Celibacy Is the Lynch-Pin of Male Dominance according to Matilda Joslyn Gage by Carol P. Christ

Matilda Joslyn Gage

Matilda Joslyn Gage was an activist in the nineteenth century struggle for women’s rights equal to Susan B. Anthony, and a writer and theorist equal to Elizabeth Cady Stanton. That she is not remembered is due in large part to Susan B. Anthony’s efforts to write her out of history.

Matilda Joslyn Gage was also a scholar of women’s history unrivaled in her time. In Woman Church, and State, Gage argued that “the most grievous wrong ever inflicted upon women was in the Christian teaching that she was not created equal with man.” (page 1) From this it follows that feminists must never lose sight of the role Christian teachings have played and continue to play in the unequal treatment of women.

According to Gage, women’s position in church and state did not improve in the Christian era. To the contrary it declined! Gage proved this thesis in chapters titled: The Matriarchate, Celibacy, Canon Law, Marquette, Witchcraft, Wives, Polygamy, Woman and Work, and The Church of Today.

In her chapter on Celibacy, Gage pointed out that though celibacy had been part of Christian history from the beginning, it did not become a requirement for priests in the western Church until the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 CE. Before that, most priests were married (as they continue to be in the Eastern Orthodox churches). Why do we not know that celibacy has not always been a necessary part of the priesthood? Is this part of the mystification of power?

According to Gage, celibacy did not become required for the priesthood in order to promote holiness. In fact, it did the opposite. Rather its purpose was to increase male power and to line the coffers of the church.

Married priests would leave their property to their wives and children. But with no wives and no children, priests would leave their property to the church. But women also joined celibate orders, didn’t they? The Church encouraged rich women to join holy orders in order to gain control of their property. Poor women were not.

OK, you might be thinking, but celibate priests were holy, weren’t they? Not having wives and children, they could devote their lives to service. In fact, as Gage shows, the majority of priests were never celibate.

After the Fourth Lateran Council, married priests were told to leave their wives and children. This created a class of women and children who were cut off from all means of support, given that married women had already been prohibited from owning property. Many priests refused to follow the church’s orders, but this meant that their wives were declared whores and their children illegitimate: as such, they could not inherit.

As more and more priests refused marriage, more and more women found themselves without even the (limited) financial and social protection marriage provided. The numbers of prostitutes increased. It was so widely assumed that priests would not be celibate that they all had to pay a “concubinage” tax. Things were so bad that in some places priests were forbidden from sheltering their mothers or sisters—because many priests were committing incest with their mothers and sisters. Priests were also prohibited from visiting widows and orphans because they so often took advantage of them.

According to Gage, the insistence that priests must avoid marriage strengthened the church’s claim that women were inherently evil, while increasing the power of priests. It was already church dogma that woman (Eve) introduced sin into the world. It was also already church dogma that original sin was transmitted through the desire that was aroused in the sexual act. Male priests were now declared free of this sin.

Whereas they had once been viewed as men like other men, priests were now set apart. Their authority could no longer be questioned. This gave them new opportunity to take advantage of the power they had. Developing the theory that they were spiritually free of sin even while carnally engaged in it, priests told women that having holy sex with them was less sinful than having sex with a husband. Do you find (as I did) that hard to believe? Gage’s footnotes show that this was widespread practice.

Gage notes that after the Fourth Lateran Council, the requirement that sins be named through spoken confession increased the power of the newly holy and now infallible priests. They learned the most intimate secrets of people and could use the threat of eternal damnation to control them. The system of paid indulgences became common. No, the confessional (that led to one of my aunts being excommunicated when she confessed using birth control after her husband’s serious heart attack) was never a good thing!

About the time of the Fourth Lateran Council, ordinary people were prohibited from reading the Bible: they could have no recourse against the priests. Heresy was defined more broadly and more severely punished. The Inquisition began. This was also the time when the Church tightened its control over civil law.

Rereading Gage’s book after several decades, I found myself so shocked and disgusted by the information she was presenting, that I kept closing the book and setting it aside. My margin notes show that I had indeed once read the entire book, but I had not remembered all of the details. I probably had not wanted to.

We like to think that the abuse of priestly power was the aberration, not the rule.

We like to think that things were not really that bad.

We may also like to think that celibacy is a wierdly Catholic problem.

The idea the celibacy is holy is an outgrowth of the belief expressed in many religions that birth through the body of a woman is to be overcome, because spiritual liberation requires “rebirth,” understood as transcendence of life in the body. The Mother who was once revered as the source of life is despised as the source of sexual temptation, and woman is forced to obey the new rule of man.

Information on Gage can be found on the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation website.


Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator who will soon be moving to Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.

Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.

