AcquaThe Big Question

It is baffling to many that the Roman Catholic Church still requires a promise of celibacy, with few exceptions, for ordination to the diaconate and priesthood.  Possible spiritual reasons aside, the main purpose for it seems to be as a means of controlling the Catholic clergy through an archaic system of rectory living and low salaries…a kind of indentured servitude.  One would think that such an extreme expectation would require concomitant emotional support but it frequently does not.  The emotional support of parish priests is left up to the imagination and resources of the priests themselves.

Priests more than ever have a multiplicity of administrative and pastoral responsibilities that often stretch them physically and emotionally to the limit.  When they reside in rectories they do so either in total isolation or with other clergy who are relative strangers.  In either case they are far removed from the lives of their parishioners, just the opposite of what was intended for parish or “secular” clergy.  The very system has pulled the rug out from under many priests’ ability to meet their emotional needs through normal, intimate, and human associations.

This is not a liberal or conservative issue.  It is an issue of compassion that reaches into the credibility of the Catholic Church as an institution that recognizes basic the human needs of its members.  The matter begins with the ordained men themselves.  Most of them have been raised in a culture that encourages men not to admit weakness or need.  How often we’ve heard that boys ought to “man up” when injured or emotionally wounded?  And in our culture, how often do women expect their husbands simultaneously to be both “sensitive” and yet “strong”?

In my 32 years in active parish ministry I recall at many priests’ meetings when the defense walls would go up whenever personal or intimate information was shared.  There was often the façade of joviality, even in the midst of crisis.  The men rarely spoke of their personal dreams, desires, or wounds in favor of programs and problem-solving.  And increasing numbers of younger clergy resort to cloying spiritualizing and piety.

I’m not suggesting that all the issues surrounding celibacy simply disappear by allowing clergy to marry.  I do believe however that many Catholic priests, esteemed members of the helping professions, need someone in their daily lives to help support and balance them.  And ideally this person needs to be separate from the clerical world.  Doesn’t this make sense in light of the theology of the incarnation that the church professes?

Incendio53ebd53da5111.jpgClerical celibacy refers to the discipline of the Catholic Church (and in a modified way in Eastern Orthodoxy) that only unmarried men may be ordained, and once ordained, they may never marry.  In the East clergy may be married before ordination (yet never become bishops, who must be celibate monks).  If they are widowed they may not take a second wife, even if young dependents are involved.  Assumed with celibacy is the virtue of chastity for single persons: total abstinence from any genital or sexual expression.

Celibacy itself is not the issue.  Choosing to be celibate for a period of time or for a lifetime as a means to achieving a higher end is a wonderful thing.  But when an institution links permanent celibacy, an entirely man-made law, to that higher end, it leaves little room for the realistic emotional development of some of their clergy, particularly in the present age. ….

For the entire essay, What Good is Celibacy Anymore?  download the PDF at