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Unnatural Frenchmen: The Politics of Priestly Celibacy and Marriage, 1720-1815
Unnatural Frenchmen: The Politics of Priestly Celibacy and Marriage, 1720-1815
E. Claire Cage
University of Virginia Press, 2015
248 pp., $39.50

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Helen Andrews


"Dangerous and Suspect Men"

Clerical celibacy in France, 1720-1815.

The phrase "same-sex marriage" appears only once in Unnatural Frenchmen, on the very last page, but parallels between Claire Cage's subject and our own time intrude long before that. The campaign against clerical celibacy loomed large in the French revolutionaries' cultural agenda, relative to the proportion of the population that would be affected. Including nuns, the number of clergy and consecrated religious in France was only 170,000, or about one percent of the adult population. But the proportion of Americans who identify as gay is not much greater, and that hasn't stopped our political system from turning itself upside-down over how to accommodate them. In both cases, broader questions about sexuality and the family became caught up in a narrow policy question over whether it can ever be morally and intellectually defensible to ask a tiny fraction of the population to forgo marriage, and the result was a violent but highly illuminating cultural flashpoint.

Of course, clerical celibacy had been officially discouraged by various European governments long before the French Revolution. The earliest German Protestant states offered pensions and dowries to monks and nuns who returned to secular life, paid for out of monastic endowments. Edward VI's law permitting English priests to marry was taken up by thousands of clergymen, who then had to be dealt with when Mary came to the throne. Pope Julius III's dispensation of 1554, which allowed English priests to choose between keeping their wives as laymen or returning to the priesthood, was the precedent cited by Napoleon's representatives in negotiations over the Concordat of 1801—although, as Cage observes, they saw one important difference between Cardinal Pole's situation and their own: they were dealing with Frenchmen. It was scarcely worth offering the option of returning to celibacy, wrote the French delegation, for "the character of the nation opposes it … ...

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