Author: Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a leading feminist historian of religion and theologian who leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, a life transforming tour for women. www.goddessariadne.org

10 thoughts on “Celibacy Is the Lynch-Pin of Male Dominance according to Matilda Joslyn Gage by Carol P. Christ”

  1. Thank you for this essay, Carol. It summarizes perfectly why I left the Christian religion. I grew tired of being assured that I was worthless because I’m human and evil because I was born female.

    I object vociferously to the entire premise of the Christian religion: “There’ll be pie in the sky when you die.” What? In other words, it doesn’t matter how poor, hungry, sick, and miserable you are in this life, because you’ll be happy when you’re dead?
    If it weren’t for the “You’re a sinner and no matter how good you try to be, you’re still going straight to hell” overlying the Pie Premise, Christianity would be a very hard sell.

    Let those who like that religion practice it in peace and harmony. I would ask only that they refrain from inflicting their beliefs on the rest of us. We are not evil. We do our best to live morally upright lives because it’s the right thing to do, not because we hope for a heavenly reward, like a little boy hoping the neighborhood grouch will give him a cookie.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If I were to follow Christianity, it would be the teachings of Christ. Such hypocrisy between the testaments. Also, it seems the majority of religions put men before women in importance; definitely a tool for controlling others.


      1. Some of the teachings of Jesus are admirable, though not everything attributed to him is. I worry that negative comparisons between the testaments because they often serve to denigrate Judaism at the expense of Christianity.

        On the issue under discussion here, Judaism comes out better in that it never elevated celibacy as a requirement for holiness. In Judaism the family has always been considered central. In my opinion, where the family is central, women are never denigrated to the extent that they are in religions that consider celibacy the holiest state. I believe Gage shared this opinion and that is why the chapter on celibacy is the second chapter in her book.

        In Greece where I live, the family is central. Though the culture if officially very patriarchal, women are revered as mothers because the family is central. People are much more likely to ask about your family than about your work or how much money they make. This does not mean women have equal political rights, but it does mean that women are respected in ways they are not in cultures that make male work central and define status by how much money you make.


  2. Oh my god what an education I am getting. Thank you Carol.

    As for your first words: “From this it follows that feminists must never lose sight of the role Christian teachings have played and continue to play in the unequal treatment of women” all I can say is YES YES YES.

    I was positively revolted by this priestly unveiling. Disgusting.

    Celibacy is useful in only one way from my point of view – if it is by choice – I think for some women it can be very useful in terms of focusing on womanist issues. It was for me. And men – who knows.

    What this article demonstrates is that most men don’t do celibacy – so who the hell are we kidding here?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The spin that historians put on this fiction of priestly celibacy, and the Church’s throwing overboard of their wives and children, now reduced to “concubines” and “bastards,” is calling it the Gregorian “Reform.” Making it sound like something positive. In reality, priests continued having sex as they always had, at the expense of women and their offspring, both reduced to a lower social status.


  4. Carol, thank you, this is wonderful information. I will read her book. My research actually shows that the celibacy rule was put in place much earlier than 1215 (perhaps it was more formalized then?). But Gregory VII is the culprit who actually instituted it in 1073. However, other reading I’ve done shows that the priests indeed were almost ‘expected’ by lay people to have concubines so they were not chasing after their wives!! One famous story which many of us are familiar with is that of Heloise and Abelard. He seduced Heloise under the guise of her tutor. At that time it was a usual practice for a acolytes or other often tonsured males to ask their bishop for permission to marry. Heloise’s her uncle who was also a priest was so furious that he ambushed Pierre and had him castrated! They had a child that eventually died young. They both eventually became monastics, but always kept in contact with each other. So the question remains whether celibacy is a viable means to holiness–it seems rather doubtful and more a means of protecting the all-male-hierarchy as it exists today, however, information like this is important to add to the discussion for optional celibacy. In addition, widows were the ones hearing confessions, not the priests. This, too, was eventually changed when the men realized, as you say, that it could be used in as another power structure to be used over women, lay congregations, the ‘sale’ of indulgences that eventually became purely for economic means and that eventually led to the Luther’s protests and the Reformation. Many religious orders in Europe were begun by male priests with good lay women who might have been widowed and saw the plight of women wishing to help women escape from prostitution or lacking any education, such as the RSHMs (begin by founder Fr. Jean Gailhac, and Mother St. Jean Pelissier Cure, Foundress and First Superior) or the IHMs (begun in 1848 by Father Joaquin Masmitjá). Many of these orders eventually sent sisters to the US to begin communities here and were the backbone of the Catholic education and hospital systems here. The Sisters of Mercy in Chicago fought for cutting edge medical education, before Vatican II, because they saw the need to keep up with the information required to minister to the sick in their hospitals there and they achieved this, but not without a struggle. History is important and helps us move arguments for equality and truth forward. Thanks for informing us of Gage’s work!


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