Clerical Celibacy: The Devil’s New Target

Eamonn Clark

If you haven’t heard it yet, there is a silver bullet which will cure all the ills of the Church’s clergy… it will increase vocations, it will root out the sexual deviants, it will enhance ministry to spouses… it is the end of mandatory celibacy for priests.

With the outbreak of the recent abuse/gay scandal, and the Pan-Amazon Synod around the corner, it seems that the Enemy has revealed the game plan. Let’s see if we can make a compelling argument for keeping celibacy around.

There are three classical categories of value of celibacy in itself. In increasing order of importance, they are:

  1. Economics
  2. Witness
  3. Union with God

Most are somewhat familiar with the economic problems with a married clergy. If not, here are a few of the issues.

  1. Parishes would have to support an entire family rather than one or two priests – room, board, insurance, education, health, etc.
  2. A lot of money would need to be invested in new seminaries to accommodate more seminarians (presumably, at least for a while,) and their families
  3. It is difficult to split time and energy appropriately between one’s family and the parish – it often causes serious strain and burnout

Depending on how broadly one makes the “economic,” it could also include the psychological toll on the wife, who can be subject to intense scrutiny and gossip in the parish.

The other two nodes are more important but less appreciated. The value of celibacy as a witness to the reality of the future coming of Christ helps to mark our priests as special in the eyes of the world. And how uncomfortable it makes the worldly… After all, one of the daughters of lust is a loss of desire for the goods of Heaven. To compromise here would be to lose that power. Hold that thought.

The last node is almost entirely unheard of these days, but it centers around the imitation of Our Lord and the life of Heaven to come, which will not contain marriage, as He said Himself. (Mt. 22: 30) The celibate state allows a person to focus his or her efforts entirely on pleasing the Lord, directly, as it were, rather than indirectly through pleasing one’s spouse. This is just what St. Paul said. (1 Cor. 7: 32-35) It makes more room for charity, and the continual foregoing of the great good of marriage for God’s sake, especially under a vow, is its own special form of worship.

We can see how simpler economics leads to better witness, and better witness leads to quicker union. By freeing oneself for ministry, a person is more able to preach, teach, govern, sanctify, etc., meanwhile extracting a minimal amount of resources from the faithful (a reality which St. Paul continually drew attention to on his own part). It is clear that this brute fact of more availability due to celibacy is at least in part the reason why the vast majority of the Church is Latin, and not part of an Eastern Rite which generally allows for married priests. The Latin discipline has rendered an astonishingly greater number of disciples – celibacy is, after all, traditionally seen as the “hundredfold fruit” of the good soil. (Mt. 13: 23) This greater spiritual reaping naturally leads one closer and closer to the goodness of God, which disposes one for greater union in this life. This in turn should actually inspire increasing poverty and obedience, which should increase the amount and quality of witness, which should increase union, and so on. It’s a beautiful cycle.

But the challenges which celibacy faces today have mostly to do with the topic of witness. Let me break them down by stating the claims which one will hear today in various corners of the Church (and beyond, for whatever that’s worth):

  1. Celibacy discourages vocations
  2. Celibacy leads to adverse sexual behavior/deviance
  3. Celibacy renders one less able to minister to couples as such

The first point is at issue in the upcoming Pan-Amazon Synod, which I have already written about at length here. The reality is that this short term gain will yield long term damage. The growth may indeed spring up at once, but over the years, the sun will dry out the plant, and the hundredfold fruit will disappear. The Amazon, and whatever other areas claim the same need for an exemption from universal law due to abysmal vocation numbers (viz., most of Western Europe), will likely have priests who, while more numerous, will be less interested in priestly work and less able to do it, meanwhile exacting a much higher tax on the faithful.

The second point is initially plausible. A great number of people can’t imagine living a life willfully without marriage without any pre-existing “condition” which renders one uninterested in the first place. Therefore, the people who do try to stick it out are left only with inappropriate vents for their pent up sexual urges. And so, most priests who aren’t already “off” become mentally ill and act out.

In response, we must consider a few things. First, the fact is that sex abusers almost universally are not “equals” with the ones they abuse. These people, if they wish to lead a public life, seek (or by nature have) positions of power over vulnerable potential victims. Coaches, teachers, older family members, etc. And of course there is the manipulation of the casting couch and other abuses of gate-keeping. The point is that the mental pathology is what creates these men’s desire for Holy Orders – it is an attempt to obtain power, prestige, and plausible deniability so that their twisted appetites can be satiated indefinitely. In other words, these men had “fauxcations.”

The other side of the coin is that the men with normal sex drives do not become monsters when those desires are suppressed. It is not a reasonable progression to go from a healthy sexual desire to homosexual and/or age-inappropriate desire. The natural progression would be to “normal” instances of acting out, such as flirtatious behavior, entertaining impure thoughts, etc. To suggest otherwise would be like saying that sustained dieting leads people to want to eat dirt or human excrement – yes, it will make the hunger go away, but it is repulsive to someone with a healthy appetite. There is simply no substantial evidence to suggest that there is a significant problem with good sexual desires turning toward homosexual or other abnormal perversion due to accepting celibacy as a state of life. These problems pre-exist in persons who have them, often due to having been abused themselves. The solution, therefore, is not to do away with celibacy, but to do away with those with these pathologies.

But suppose celibacy was indeed done away with as a requirement for priestly ordination in the Latin Rite. On top of the challenges already noted, given the current crisis of both homosexuality and abuse of minors, there is an obvious additional problem… Those few men who really do have the gift of celibacy and choose to use it (rather than just ignoring it) would each face an unwelcome public perception: “What’s wrong with you?” Because priests can marry, and these ones didn’t, they must be attracted to men or kids.

So much for that approach.

Finally, there is the strange suggestion that one without experience of marriage can’t very well minister to people approaching marriage or living it. I already addressed this kind of thinking here, but briefly, this thought bases itself at least on an insufficient understanding of the relationship between experience and wisdom. Of course experience can cause wisdom, but so can abstract learning. (Do you need to be a former Pro-Bowler to coach an NFL team to a Superbowl win? No.) A lot of that sort of knowledge can come through extended interaction with married people, especially in confession. Just as well, the healthy celibate has a privileged perspective on what marriage is, given that the desire remains and yet its fulfillment is foregone… When we fast from food, for example, we more easily understand its rightful place in relation to our lives here and hereafter – and the same can be said of marriage.

There is definitely a massive crisis in the clerical ranks surrounding the 6th Commandment. But lowering the bar is not the right approach… And if we do dispense with celibacy, either for specific regions like the Amazon or in universal law, it seems it would be nearly impossible to go back.

“Do not move an ancient boundary stone set up by your ancestors,” says Scripture. (Prov. 22: 28) Food for thought.