Celibacy in Context – Postscript

by modestinus

The same friend who alerted me to the First Things priestly celibacy article I discussed briefly here passed on an op-ed from the New York Times which I “surprisingly” missed: “Sex and the Single Priest” by Bill Keller. In it, Keller presents the same dusty, shopworn case for the Roman Church to lift the discipline of priestly celibacy (“It drives away married men!”) while treating historical Church doctrine and discipline as a bunch of crumbly old rules made-up by men that the Church follows out of blind fidelity to the past (or something). He then contrasts the wicked and unloving medievalism of the contemporary Church with the vibrant, inclusive, and agape-saturated mirth found in so-called marginal “Catholic” communities that embrace married clergy, female ordination, and same-sex marriages. I have a hard time believing that the people who read this blog haven’t heard this story before. The story you rarely hear, however, is how decrepit many of these marginal communities are. Their membership tends to be well north of 50 and their “clergy” make the bulk of French Catholic priests look like spring chickens. Moreover, as any person with an iota of theological training will tell you, all of these groups are definitively outside the Catholic Church. Moreover, while it’s possible (though not likely) that some of their rogue clergy can perform valid sacraments (this assumes that these are men who were originally ordained by a Catholic bishop), all of them are illicit and mortally sinful. So, really, why should faithful Catholics give a rip? (I couldn’t care less how fun and exciting it is at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan; I’m not going to save my soul there.) Keller’s other remarks on the “awfulness” of Roman Catholic priestly celibacy are anecdotal in nature. He closes his piece with a quote from one wayward ex-Catholic priest who states that had the celibacy discipline been lifted, he and others “would have remained in active ministry.” If that’s not a powerful argument for retaining the discipline, I don’t know what is.

To be honest, I don’t have much of a dog in the priestly celibacy wars which seem to be heating up again after Pope Francis made one of his characteristic offhand remarks on the topic. Before rejoining the Catholic Church, I used to discuss the topic “from an Orthodox point of view” with a Catholic friend of mine. He was of the opinion that the day would probably come where the Roman Church either lifted or relaxed the celibacy discipline but that the present time, with its obsessing over sexual libertinism and the inalienable right to orgasms, was not ripe. He worried — as other Catholics still worry — that a change in the discipline will be used by left-leaning ideologues to further promote their morally and spiritually reckless agendas while potentially opening the floodgates for men who share in that agenda to occupy more positions of power in the Church. Even if relaxing the discipline resulted in a spike in seminary enrollment, would the Church even want to ordain them? Speaking anecdotally from the standpoint of my time in American Orthodoxy, I came across a few too many Orthodox converts (mostly ex-Evangelicals) who were eager to run off to seminary the day after the Chrism dried on their heads in order to practice the ministry they believed they were “called to” during their guitar-strumming, Rob Bell-book reading days. Thankfully, as best as I could tell, it seemed good neither to the Holy Spirit nor these kids’ grumpy, bearded, and celibate hierarchs to ordain them. (Still, I am sure the seminaries were happy to relieve them of their money before conferring an academically useless degree.)

With that said, it’s worth remembering that if the Roman Catholic Church lifted or relaxed the celibacy discipline it would significantly, if not radically, transform the way many parishes operate. Supporting a single priest is one thing; supporting his whole family is something else. And while I recognize that celibates are not immune from the temptations of careerism, married clergy who, understandably, want the best materially for their family are going to be much more susceptible to it. In my Orthodox days I remember listening to Fr. Patrick Reardon (a now-married ex-Catholic priest who spent significant time in Episcopalianism) expound on this very topic in the context of the Episcopal communion, though he noted that part of it was driven by the fact married ministers could become bishops. In Orthodoxy (and Eastern Catholicism), bishops must be celibates. (In fact, they are often drawn from the monastic ranks.) There are other complicating factors to consider as well, including the level of time commitment one can expect/demand out of a married priest; how these priests would interface with a likely still-dominant culture of celibacy; sexual disciplines related to the performance of their ministry; and what, if any, implications the disciplinary shift might have for other practices, disciplines, and doctrines surrounding the Roman Catholic priesthood. None of these potential problems are probably insurmountable, but people are naïve — willfully perhaps — if they believe that by waiving the magic disciplinary wand, the Vatican can resolve all of the Church’s problems with a legion of married clerics.

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