Sara Ritchey of the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, looks at the medieval tradition and the current state of Roman Catholicism and advises the wives of former Anglican clergy who become Roman Catholic priests to be very, very careful. Because underneath the doctrine of mandatory priestly celibacy is an understanding of human nature that fundamentally hostile to women.
Now as then, the church’s critics and defenders are rehashing arguments about the implications of having married priests in an institution that is otherwise wary of them. But in the midst of these debates, we should pause to ponder the environment that the priests’ wives might expect to encounter. After all, the status of the priest’s wife is perhaps even more strange and unsettling than that of her ordained Catholic husband….
It seems that the tangible reminder of the priest as a sexual being was, by this way of thinking, a danger to the integrity of the Sacrament itself.
…The priest’s wife was an obvious danger. Her wanton desire, suggested the 11th-century monk Peter Damian, threatened the efficacy of consecration. He chastised priests’ wives as “furious vipers who out of ardor of impatient lust decapitate Christ, the head of clerics,” with their lovers. According to the historian Dyan Elliott, priests’ wives were perceived as raping the altar, a perpetration not only of the priest but also of the whole Christian community.
And the family of the priest were seen as competitors to the material welfare of the Church:
The priest’s nuclear family was also seen as a risk to the stability of the church. His children represented a threat to laypersons, who feared that their endowments might be absorbed into the hands of the priest’s offspring to create a rival clerical dynasty. A celibate priest would thus ensure donations from the neighboring landed aristocracy. Furthermore, the priest’s wife was often accused, along with her children, of draining the church’s resources with her extravagance and frivolity. Pope Leo IX attempted to remedy this problem in the 11th century by decreeing that the wives and children of priests must serve in his residence at the Lateran Palace in Rome.
So, Ritchey says, in addition to the general disorientation that typical Roman Catholic congregants might experience, there is a long history of institutional and theological hostility towards women.
[Roman Catholic] priests’ wives should beware a religious tradition that views them, in the words of Damian, as “the clerics’ charmers, devil’s choice tidbits, expellers from paradise, virus of minds, sword of soul, wolfbane to drinkers, poison to companions, material of sinning, occasion of death … the female chambers of the ancient enemy, of hoopoes, of screech owls, of night owls, of she-wolves, of blood suckers.”