This is one of those “red meat” essays. We do not take any responsibility for some readers being offended. This is not a hit piece on the Catholic Church. But, what will be written needs to be put out there into the marketplace of ideas.
First, let us present some needed history and context for this issue.
Pope Benedict XVI, a man of great erudition and truly impressive knowledge (very broad in scope), did admit in an interview several years ago that the celibacy requirement for Catholic priests is a discipline and not a dogmatic requirement of the Church. Thus, as such, this discipline could be relaxed at a future time at the discretion of the Church.
Celibacy for priests has an interesting history that is intertwined with the Church’s positions on sex and marriage in general. It was at the time of Pope Innocent II and the Second Lateran Council in 1139 that priests were forbidden to marry. But, the Church did not close the loop until the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563) when it formally prohibited married men from becoming priests. (Men were marrying in secret and then becoming priests.) In the early history of the Catholic Church, there were married bishops. Today, this is hard to believe, but it is historical truth. Sadly, the history of the promotion of priestly celibacy is accompanied by a contemptible view of women on the part of Church authorities during the Middle Ages. The promotion of priestly celibacy and the condescending (we are being very reserved in our choice of terms here) view of married priests in the West played a role in the Schism of 1054 that sundered Christendom and produced the Orthodox churches in the East.
(The interested reader is referred to the thoroughly documented book by Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality, and the Catholic Church, German publication 1988, English translation 1990. We do not agree with all of this author’s views. Her attack on Mary, the mother of Jesus, does not in any way help the thesis she puts forth. We think that she ought to have simply pointed out that Mary’s virginity is important theologically and ought not be used as a support for celibacy or to view marriage unfavorably. The theological importance, reaffirmed at Nicaea in 325, is to establish that Christ had 2 natures, as in the Nicaean Creed, “true God and true man”.)
As well, it is appropriate here to recall the Gospels in the New Testament. In these, Jesus calls us to live moral, human lives. He does not require of us an ascetic life or the life of a renunciant. It is quite a stretch to believe that being in the married state (including having regular sexual relations (we really should say “lovemaking”) with one’s spouse) somehow makes it more difficult to love God and love one’s neighbor (Jesus’ 2 commandments).
Now, here are the reasons that the Catholic Church ought to repudiate the celibacy requirement for its priests.
1. It would end the acute shortage of priests in the Catholic Church in the developed world. Young men are no longer believing in the necessity of celibacy. I have read accounts of Catholic men who wrote that they felt called to minister but did not feel called to celibacy. Thus, these young men joined various Protestant denominations and became ministers or pastors in these churches, and were married. Surveys or polls of Catholic priests show that approximately three-quarters of priests think celibacy should be optional or voluntary and not mandatory. Importing priests from Nigeria, the Philippines and from Latin America into Europe and the US is a stop-gap measure that is not addressing the cause of the priest shortage but is treating its symptoms. (Many parishes in the rural US and in Canada are currently without priests. The availability of Mass and the sacraments is sporadic for Catholics in these parishes.)
2. Married men in the priesthood will finally end the scourge of homosexual pedophiles within the Catholic priesthood. Stick with me here. Sadly, Pope Benedict XVI was vilified for this scandal, but he, when pope, insisted that the bishops take steps to end this problem including removing the homosexuals from the seminaries. (As far back as 1961, Pope John XXIII had said that homosexuals must not be ordained as priests.) Readers, the priestly pedophilia scandal was allowed to metastasize over decades within the Catholic Church because of lax, liberal, and even in some cases, homosexual bishops appointed by the popes Paul VI (1963 – 1978) and John Paul II (1978 – 2005). John Paul chose to remain in a state of denial of the crisis for years. The bishops are the de jure and the de facto authority at the local diocese level. Bad bishops need to be removed and replaced. Also, crimes must be reported to civil law enforcement and this was not done in the vast majority of cases. Please note that 90 per cent of the abuse cases were committed against boys and adolescent males.
Why will married men serve to rid the priesthood of homosexuals and pedophiles? Think about this. The fact is that homosexuals are attracted to an all single (not married) men’s club because they know that in such a club they will meet those who are sympathetic to the homosexual orientation if not others who are homosexual. Also, married, heterosexual men and fathers of children will not tolerate homosexuals and pedophiles within their ranks. (This is not idle conjecture. Ask the married men you know about this.) A married priesthood would not present a hospitable environment to homosexuals and pedophiles.
3. Married priests, having the personal lived experiences of marriage and married sexual love, will over time help to modify and correct the Church’s centuries long antipathy towards the married state and sexual love within marriage. This will serve to do justice to the dignity of married persons.
The sexual pessimism of the Catholic Church has its roots in ancient pagan schools of thought (Gnostics, Stoics, and Manichaeans). These pagan influences and ideas entered the Church at the time of (St.) Augustine (354 – 430). Thus, this sexual pessimism towards marriage is not authentically Christian and was not present in the early Church during New Testament times. It was this virulent sexual pessimism during the Middle Ages that led to the celibacy requirement for Catholic priests.
As to women, early Christianity owes a very great debt to women for its survival. Many converts were the wives, the sisters, the daughters, and the mothers of leading Romans. During the first 275 years of Christianity (from Jesus’ public ministry through the time of emporer Diocletian), being a Christian put a person at grave risk of being exiled, imprisoned, tortured, maimed and killed. Many of the early Christian saints and martyrs were women and girls. It is hard to believe that so many (women and men) would have risked and endured so much if the early Church had been spreading a message of contempt for the married state.
Change may be long in coming, and, yes, it will be stubbornly resisted by those who fear that giving in on anything will cause the entire Church’s edifice (of rules and prohibitions) to collapse like a house of cards, but change on this issue is inevitable if the Church is to survive and meet the needs of the faithful throughout the world. The relevant question for Catholics is: Is celibacy for priests more important, more highly valued, to the Church’s ruling hierarchy than effectively spreading the Catholic faith in the modern world?
“If change is inevitable, predictable, beneficial, does not logic demand that you be a part of it?” Captain Kirk to Mr. Spock in the original series Star Trek episode, Mirror Mirror (late 1960s).
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Thanks for reading.