The Campbell-Purcell Debate (1837)

The sexual improprieties of many priests within the Roman Catholic Church is a stormy controversy these days. Is this problem a natural result of the Church’s attitude regarding sexual activity? Read this article and draw your own conclusion.
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

No narration available

Over the past several months, various new media outlets have been ablaze with the controversy that has racked the Roman Catholic Church pertaining to the morality (or lack thereof) in a significant number of the Church’s priests.The “pedophilia mania” has shaken that institution to its very foundation, and litigation is taxing its financial resources.This disgraceful circumstance has provided tons of “fodder” for news commentators and television comedians.It has generated considerable embarrassment for many sincere Catholics who find such conduct intolerable.

Though Roman Catholic priests take a vow of celibacy, the earliest law demanding such originated c. A.D. 306. Bertrand Conway, a leading apologist for Catholicism, acknowledged that clerical celibacy has its roots in neither natural nor divine law (p. 311).

The truth is, the practice of celibate orders is the result of an ancient attempt to model Christianity after certain aspects of paganism. Almost a century ago Alexander Hislop noted that it was commonly known among history scholars that the worship of Cybele, a Babylonian goddess (with its celibate priesthood) greatly influenced pagan Rome and eventually found its way into the Roman ecclesiastical system (p. 220). Forced celibacy has corrupted every religious movement that has adopted it.

As a consequence of the celibacy dogma, the Roman Church has been plagued with the problem of sexual promiscuity over the years of its degenerative history, and it has not dealt responsibly with the issue.

In surveying the news media attention to this problem of late, I have been reminded of an historical incident that occurred just over 165 years ago. Let me provide you with some background.

Alexander Campbell was a significant religious influence in the eastern region of our nation in the early to mid era of the 19th century. In 1818, Campbell had established a small educational academy at Bethany, Virginia, called “Buffalo Seminary.” Being thus interested in education, in the fall of 1836 the Virginia gentleman traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio to attend the annual meeting of an association popularly known as the “College of Teachers.” While there, he had an intellectual “clash” with John B. Purcell, the second most influential clergyman of the Catholic hierarchy in America. Purcell was 37 years of age at the time, and bishop of Cincinnati; the school teacher from Bethany was 48.

The focus of controversy was over whether or not the Bible should be taught in the public school system. Campbell, who believed that moral instruction should be combined with intellectual cultivation, was in favor of such; Purcell was adamantly opposed to the proposition. (One can scarcely resist the editorial comment that the Roman Church has consistently opposed Bible instruction on merit – apart of the dogmatic and guarded interpretations of the Church authorities.)

At any rate, out of that animated exchange between Campbell and Purcell a public discussion was arranged, which was to take place in Cincinnati the following January. Seven propositions were to be discussed (with Purcell insisting that he have the last presentation in each instance).

In one of the debate propositions, Campbell argued that the Roman Church is not infallible in its “faith and morals,” as is claimed commonly. Rather, he contended, “the papistic rule of faith” is “immoral [in] character” (Campbell/Purcell, p. 229).

As one illustration of his indictment, Mr. Campbell quoted a passage from the noted Catholic scholar, Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787 —who was “canonized” as a “saint” by pope Gregory XVI in 1839). In the passage under consideration, Liguori asserted that a Roman bishop may not “appropriate to himself pecuniary [money] fines” without the approval of the “apostolic see.” The Roman moralist argued that such “fines” then must be applied to “pious uses, which the council of Trent has laid upon resident Clergymen, or upon those Clergymen who keep Concubines.”

Campbell was quoting from Liguori’s famous work dealing with moral theology. The design in the educator’s argument was to highlight one of the woefully immoral tenants of Catholic dogma. Campbell contended, in a deadly ad hominem fashion, that if a priest were to take a wife, he would be excommunicated by the Church; if he kept a “concubine” he was merely fined. This procedure, the Bethany educator alleged, demonstrated a flagrant “fallibility” in terms of Church purity (pp. 273-274).

Subsequently, Purcell responded. He conceded that a doctrine of this nature, if true, would be “abominable,” but he absolutely denied that such a passage, as cited from Liguori, existed, and Campbell was accused of bearing false witness (p. 275).

Purcell pompously displayed his eight-volume set of Liguori’s “complete works,” and chided Campbell. “I have examined these volumes, from cover to cover, and in none of them can so much as a shadow be found for the infamous charge” (p. 318).

Purcell asserted that Campbell had used a flawed translation (in English) of Liguori’s original Latin work. What Liguori actually taught, he insisted, was that Canon law prescribes that if a priest falls from his “holy state of purity” by having “criminal intercourse,” the first offence is to be penalized by a “large reduction of his salary.” If he yields to temptation again, he shall be "deprived of his whole salary, and suspended from all his functions as a priest in the Church. If, after a third admonition, he remains “incorrigible,” he must be excommunicated (p. 338).

Campbell insisted, however, that his English translation was correct (having been made by Samuel B. Smith, a former Catholic priest, in 1836), and that the “forbearance” of the Catholic Church with reference to “concubinage” was well established, even from other sources (pp. 343-344). The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church notes that “there have been periods in the history of the [Roman] Church when clerical concubinage has been rife, e.g. the 10th and 15th centuries” (Cross, p. 255).

But Purcell was unmoved. Later in the course of the discussion, the “bishop” introduced to the audience a Mr. Alexander Kinmont, a classical scholar, who testified that he could find no such passage, as Campbell had quoted, in the works of Liguori. Kinmont’s testimony appeared to thrust Campbell into a most unfavorable light.

Campbell suspected that the edition from which Smith’s translation had been made was a different one from that possessed by Purcell, and thus Kinmont simply had been unable to locate the disputed passage. For the time being, however, he could do nothing but promise to investigate the matter further, and then, after the debate, publish the results to the people of Cincinnati.

The Campbell-Purcell debate ended on the 21st of January, 1837. A few weeks later, Campbell was able to produce the final word on this famous controversy. The disputed passage was found, in fact, exactly as Campbell had cited it, in Liguori’s, An Epitome of the Moral Doctrine, page 444. Campbell produced the precise Latin text. In fact, he borrowed Purcell’s edition of Liquori’s works, and found the very passage, which Purcell had described as a base slander," the exposure of which, he said, gave him “more pleasure than [he could] express” (p. 396).

It is not without significance that, years later following Campbell’s death, Purcell, by then an Archbishop and the leading Catholic scholar in America, in an interview with a journalist, spoke of Alexander Campbell in the most conciliatory of terms. One thing he said so important in view of the previous controversy is stunning. He stated that Campbell “never misrepresented his case nor that of an opponent” (cited by Humble, p. 155).

Finally, there is this concluding observation. Any religious system may have devotees who apostatize and bring shame upon their spiritual kinsmen. Adam had his “Cain,” Israel had her “Korah,” the Lord had his “Judas,” and the early church had her “Ananias” and “Sapphira.”It is another matter altogether, however, when a religious society condones, encourages, tolerates, or conceals flagrant immorality within its ranks. That bespeaks a consummate hypocrisy.


Campbell, Alexander & Purcell, John B. (1914 Edition), A Debate on the Roman Catholic Religion (Nashville, TN: McQuiddy Printing Co.).

Cross, F.L., Ed. (1958), The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (London: Oxford University Press).

Conway, Bertrand (1929), The Question Box (San Francisco: Catholic Truth Society).

Hislop, Alexander (1916), The Two Babylons (New York: Loizeaus Bros.).

Humble, Bill (1952), Campbell and Controversy (Rosemead, CA: Old Paths Book Club).