (almost Puritanical) agenda. Yet, we are given a chance to sympathize with her as well, and see the world from her perspective. These are just two of the many characters, which give a reader a wonderful chance to reflect on the depths of human weaknesses and strengths.

The plot of Barchester Towers focuses mostly on several clerical families, and how the father’s profession impacts their entire lives. If Victorian literature is honest in how it presents its own culture, I think it is fair to say that the British of the 19th century simply viewed ordination as another profession. Sure, one who was a clergyman was expected to live a more moral life than the layperson, but they still unless they had a cushy preferment they had to scramble to have a living, make connections in order to get one, and the ones who were married (which seems to be most of them eventually) were constantly worried about how to support their families. The clerical state was seen much more as a means of supporting oneself than a vocation to serve God and the church. It seems that educated British men, when graduating with a degree, would then decide if they were going to enter into the law, politics, the church, etc.

The Church of England developed out the Catholic tradition after it split off from Rome in the 16th century; it maintained much of the hierarchical structure. So, it is reasonable to think that a hypothetical future Catholic Church that allowed for married clergy instead of holding celibacy as an important and central part of the priesthood, would eventually look something like the Victorian Church of England.

If the Catholic Church were to adopt the married priesthood as the norm, it is very possible that Catholic men would begin to line it up alongside other job possibilities instead of seeing it as a completely different, and separate vocation from the rest of the world. With our current lack of vocations in many dioceses, a man might even see it as a vocation to enter into for job security.

As an aside, I am not saying that the Eastern churches that have married priesthood view it in this way, or the small number of married Catholic priests see it this way, but that if it were to become the norm we might see our church look very much like the Church of England in Victorian literature. A further note about the Eastern Churches is that it is the norm for bishops to be celibate, thus showing the value of a man being celibate “for the sake of the kingdom of God.” (CCC §1580)

Barchester Towers give us examples of situations that could arise. Would a married bishop find himself letting his wife make all the decisions like Bishop Proudie and Mrs. Proudie? Or would a married priest find himself like Mr. Quiverful and his wife, with not enough funds to support their family seeking for a better preferment? Wouldn’t we rather that most priests find themselves more worried about how to please God than of the things of the world? Would priests seek to marry wealthy widows in order to have more influence and income? Would others choose to become priests, simply to have job security, but neglect their duties and raise their children to little or no faith like Dr. Stanhope and his wife?

St. Paul wrote the Corinthians: “I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.” (1 Corinthians 7:32-34) The married clergy in Barchester Towers find themselves very tied up in the anxieties of the world and how to please their wives.

While the life of a Catholic diocesan priest is certainly not worry free, he is free from those that burden us lay people. For example, I cannot tell you how many times I was interrupted in a short period of prayer this afternoon by my children who were occupied quietly until I sat down to pray. Or he does not have to worry about the health of his own children or wife. He is freer to serve the Church with his whole self. There is also the beautiful symbolism of the celibate priesthood, which prefigures the state we will be in after the Resurrection where we will neither marry nor be given in marriage, but be like angels in heaven. (Matthew 22:30)

With the recent discussion of married priesthood in the Church, I think it would be worthwhile for Catholics to dive into the world of Barsetshire to think seriously about what our Church might look like in a couple hundred years were we to change that norm and be thankful that we have men in the priesthood who prefigure the joy of the Resurrection through their gift of themselves to God, and God alone, for the sake of the Church. Besides that those who choose to read these books will also learn to sympathize with human weakness, be forgiving of human failings, see the good in other people, and be entertained by the church politics of Trollope’s day (including a clergyman of the Oxford Movement who almost became Catholic). You will not regret getting to know Mr. Harding and his friends if you take the time to read these good books.