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.