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.


  1. Fr. Andrew Greeley has proposed that celibacy vows not be made forever, which fits in with your recommendation that celibacy vows be deferred until one reaches a later age. Both concepts recognize that the institutional Church has significant problems with emotionally immature men being asked to make serious commitments about their future lives when they are not emotionally ready to do so.

  2. Celibacy for monks or nuns makes sense. They have communities to back them up! Celibacy for diocesan priests makes no sense. Other than to be more controllable by the church.

    The Eastern church allows for marriage prior to ordination. That means if someone lose a spouse they cannot remarry. Or if they divorce they cannot remarry. However celibate priests are the only ones who can be ordained as bishops. Thus, not only are most Orthodox pastors married, but they are completely committed to remaining a parish priest.

  3. TheraP I don't have the same trust in the convent monastic system that you do. Things might be different now, but back in the hay day a monastery full of immature people produced a lot of immature behavior. Richard Sipes has a couple of articles dealing with his monastic community and what he describes is not something one would write home about.

    The Orthodox system has a lot of merit and I personally think Catholicism should seek their input in the celibacy debate. I also wonder about Tine Beattie's musings about the relative status of clerical wives. It wouldn't be just differences of male/female but also lay/ordained. Kind of a double whammy.

  4. Well, of the monks are immature I bet it's in the new orders. As the older ones seem to have done a great deal to help their folks grow up. New orders... who knows? (Cistercians, I pretty much trust.)

    But if the RC "orders" are not able to produce mature people, then that means that even the bastions of true spirituality in the RCC have also failed. And that would be: One. Sorry. Failure!

    I do think that celibacy is possible. For those called. And that, to me, requires community formation. I simply don't see how it could be done by most people under any other circumstance.

  5. I'm not at all certain that a married priest is less controllable by the institution than a celibate one. I think both are potentially controllable. It is simply the adjusting the techniques of control to the individual situation.

    An abuser will abuse; a manipulator will manipulate and a controller will control. Unless the transgressor realizes the harm being caused and makes a concerted effort to heal and to stop the transgressing behavior. Even if a target realizes what is happening and takes steps to remove themselves from the attempt at control, the transgressor would move on to the next target. At least this fits with my experience in life.

  6. I'm not sure I like the idea of Jesus being celibate due to the jealousies of the male apostles. That just on the surface strikes me as simple playing to the immaturity of His friends.

    I'd be far more comfortable with the idea that He chose to forgo a marriage and sexual relationship because He did not want to leave children behind to grow up without a human father present for them in this life. Of course this presumes a heterosexual relationship for Him. And while homosexuality is also to be considered I'll leave that for people far better versed in those aspects than I am. Suffice it to say that the idea of a Christ who is also sexual at all is entirely too much for a great many people to deal with...

    But the implications either way are astonishing.

  7. Married priest is less controllable because also accountable to a spouse. That is powerful relationship. Makes it less likely the priest will kowtow to nonsense.

  8. The jealousy thing was used as an example of intimate relationships effecting more relationships than just the two people. Children is a far better example, but then I did say this observation was from a priest. I think he was far more familiar on a personal level with hero worshipping-which he hated-and jealousy.

    A sexual Christ or a sexual Mary is far too much for a lot of people to deal with, it's not like any of us were exposed to either concept since we were exposed entirely to it's opposite.

  9. If the Vatican's main argument for ordaining only males were valid, one would find the majority of priests today to be Jewish, circumcised, and professionally skilled in fishing. Jesus's preference was undeniably clear. A minority of priests with other characteristics would be acceptable, just as in Jesus's choice of his apostles. The qualifications situation would then parallel clerical celibacy, an absolute requirement for all in the Latin rite -- except for the minority to whom it doesn't apply.

    Modifying the immutable celibacy discipline, perhaps to what it was for the Church's first thousand years, would be difficult in present times. Allowing more marriage would instantly raise today's questions about same-sex marriage if, perchance, any gays were found in or aiming toward the priesthood. Published history offers little guidance on that aspect of priestly marriage. In terms of complexity, resolving the issue of contraception for ordained married ex-Anglicans should be comparatively easy.

  10. "the majority of priests today to be Jewish, circumcised, and professionally skilled in fishing" and also married. The Apostles were married men, with the possibkle exception of John who may have been just a teen. Yes, our first "pope" Peter was a married man. How else would he have a mother-in-law.
    I wonder,where is the first pope's wife buried, and what about the children of the Apostles? Hmm.

  11. Is there a way to leave a comment about your follow-up to Newman's prayer on the right hand column of your blog? It's kind of weird to consider re-reading a prayer because it's so funny, but I can't help myself! Your prayerful response has me cracking up every time I read it.

    But then, I KNOW God has a sense of humor. Thanks for a great reminder of it!

    Keep up the good work and may your return to Montana bring you -well, that thing you were praying for. You know, Light of Truth.

    God bless your perseverance to the work you are called to do.

  12. No Mary Beth there is no dedicated way to leave a comment about Newman's prayer.

    Cardinal Newman must have been having a bad hair day when he wrote that, but there is much truth in it if you can muddle your way through it. It does describe the spiritual path when your insight is taking you outside the accepted box. I think so anyway, Seriously.

  13. TheraP: In a marriage of truly equal partners, you are right, there would also be accountability between the spouses. I have my doubts though that marriages of RCC priests would truly be that.

    The RCC does not usually argue for this sort of marriage. Most of the time it argues for the complimentary aspects, meaning among other things [and granted I'm oversimplifying here to some degree] the husband gives orders and the wife obeys. Accountability usually goes in 1 direction just as between the hierarchy and the laity. And for the same reason. The person expected to take the orders does not have any option but to pray, pay and obey.

    It would take an exceptionally strong woman to stand up to a priest as a spouse and make him accountable to her as you describe. Not saying it can't happen; but at the same time, I would not choose to be in that position.


  14. Sadly, Veronica, the kind of woman you describe is exactly the kind that unmarried priests tend to exploit even now.

  15. "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."

    This is a very important statement to make by the priest and I believe reflects his enculturation and training in the traditional system of compulsory celibate priesthood. It also quite possibly reflects his own sexual attraction to males. That the idea of jealousy comes to his mind seems to be the signpost that it is most likely the case for him.

    Priests can make a "deliberate choice to be celibate" but it is really not a choice if it is compulsory.

    Sometimes the commitment to a vow cannot be realized in reality despite the best of intentions. If he is required to keep this vow and does so quite easily on his own, or in severe trial and penance, he might react very harshly against those who do not have such a vow and they may even be jealous of those who do have sex in a healthy and loving relationship.

    St Augustine, I believe he had his own culturally relative sexual reality and ideas about sex that seemed divorced from any healthy relationship. His notions live on in the Church today as the "tradition" and the ideal of the "identity" of the priest and the "role" of the priest as celibate. I don't think it is particularly healthy or mature.

    word verif: kessid - kissed

  16. I would add butterfly that just such an argument was made to keep women out of the US military. Somehow the segregation of the sexes is supposed to help get the mission accomplished.

    Of course you change the culture a little bit, and the mission can still be accomplished. No, the changing of the culture is not easy and maybe not even straightforward. It will be messy and it will take time to adjust attitudes of the majority. Once complete you will still have throwbacks who want to bring back 'the good old days' of the past.

    But in the end you have a better prepared, more effective organization to get the mission accomplished when dealing with human society.