I am going to tiptoe into a minefield here.
First of all, I should say that as a married priest I feel un qualified to speak on the issue of clerical celibacy. I am humbled by the majority of my brother priests who accept the discipline of celibacy and who, for the most part, seem to do so with maturity, grace and good humor.
Can I comment on this issue? I do have some first hand experience. I served as a celibate minister for seven years in the Anglican church before getting married, and thinking outside the box, it could be argued that a married priest is especially well qualified to comment on the discipline of celibacy.
The issue of celibacy for priests is complex and the history varied. Conservatives will argue that celibacy is a very ancient tradition and that even when there were married clergy they were expected to live with their wives as brother and sister. Progressives say celibacy was, at best, a practical measure to counter the tendency for priests (who owned the church properties) to hand on the church wealth to their sons. They say celibacy only became the norm as monks gained more control of the church. Progressives will also argue that celibacy is rooted in a Augustinian understanding of sexuality (influenced by Manicheanism) which sees all sexual activity as dirty.
These particularities can be debated forever, and if the argument for celibacy is based only on practical concerns the debate becomes even more complicated. I have learned that for every practical reason in favor of having married priests there is an equal argument against the innovation. Likewise for every practical reason in favor of celibacy I can think of an equal practical reason why it is a bad idea.
So, for example, those who argue for married priests will say, “It is not a good thing for a man to be alone. It is natural and wholesome for him to have a wife and family. As such they can serve the Lord better and be an example to the whole community of a positive Catholic marriage.” Sure. But let some of the Protestant brothers and sisters tell you about the horrors when that goes wrong. Let some of the “preachers kids” tell you their stories of being in the spotlight and having to be perfect all the time because Dad was the pastor. Listen to the wives of the pastors who are neglected by a workaholic husband, and she can’t complain because he’s “doing the Lord’s work”. If she complains she’s not just a whiner she’s “unspiritual” and “unwilling to be sacrificial.”
Likewise, you can argue in favor of celibacy and say like St Paul, “the married man must please his wife, but the celibate man can please the Lord only.” Yes, but then let’s talk about the grinding loneliness of the celibate priest, the temptations to despair, the sexual temptations of the solitary life and the temptation to drift into a solitary, selfish existence–not of total self sacrificial service, but a life of solitary self indulgence and lazy indifference.
What is the reason for the celibacy rule? We should put practical, utilitarian arguments on one side because that way lies shifting sands. If you argue from the practical point of view you will chase your tail forever, furthermore a utilitarian argument is relativistic and subjective.
The reason for celibacy is that the man will not only be able to serve the Lord unencumbered, but also because the celibate is “married” to the Lord. This is implicit in St Paul’s teaching. The celibate therefore becomes a sign of the relationship all of the baptized should have with Jesus. He is the bridegroom. We are the bride. The celibate therefore reveals to all of us the total self giving to God to which we are all spiritually called. Complementing this, the married reveal to the celibate just what that means. The married, in their own mutual self giving which brings forth life shed light on the sacrificial life of the celibate. This is why Holy Orders and Holy Matrimony are twinned in the sacramental economy, and why celibacy is a great gift to the church which we should not abandon.
However, in saying that, the Lord says in Genesis that it is not good for man to be alone and we should also remember a wise detail in the Rule of St Benedict. He says a man may not be a hermit until he has lived successfully for many years as a member of the monastic community.
When there were many priests most men lived together in a community of their priest brothers. If they were not actually members of a religious community, they shared a home and life together. Now, with a reduced number of priests, most priests live alone.
Is this the ideal? I don’t believe so. St Benedict lived first as a hermit, so he knew the particular hardships and temptations of the solitary life and recommended that the monks live in community. What are those hardships? In addition to the loneliness, the temptation to self indulgence and the obvious sexual temptations, there are two special problems that accompany the single religious man. The first is common to all men. It is the partitioning problem.
Those who know more about psychology than I do tell us that the human brain is divided left and right. The right side is traditionally seen as the intuitive, artistic, feeling and relating capability. The left side is the rational objective, linear, capability. This ability to split means men are not only capable of, but tempted to partition certain aspects of their life from the rest. Women aren’t wired the same way. They two hemispheres of their brains are constantly interacting. Check out this video for a hilarious explanation of this phenomenon.
This is why a man might have an affair and say to his wife, “It was nothing. It was just sex.” She, in the meantime, cannot understand how he can say such a thing because for her everything is connected.
