The Problem With Celibacy

I have been leaning in this direction for several years now, but I just recently put my finger on what it is.  For a long time, I have been fascinated with the theology and liturgy of the East, and the more exposure I have to it, the more enthralled I’ve become.  While I accept the theology of the Roman Catholic Church, I really think some serious errors have crept in over the past 1000 years where the Eastern Churches have it right.  One of these is the ban on ordination of married men (which is not the same thing as “allowing priests to marry”).  

I’ve long felt that celibacy breeds a certain demeanor among Roman priests–especially when compared to the Byzantine and Antiochene priests I’ve known–and I’ve been trying to figure out why.

We call a priest “Father” because he is supposed to be the “Father” of the community, and one of the arguments for mandatory celibacy is that the lack of a family frees the priest to be available to anyone, anytime. That is certainly a strong point, and a struggle that married Catholic priests endure. 

However, in practice, there’s a certain aloofness.  I recently heard a priest, talking about a Retrovaille weekend, say, addressing those still discerning, that one of the blessings of being celibate is that you can come home at night, and there’s no one there to bug you.  I thought, “Isn’t the whole point of celibacy that you are free to be ‘bugged’?  Isn’t a priest supposed to be ‘bugged’?”

I often say that there are many ways to assess a “good” priest: theological orthodoxy, liturgical correctness, moral uprightness, spirituality, and a loving and friendly demeanor.  Rarely does a priest demonstrate all of these characteristics. 

And of all the priests I’ve known, even the ones who were extremely orthodox or extremely spiritual, a loving and friendly demeanor is still a rarity.  I think the average layperson would agree with this assessment.  It’s one of the major reasons that Catholics defect for other religions: Catholicism often comes off as cold and unwelcoming compared to other religious communities, and that comes from the attitudes presented by priests.  When I first thought of this the other day, I phrased it as, “Generally speaking, the Catholic Church would function a lot better if _All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten_ were required reading in seminaries.”

Priests with a healthy spiritual life can come off as aloof because of their detachment and mystical nature.  Priests who are theologically and morally orthodox can come off as rigid.  Priests who are worldly or liberal can often feign a friendly manner or being “down to earth” in their preaching and liturgical practice but are usually reserved when dealing with people one on one.  Then there are those who get favored by the hierarchy for pragmatic reasons because they’re good managers or bookkeepers, regardless of their “people skills,” or the ones who see it as a power trip.

So, what does this have to do with celibacy?  Well, besides the psychological comfort having a wife or children can give a man, look at it this way:

1) As noted regarding those with healthy spiritual lives, a priest who is sexually and psychologically healthy needs to avoid temptation.  General aloofness is one of the strategies that holy priests use to protect their chastity.  It gets back to the whole idea of how priests are supposed to shun “particular friendships”, both male and female.  This ties in to both spiritual detachment and the sense of moral rigidity.  
2) Then there are those for whom celibacy “comes easy,” or for whom it’s an attraction in the priesthood, exemplified by the comment that inspired these thoughts.  If a man joins the priesthood because he doesn’t like people and doesn’t want to be bothered, what kind of priest is he going to be?  Indeed, any true expert on the priesthood or religious life says that lack of social skills is a sign that one does *not* have a vocation. Whether in a monastery or parish life, a priest has to deal with people.  But often in practice, men are drawn to the priesthood so they can be isolated.
3) Then again, we have those who often get mentioned in these discussions: the ones who use official celibacy as a cover for sexual license, regardless of their inclinations.  There is at least one city in Europe where the historic cardinal’s palace is literally across the way from the cardinal’s mistress’s palace.  Everyone knows that during the height of “Christendom,” most bishops had mistresses and children; they just weren’t “married.”  When my wife visited Haiti in college, the priest there said that the vast majority of priests kept mistresses or even had civil marriages!  Then there’s the whole “homosexual subculture” thing.  So, these priests living double lives maintain a certain aloofness in their priesthood to disguise their double lives.  And, often, it’s the priests who *are* gregarious and seemingly act the way a priest should act who turn out to be living double lives.  Consider the former Fr. Francis Mary, MFVA, of EWTN/_Life on the Rock_.

Conversely, when there are priests who are married, and when there is a thriving diaconate working side by side with the priests, at least the married clerics can serve the “loving and gregarious” role of pastoral life, and maybe some of that rubs off on the celibate clerics.  Indeed, in the Byzantine tradition, it is said that the priest represents the “spiritual” fatherhood of the bishop, while the deacon represents the actual fatherhood of the bishop, dealing more one-on-one with the parishioners and getting involved in their day-to-day lives.

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5 responses to “The Problem With Celibacy

  1. Those who truly express a serious spiritual intimacy with The One (God) hardly notice the sensual world you so dearly crave. The connection with a community as a soul mate is real. The romance is true. And, the satisfactions gleaned from each genuine reciprocation are extremely fulfilling. I have experienced these moments, feel these moments to this day, and I would imagine will continue to feel the authentic love of God in every person I meet..

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    • I’m not quite sure what you’re getting at, but beware of the dangers of Quietism and Gnosticism. We *are* incarnate beings.
      And I’m not talking about physical love here. I’m talking about the ability of a priest to be a compassionate leader to his parishioners. The Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox priests I’ve known, regardless of whether they’re married or celibate, like Protestant ministers, seem to generally “get it right” in terms of being gregarious and charitable than most Roman Catholic priests I’ve known.

  2. I blame feminism and the sexual revolution for this, in part. Before 1960, sexual repression was seen as good for society. Since then, we have lost the particular genius of chastity as a whole.

    Learning that one CAN have friends, even intimate friends, without giving in to the sin of lust, is the whole point of celebacy. And monogamy, in part.

    Hypersexuality is painted as being normal and healthy today- but I have talked with some older priests on the subject, and it is rare that Lust is a real problem.

    Still, I have to wonder about that priest on the retroville weekend- how many overnagged men has he pushed into divorce with that remark?

  3. My second response, this time specifically to point #3 above. To me it is a logical fallacy to use men who do not take the vow of celibacy or chastity seriously to say that the vow itself is wrong. To prove my point I offer http://dannimoss.wordpress.com/2008/06/20/protestant-clergy-abuse-equals-or-exceeds-catholic-clergy-abuse/ this blog on how married protestant clergy are more likely to abuse.

  4. Ted, normally I wouldn’t use them as an example in *that* way, and I’m not even saying the vow is wrong, so much as the mandatory vow creates a culture that attracts certain behaviors.

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