The topic of celibacy of priests is once again a hot news item, and it seems a great shame that so many on both sides of the progressive-conservative . divide within Catholicism have fallen into their expected tribal positions and have spent so much time getting themselves worked up over whether or not Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI really should be billed as “co-author” of this new book with Cardinal Sarah or not.

Does that really have to be such a big deal?

Surely if the topic is worth discussing we should be able to hear experienced, learned wise and spiritual guidance from many different sources–not least a theologian and priest of Benedict XVI’s standing. Likewise, we should listen to the voices who are asking for a wider permission for older married men to be ordained and ask real questions about their requests and be open to such a change. Instead, it seems the two tribes have hunkered down behind their respective battlements and resorted to weak argumentation, special pleading, ignoring the other side and even manipulation and deceitfulness.

Some years ago I was in discussion with a progressive religious publisher about writing a book on the subject of married priests. So I set out what I thought was a pretty good proposal for a book in which I considered the arguments on both sides both theological and practical. My conclusion was going to be that we should retain the status quo, but it mightn’t be a bad idea to open up to the ordination of older married men in some circumstances.

The book proposal was rejected. They didn’t want a balanced study with a common sense conclusion. They wanted a progressive tract pushing for the abolition of priestly celibacy. One of the decision makers revealed his hand over lunch when he said, “And after we get married priests, women priests and gay marriage…”

They were disappointed that I did not share their enthusiasm and had assumed that because I was a married priest I must be in favor of the whole secular agenda.

Within all this I have been bemused to discover how little anyone on either side of the debate really wants to consider the issue rationally, calmly and how no one–on either side within the hierarchy or laity or most anyone–is interested to hear the input from those few of us who are actually married Catholic priests. No one asks our views on the matter–from either a practical or a theological point of view. Instead the issue has become a kind of membership card for one Catholic tribe or the other. You are either firmly opposed to married priests and are a card carrying traditionalist or you are firmly in favor not only of a few married men being ordained, but the abolition of celibacy discipline altogether.

It’s a shame because it is a very important issue and one, if resolved creatively and prayerfully, could being great refreshment to the priesthood and the church.

Having read most of the major studies of celibacy and the priesthood, there are a couple of things that trouble me. The first is an over reliance on the witness of the early church. Certainly the voice of the early church fathers is a vital part of the discussion, but a strong element in the early witness is an understanding of celibacy that is clearly influenced by Manicheanism. The idea that the physical realm was inferior and sex (most of all) was dirty and sinful was a predominant theme in early monasticism and the ascetical teachings of the early church.

Despite modern advocates of priestly celibacy disavowing this dualistic viewpoint, there is still a lingering taste in much of the writings even today that sex is, my its very nature, sinful, and married people are really second class citizens in the kingdom of heaven.

The second thing I find troubling about much of the conservative argument in favor of celibacy is that those who are in favor seem to be fighting a rearguard action and are unwilling to accept or even listen to arguments from the other side.

The third problem is that advocates of celibacy allow themselves to fall into pragmatic and sentimental modes of argumentation. This expresses itself as, “The celibate priest is always there for Christ and his church 24-7. The married man has to look after his wife and kids.” Now St Paul himself used this argument to favor celibacy, so its not totally wrong, but if that is your strongest argument it’s not such a good one. The sentimental argument is all tied up with unrealistic visions of the priesthood–in which, when the holy priest is not on his knees in prayer or administering last rites to a dying soul he is reading a holy book or planning some great new project for the Lord. Yes, well maybe, but not always.

If the conservatives fall into some of these traps, the progressives’ arguments in favor of change are even more shallow. They essentially revolve around the practical matter – “Father wouldn’t be so lonely if he were married” or “if priests could marry we’d solve the priest shortage.” Their underlying assumption is also there in that they assume  that celibacy must be dumb and wrong and impossible simply because everybody should be having sex and what’s the point? All of this boils down to “the Catholic Church needs to get with the times.”

