Clerical beards.

Julius II

I saw at Pathetic from the esteemed Rev. Mr. Kandra a fluffy bit about more and more seminarians and priests – of the Latin Church – sporting beards.   HERE

A couple things.  It has not been the custom of Latin Church priests to have facial hair for a long time.  As a matter of fact, the older, superseded 1917 Code of Canon Law, mandated simplicity in the matter of clerical hair.  Local legislation often forbade facial hair.  The newer, 1983 Code is silent.   Going way back to the early Church, it was usual for priests to have beards.  Also, in both the Easter Church and in Western Monasticism, beards are common and even expected.

Some Popes were, famously, bearded, such as 16th c.  Julius II, who grew a beard in mourning over the Papal States defeat at Bologna, despite the biblical comment that shaving one’s beard was a sign of mourning (cf. Jeremiah).  Thereafter papal portraits reveal that a long string of Popes (with the exception of a couple Medicis) had beards, the last being the reformer Innocent XII (Pignatelli +1700).  From his successor Clement XVI (Albani +1721) onward, no Pope has had a beard.

I would note that, at Acton University this year, I heard a presentation about what the “Alt-Right” is really all about.  One factoid was that, in one stream of “Alt-Right” the length of a beard is perceived even to exonerate a man from more and more moral norms, depending on its length.

In any event, in the Latin West, there has been a strong clerical cultural custom, even reinforced by local legislation, against the sporting of beards.  I had, for a short time, a beard as a priest, but it wound up being too much of a bother.  Gone.  And, over the decades, I’ve just the right stuff for me to make shaving as least annoying and time consuming as possible.  Frankly, I see clerical beards to be, right now, an affectation that follows a contemporary fad/style.

That said, there is no legislation and there are changing views throughout the Church’s history.

The fact remains that, going back into the depths of time, auctores scinduntur.  Someone as esteemed as St. Augustine writes of the beard as a symbol of manly virtues.  Durandus, in the Middle Ages, writes of the beard as being a symbol of sinfulness and being bad for the humors.  In the 16th c., the great St. Charles Borromeo tried to check the affectation in his clergy and in 1576 wrote a letter De barba radenda.  Smart guy.

There are good arguments on both sides of the razor. These days, freedom reigns.

For those Latin Church seminarians and priests who put time and energy and money into their attention drawing facial hair, I would simply ask…

… how’s your Latin?


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Henry Edwards says:

    Do clerical beards appear to correlate with Latin and cassocks and traditional belief and practice? Or is it simply that beards are more prevalent among younger priests, who typically exhibit more affinity for Latin and cassocks and tradition?

  2. Amerikaner says:

    I’d like to see Capuchins grow massive beards again. Today they look – meh.

  3. FrCharles says:

    Of course, for religious clerics the situation may be otherwise. To wit, the Capuchin Constitutions of 1552: “They shall not have basins, but only one razor for bloodletting, and following the example of Christ and of all our ancient holy Fathers the beard shall be worn, since it is manly, natural, austere and despised.”

  4. Hidden One says:

    I’ve known priests and seminarians to grow a beard in order to spend less time and energy on their facial hair than they would on carefully daily shaving. Of course, these were not long beards and would be shaved and regrown periodically.

    In these trying times, I think St. Philip Neri’s beard and his friend St. Charles Cardinal Borromeo’s clean shaven face are both viable models for the facial hair of secular priests… and their Latin was excellent, too.

  5. In response to Henry Edwards:

    Beards strike me as correlating with priestly youth–and younger priests tend to be more religiously conservative than older ones. Several of the younger Dominicans who staff the priory adjacent to my parish have beards, as does the (youngish) pastor of our local Tridentine Mass parish. In any event, beards look much better on younger men than older men, who tend to look like old hippies–or, even worse, men who have decided that since they’re retired, they’re free to be slobs. (I always wonder what those codgers’ wives think.)

    Beards seem to come and go with cultures and eras. Greek men wore beards; Roman men didn’t. Beards were out during the 18th century, came in during the 19th, went out again during the 20th (except for hippies), and are now back in for the 21st. Who knows what lies ahead?

  6. deaconjohn1987 says:

    I had a full beard for a few years while living in Florida, but now I just have a mustache. When asked why, I respond “It’s to show my manhood!” :-)

  7. Ad Orientem says:

    I am reminded of the story concerning an American woman who was visiting some of the Greek islands on vacations. One Sunday she decided to step into the local Greek Orthodox church where the Divine Liturgy (Mass) was in progress. After the services ended she approached the priest and with the help of an English speaking parishioner said to the priest “your services were very beautiful but I understand that your church does not allow women to be ordained. Why could I not be a priest in the Orthodox Church?” Visibly shocked by the question, the priest stood still and stared at her for several moments of long silence before replying… “can you grow a beard?”

  8. Charles E Flynn says:

    Father has saved himself $80:

    Emergency Beard Kit

  9. rcg says:

    “…austere and despised.” I like that. There is a sign in the Black Rifle Coffe Company that says, “They Don’t Like Us. We Don’t Care.” I need that sign and a Beard.

    [Shades of Millwall!]

