In Defense of Celibacy

“MARRIED PRIESTS. NOW.”

The billboard stood starkly over the intersection of E Galbraith and Reading Rd just north of Cincinnati, Ohio. Beneath the bold text was a link to a survey about clerical marriage, female ordination, and Vatican transparency. Along the bottom the sign read, “Paid for by Pragmatic Catholics.” This particular billboard, raised this past May, was sponsored by a local layman who told reporters he was seeking community input on potential reforms to address a “critical shortage of priests” in the Church.

Just sixteen miles away, on the east side of Cincinnati, a construction team was hard at work on a new residence hall at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary of the West to accommodate an enrollment that has more than doubled since 2012.

Irony aside, the “Pragmatic Catholics” are correct: there is a general shortage of priests. Statistics from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate show a 36% decline in U.S. priestly vocations since the Second Vatican Council ended in 1965. In October, a Vatican synod will even consider lifting celibacy requirements for remote regions of the Amazon where the vocation crisis is dire.

Public pressure to allow clerical marriage has only been augmented by the latest developments in the Catholic sex abuse scandal. The 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report presented a staggering picture of allegations over the past seven decades. The laity found a glimmer of hope in the fact that the vast majority of incidents occurred prior to the reforms of the early 2000s, but this silver lining was overshadowed by the unveiling of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whose abuses, cover-ups, and protections ran right up to present day. In their righteous indignation and desire to save a faltering priesthood, some faithful Catholics are now demanding new reforms, starting with clerical marriage.

From the standpoint of Church law, celibacy is not a moral doctrine but a discipline that both respects the dignity of the vocation and serves the practical good of the faithful. The law gradually evolved from the Early Church to the Middle Ages, when the practice was officially mandated. St. Peter Damian’s Liber Gomorrhianus, published circa 1051, still provides a strikingly relevant critique of the clerical sexual corruption that precipitated the law.

Since then, the Catholic Church has allowed some exceptions to the discipline. Several non-Latin rites will ordain married men, and even the Latin rite will allow married ministers converting from certain Christian denominations to become priests. Nevertheless, the Church has consistently reaffirmed the practice of celibacy and its importance.

On a practical level, the discipline of celibacy is a gift of charity—to both the priest and his congregation. As the Gospel of Matthew reminds us, a man cannot serve two masters. This is why in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul argues that a married man is divided between pleasing his wife and pleasing the Lord. Both marriage and priesthood demand a lifestyle of full devotion to their bride: the one to a wife, the other to the Church. The married priest serves both. This can be done (which is why the Church allows exceptions), but it requires a level of sacrifice that can be difficult to fully comprehend.

Because the priest is unique in his ability to administer the Sacraments, his obligation in any dilemma is always to yield to the higher call of priesthood. Vocational conflicts may not be inevitable, but they place an incredible burden on the man seeking to be father to both his family and his congregation. Celibacy simultaneously relieves him of that burden and conforms his lifestyle closer to the model of Christ, whose priesthood he imitates. Though a celibate priest sacrifices some of the joys of family life, he gains the joys of Christ’s priesthood and a greater freedom to obey the duties of Christ’s apostolic successors.

However, some argue that this sexually “repressed” lifestyle is unnatural, ultimately leading to an immutable and volatile sex drive. They claim that celibacy is thus a major factor in the prevalence of pedophile and homosexual priests and even imply that priests are numb to the suffering of children because priests are not parents. Such arguments are hardly surprising in a post-Freudian culture that places the primacy of individual identity in sexual orientation and the expression thereof—a line of thought masterfully presented and dismantled in Michael W. Hannon’s 2014 First Things essay, “Against Heterosexuality.”

These opponents of celibacy are perhaps right about one thing: it is unnatural. But in fact, the entire Christian lifestyle, regardless of its vocational form, is unnatural, for it demands holiness and virtue out of sinful human nature. Man in his natural state is fallen, with his desires and instincts corrupted. That’s why we need a Savior in the first place, and we would do well to remember that our Savior chose a celibate life. In order to better serve his call to be an image of Christ, the priest likewise ought to choose celibacy.

For the most part, of course, those arguing for clerical marriage have their hearts in the right place: they hope to increase vocations and root out sexual corruption within the Church. But it is our original sin, not our sexual instinct, that is immutable, and it cannot be placated by earthly goods. Sexual abuse will not go away simply because the clergy are married; just ask the Southern Baptist Convention. It is only by deepening our devotion to Christ and allowing God’s grace to condition us in the Sacraments that we conquer sinfulness.

Being a priest doesn’t need to be easier; our men need to be holier.

St. Peter Damian, pray for us.