Thoughts on clerical celibacy

22 01 2020

Clerical celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church has been a contested topic in the last year or so, but I haven’t really stepped into the fray as my position is quite nuanced. I became Eastern rite as a young man for personal reasons that are no longer relevant, so married or not, I could become a priest if the need or opportunity should ever arise. (Full disclosure: I am never going to pursue it, just putting it out there). There have been discussions as to whether celibacy, or a total abstention from sex, is an ontological characteristic that is essential to the priesthood as understood by the Apostolic Tradition. In that case, the Eastern Churches deviated from the norm due to unwarranted concessions to human weakness. I don’t find this line of reasoning very convincing, and that’s not just because I am now a member of the Eastern Church on the books, which has a history of married parochial clergy.

Let’s get this out of the way first: Abusus non tollit usum. Bad cases make bad law, exceptions prove the rule, the plural of “anecdote” is not “evidence”, etc. But as I wrote recently, many of the priests who have been most involved in my life, I’m talking major milestones of birth, death, etc. have either left the priesthood to get married or were involved in major scandals (and here I am not including those who I suspect were gay or had serious psychological issues). When (mostly young) zealous Internet Catholics have a knee jerk reaction in defense of celibacy, I am wondering if they are living in the same church as I have lived in for decades. It’s clear there is a problem, it’s clear to me that, minus some dramatic cultural shift, the infrastructure of the U.S. church is in a slow motion implosion. Sure, we might get some social media savvy priests who are vocal on major Internet platforms, and we can import others from the Third World. The drastic change in the nature of the global economy may make the cloister and convent an appealing option for young people, just as the aging population makes health care a good career path. But I once met a priest from Spain who was ordained in a special ceremony with 800 other men in a stadium as part of a Eucharistic Congress in the 1950’s. Is that ever going to happen again? Not likely.

What I do see is the parish down the street with two priests and a slew of married deacons, at least in places where married deacons are a thing (to be honest, I saw rather few growing up, but perhaps that was a regional difference). And we’re talking Masses with hundreds of families attending, families with 2.3 children each with “normal” lives, meaning that at least one of the children is probably going to end up in the demographic of “ex-Catholics”. We’re asking random men taken from the early 21st century to live as celibates in a context where abstention from sex isn’t even on the radar of most people, where we can barely get the faithful to fast from food. This is the church of the Theology of the Body and endless discourse about how marriage is just as much a vocation as the seminary or nunnery, as if sex needs an extra PR boost for whatever reason.

Of course, I am not knocking or attacking the brave clergy and few religious who take up this sacrifice in our context. They’re continuing to save souls and keep the lights on, God bless them and may we pray for them. But as I said, I’ve seen plenty of zealous clergy fall into rather dark places and leave the priesthood. I am not talking about individual heroic efforts or sanctity, I am talking about structural and institutional foundations that would sustain a massive caste of celibate people in the early 21st century. I just don’t see them. At most, I see a broader church that views sex as almost a human right that everyone should have access to all the time, even with the caveat “in marriage”, which, let’s face it, isn’t even close to being strictly followed (need we mention annulments as well?) There is no real decent explanation as to why the clergy should be celibate other than “well, Jesus was,” which doesn’t touch upon the problematic nature of human sexuality at all; something you can’t address lest people call you “Gnostic” or tell you that you hate the human body as presently constituted (guilty as charged).

Let’s just say it: priests shouldn’t have sex because most people need to be having less sex, period. Sex is needed for procreation, and the end of marriage as the institution of regulated, licit sex was considered until recently the begetting and raising of offspring. There were secondary ends of emotional union of spouses and an aid to control concupiscence, but control ultimately means “giving up”. In other words, we’re all supposed to be working towards complete celibacy because we’re all going to die. We have to get rid of this mortal body eventually. The body urges us to procreate, but that isn’t always a good idea according to time, place, and circumstance. So what then? Do we just try to cheat the system as artificial birth control and its less effective Catholic counterpart allow: have as much sex as you want and we’ll try to mitigate the consequences? Or do we struggle with the radical celibates to change lust into love of God and neighbor? And by “struggle”, I don’t mean moral support but an actual culture of prolonged abstention from sexual intercourse and its regulation in the personal lives of the laity, even married people.

This is all just a pipe dream, because this wasn’t even the case before the 1960’s. Back then, a great incentive to join the clergy for men was that it was a meal ticket or a way to boost family prestige with one rather severe job requirement. In the past, people actually went hungry, so what were they to do otherwise, starve? Women often couldn’t be educated or do anything other than be a mother of ten kids if they didn’t enter a convent or become a teaching nun. But for every handful of bad apples in it for material gain, there was someone like St. Thomas Aquinas who was sent to live with his uncle, the Abbot of Monte Cassino, when he was five. It’s a law of averages: to have a culture of saints you have to have a majority of nominally Christian sinners that they can emerge from. My main point is, as I have said before, that celibates were the examples and the superheroes in a church where the people were barely trusted to not commit the most heinous, vile, and ridiculous sins. That’s why people were deprived of Holy Communion and any whiff of lay spirituality was suspected of having some witch or snake oil salesman behind it. All that wasn’t far from the truth, if history has taught us anything.

Bottom line: I am not in favor of ordaining married men to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church. It’s not because I buy any of the theological rhetoric of ritual purity or imitating Christ or whatever. I just don’t trust anyone to implement a change that drastic; at that point, you’re just begging for trouble. At the same time, I don’t think maintenance of this discipline will somehow save the Church or make things better. There are structural issues in the Roman Catholic priesthood that aren’t going to be addressed anytime soon, if they are even acknowledged at all. It may get to the point where someone is going to have to do something. Again, I am not disparaging those who have taken vows of celibacy in our context, I just don’t think personal heroism and sanctity are the solution at the levels we are seeing them. The question is really: why isn’t everyone celibate, all things being equal, or better put, why isn’t celibacy a goal that all of us are trying to achieve in our own time, place, and circumstance? Absent an ascetical culture, I see clerical celibacy as a quaint anachronism, which is not far from calling it an absurdity.





One response

3 02 2020

Excellent post.

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