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Defending Clerical Marriage – Katharina Schütz Zell (1524)

In this text, Katharina Schütz Zell (1497/98-1562) of Strasbourg, the daughter of a master artisan and magistrate, defends the Protestant side of the debate on celibate life versus clerical marriage. In 1523, she had married Matthias Zell (1477-1548), a native of Kaysersberg in Alsace. A university graduate, he became pastor of St. Lawrence's, Strasbourg's cathedral parish. Zell was among the first group of Strasbourg pastors to marry. The couple faced harsh criticism, however, and Katharina soon found herself compelled to defend her marriage, her husband, and herself. She authored several printed pamphlets in which she argued (as Catholic reformists had for decades) that priests should be allowed to marry, and that (an evangelical novelty) celibacy was not only un-Biblical, it also encouraged sexual laxity among the clergy and made priests unfit to be confessors and confidants to married laypersons. Katharina's own marriage attests to the strong ties that developed between the evangelical clergy and the upper strata of artisans, whose political power was greater in Strasbourg than in most other cities.

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Strasbourg, [before September 10, 1524]

[ . . . ] They [the Catholic clergy] also reject the marriage of priests, although it is taught in Holy Scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments, not in obscure but in clear, plain language, so that even children and fools could read and understand it, as I have shown. I proved this in a longer writing to the Bishop of Strasbourg, in which I contrast marriage and whoredom with one another on the basis of Holy Scripture. I would to God that the bishop would get so angry with me that everyone would read my explanation.

Why, speaking of marriage, do they stand so firmly against it, as though they intended to spite God and suppress it by force? There are, I must relate, two reasons. The first is that the popes, bishops, and their lackeys, the vicars and their fellows, would not get so much whoring tax from married couples as from whores and rascals. If a priest has a wife, he behaves like any other honest, pious burgher, and he pays the bishop no tax for it, since God has allowed him to be free. If they have whores, however, they become bondsmen to the popes and bishops. Whoever wants one, must ask and get the bishop's permission and pay a tax for it. So the latter have devised an annual payment [ . . . ] which, poor or rich, the priest must pay, just like one who leases land from another and pays an annual rent for it, that's what they do. They have also set their own manager or steward over these leases, and he collects the annual dues. He is called a Fiscal, and he receives an annual salary.

So they protect and defend such outrages and vices against the whole of Holy Scripture, in which the Holy Ghost so strictly banishes the whoremongers, excludes them from the Kingdom of God, and forbids anyone to eat or drink with them – as St. Paul says in First Corinthians 1:5-6 and in Ephesians 5. God, however, established marriage for all men in the initial act of creation, and no one has been exempted from it except for the three men in Matt. 19, and it is also expressly recommended for priests, as St. Paul says to Timothy and Titus in his letters to them. What God thus desires, they wish to condemn, punish, and forbid for all of those who come under their power. But the lewd chastity, the diluvian, sodomistic, noachic whoredom, they do not punish, and have never punished it but rather protected it. Yes, clergymen and laymen have formed an alliance to struggle violently against God. Oh, the blindness of the rulers, how do you look to one another, [you] who should be dedicated to everything honorable? You must allow it to be said of you, that one has five or six whores, the other seven women birthing, plus a pretty doxy in the house and lots more. It is just as Isaiah says, there is no health in them from head to toe. Oh God, if You look down, I know that it will but heighten Your anger.

The second reason [why the clergy are so set against marriage] is that if the priests have wives, they cannot exchange them among themselves, as they do with the whores. One goes out, another comes in. For St. Paul says, a bishop is a man who has one wife, for which reason he would have to live honorably, and if a wife did not suit, he could not exchange her for another. There is much trouble in marriage, for one must share and suffer with another, and of this they wish to be free. Yet very often whores, too, make trouble one does not have from a pious wife.

If the priests could honorably marry, they could preach from the pulpit more effectively against adultery. Otherwise, how can they condemn that in which they themselves are stuck. Watch over me, and I will watch over you. If, however, a priest had a wife, and if he did something bad, people would know how to punish him. But they always have a word of defense, saying, "It's all very well for laymen to speak, for you have your wives. I am also a man, and how can I raise myself up to Heaven?" Truly, why are such things not left as God made them to be, each having his wife to prevent licentiousness? Does God not know better than the Devil what is good?

For the prohibition against marriage comes from the Devil alone, but marriage comes from God, as the Holy Ghost says in the letter to Timothy. But if it were so, the laity would not tolerate such whoreson priests in their midst. When they die, the children grab on to the estate. Otherwise the friends get it and kick the bastards out, for what do they care if the Devil takes the soul away. Some of the whores and children can nevertheless foresee, as we see every day, that they are now going the way of some of the nobility. Good thing, too.

Married priests, on the other hand, would be obliged to punish adultery with great severity, and as St. John says, it does not become you to have seven women in labor at once, that is, to live in whoredom, and nonetheless to help rule the land and the people. Such folk should be strung up on the gallows. [ . . . ] Throwing stones at him would serve him right. Thus, once a young fellow said, when he was being punished for his whoredom. "If I should not do it, why does my father do it? If he will forbid it to me, he must first be free of it himself."

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