By Father Edward McNamara, LC
ROME, 13 January 2015 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I heard that the Church prohibits priests from having beards. I think it is canonically written law, but the OFM Capuchin priests have these beards, and some diocesan priests have beards. So are they not going against Church discipline? Also, I have seen some quotes of the doctors of the Church hailing the beauty of the beard. "Beards show generous, vigorous, active virtues … so that when we explain about him we say, 'He is a bearded man,'" [says] St. Augustine. So I get confused sometime. There should be clearly a definition of Church discipline. Sorry for asking a question which is not so vital in our faith, but it has an impact on the vocation of youths who like or dislike beards! — P.B., Iringa, Tanzania
A: First of all, there is at present no law in canonical discipline which forbids beards, so our reader can be tranquil as to the legitimacy of the practice.
With respect to local laws there are some religious orders which recommend that its members either shave or, on the contrary, have a beard.
There are also some Eastern Catholic Churches where priests are required by custom to wear beards. The 1917 Code of Canon Law (136.1) did require clerics to have a simple hairstyle (without specifically forbidding beards), but many bishops enforced the law more strictly. The 1983 code only refers to clerical dress and says nothing about hair or beards.
Whereas in Eastern Christianity clerics regularly wore beards as a sign of masculinity and for other spiritual reasons, a different custom developed in the Latin Church. One of the earliest laws on the subject was a decree from around the year 503 hailing either from Carthage or southern France. This decree forbade clerics to allow beards and hair to grow freely. It might not have been a total prohibition, but it condemned excessive length.
Forms of legislation such as this remained in force throughout the Middle Ages, even occasionally under pain of excommunication or of a cleric being forcibly shorn by his superior.
However, the expression "to cultivate a beard" (barbam nutrire), which was used in the law, left some wiggle room, and in the 16th and 17th centuries it was considered as compatible with a short beard and later to a beard itself.
Thus we can observe how some popes and bishops wore beards. The first one was Julius II, who temporarily wore a beard as a sign of mourning for the loss of the city of Bologna in 1511-12. This later led Pope Clement VI to follow his example while he took refuge in Castel Sant'Angelo during the sack of Rome in 1527 and, unlike Julius, he kept his beard for the rest of his life. For the following 180 years until the end of the reign of Innocent XII in 1700, all the popes were bearded. Since then there has been no bearded pope.
Many of the great saints of this period also wore beards. These include figures such as St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Francis de Sales as well as the extraordinary figure of St. Philip Neri, who is supposed to have once shaved off one side of his beard so as to be mocked and humiliated by people.
Not all were in agreement with this new trend. In 1576 St. Charles Borromeo wrote a pastoral letter to his clergy on the importance of shaving. He was not very successful. But eventually the older discipline returned and from the end of the 17th century until recently Latin-rite Catholic clerics, with some exceptions such as the Capuchins, were generally beardless.
There were many reasons given over time to justify the Latin custom — some rather inventive, some practical and some ascetical.
For example, Durandus says that "length of hair is symbolical of the multitude of sins. Hence clerics are directed to shave their beards; for the cutting of the hair of the beard, which is said to be nourished by the superfluous humors of the stomach, denotes that we ought to cut away the vices and sins which are a superfluous growth in us. Hence we shave our beards that we may seem purified by innocence and humility and that we may be like the angels who remain always in the bloom of youth" (Rationale, II, lib. XXXII).
A practical reason was to avoid allowing the hair of the upper lip to impede drinking the chalice with reverence. At the same time, nobody suggested that those religious whose rule foresaw the beard as a sign of penance were somehow less reverent.
Among ascetical reasons were those which saw the beard as a concession to vanity and show. This would have been especially true in times and places where a well-tendered beard and moustache was the height of popular fashion and whose maintenance required time and dedication. That clerics eschewed the fashion of the moment was a sign of austerity and unworldliness.
In other times, such as in current Western society, where the presence or lack of facial hair is basically a question of personal choice and not dictated by fashion, there would seem to be little objection to priests wearing beards. In other societies things might be different, and one must follow through accordingly.
Thus, although the law no longer exists, clerics can and do wear beards. The principle behind such laws — that clerics should be decorous in their personal presentation while shunning the vanities and fashions of the moment — still holds true.