  10. MGL says:

    One factoid was that, in one stream of “Alt-Right” the length of a beard is perceived even to exonerate a man from more and more moral norms, depending on its length.

    LOL. I suspect this is trolling from whoever informed the speaker, along the lines of the 4chan-inspired notions that the OK hand symbol or drinking milk are “white supremacist” codes. [I suspect it’s true.]

    I’ve been following the Dissident Right for several years, and am familiar with many of its multifarious branches, and have never once encountered the suggestion that beard length has any meaning whatsoever, let alone exoneration from moral norms.

  11. Orthodox (and bearded) deacon here. Also saw service in the Coast Guard before it banned beards in 1986. For years I’ve heard a quotation attributed to St. Athanasius (or perhaps another of the Fathers) that “A man without a beard is an abomination.” Anyone know the veracity of the quotation or its provenance?

  12. Mario Bird says:


    To beard, or not to beard: this is the quest.
    Whether tis nobler on the face to sport
    An ever-growing mass of tousled twine,
    Changing color as age doth wax and wane;
    Or yet whet blade to cut encroaching hairs,
    An endless, mortal scrape with nature’s growth.
    There never were a warlike face made tame
    By beard’s addition: thus says old Plutarch,
    And Lincoln’s proof enough for that. But still,
    Napoleon and Alexander both
    Bid fair for conquest with a hairless mien,
    And who will doubt that shearing shows the soul?
    To shear, to shave; to shave, perchance to shiv;
    Ay, there’s the rub:
    For in that shaving shunt what blood may flow,
    And facial skin get sheared and shanked besides.
    What pores may clog without Gileadic balm,
    What gold must spend, what time, and all for what?
    Was it not David, heav’n –inspired and burred,
    Writing large on male fraternity:
    Quod descendit in barbam Aaron?
    And if the Shroud and icons be believed,
    Our Lord Himself shunned not the manly beard,
    Nor Old Tom More, solicitor innocent,
    Yet more solicitous still for innocent beards.
    Troth, this razor’s not for me: I pitch thee hence,
    And let the bearded saints be my defense.

  13. davidpaulyoung says:

    Sicut unguentum in capite,
    quod descendit in barbam, barbam Aaron…

    Ps 132:2

  14. Kathleen10 says:

    Mario Bird, I like that.
    There is nothing worse than a fussy looking cleric. One looks askance at any hairdo suggesting a bit too much time and attention has been given, hair should look clean and neat but never fussy. It sets off radar as well. We like the manly look, and beards are welcome, totally manly, as long as they are not fussed over but are reasonably neat. I think every cleric ought to sport a beard, very traditional looking, virile, and puts a silent exclamation point on why women ought not be clerics.

  15. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:

    Two of the best local priests I know have beards. The first has a massive devotion to St. Padre Pio. The second followed suit.

    I think there is also an intentional and outward sense of expression in young masculine priests. These guys want to clearly show they are not in line with old, soft lotion-skinned, boy-loving, liberal, powdered, effeminate hippies running the chanceries. These younger guys are manlier men.

    Exceptions like Fr. Z and other older masculine priests, not withstanding, of course.

  16. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:

    I understand from canons of the Institute of Christ the King that the beard is worn in Africa, where it is a sign of wisdom and authority, but that the canons who return to Europe or America shave the beard, because it doesn’t have that symbolism here.

    Anecdotally, I shaved my beard of 20 yrs (give or take) for Ash Wednesday one year, and kept it off after Easter. It was a form of Lenten penance.

  17. TonyO says:

    There is something inherently natural about wearing a beard, as it certainly denotes a boy coming into his manhood. It is, however, at best a tertiary sign thereof, and thus neither absolute nor necessary as such. Thus cultures which shave are not gravely defective because of it.

    For priests, they must operate in the culture but (to an extent) be not OF it: their home is another place. If they wear a beard in a culture that is beardless, as (a) the very modest natural sign that this culture has forsaken, or (b) a sign of the necessity to see beyond the present culture to a future that will be everlasting, this can be a good thing. If a culture has taken to men wearing beards out of frivolity and fashion and self-projection by trimming in all sorts of specialized ways, however, a priest wearing a beard in the same highly specialized trimming says “I fit in with that fashion sense”, is not a good thing at all. If a priest grows a beard and does nothing to tame it but an occasional brushing and trimming, he may well save money and time others would spend on grooming, and thus he may make a statement to the effect that “whether you have a beard or not is not the important thing, what is important is how and why you do it, whether for God or for entirely worldly reasons”. But if he does it out of laziness, and it shows as a huge gnarly thatch, he just exhibits being a slob, not a good thing in a priest. If a priest shaves according to the norms of the culture, he may do it so that his looks don’t strike people as odd, (which might make them focus on superficialities instead of his words and his teaching), this is a good thing. But if he shaves out of vanity so that his “good looks” can be seen and admired, this would be bad indeed.

    So there is no definitive one-size-fits-all situations. Just a caution: although God alone knows your interior motives perfectly, you still give away some elements of those motives by the manner in which you carry yourself in the decision to shave or not – and people will notice those (even subconciously), so WHY you do it is something to take thought over .

