It is not the fact that the French Revolution attacked clerical celibacy that is revealing, then, but which arguments they deployed against it. Earlier opponents attacked the institution as a crime against innocent bastards and faithful concubines, or as unscriptural Roman overreach, or as an implicit denigration of family life. In the case of the French revolutionaries, their arguments were primarily either utilitarian or legalistic””which may be why they sound familiar today….
More modern-sounding still, in our age of “marriage equality,” are the legalistic arguments. Insofar as clerical celibacy was a form of discrimination on the basis of profession, it was deemed a violation of egalitÃ©. The most rhetorically powerful ploy of all was to elevate parenthood to the status of a basic human right, which vows of celibacy infringed upon. One abbÃ© Cournand, upon presenting a motion in favor of clerical marriage in a Paris suburb’s local assembly in 1790, said that obligatory celibacy violated clerics’ “inalienable right ”¦ to exist as father and spouse.” A 1795 treatise by a married priest argued that becoming a pÃ¨re de famille was a basic right and any act prohibiting it was “fundamentally invalid [and] an attack on liberty.”
The debate over clerical celibacy was at its liveliest during the period of ambiguity following the Civil Constitution of the Clergy of 1790, since the issue of clerical marriage is not actually mentioned in that document and would not be settled until the Constitution of 1791. One pamphleteer of the uncertain interim argued that the National Assembly did not even need to clarify its position on clerical marriage, since the right to marry was implicit in the egalitarian decrees already enacted. “Lay people can marry, therefore priests can marry as well.” In his eyes, it was a constitutional fait accompli. Eulogius Schneider, a former Franciscan monk who would become a prosecutor of the Terror, echoed this line of argument in 1791: “Priests are men and citizens, and by consequence, they must enjoy the rights of man and of citizen.” In the hands of such innovators, the Rights of Man and Citizen proved as accommodating as our Fourteenth Amendment in the search for a never-before-dreamed-of right to marry.