Friday, December 21, 2007

Celibacy and the Roman Catholic Priesthood

Along with other members of the editorial team of The Progressive Catholic Voice, I’ve recently been conducting research and interviewing priests (both current and former) about the issue of mandatory celibacy. In particular, we’re interested in ascertaining to what extent mandatory celibacy and the unacknowledged sexual lives of priests (gay and straight) prohibits and compromises them from being authentic pastors, prophets, and leaders within their communities. As you can imagine, it’s been a very interesting research assignment, with many heartfelt experiences and insights being shared by the priests we’ve interviewed.

Quite by chance I recently came across the following quote by New Ulm, Minnesota, priest, Jack Nordick. Because it’s relevant to the topic of celibacy in the Roman Catholic priesthood, I thought I’d share it on The Wild Reed (if for no other reason than that I’ll know where to find it when I and the other folks at The Progressive Catholic Voice get around to compiling and writing our article!)

(NOTE: Nordick wrote his piece in response to the “public scandal” that was caused to so-called traditionalists by the news that Catholic priest and EWTN’s Life on the Rock presenter, Fr. Mary Francis Stone, was considering leaving the priesthood to marry a woman.)

What we need to consider is that priests are as human as all the rest of you, and indeed subject to the same foibles. That means that celibacy is largely a myth, with perhaps no more that 15 percent of all priests actually maintaining celibacy throughout their entire careers. As Jesus himself noted, (Mathew 19; 8-12) celibacy is not something that can be imposed but is a gift given to few. Considering other life situations, one wonders why celibacy for priests matters so much.

As such, those of us who, at least up to now, have succeeded in keeping our promise of celibacy should not think of that as something we did on our own or a reason for greater honor. It is only a gift, and as all gifts, one that still needs to be cherished and honored. That doesn’t make me a prude, or perfect, or without sexual interest or reactions. Only that somehow, and not because of some greater will power, I have never found myself in a situation where I could not say no. I do not regard as inferior, those who responded to life’s urges in a different way.

[This is] considering the high sexual charge in our social environment; and the lack of concern for every kind of heterosexual dalliance; and the lack of reprimand for those bishops who had oversight for the passing around of known pedophile priests.

Our Church and our society have a long way to go before we can point fingers at priests who fall in love. But if we would deny communion to bishops who passed around pedophile priests, now that would be something.

And here’s Fr. Charles Ledderer’s thoughts on celibacy and the Roman Catholic priesthood, excerpted from his blogsite, On Guard Against the Catholic “Lunatic Fringe”.

. . . Time has a way of changing one’s perspective. Seeing good priests leave because they no longer want to “be alone,” hearing countless young men say they would definitely consider the priesthood “if they could marry,” and facing the prospect of being worked to death as the corps of priests shrink has caused my view to evolve over the past several years.

From what I see, many men feel quite isolated out there. The support of the parish community doesn’t necessarily alleviate the sense of loneliness. Certainly a deep prayer life is necessary (without that no one would last) but even very devoted, prayerful men sometimes “throw in the towel.”

Others try to deal with their loneliness in quite unhealthy ways. Alcohol is all too often abused. Some priests become obsessed with their “toys” and other material possessions. And celibacy in many instances isn’t being lived. It isn’t unusual for a man, be he gay or straight, to at some point fail in that department. Some have longterm, "secret" relationships. And in some parts of the world celibacy is a joke; it is regularly violated and officialdom just looks the other way.

I am not implying that there aren’t good men living celibate lives, fulfilled in their vocation. These would be the ones who have been authentically called to the celibate life by God. But there are many who, based on the evidence at least, appear not to have been truly called. [Hmm, called to what, I wonder? The priesthood or “the celibate life”? Must these be inseparable? History and experience clearly say no.]

My chief concern here is that things are quickly reaching a crisis stage. In many diocese a large “bubble” of priests is rapidly approaching retirement age. In a few years the Catholic landscape in many places is going to look startlingly different. And I can imagine a snowball effect; there could be guys who leave simply because they can't deal with the pressures that are going to placed upon them, further exacerbating an already bad situation.

I really believe the Church has to look honestly at this question.

Well, rest assured, Father, The Progressive Catholic Voice is on it!

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Thoughts on Celibacy (Part I)
Thoughts on Celibacy (Part II)
Vatican Stance on Gay Priests Signals Urgent Need for Renewal and Reform
Authentic Catholicism: The Antidote to Clericalism
Beyond Papalism
The Non-negotiables of Human Sex

Recommended Off-site Links:
Richard Sipe: Priests, Celibacy, and Sexuality

Recommended Books:
The Serpent and the Dove: Celibacy in Literature and Life by Richard Sipe.
Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes by Richard Sipe.
The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality by Eugene Kennedy.

Image: Montgomery Clift in the 1953 Alfred Hitchcock film, I Confess.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Celibacy was a monastic requirement, as required by the monastic movement, one understands why celibacy is necessary in a monastic community. That type of celibacy is mandatory by the very nature of the beast.

Diocesan priests were not required to be celibate until the eleventh century, and the mandatory decision had nothing "spiritual" about it. Wives, yes, plural, and offspring, made claims on bishopric's property and support, especially if the male priest died before spouse and children. To keep the "bury" in the bishopric's domain, rather than the lay's domain, caused the bishopric to crumble as society moved out of feudalism.

In Eastern Orthodoxy, the celibacy rule applies only to candidates for the episcopacy. Married men may be ordained priests, but unmarried priests may not marry after ordination. Deacons could always marry. For similar reasons.

By the 16th century, many monasteries had become "depositories" for those unsuited for marriage. Families "bequeathed" their unmarriable male/female progeny to the church's monasteries, where their only hope was that their heirs could do the world some good behind cloistered walls, praying all day. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross repudiated this practice, as part of their Carmelite reforms. Reading Teresa's petty comments about "sniffling nuns gossiping during Matins" is quite amusing, since she's hardly a paragon of non-scrupulosity. O.C.D. is not a mental disorder, but a religiously reformed Order.

Presumably, the Church proposes, the faithful disposes, according to the sensus fidelium. But as Constantine made Christianity the Roman Empire's religion, Christianity made the Roman Empire its earthly mandate, where bishops appointed kings, and inheritance laws put church property at risk unless Rome made those options impossible by mandated celibacy.

One is never sure whether Henry VIII, a staunch Catholic till his death, broke from the Church over his serial wives, or over the fact that Benedictines OWNED Britain, as well as RULED it, subverting Henry's taxation. Frankly, I suspect the latter was far more influential than the former. When the king must bow to the abbot, why not a role reversal? At least, his progeny liberated Brits from Benedictine overlords.

But, then, Benedictines are the fulcrum of Western monasticism, and every "bury" was simply a lay extension of the Abbot's dominion in all things monastic and lay, particularly the petty. Jocelin of Brakeland chronicles life in the Bury of Saint Edmunds, an amusing tale of a men's monastery in medieval Britain, where it seems unmarried men found lots of things to keep themselves occupied, including the Office/Mass nine times a day, spies, murders, and other things more pedestrian.

It's those medieval "times" that papal garments still appeal, when the Church was the Holy Roman Empire, and Charlemagne the toast of Europe, for reigning at the Pope's feet. The Church has not advanced very far in 1400 years, lest the light of knowledge disrupt the rhythm of medieval life in the 21st century. In the Song of Roland, one sees the medieval mind delighting in killing "Moors" for Jesus and Holy Mother Church. From that conquest, Saints Dominic and Francis became mendicants, and Inquisitions followed, lest anyone deviate from orthodoxy.