We had supper last night with a newly ordained priest, and one of the topics for discussion was priestly celibacy.
In a rural state like South Carolina many priests end up in small parishes. They’re isolated and alone. Often they are looking after two or three far flung parishes. They live on their own and celibacy really means they end up like hermits.
There have been huge changes in our society and in our church. Fifty years ago a man would come from a Catholic community in a large city like Philadelphia. He would go to the local seminary and return to his community or one like it. His whole extended family would be there. He’d live in a big rectory with other priests and a house keeper. Not too far away he’d have a big collection of brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and nephews and nieces. He was celibate, but he was not alone.
Now, with increased mobility and social change all of that Catholic way of life is gone. The priest is one man in one parish. Because of scandals in the church it is increasingly difficult for him to establish close friendships with either men or women. He can’t get close to children or young people for fear that people get the wrong idea.
Other things have changed which also make the celibacy option more difficult for young men. Fifty years ago a young man took a hard look at his options for the future. Marriage was an option, but it was a tough option. It meant hard work, scrimping and saving for a house and all the stuff to go in it. It meant four or five or more children. It meant sacrifice and hard work. Now a young man looks at marriage and it seems much more attractive. With contraception and women’s liberation he can have two children and a wife who works. A double income and easy credit means he can have that house in the suburbs and everything much more quickly.
Fifty years ago a Catholic young man had a choice: tough life in marriage or tough life as a priest. Both were tough, but compared to the difficulties of marriage the priest’s life actually seemed to have some advantages: a job for life, a great community of priest friends, a certain amount of status in the community and a job with meaning and purpose. Now, when a young man compares the hardships of celibacy and the other difficulties of modern priesthood and then looks at what seems to be a life of ease in the suburbs, no wonder the sacrifices seem so much more extreme.
Don’t misunderstand this post: I am not arguing for married priests. I’m just laying out some of the increased difficulties our priests face today. What is the solution? I don’t know, except that we need to love our priests, pray for our priests and realize how very difficult it is for many of them.