"The Myth of Male Celibacy"
Sojouners July/August 2002 by Richard Rhor
THE REVELATIONS OF the last year seem to be the beginning of the end of what some call "the myth of celibacy." It's not that male celibacy was always false or deceitful, but it was in great part an artificial construct. Men, with the best of original intentions, found out that they were not the mystics that celibacy demanded. (Celibacy is a lot easier to follow when you are a genuine mystic.)
That is exactly the point. Celibacy, at least in the male, is a most rare gift. To succeed, it demands conscious communion with God at a rather mature level, it demands many transitions and new justifications at each stage of life, and it demands a specific creative call besides. Many who have ostensibly "succeeded" at it have often, by the second half of life, actually not succeeded—in the sense of becoming a God lover, a human lover, and a happy man besides. (One should not forget in reading the above paragraph that priests are hardly the only group called to a mandatory celibacy.)
Practically, however, the demand for celibacy as a prerequisite for ministry is a setup for so many false takers. Not bad men, just men who are still on a journey: young men who need identity; insecure or ambitious men who need status; passionate men who need containment for their passions; men who are pleasing their pious mothers or earning their Catholic father's approval; men who think "the sacred" will prevent their feared homosexuality, their wild heterosexual hormones, or their pedophilia; men with arrested human development who seek to overcompensate by identification with a strong group; men who do not know how to relate to other people and to women in particular.
None of these are bad men; they are just on a many-staged journey, and we have provided them an attractive way-station that often seems to work—for a while. But then they go on to the next stage and find themselves trapped, searching, conflicted, split, acting out, or repressing in, and often at variance with their now public and professed image.
The process lends itself to a Jekyll-and-Hyde syndrome, even among men who are very honest and humble in other areas. The price is far too high once you have committed your life publicly and sacredly. I know how hard it continues to be for me, my closest priest friends, and many that I have counseled and confessed. Many of us stay in not because we believe the official ideology of celibacy anymore, but because we believe in our work, we love the people, and we also know God's mercy. But that loss of belief in the very ideology is at the heart of the whole problem now. We cannot prop up with law and social pressure what the Spirit does not appear to be sustaining. The substructure has collapsed. "Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it" (Psalm 127:1). (I wish some one in authority would actually spend some time on this very question. Why is it the Spirit does not appear to be sustaining celibacy? Could it be because forced celibacy undercuts the Spirit?)
Add to that a rather large superstructure of ascribed status and security, and we have a system that is set up for collapse. Studies of male initiation say it is dangerous to give ascribed status to a man who has not journeyed into powerlessness. He will likely not know how to handle power, and may even abuse it, as we have now seen. (This is so true, and it's seen in the whole concept of military basic training, the ultimate definition of male powerlessness, which is for all intents and purposes a male right of initiation. Just ask a Marine.)
In general, I think healthy male celibacy is rare, and it probably is most healthy as an "initiation" stage to attain boundaries, discipline, integrity, depth, and surrender to God. In the long run, most men, as the Buddha statues illustrate, need to have one hand touching the earth, the concrete, the physical, the material, the sexual. If they do not, the other hand usually points nowhere. (Or too frequently at themselves.)
WE SHOULD MOVE ahead reaffirming our approach to grace, healing, mercy, solidarity with sinners, patience, and transformation—while also cooperating with the social system whenever there are true victims' rights to be redressed. We should do this generously, magnanimously, and repentantly.
We Catholics should also see celibacy as primarily an intense initiation course of limited (one to 10) years, much like the monks in many Asian countries. Celibacy has much to teach the young male about himself, about real passion, prayer, loving others, and his True Self in God. We dare not lose this wonderful discipline and container. (Who knows, maybe both Jesus and Paul were still in that early period of life?!) It could be a part of most Catholic seminarians' training, and during that time much personal growth could take place. Some would likely choose it as a permanent state. Most would not.
How differently the entire process of priestly formation would be configured. What a gift to the religious orders (where celibacy is essential). Our precise charism would become clear, although we would surely become much smaller. What an opening to the many fine men who are attracted to a marriage partner. And what focused intensity this could give to spiritual formation during that celibacy period, instead of all of the hoop games, telling the directors what they want to hear, mental reservations, non self-knowledge, acting out, and "submarine" behavior that make many seminaries a haven for unhealth. Seminaries would not drive away sincere spiritual seekers, but would attract them. Not men looking for roles, titles, and uniforms to disguise identity, but men looking for holiness and God through which to express identity.