This ability of a man to partition his behaviors is then combined with another complication unique to priests which can be called “wearing the uniform.” Anyone who wears a uniform for work knows that when you put on your uniform you begin to play that role. A policeman, a soldier, a waiter or a worker all put on their uniform and this helps them fit in to the team and play their part. There is nothing wrong with that.
However, the priest’s uniform is supposed to be not only the role he plays while he’s at work, but the person he is to become. His cassock, his clerical shirt, his vestments are not simply a uniform. His whole self is to be conformed to the image of Christ the priest. His clerical uniform is supposed to help him become the priest he is called to be.
For a man who is well formed and conformed to the image of Christ this is a gift. However, for the man who is still immature and has problems the clerical uniform can become a disguise. He plays the part, but when the clerical uniform is removed he is a different person.
This is also why so often, when a priest is caught in a scandal the people say, “I can’t believe it! Fr Jim was absolutely the best priest ever!” The ability to partition and play a part helped him to fool everybody–especially himself.
Now when a man has something to be ashamed of–perhaps he has some insecurity or some sexual maladjustment, the attraction of the celibate priesthood is very strong. If he experiences same sex attraction or attraction to children, for example, but is frightened and ashamed of his feelings, the celibate priesthood is a perfect hiding place. He can pretend to be God’s good little boy. Celibacy for this maladjusted man is not a burden, but a gift. It enables him to partition his troublesome sex drive completely. He plays the part of the celibate priest, but if he lapses into sin he partitions that too and blocks it out.
This is why I believe some of the offenders when they say, “I do not recall those events taking place.”
This is why I believe their denials. Not because they are innocent but because denial has become part of their entire existence at a very deep level.
I am painting a dark picture, but don’t get me wrong. I do not believe the majority of our priests are living this kind of lie–but some are. Maybe even a large number are. If estimates are to be believed perhaps there is a significant sub culture of this behavior.
You might say, “This doesn’t really address the problem of homosexuality. A homosexual man is not going to be cured by marriage.” I hear that, but this post assumes that celibacy means the man sleeps alone. He is not sexually active. Therefore the question of his sexual inclination becomes much less of an issue. There is more to be said on this particular, complicated issue in another post.
Whatever the reality, living in community and marriage (which is the primary way of living in community) can help to counter these natural tendencies and temptations.
One of the greatest gifts in my life is having a wife and kids who take me down a peg. In community brother priests and a conscientious superior would provide the same benefit.
I am not suggesting for a moment that marriage or monastic life is some kind of cure all for the problem of clerical sex abuse because partitioning and play acting exist within marriage and monastic life too, and of course sexual deviancy and abuse also exist within religious communities and the family.
However, both the marriage and monastic solutions would seem to me to be a better way because, if a man has these problems, the dynamic of a single man living alone with no personal critics is certainly not going to help him grow up and get real.
I believe the McCarrick case and many others in the Catholic Church–and let’s be honest–in the other churches too–reveal some of the hidden dynamics which explain (but do not excuse) the scandals we are witnessing.
Even worse, it must be said that the faithful too often collude in these behaviors. By putting priests on pedestals and relating to the priest in an immature, subservient way they can feed the priest’s ego which contributes to the partitioning and play acting. The more everyone adores Father Fabulous the more he believes his own fabricated mystique.
Furthermore, these same behaviors of partitioning and play acting contribute to the system of cover ups. The prelates who have covered up have too often fallen into the same two behaviors. They partition the offense through denial, cover up and moving the person on, then they put on their holy face and make noises about policies and protocols and helping the victims. But this is superficial play acting. It is not really dealing with the deeper human problems, and the prelates can’t deal with those behaviors because too often they are caught up in the same unhealthy dynamic.
Therefore, I wonder whether it is time to re-examine our present practice of mandatory celibacy.
Would not the formation and support of our priests be better if those who were celibate were also members of a religious community? This is the practice of the Eastern Orthodox. Then would it not be a complement to the celibate priesthood if more tested and mature married men were to be ordained?
If bishops were to be selected from the celibate members of religious orders this would continue to honor the vocation of celibacy. Such a solution would also be an ecumenical outreach to the Eastern Orthodox. It would honor both celibacy and marriage and allow both vocations to be nurtured in the church. It would not only help with the shortage of priests, but bring new gifts to the presbyterate and help to support both marriage and the gift of celibacy with a good dose of both realism and the hope that we can learn from the present crisis and by God’s grace grow into a stronger and more competent church.