Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

CLERK— CLERGY.

There may be something perhaps still remaining for remark under this head, even after Du Cange’s “Dictionary” and the “Encyclopædia.” We may observe, for instance, that so wonderful was the respect paid to learning, about the eleventh and twelfth centuries, that a custom was introduced and followed in France, in Germany, and in England, of remitting the punishment of the halter to every condemned criminal who was able to read. So necessary to the state was every man who possessed such an extent of knowledge. William the Bastard, the conqueror of England, carried thither this custom. It was called benefit of clergy —“beneficum clericorum aut clergicorum.”

We have remarked, in more places than one, that old usages, lost in other countries, are found again in England, as in the island of Samothrace were discovered the ancient mysteries of Orpheus. To this day the benefit of clergy subsists among the English, in all its vigor, for manslaughter, and for any theft not exceeding a certain amount of value, and being the first offence. The prisoner who is able to read demands his “benefit of clergy,” which cannot be refused him. The judge refers to the chaplain of the prison, who presents a book to the prisoner, upon which the judge puts the question to the chaplain, “Legit?” “Does he read?” The chaplain replies: “Legit wt clericus.” “He reads like a clergyman.” After this the punishment of the prisoner is restricted to the application of a hot branding iron to the palm of his hand.

Of the Celibacy of the Clergy.

It is asked whether, in the first ages of the Church, marriage was permitted to the clergy, and when it was forbidden? It is unquestionable that the clergy of the Jewish religion, far from being bound to celibacy, were, on the contrary, urged to marriage, not merely by the example of their patriarchs, but by the disgrace attached to not leaving posterity.

In the times, however, that preceded the first calamities which befell the Jews, certain sects of rigorists arose — Essenians, Judaites, Therapeutæ, Herodians; in some of which — the Essenians and Therapeutæ, for examples — the most devout of the sect abstained from marriage. This continence was an imitation of the chastity of the vestals, instituted by Numa Pompilius; of the daughter of Pythagoras, who founded a convent; of the priests of Diana; of the Pythia of Delphos; and, in more remote antiquity, of the priestesses of Apollo, and even of the priestesses of Bacchus. The priests of Cybele not only bound themselves by vows of chastity, but, to preclude the violation of their vows, became eunuchs. Plutarch, in the eighth question of his “Table-talk,” informs us that, in Egypt, there are colleges of priests which renounce marriage.

The first Christians, although professing to lead a life as pure as that of the Essenians and Therapeutæ, did not consider celibacy as a virtue. We have seen that nearly all the apostles and disciples were married. St. Paul writes to Titus: “Choose for a priest him who is the husband of one wife, having believing children, and not under accusation of dissoluteness.” He says the same to Timothy: “Let the superintendent be the husband of one wife.” He seems to think so highly of marriage that, in the same epistle to Timothy, he says: “The wife, notwithstanding her prevarication, shall be saved in child-bearing.”

The proceedings of the Council of Nice, on the subject of married priests, deserve great attention. Some bishops, according to the relations of Sozomen and Socrates, proposed a law commanding bishops and priests thenceforward to abstain from their wives; but St. Paphnucius the Martyr, bishop of Thebes, in Egypt, strenuously opposed it; observing, “that marriage was chastity”; and the council adopted his opinion. Suidas, Gelasius, Cesicenus, Cassiodorus, and Nicephorus Callistus, record precisely the same thing. The council merely forbade the clergy from living with agapetæ, or female associates besides their own wives, except their mothers, sisters, aunts, and others whose age would preclude suspicion.

After that time, the celibacy of the clergy was recommended, without being commanded. St. Jerome, a devout recluse, was, of all the fathers, highest in his eulogiums of the celibacy of priests; yet he resolutely supports the cause of Carterius, a Spanish bishop, who had been married twice. “Were I,” says he, “to enumerate all the bishops who have entered into second nuptials, I should name as many as were present at the Council of Rimini”—“Tantus numerus congregabitur ut Riminensis synodus superetur.”

The examples of clergymen married, and living with their wives, are innumerable. Sydonius, bishop of Clermont, in Auvergne, in the fifth century, married Papianilla, daughter of the Emperor Avitus, and the house of Polignac claims descent from this marriage. Simplicius, bishop of Bourges, had two children by his wife Palladia. St. Gregory of Nazianzen was the son of another Gregory, bishop of Nazianzen, and of Nonna, by whom that bishop had three children — Cesarius, Gorgonia, and the saint.

In the Roman decretals, under the canon Osius, we find a very long list of bishops who were the sons of priests. Pope Osius himself was the son of a sub-deacon Stephen; and Pope Boniface I., son of the priest Jocondo. Pope Felix III. was the son of Felix, a priest, and was himself one of the grandfathers of Gregory the Great. The priest Projectus was the father of John II.; and Gordian, the father of Agapet. Pope Sylvester was the son of Pope Hormisdas. Theodore I. was born of a marriage of Theodore, patriarch of Jerusalem; a circumstance which should produce the reconciliation of the two Churches.

At length, after several councils had been held without effect on the subject of the celibacy, which ought always to accompany the priesthood, Pope Gregory excommunicated all married priests; either to add respectability to the Church, by the greater rigor of its discipline, or to attach more closely to the court of Rome the bishops and priests of other countries, who would thus have no other family than the Church. This law was not established without great opposition.

It is a very remarkable circumstance that the Council of Basel, having deposed, at least nominally, Pope Eugenius IV., and elected Amadeus of Savoy, many bishops having objected against that prince that he had been married, Æneas Sylvius, who was afterwards pope, under the name of Pius II., supported the election of Amadeus in these words: “Non solum qui uxorem habuit, sed uxorem habens, potest assumere” —“Not only may he be made a pope who has been married, but also he who is so.”

This Pius II. was consistent. Peruse his letters to his mistress, in the collection of his works. He was convinced, that to defraud nature of her rights was absolute insanity, and that it was the duty of man not to destroy, but to control her.

However this may be, since the Council of Trent there has no longer been any dispute about the celibacy of the Roman Catholic clergy; there have been only desires. All Protestant communions are, on this point, in opposition to Rome.

In the Greek Church, which at present extends from the frontiers of China to Cape Matapan, the priests may marry once. Customs everywhere vary; discipline changes conformably to time and place. We here only record facts; we enter into no controversy.

Of Clerks of the Closet, Since Denominated Secretaries of State and Ministers.

Clerks of the closet, clerks of the king, more recently denominated secretaries of state, in France and England, were originally the “king’s notaries.” They were afterwards called “secretaries of orders”— secrétaires des commandemens. This we are informed of by the learned and laborious Pasquier. His authority is unquestionable, as he had under his inspection the registers of the chamber of accounts, which, in our own times, have been destroyed by fire.

At the unfortunate peace of Cateau-Cambrésis, a clerk of Philip II., having taken the title of secretary of state, de l’Aubespine, who was secretary of orders to the king of France, and his notary, took that title likewise, that the honors of both might be equal, whatever might be the case with their emoluments.

In England, before the reign of Henry VIII., there was only one secretary of the king, who stood while he presented memorials and petitions to the council. Henry VIII. appointed two, and conferred on them the same titles and prerogatives as in Spain. The great nobles did not, at that period, accept these situations; but, in time, they have become of so much consequence that peers of the realm and commanders of armies are now invested with them. Thus everything changes. There is at present no relic in France of the government of Hugh Capet, nor in England of the administration of William the Bastard.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25