So cutting through all of that on both sides I have pondered the question, “What IS the point of priestly celibacy?”

First we have to dismiss the idea that in any way the sexual act–in and of itself–is dirty or wrong. It is not inferior, filthy, nasty or sinful for a man to be intimate with his wife. If he is a priest, this physical action (in and of itself) is no more harmful to his priesthood than blowing his nose, defecating or any other physical action. To be sure, it could be twisted and the relationship could be distorted and sinful, but the action on its own is not sinful.

Second, we should dismiss all the practical points. Yes, the celibate man is more available and ready to serve, but we all know plenty of celibate priests who are not, and I can assure you that we married men also get up out of bed at three in the morning to drive across town to anoint someone. For every practical point you make in favor of priestly celibacy I can give you a point of equal weight opposed, and for every practical point you make in favor of married priests I can give you a point of equal weight opposed.

So again “What IS the point of priestly celibacy?”

To understand we have to see that the end point of ordination is for the man to be uniquely configured to Christ. The Catholic priest really IS supposed to be transformed into an alter Christus in a depth that is different from the non-ordained. This process is not magic and it is not automatic. We know this because of the large number of priests for whom this transformation is, at best, only a theory and at worst their failure has made it a blasphemy. May God have mercy on the priests who were called and ordained and given the graces to be configured to Christ who allowed themselves to be configured to Satan instead.

Celibacy is the greatest tool the Church has in order to assist and strengthen that configuration of the man to Christ. This is why celibacy is a discipline of the church and not a dogma. It is a tool Christ gives his church so that his priests might most effectively be configured to him. This configuration is not primarily about not having sex. Neither is it primarily about the priest being available for service. It is about a mystical configuration of the man’s entire being–body, soul and spirit into the image and likeness and power of Christ.

I am convinced that this mystical configuration is the work of a lifetime, and it requires a lifetime’s observance of prayer and discipline and service for the transformation to take full effect. Furthermore, this is accomplished through God’s grace reaching down to touch every aspect of the man’s life and being–and that includes his sexuality. The sexual drive is more than just the desire for genital gratification. It reaches down to the depths of a man’s being and connects with everything to do with life, with love, with creativity and power.

Through this process, the Holy Spirit patiently, step by step, straightens out every kink, purifies every stain, unlocks every hidden secret, forgives every sin and remakes the man from the inside out. The spirits’ work is like the sculpture chipping away at the block of marble to bring out the masterpiece and I reckon celibacy is his sharpest chisel.

The discipline of celibacy therefore is the main tool to engage, transform and empower the whole man–including his sexuality.

The church retains celibacy for this all important reason, and this married priest wish to uphold it for this reason.

However, the discipline of celibacy is not a magic cure. It is not a supernatural miracle. It is a graced tool–probably the best graced tool for most men to be brought to that conformity with Christ about which I am writing.

What about married priests? Well, we too are called to that same configuration with Christ, but we must be open to God accomplishing this through our marriage instead of through celibacy. The burning fire that surges through with God’s grace through celibacy for most men, must for us, burn through our marriage and a sexuality which must, (by its nature of being involved with another person and with children) be more messy and unpredictable. To be sure, God can use marriage as he uses celibacy as the tool to bring the man to that configuration with Christ, but the tool is not the first choice. It is, if you like, using a wrench as a hammer. It can work by God’s grace, but it’s not as sharp and efficient.

This essential need for the priest to be supernaturally configured to Christ in a mystical transformation that occupies his whole life is the beauty of the priesthood as I have seen it in action. I see it in the lives of my priest friends. I see it at work behind the scenes in the most mundane aspects of church life. I see it in their devotion and calling. I even see it in their disasters, the foolish vanities and their hopeless failures.

God’s power and providence is working through all of this, and to throw away celibacy out of some stupid, feckless, utilitarian progressivism is like pulling down the Sistine Chapel because it doesn’t have indoor plumbing.