The Salvation History of Facial Hair

I would like to humbly apologize to the entire English-speaking population of the universe. In my last blog, “The Four Best Beards in the History of Christendom,” I made the rather bold claim that Catholicism and chin wigs are inextricably connected. I waited to see if anyone else would correct me, but it was my own conscience that eventually condemned me. I have to learn to turn that thing off.

The thing is….Catholics are kind of known for hating beards. And by “kind of,” I mean we actually had canons on record for a millennium forbidding clergy from having facial hair. Orderic Vitalis, a chronicler in the twelfth century, actually smack-talked (smack-wrote?) bearded priests by describing them as “bearing upon their faces the tokens of their filthy lust, likes stinking goats.” Yikes. We were to facial hair what Michelle Obama is to pizza in high school cafeterias.

I want to sweep this under the rug. But much like the indulgences for sale and liturgical dancing, this atrocity will not stop hurting us if we choose to pretend it doesn’t exist. We have to accept our wrongdoings and discuss them if we ever want to move on. And so, my dear brothers and sisters, I give you our facial hair heritage.

Let the healing begin.

In the Beard-ginning

Beards were to Ancient Jews what pickup trucks and beef jerky are to modern men: An indisputable sign of virility. There are actually Levitcial laws dictating the treatment of beards. The Israelites were instructed not to “spoil the edges” or “mar the corners” of their beards (Lev 9:27).  Much like dietary, worship, and circumcision laws, facial hair may have actually been a way to distinguish Israel from the other nations, as statues from Egypt, Assyria and pre-Christian Greek and Rome are all clean-shaven. In fact, we know that Joseph’s beard was shaved before he was allowed in Pharoah’s presence (cf Gen. 41:14).  Regardless of the reason, the Israelites took their beards seriously. They were even given specific laws for the diagnosis and purification from beard infections (Lev 13:29-37, 14:9). In a related note, apparently Ancient Israelites somehow managed to contract beard infections. They really were a special people.

Someone clearly forgot to pour oil and frankincense
over the bran flour of their grain offering.

Losing one’s beard was a cause of deep shame. For example, 2 Sam 10:4-5 tells us that the king of the Amonites captured several of David’s servants. The brute shaved off half their beards and then slashed garments off at the hips. The servants were too ashamed to come to King David, so he went out to meet them. One would assume they were ashamed by their now scandalously short skirts. However, King David advises them to “Remain at Jericho until your beards have grown, and then return” (emphasis added (with relish)). The affront actually led to a battle. He wasn’t alone–many Old Testament prophets reference “plucking their beards” during times of great distress and mourning (Ezra 9:3, Is 50:6, Jer 48:37). One can only assume this is because beards, much like bacon privileges, were among the first things God took away from His Chosen People when they sinned.

Plantaria aurea

We can assume that Christ and his disciples, as good Jews, would have sported infection-free beards with unmarred corners. Many of the early Church fathers followed suit.

This was also when the first hair-haters emerged. In fact, St. Jerome wrote some pretty scathing discourses against Christian face fluff. Luckily, we can choose to ignore this, because even he couldn’t resist growing what appears to be an entire sheep from his chin. He seriously looks like a fourth century member of ZZ Top.

I hear, Critobulus, that every girl’s crazy ‘bout a sharp dressed man.

The Reign of Parers

Sadly, the fifth century introduced one of the darkest eras in Church history. I’m talking about a millennium of full-scale facial hair persecution. Even as the Fathers mentioned above were extorting clerical facial hair, their contemporaries were attacking sacred stubble. In 475, the Fourth Council of Carthage dealt a blow that rocked the bearded Church to its very follicles:  Clerics were no longer allowed to let their beards grow freely. In fact, they could be shaved by force if they were found to have “nourished their hair and beard”.

This created a devastating precedent in the West. In fact, the council of Toulouse (1119) took a break from condemning Albigensians long enough to threaten excommunication to any cleric who “like a layman allowed hair and beard to grow.” Actually, it would appear that the only thing the theologians of the time hated more than bearded priests was baby-faced laymen. A layman who didn’t shave could be accused of impersonating clergy, as illustrated by this hilarious story in which a horse thief is refused absolution until he also confesses being clean-shaven. This was partially because long hair was thought to be symbolic of inner sin and vices. So…laymen could be hairy, but definitely not priests.

In 1086, the archbishop of Rouen went ahead and threatened to excommunicate absolutely anyone who wasn’t clean shaven (even lay people). To make matters worse, the East totally judged us for being effeminate. It was actually referenced in the letters preceding the Great Schism.

Filioque controversy + Gillette = mutual excommunication

There were a brave few who chose to rebel. For example, in 1510, Pope Julius II grew a brief beard to mourn his military loss to the French. People apparently accepted this because, hey, he lost to the French.  But he was an exception. The prepubescent precedent remained, and the age was dark indeed.

Justified by Face

Luckily, the interpretation of the Carthaginian canon shifted in the sixteenth century. Some scholars began to realize that while growing a gnarly knee-brusher might not be allowed, short beards were still licit. Fear of superfluous soupcatchers still abounded (St. Charles Borremeo especially hated them), but this was mostly from the completely understandable fear that a large beard would impede the priest’s ability to drink from the chalice. Perhaps there was even a possible lingering fear of beard infections, because whatever they are, they sound disgusting.

And so the facial foliage of Rome began to bloom. Perhaps the people began to see the value in a paten growing from their pastor’s face.  Regardless, in 1523, Pope Clement XVI hearkened the return of the hierarchical hair by being the first permanently bearded pope in centuries.

I don’t always grow a beard,
but when I do, I’m re-interpreting Canon Law.

The beard in the 21st century

It appears that clerical scruff of a diocese is now subject to whatever the bishop decides. I’m not really sure about this, actually–my attempts to research this were mostly met by creeped-out silence and mute head-shaking. But my friend, Fr. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, explained it like this: The role of a secular priest is to serve the people in his diocese. This means he shouldn’t dress or do his hair in a way that is radically different than the people he is serving. As a result, we have a disappointing lack of both priestly muttonchops and mullets. On the upside, I am confident that no laymen have been denied absolution due to clean shaven-ness in centuries. At least, I fervently pray that’s true. Also, few to none of our recent theologians have said that women’s hairlessness is evidence of our biological inferiority. Moving on…

However, the relationship between the Church and facial hair is still mending. While many clergy and Catholic college students have chosen to embrace their cheek tresses, we can’t ignore the (rather disturbing) fact that we haven’t had a bearded pope in 300 years.  So, in a sincere and ecumenical desire to bridge the gap between the piously peach-faced and the bushy beloveds, I would like to invite my bearded brothers in Christ to recommence the dialogue on shaving and sanctity. In the words of Pope Francis, “fraternal encounter is an essential part of the journey towards unity.”

Just beware of beard infections.

Melissa Keating
Melissa Keating
Melissa is a missionary with the Digital Campus. She was born and raised in St. Louis (aka the best city on Earth), but went to school at Benedictine College in Atchison, KS (aka a city on Earth). She graduated in 2012 with degrees in Mass Communications and Foreign Languages, and minors in International Studies and Theology. Yes, she was that girl. She currently lives in Denver. Like most twenty somethings, she enjoys reading, writing, hanging with friends, linguistic hagiography, and follicular Church history. Please help slake her insatiable need for attention by following her on twitter. Twitter: @mkeats42

Related Posts


Every week, FOCUS sends out the best resources available to:

  • Help you grow in your faith
  • Improve your evangelization strategy
  • Ignite your community on fire for Christ

Enter your email and sign up for free right now.