The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Tuesday, May 20, 2003  

No, Not Now -- In the 16th Century

A few nights ago I read A Brief History of Iceland, by Gunnar Karlsson (Mál Og Menning, 2000. English translation by Anna Yates.).

In it I noted with interest this passage (p. 31):

The bishop of the northern diocese, Jón Arason at Holar, was left alone for the time being, and after the death of Bishop Gissur [Einarsson] in 1548 he even started to intervene in the business of the Skálholt diocese. The king [Christian III] attempted to induce his Icelandic followers to arrest the bishop, but nothing was done until the autumn of 1550, when Bishop Jón risked traveling to the west of Iceland with only a small band of men and his two sons (in Iceland Catholic priests commonly lived with women and had children). [Emphasis added.]

This being "a brief history," Karlsson left it at that, leaving me to wonder why it was that 400 years after the Vatican mandated celibacy for priests (the Second Lateran Council, 1139) that in Iceland, at least, they were still marrying and having children.

Granted, Reykjavík is a long way from Rome, and the population of Iceland at the time probably numbered fewer than 30,000, hardly the kind of place to draw much attention, especially during the rift in the Church after Martin Luther launched the Reformation. But why the lapse? And were priests elsewhere "commonly" marrying and bearing children at the time?

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