An End to Priest Celibacy: The Catholic Church’s Last Great Hope


05 April 2010

There’s a lot of talk about priestly sex these days. Most of it centers on certain despicable individuals who have used the sacrament of their priestly offices to hide their predatory natures, and those in positions of influence who covered up the abuses.

I’d like to offer that priestly sex is the last and greatest hope for the survival of the ancient institution that is the Roman Catholic Church.

I am of course referring to consensual sex among adults (regardless of the gender of the adults as far as I’m concerned, but one miracle at a time).

The question of priestly celibacy has been debated since the First Century. From around the time of the Dark Ages the Catholic Church has encouraged priestly abstinence—at least on paper. In modern times, the Vatican has rejected any implied link between priestly celibacy and priestly sex abuse, and does not seem inclined to change this position any time soon.

Since the time of St. Peter, church fathers were married. The argument against priests marrying dates back to the earliest days of Christianity, as does the debate over whether even married priests should be ‘enjoying’ all the benefits of that blessed state. Those early arguments led to the widespread practice, even today, of priests keeping concubines.

Experts say that church officials are likely to continue to pursue their own ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ policy and ignore unreported relationships between priests and their “wives,” female companions with whom many live in more or less open, common law unions.

Revelations of priestly sex abuse have shaken the Church’s foundation in countries including the U.S., Australia, Austria, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Now, in an unprecedented move, one of Pope Benedict XVI’s closest advisers, Cardinal Christophy Schoenborn of Austria, is calling for an honest discussion of matters including priestly celibacy and education for priests to prevent sex abuse from occurring.

Psychologists and religious scholars stress the importance of not relating celibacy directly with the causes of pedophilia and other sex abuse.

Before he became Pope, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told the Catholic News Service in December 2002 that “less than 1% of priests are guilty of acts of this type.”

But as we know, over the past ten years the Church’s hierarchy has systematically covered up, bought off, ignored, or mislabeled the epidemic of pedophilia that has plagued it.

A 2004 study commissioned by the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference reported that around 4% of American priests had been accused of abuse.

The study and its accompanying report stressed that neither homosexuality nor celibacy causes abuse, but they offered the case that understanding priestly sexual abuse would not be possible without clearly understanding both.

Cardinal Schoenborn has been open to the idea that a priesthood of celibates is problematic in a modern Church, especially as it limits the number of candidates who are available to be ordained as priests.

I would add that it is an open secret that the Catholic priesthood has long been an attractive career and life alternative for men who are struggling with their sexual identity and who find a ready-made—and sexually compatible—support system in the clergy, with God as an all-knowing, all-understanding combination Father Confessor and CEO.

Italian papal biographer Marco Politi, writing in his book “La Confessione” (‘The Confession’), reproduces the testimony of a gay priest who is struggling to balance his beliefs in the Church with his sexual orientation.

Politi never identifies the cleric, who talks about a network of gay priests that operates within the Italian Church, which he describes as a “self help group” that lives on the fringe or “catacombs” of mainstream Church culture.

Worldwide, the number of Catholic priests is slowly rising—the Washington Post reports the number as 408,000, with most of that growth in Asia and Africa.

But Vatican statistics report that the number of priests in Europe and the U.S. is in sharp decline, with over half of 161 French priests who left their jobs from 1996 to 2005 quitting to pursue relationships with women—or other men.

The Church of Rome itself is bending over backwards—an unfortunate choice of words, perhaps—to accommodate those married Anglican clerics for whom the Church of England’s progressive views on gays, same-sex marriage, female priests, and other modern concepts is no longer “cricket.”

The Catholic Church is an organization with roots that date back over 2,000 years. Trying to get it to change its course over an issue for which it has remained firm—at least on paper—for most of its existence will be as easy as turning an ocean liner 360 degrees. But the discussion matters.

For the religious faithful, I would offer that much of scripture and subsequent doctrine may have represented the best thinking of its time. But much of this has little or no place in a modern age.

Because “the news never takes a day off,” our Publisher, Norm Kent, often asks us to work Saturdays and Sundays, both of which are considered the Sabbath, depending on your brand of religion.

But Exodus 35:2 states “On six days work may be done, but the seventh day shall be sacred to you as the sabbath of complete rest to the LORD. Anyone who does work on that day shall be put to death.”

Isn’t this a little much for Wilton Manors Code Enforcement to have to deal with?

Leviticus 11:7 has strong words for Miami Dolphins fans: “And the pig, which does indeed have hoofs and is cloven-footed, but does not chew the cud and is therefore unclean for you. Their flesh you shall not eat, and their dead bodies you shall not touch; they are unclean for you.”

Have fun tossing the pigskin at the tail gate party with that one hanging over your head.