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A different kind of glimpse into the history of clerical continence

September 26, 2013

Hincmar, Archbishop of Rheims, was one of the most important ecclesiastical figures of the early Middle Ages. Among his surviving writings, Letter 22 analyzed a tangled marriage case. The great bishop makes therein a parenthetical but fascinating comment on a tradition that the Apostle John was called by Our Lord to follow Him on the very day that John was to have been married. While other medieval sources (e.g., Bl. Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend, c. 1260) refer to the story about Jesus calling St. John on his wedding day, it is Hincmar’s comment regarding clerical continence that catches the eye:

As historians relate, Our Lord, who came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it, called John (at the time desiring to marry) not after his wedding was celebrated but from the very ceremony and thus before the coupling of the flesh. About the intended wife of John, beyond that the Lord called [John], not just before the union of flesh but even before the celebration of the wedding was complete, it is not recorded whether she remained in continence (as did the wife of blessed Peter, who persevered most continently) or whether, in accord with the old law as applied among the children of Israel, she perhaps decided to marry another.

George Joyce (English Jesuit, 1864-1943), noting the episode in his classic treatment of Christian Marriage (1933) at 55, takes for granted that: “Had [John’s] call come immediately after the wedding, [his wife] would have been bound to live her life in continence.”

Hincmar’s concern (and even less so, Joyce’s) is not, of course, whether the Apostle John was married; rather, both men use the story to underscore that, had John been married at the time of his being called to follow the Lord, he and his wife, like Peter and his wife, would have lived henceforth in a continent marriage.

More evidence, I suggest, that the roots of Canon 277 go very, very deep. + + +

Hincmar of Rheims (Carolingian prelate, 806-882), “Epistola XXII (Ad Rodulfum, etc.)”, PL 126: 132D to 153C, at 148A-B: “Unde et Dominus de nuptiis Joannem volentem nubere, ut tradunt historiae, non post celebratas nuptias, sed de nuptiis, et ante carnis copulationem, vocando retraxit, qui legem non solvere, sed adimplere venit. De cujus scilicet Joannis futura uxore, nisi eum Dominus, non solum ante carnis unionem, verum et ante nuptiarum percelebrationem, revocaret, sicut de beati Petri uxore, quae continentissime perseveravit, non legitur utrum in continentia manserit, an secundum legem veterem, ut semen in Israel relinqueret, alii forte nubere delegerit.”

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