Should Priests Be Celibate?
In the wake of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report detailing the sexual abuse of more than 1,000 children by over 300 Catholic priests, the Catholic Church is once again under fire. Kathleen Sprows Cummings has suggested that the only way forward is radical clerical reform enacted immediately; Ross Douthat has argued that the recent controversy reflects poorly on the leadership of Pope Francis; and Timothy Egan has suggested that the Church simply has a fundamental problem dealing with sex. ACI’s own Brian Senier has written some useful suggestions as to how Holy Cross students should react to the abuse crisis; I won’t waste words retreading his steps. Instead, I’d like to offer a suggestion that I argue would serve to ameliorate the abuse crisis and increase the Church’s perceived credibility on family issues: dispense with the celibacy requirement for priests.
To give the Church its due, I’ll start by acknowledging that the argument it presents for maintaining priestly celibacy is not without its merits. Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles made the case for clerical celibacy in an article on published by Word on Fire Ministries. Barron’s case runs something like this: it is the teaching of the Church that everything we can point to within the world is good because it was made by God, but ultimately unsatisfying, because everything given to sense experience is limited, transient, and ephemeral. The same holds true for sexuality; sex is good, but not ultimately so. To truly quench our desire for something permanently and ultimately good, we can only turn to God Himself, who is infinitely and eternally good. Priests are celibate, Bishop Barron claims, in order to stand as a reminder that sexuality, though it is a gift from God, is not a necessary component of a truly fulfilled and meaningful life. Clerics sacrifice the possibility of having a family in order to testify that, while families are a good thing indeed, the only thing one really needs is God. In Bishop Barron’s words, “the truth of the non-ultimacy of sex, family, and worldly relationships can and should be proclaimed through words, but it will be believed only when people can see it. This is why, the Church is convinced, God chooses certain people to be celibate: in order to witness to a transcendent form of love, the way that we will love in heaven.”
An important point to note about Barron’s argument for celibacy is that it lacks logical necessity. Barron admits as much himself when he writes, “The medievals distinguished between arguments from necessity and arguments from ‘fittingness.’ I can offer only the latter kind of argument, for even its most ardent defenders admit that celibacy is not essential to the priesthood.” In other words, the Church’s position is not that celibacy is absolutely essential to being a priest, but rather that it is better for priests to be celibate than not. While I’m willing to grant that this may have been the case for a long time heretofore, under present conditions, the Church’s ability to do its work is more hindered than enabled by clerical celibacy, and that the Church would do well to dispense with it.
The establishment of lifelong celibacy as an absolute requirement for joining the clergy attracts two kinds of men: the first is the kind of man that Bishop Barron describes so eloquently. These are people who, to put it quite bluntly, are simply better people than most of us, and are willing to forego the possibility of having a family out of strength of faith that most of us will probably never know. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing priests like this, and they count among the most honorable and virtuous people I’ve ever met. I’d like to propose, however, that Barron overlooks a seriously sinister consequence of priestly celibacy. The other kind of man who is attracted to celibate life is, quite frankly, the kind of man who enjoys the idea of having privileged access to and unchecked authority over vulnerable children. These are men who have found a diabolical method to disguise vice as virtue. In the best cases, they’re simply bullies in Roman collars; in the worst cases, they sexually abuse children.
To be clear, I think the number of priests of the former kind outnumber the latter by far. Also worth noting is that people who have institutional power tend to abuse it whether or not they’re required to be celibate (Harvey Weinstein, for example, was not required to be celibate, and yet used institutional power nefariously). It is not deniable, however, that the Catholic Church has a unique problem with the sexual abuse of children. It is a moral sickness that has infected the Church like no other institution in American life. The status quo in the Catholic Church involves an unknown, but by all indications, alarmingly high number of innocent children being abused by priests every year. To allow the persistence of such a disgusting and predictable evil should offend the conscience of any decent human being. Something must change.
Doubtlessly, the sexual abuse problem within the Catholic Church lies at the overlap of several problems—the history of covering for abusive priests, failure to cooperate with civil authorities, and lack of an adequate screening procedure to prevent potential abusers from joining the priesthood all come to mind. All of these problems merit attention, and I don’t mean to defend the claim that dispensing with the celibacy requirement will fix the entire crisis before us. I do mean to defend the claim, however, that dispensing with priestly celibacy is actionable immediately, and is likely to reduce rates of abuse. The cost of enacting the proposal is low; it does not require a substantive change in Church doctrine, and there would be nothing to stop priests from remaining celibate voluntarily, so that they may continue to be, to repeat Bishop Barron’s words, “witness[es] to a transcendent form of love, the way that we will love in heaven.” But if a certain proportion (presumably a majority) of the priesthood were constituted by married men with families, it seems likely that a lower proportion of the priesthood would be constituted by the kind of man who is likely to abuse a child. The potential drawbacks are difficult to imagine, and the potential dividends are obvious. At the very least, dispensing with the celibacy requirement seems worth trying.
In a recent podcast, prominent critic of religion Sam Harris had the following to say about the sex abuse crisis: “It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the Catholic Church is a machine, one of whose primary functions has been to ensure that children get raped and the world doesn’t find out about it.” As a lifelong practicing Catholic, I find it painful to admit that it’s increasingly difficult for me to offer a convincing counter to Harris’s claim. It is in the spirit of imagining a day when this claim will be met with incredulous laughter that I write this article. I don’t mean for any of my words to be read as anti-clerical, or God forbid as anti-Catholic. Rather, I mean for them to serve as the preliminary suggestions in an ongoing discussion about what needs to change in the Church to reckon with the terrible evil that it has committed in the sexual abuse of countless innocent children. It stands within our capability to build a better Church. Let’s start now.
(The overhead photo was a courtesy photo submitted to Our Sunday Visitor.)