    I grew a beard in early adulthood because I was in a job in which I needed to look like an adult rather than a high school kid. Had the beard for 30 years, well before the recent beard craze struck with all its goatees and nubs of lip hair and 5-day beards and silly curli-cues (for goodness sake!). Shaved it eventually because it became wiry and was acting like steel wool on the good wife. So I have gone both ways myself.

  18. Semper Gumby says:

    “Don’t dip your beard in the foam, Father!” They cried to Thorin. “It is long enough without watering it!”

  19. Chris Garton-Zavesky says: “I understand from canons of the Institute of Christ the King that the beard is worn in Africa, where it is a sign of wisdom and authority, but that the canons who return to Europe or America shave the beard, because it doesn’t have that symbolism here.”

    I just learned that yesterday from a friend of mine (not the bit about shaving, just the bit about growing beards in Africa). Apparently, the one exception is a French canon who has been in Africa for his entire priestly ministry and, for whatever reason, is unable to grow a beard.

  20. trespinos says:

    I have favored the modern customary usage in the USA of leaving clerical beards to the monks and Capuchins and such like, but if younger diocesan priests have a good reason for tossing their razors, I don’t object. In my youth, I was once told that there are only two good reasons for a man to wear a beard: to cover a facial scar or to hide a weak chin. I used the latter excuse and have never regretted that choice.

  21. Gregg the Obscure says:

    well, i’ve not been ordained and i very much doubt that i ever would be, but i have worn a beard for 26 years and a bit more than 4 months this time. had one a few other times in my younger days. a Catholic priest of my acquaintance says i look like a Greek priest. i have often had a long beard in the winter time to facilitate Santa Claus appearances. a few years back i didn’t trim the beard after Christmas so as to show solidarity with the “duck dynasty” fellows who had been excoriated for their refusal to promote sociopathic sexual depravity. i’m now at the compromise of a six inch long beard. a longer beard is cumbersome in a windy place. i find that a beard requires less energy and expense than being clean-shaven, but your mileage may vary

  22. I can’t remember where or when exactly, but I once read a story of a priest who discovered his vocation by means of a beard. As a little boy, he saw a Capuchin with a big, bushy beard, and wanted to become a priest so that he could also have a big, bushy beard. I believe this must be a true story, since it illustrates how God goes out of His way to stoop to us, draw us to Himself, and pay attention to even the smallest details.

  23. pascal788 says:

    Why do you need to show you are a man? Ain’t it obvious?

  24. pascal788 says:

    Why do you need to show you are a man? Ain’t it obvious?

  25. Suudy says:

    “And, over the decades, I’ve just the right stuff for me to make shaving as least annoying and time consuming as possible.”

    Please do share, Fr Z, the “right stuff”. This is my absolute least favorite part of my morning ritual ….

  26. hwriggles4 says:

    I was under the impression that certain religious orders, such as Fr. Groeshel’s order, required a beard as part of their charism and their habit. I would have had a hard time growing a beard since I only shaved every other day until I was about 27. I wasn’t allowed to have a beard then anyway because I was a volunteer firefighter and EMT. Couldn’t wear SCBA with a beard. Military chaplains (regardless of denomination) don’t have beards either (they can have neatly trimmed mustaches within regs) because the military doesn’t allow beards. This goes for everyone, regardless of assignment, although I do know some reservists who shave within 24 hours of reporting for duty.

    Deacon Nicholas, Semper Paratus. I lived down the street from a USGG LCDR when I was a kid. He was a chopper pilot and his son was friends with my brother. I remember he got a new CO (c.1976) who didn’t like beards so my friend’s dad shaved his off.

  27. Kenneth Wolfe says:

    I like the way the Institute of Christ the King has codified facial hair, which pretty much was the custom in the U.S. for many years. That is, priests/seminarians wearing cassocks in the U.S. = no beard. Priests in mission territory (such as Africa) have a beard for the reasons mentioned above. Priests/brothers (mostly) in religious habits = beard. A uniform custom like this made things a lot simpler prior to the 1960s.

  28. I will admit I like seeing priests with beards (my time with the eastern side of the church has contributed to this) and I am surprised no one has mentioned Clement of Alexandria yet. He had some scathing words on men and beards and I kinda agree with him here:

    “But for one who is a man to comb himself and shave himself with a razor, for the sake of fine effect, to arrange his hair at the looking-glass, to shave his cheeks, pluck hairs out of them, and smooth them, how womanly! […] For this is a meretricious and impious form of snare. For God wished women to be smooth, and rejoice in their locks alone growing spontaneously, as a horse in his mane; but has adorned man, like the lions, with a beard, and endowed him, as an attribute of manhood, with a shaggy chest – a sign of strength and rule.

    Wherefore males have both more hair and more heat than females… It is therefore impious to desecrate the symbol of manhood, hairiness. But the embellishment of smoothing (for I am warned by the Word), if it is to attract men, is the act of an effeminate person,— if to attract women, is the act of an adulterer; and both must be driven as far as possible from our society.

    (taken from (The Instructor, Book 3, Chapters 3, 11))

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