Male sexuality does not go away. It is not easily sublimated or integrated. It is either expressed healthily or it goes underground in a thousand different ways. Sex is and probably always will be a central issue for most males, and it can never develop honestly inside of a "hothouse" of prearranged final conclusions. (This "hot house" of prearranged final conclusions is hardly limited to priestly celibacy. It's becoming an across the board norm.)
We should not be looking for a system where mistakes can never happen, but just a system that can distinguish health from unhealth and holiness from hiding. Like no other institution, the church should be the most prepared to deal with mistakes. That is our business. The steps to maturity are necessarily immature. Let's start by mentoring the good and the true, and also surrendering to that mystery of grace, forgiveness, and transformation that is our birthright as Christians. Many priests and seminarians have always done this, and I hope this gives them the courage to know why and how they are both "sons and heirs" of a true wisdom tradition. Such disciplined sons, and only such sons, have earned the authority of "fathers."
This is actually part of a longer essay which addresses more than just priestly celibacy. Fr. Rohr is a Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province and one of my favorite Catholic essayist on the spiritual process.
In one sense the above discussion on celibacy can be seen as a metaphor for how Catholicism approaches most moral teachings. They are almost always presented as a " 'hothouse' of prearranged final conclusions." Final conclusions which leave one with no real chance at maturing into them, but only condemnation for not following them scrupulously from day one.
This does seem to be more and more the direction the institutional Church is following. It no longer leaves room for maturing into a Catholic spiritual life, just conformity to a Catholic doctrinal life. I suppose that's why some of the most vocal doctrinal supporters are converts. They matured into Catholicism and so the doctrines are more comfortable. If one is born into Catholicism it's a whole different ball game. The maturation or conversion process isn't supposed to be on one's radar. It's hard to authentically spiritually mature when one is presupposed to already be mature and just needs to follow the doctrine. Too bad real life doesn't work that way.
In many respects the current priest crisis is a true metaphor for so many problems with in institutional Catholicism. Most secular corporations would take a serious look at their product if they couldn't find people to sell it or buy it. General Motors comes to mind as a prime example of a corporation involved in internal navel gazing as an excuse to avoid the hard product decisions. We all know what's happened to them. It looks to me the Church could be on the same path if it refuses to make some hard decisions about the celibate priesthood. Insisting it's a good product when no one is buying it didn't work for GM. In the end GM was left with GM purists and that didn't begin to compensate for their global structure.
The other point that Fr. Rohr makes is that confessors and spiritual advisers operate from a different paradigm. That paradigm sees people in a maturation process and that part of the process involves finding the ability to forgive themselves errors of immaturity, ignorance, and dysfunction. Most especially they can not try to pretend they are something they are not. Good therapists more or less operate on the same paradigm. Less than healthy behavior is overcome through integration and then moving beyond, it's usually not overcome by denial, repression---or amputation.
For a spiritual endeavor, there seems to be a whole lot of amputation going on in Catholicism. Jesus didn't practice healing by amputation. He returned people to wholeness. Ideally that's what the spiritual journey is about, returning us to a sense of wholeness with our Creator. In this context amputating parts of our God given self is counter productive. The priesthood is a classic example of the fallacy of that approach.
I understand that changing the celibacy requirement for the priesthood would fundamentally alter more than the priesthood in Catholicism. But it's also true the pivotal person in Catholicism is the priest and so altering that pivot is bound to have repercussions. The question the Vatican has to answer is this one: Does not altering the celibacy requirement result in even more profound and debilitating repercussions?
Personally I think the Vatican is principally refuseing to deal with the thought that the laity have matured beyond the need for a special celibate holier than thou priesthood---that the laity is maturing beyond our current clerical structure and that's the real influence of the Holy Spirit. This is a similar process to American auto buyers maturing beyond the need to define self worth by huge horse power and huge SUV's. GM refused to deal with this change, apparently to their virtual corporate extinction. The Vatican would be wise to look to GM's example. Maybe Catholics no longer need the high octane, maintenance expensive, celibate clerical system.