Clerical Celibacy?

Over the years, but especially recently, with all the clergy sex scandals afflicting the Church here in the U.S.A., and now, it seems in Europe as well, I have been asked my own opinion regarding the causes or cause. Most often, the question takes the form of whether or not the celibacy demanded by the Church of its clergy is most of all to blame?

In trying to answer this question, I have found, at least to my own mind, that it is most helpful to adopt a distinction made years ago by the French priest and psychologist, Marc Oraison. According to him, celibates can be divided into two major groups: those who are positive celibates and those who are only negatively so.

The first, the positive celibates, comprise those who might have genuinely wished for a spouse and children, but have forgone that fulfillment for genuinely religious reasons, or to put it in terms of the gospel have become [as] “eunuchs . . . for the sake of the kingdom” (Matthew 19:12). And it is these, like so many good priests after Vatican II, should they lose their sense of satisfaction or fulfillment in working for the church, who are most likely to leave the clerical state to marry. Or else, as it seems in many cases, had they been allowed to marry and remain in the clergy, they would probably have still retained their religious ideals, but would have only found their time more limited to carry them out.

The second category, the negative celibates, are those who, for various reasons, have never really desired to marry or to have children of their own. These form two more or less distinct sub-groups.  One of these, most obviously, is comprised of those who are homosexual in their orientation, or who are probably if not always (again to paraphrase the words of the gospel) “born that way.”

Then there is another subgroup, those who are basically heterosexual, but who for various psychological reasons have sought to escape the involvement and obligations of married life. But even if their motivation might not be their own fault (i.e., they have “been made so by men”) the probability is that, had they married, they most likely would have made poor husbands and even worse fathers.

For both these negative subgroups the greatest advantage for them is that celibacy provides the ideal solution for their situation, both as a religious framework for living chastely and, to the extent they can summon the gospel ideal, an incentive to live as generously as they can for the sake of others. However, as we have sadly seen, the greatest danger, both for them and for the church as well, is that once this idealism becomes wearied or compromised as time has a way of doing this same celibate lifestyle has too often turned out to be a convenient cover under which they have indulged themselves.

So what should the church do?  For one, I think that it should now do what it should have done (and actually did in the eastern rite branches) many centuries ago and refuse to make celibacy a condition or requirement for ordination. This would insure, as much as possible, that there not only be enough parish clergy available, but that, for the most part, they are persons who are family and community-oriented, as pastors should be.  Indeed, in the New Testament’s pastoral epistles, marital fidelity and family raising experience (not celibacy) was once seen as the normal prerequisite for the choice of clergyman and, one would think, even in the modern world, for the choice of a clergywoman as well.  If this once was the case, why not now?  Has human nature changed all that much in less than two millennia’s time? 

And as for the others, the church should encourage (again, as it has, from the earliest times) various forms of celibate life for those who are drawn to it, providing various frameworks, such as closely supervised community life, the rigors of missionary endeavor, or even eremitical solitude,   as both incentives and safeguards to make sure that celibate life, when freely chosen, is lived chastely.  Certainly this successfully lived celibacy is envisioned by the invitation and standard expressed in that same gospel’s words “Let him who can take it, take it.” But it also implies, at the same time, the warning, too long ignored, that not everyone can.

R W Kropf   3/17/10                                                          Clerical Celibacy.doc     10/03/17.html