Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Case for a Celibate Priesthood

I really like Damian Thompson, the Telegraph' snarky Catholic blogger, but I must disagree with him on his recent proposal to get rid of priestly celibacy.  Last week Damian wrote a piece titled, "The Next Pope must think seriously about married priests - because the celibacy rule isn't working."  He writes that the married clergy in the Anglican Ordinariate seem to be doing just fine, so why not do away with clerical celibacy throughout the Church?
The question the Church faces now is: will the next Pope allow married Catholic laymen to become priests? And might he go further, and allow existing Catholic priests to marry (something ex-Anglican priests can’t do after they have been re-ordained)? As events over the past few days have shown, the debate is likely to be an awkward one. Last week, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh and Britain’s most senior Catholic cleric, told the BBC: “I’d be very happy if [priests] had the opportunity of considering whether they should be married. Many priests have found it very difficult to cope with celibacy … and felt the need of a companion, of a woman, to whom they could get married and raise a family.”
Damian claims that conditions within the church demand an end to the celibacy requirement.
To put it bluntly, the new Pope must confront the suffocating hypocrisy of the Vatican and Bishops’ Conferences on this subject. For example, I’ve never heard a bishop acknowledge what is obvious to so many of us: that in certain large cities in the Western world, a majority of Catholic priests are gay, albeit celibate. If the Vatican were to enforce its current ruling that homosexuals per se are unsuitable for the priesthood, then it would have innumerable empty urban churches on its hands. And furious parishioners, too, since discreetly gay men often make wonderful priests. On the other hand, you don’t have to be a homophobe to wonder whether it’s healthy to have such an imbalance between the sexual instincts of priests and their flocks.
In other parts of the world, there is no such imbalance. In the words of an East African missionary friend of mine: “We used to joke that the celibate priests were the guys who had only one wife.” Unofficial marriages among African Catholic priests are the norm in some regions. But, again, you won’t hear bishops acknowledge it. Instead, there’s lots of politically correct rhetoric about thriving evangelism. (And perhaps there is a connection: the fast-growing Pentecostal churches in the Third World are all run by married men.)
I have no idea if Damian's claim about the proportion of gay clergy is true or not.  Likewise, I don't know what the situation is like in Africa.  However, even if what he says is accurate, I must disagree with Damian's proposal.

Firstly, it is important to note that the celibacy requirement is a discipline, not a doctrine, and any Catholic may freely disagree with it.  The priesthood is not at all incompatible with married life.  Historically many priests including St. Peter were married.  Today there are married clergy in the Anglican Ordinariate, the Eastern Rites, and the Orthodox churches.  The question of married clergy is one of prudential judgement.  I happen to think it imprudent to change current church policy on priestly celibacy. 

I believe that allowing married clergy throughout the entire Latin Rite would do more harm than good.  A celibate priesthood is one of the "small t" traditions rather than a big "T" Tradition, but as Vatican II and its aftermath show, when too many of the former are abandoned, the latter is endangered.  The large majority of Catholics are horribly catechized and don't know the difference between the two types of tradition.  The Catholic dissidents who write for the National Catholic Reporter or the New York Times will often mention married clergy in the same breath as a variety of heretical "reforms" they want implemented.  The dissidents do not understand the difference between legitimate changes in policy and impossible changes in dogma.  Unfortunately, most people in the pews hardly know any better than the heretics.  Most Catholics think that one can pick and choose which Church teachings they want to accept.  Many feel justified in this belief because of the changes wrought by the Second Vatican Council, which in their minds proves Church teaching to be arbitrary.  Further large changes can only make the situation worse.  Getting rid of priestly celibacy would cause a great deal of confusion among the faithful.

I further object to Damian's proposal because he takes the idea of married clergy too far.  He wants those who are currently priests to be allowed to marry and likes the idea of a married pope.  He hopes for the day when "an old lady at a dinner party will turn to the person next to her and say: 'Hello there – I’m the Pope’s mother-in-law.”  I do not share Damian's enthusiasm for a married pontiff.  If the Church were to allow married priests, it should put the same sort of limits on the the practice that exist in the Anglican Ordinariate and the Eastern churches.  Namely, though married men may become priests, priests are prevented from marrying, and married clergy cannot become bishops.  The rules are designed to honor celibacy.  Celibacy is superior to the married life, and the priesthood should reflect that.  We need role models of purity now more than ever.  The secular world has embraced hedonism and most Protestants have forgotten about the biblical endorsement of celibacy.  Monks, nuns, and other religious are good examples of celibate holiness, but diocesan priests are much more visible.  If the requirement for priestly celibacy were abandoned I would hope that celibacy would still maintain a superior place in the priesthood.


  1. any change in discipline should be done slowly ans prayerfully- not as a response to mainstream media- who hate the Church

    in any case- more education and continued formation for married deacons-

    1. I'm glad you mentioned deacons. People tend to forget that an ordained ministry is already open to married men throughout the Church.

  2. I would have to agree with you on the ignorance of American Catholics, at least. If we yield on married priests but not same-sex marriage, that will cause confusion among too many people. I think it would be the straw to break the backs of many American camels.

    Besides, if you're willing to give up everything to be a priest, what's so hard about giving up marriage? I would go as far as to say the ends of marriage and priesthood point in different directions. According to my understanding, marriage, along with committing to getting your spouse to heaven, helps foster a community on earth, and passes on offspring. Priesthood is solely focused on ministry between human beings and God. The two don't completely diverge, but one aims so much higher than the other that I can't help but wonder whether the two are ever reconcilable in the vocation of one person.

  3. Good summary of the whole issue. Just want to add 1 thing. The best argument i ever heard for celbacy for priests was from a happily married Lutheran pastor. He explained all the advantages that being single has for someone who is a pastor.
    Additionally, sdeveral years ago it came out that the married Episcopal priest had had sexual relations with a woman he was counseling.