Comment Opinion & Features

Why clerical beards divide the Eastern and Western Church

Pope Paul III (1468-1549) defied canon law with his luxuriant beard

'Length of hair is symbolic of the multitude of sins', said one medieval commentator

The wearing of beards by clergy is a topic historically fraught with contradiction. But before we explore those contradictions, I owe you the truth: personally, I do not care for beards – on priests or anyone else.

This has nothing to do with my mustachioed brother, father and grandfather, all of whom I loved dearly. Nor has it anything to do with historical figures – the gloriously bearded Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary, the Comte de Chambord of France and Edward VII of Britain are proof of that, as was my childhood comfort at the sight of the similarly hirsute Smith Brothers on their cough-drops box. Even the Founder and Invisible Head of my religion was always depicted with a beard. It is simply that my childhood sensibilities were formed in the Mad Men era, and beards were symbolic of the hippie revolt that overshadowed my childhood and youth. All of which is to say, it is a matter of mere taste, not eternal truth.

So it would also appear from the historical record. Among Middle Eastern folk, such as the Hebrews, a beard was considered a sign of virility; Romans in the late Republic and early Empire were clean-shaven. Both peoples heaped scorn upon those who did not do as they did. Our Lord and His Apostles are usually depicted wearing beards, but the Romans remained clean-shaven until the reign of Emperor Hadrian (AD 76-138), when the emperor himself sported a beard. St Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215), in voluminous advice to converts, counselled against shaving one’s beard, which he condemned as a sign of effeminacy. This condemnation has continued among Eastern clergy (Catholic and Orthodox) ever since.

In the West, things have been rather more complex. St Jerome advised against allowing one’s hair or beard to grow too long. But it was not until the AD 500s that various local church councils began forbidding beards; the prohibition went into canon law shortly thereafter.

For most of the Middle Ages, priests were both beardless and tonsure-wearing – difficulty with receiving from the chalice being one problem associated with facial hair. Dom Prosper Guéranger’s favourite medieval liturgy commentator, Durandus, opined that “length of hair is symbolical of the multitude of sins”. Worldly clerics who did grow beards were accused of aping the nobility, although many of that sort claimed that the canons only forbade “long” beards. Certainly the 13th century’s newly founded orders of friars – Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, Augustinians, Servites, etc – made a point of shaving in order to draw a further distinction between themselves and loose-living secular clergy, whose scandalous lives added fuel to the heretical fires those religious were trying to put out.

By the 16th century, a new period of scandal had set in – and, among laity, a wave of beard growth. Although the canons did not change, Clement VII (he of Henry VIII’s marriage and the Sack of Rome fame) ascended the pontifical throne in 1523, beard and all, and declared canonical permission to mean, as other clerics had done, a “short” rather than a long beard. Paul III reinterpreted “short” to mean “long”, judging by his picture.

As the 17th century unfolded, clerics as diverse as Cardinal Richelieu and St Vincent de Paul wore beards (although St Charles Borromeo disapproved). But the same French court that made fashions then could also end them: as wigs grew in popularity at Versailles, beards receded. Innocent XII (1691-1700) was the last pope thus far to wear one.

Enforcement of canons was rather patchy, thanks to the wars that engulfed Europe from 1790 onward. But the onset of peace in 1815 allowed the Church to get down to the business of restoring canonical order. By the end of the century, Latin Rite clergy were clean-shaven save for very penitential orders such as the Capuchins and Camaldolese, and missionaries in various African and Asian locales. So things stood until Vatican II.

After the Council, as in so many areas, priests did pretty much as they wished – the “radical” priest, with full beard, Afro hair and sandals played a big role in sitcoms, and in some particularly ill-starred parishes. In time that particular craze burned itself out. Since the 1983 Code of Canon Law is silent on the question of hair, beards and grooming, it remains a matter of personal choice.

Certainly – since they were Capuchins – two of our greatest modern holy men, St Pio of Pietrelcina and Blessed Solanus Casey, were bearded. But it is still not a mark of an upwardly mobile clerical career, and few cardinals outside the Eastern Rites are bearded (with the notable exception of the Capuchin Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston).

Historically, beards seem to be one of those areas where the Church takes her lead from civil society; pace Durandus, it seems more or less a neutral question. Still, if it were up to me, it would be a few more centuries before we had a bearded pope again.

Charles A Coulombe is an author and lecturer based in Los Angeles and Vienna