Wednesday, September 15, 2010
The Brits Debate Celibacy
Last night on the BBC they conducted a debate over the issue of celibacy in the Church. The following extract is from a new blog written by Tina Beattie, the Director of the Digby Stuart Research Center For Catholic Studies. The extract records Tina's personal contributions to the debate as a member of the side advocating for a change in the celibacy doctrine. Tina brings up a couple of points I had never given much consideration, but in retrospect think need to be seriously considered.
"I pointed out that we already have married priests in the Roman Catholic Church thanks to the influx of Anglicans. The bishop (Malcolm McMahon) tried to defend that on the basis of exceptions, but having referred to celibacy in ontological terms, that wasn't a very persuasive defence. And I did wonder, if there can be ontological exceptions for Anglicans, why not for women? It's all very unsatisfactory, and seems unfair to faithful Roman Catholic celibate priests who long to marry but are forbidden to do so.
I agreed to take part in this debate because of the word 'compulsory'. I think celibacy is a gift and a vocation with huge advantages for the Church. It enables men and women to work in situations of extreme hardship and danger - which is why the Catholic Church is usually still there when all other NGOs and aid agencies have fled. It also gives a potent witness to an alternative way of life, in an age when so many in society simply take it for granted that abundant high-performance sexual activity is as essential to our human well-being as eating and drinking. But when celibacy and priesthood are forced into the same vocation, and when the institutional Church is governed by an exclusively male celibate hierarchy, we should not be surprised that the Church is every bit as obsessed with sex as secular society is. (Opposite sides of the same sexually obsessive coin--this does not imply one is right and one is wrong. Both are out of a balance and ignore the concept of love in sexual relationships.)
However, like Frank Skinner, in the end I'd rather see celibate women priests than married priests. The Church would need to be much more radically transformed in its attitudes to women for priests' wives to be anything other than glorified housekeepers, and with present teachings on contraception presbyteries would soon be overflowing with babies. Married priests might simply prop up the status quo with all its patriarchal and misogynistic tendencies. Maybe what we need is a much wider understanding of different models of priesthood and different models of celibacy, without an essential link between the two.
I had not actually considered just how the birth control issue might play out in rectories with a married priesthood. It's easy to imagine how a married couple might have to spend a bit of energy defending the sacramentality of their marriage if children didn't appear on a regular basis. Not a mission I particularly would want to engage in as part of priestly ministry. I wonder if married deacons experience much of this kind of scrutiny?
I strongly agree with Dr. Beattie's final thought that celibacy and the priesthood have to be freed of the linkage between the two. I would state this a little more broadly and say that sexuality and the priesthood have to be freed of such linkage. I don't mean to suggest that candidates for the priesthood needn't have a mature understanding of sexual expression. I see it more in the sense that candidates for the priesthood should be mature across the board with sexuality one aspect of that maturity, and spiritual maturity being the primary criterion--irrespective of gender. Spiritual maturity implies the inclusion of sexual maturity as one can't be truly spiritually mature if one operates out of an immature mentality towards sex.
The sex abuse crisis certainly points out how one can attain religious leadership while being essentially immature in a whole host of areas--sexuality only one of such areas. In my own life the people who have had the most impact on my spiritual development have all had one thing in common, and it's not celibacy or chastity or heterosexual orientation. It's compassion and empathy, or to put it differently, they have demonstrated and engaged in the 'art' of relationship. This doesn't mean that they were great enablers of immorality and sin, but that they created an accepting environment in which dysfunctional areas of living could be explored and healed. The emphasis was not on changing behavior, but in healing the underlying reasons for the behavior. Once healing occurs, behavior has to change.
I can remember back in my younger days when a priest I hugely respected said that celibacy and chastity are not bad ideas at all, but the way they were taught and implemented were just crap. He said no one seems to wonder if Jesus had other reasons for practicing celibacy other than purity laws. He thought Jesus chose celibacy because Jesus realized one doesn't have a sexual relationship in a vacuum of two people. No relationship has consequences for just two people. If Jesus and Mary Magdalene, for instance, had had a sexual relationship the effects on the Apostles would most likely have been explosive. In this priest's mind Jesus made a deliberate choice to practice a celibate life precisely so that the consequences of such a singular relationship would not effect His teaching mission or undercut the necessary relationship with His disciples. Jesus couldn't afford the jealousy such a relationship might engender in others. Peter comes to mind.
Had Jesus begun his teaching career at fifty nine instead of twenty nine, things might have been a little different. The fires of passion being banked to some extent, family responsibilities over and done with, and most men not particularly interested in the old wife of an old rabbi. For whatever reason, Jesus opted for a different path. This has never meant the Church had to opt for the same path. Most young men, Apostles included, are not chemically built for celibacy, nor are they usually relationally mature enough to make celibacy a healthy kind of relational choice. In the end celibacy is not so much a sexual choice, as it is a relational choice. It's a choice that's best served in maturity not youth.
I personally believe that celibacy/chastity should not be available as a consecrated vow until later in life for any religious state. If they are not integrated parts of the personality there will be problems. Mature integration is not usually accomplished through youthful denial. Recognizing that might be a good place to start this conversation.