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Priestly & Religious Celibacy: Is It Dead, or Should It Be?

by Benedict J. Groeschel, C.F.R.


Fr. Benedict J. Groeschel explores the meaning and importance of priestly and religious celibacy.

Larger Work

New Oxford Review



Publisher & Date

New Oxford Review, Inc., November 1996

Few aspects of traditional Catholic practice have come under so much attack in the past three decades as celibacy in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church. One might have thought that an era that prided itself on altruistic causes would have found such a remarkable example of committed self-giving to be admirable. But in fact, celibate priests, sisters, and brothers find themselves being constantly analyzed, diagnosed, ridiculed, accused of perversion, and betrayed, even by those who once were members of their own ranks. That a discipline chosen by such a small segment of the population (approximately .01%) could attract so much scrutiny is amazing.

Celibacy in Catholicism has always meant complete sexual abstinence. It requires no great insight into human nature to realize that so rigorous a discipline has never been and could never be completely successful. Some writers like Richard Sipe, a former priest and critic of celibacy, make much of this fact (4 Secret World, 1990). It is difficult to imagine how any intelligent person could ever think a discipline as demanding as this one could be totally successful. Have the Ten Commandments or the Beatitudes been successful, or even the speed limit? In an important way they have been successful since all three have significantly influenced human behavior for the better, but it is perfectly obvious that they have been and will continue to be violated many times. This is true of any discipline or law that challenges human nature.

The Christian discipline of celibacy as a suggested practice and later as a requirement for the clergy goes back at least to St. Paul (I Cor. 7:32-35). Those who consider themselves followers of the Gospel might do well to ponder what Christ means when he praises those who have made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt. 19:12). Celibacy finds its roots in the admonition of Christ to his disciples to leave everything, including wives and children, to follow him (Mt. 19:26-29). The monastic tradition brought mandatory celibacy into the Church, although the practice was much older, and to this day is widespread in Hinduism and Buddhism. There are even rare examples of monastic celibacy in Jewish and Islamic history.

A careful observance of celibacy by religious and diocesan priests has been correlated with the vibrancy and fervor of the overall life of the Church. Older people will remember that celibacy flourished along with a remarkably vibrant Catholic community up to the early 1960s. When the Catholic community began to falter and lose its identity, the observance of celibacy was in trouble, and remains so to this day. Should any fair-minded person be surprised at this when every other expression of morality in our culture, especially in the family, is subject to widespread failure?

Those who for one reason or another feel they must announce the death of a religious discipline as old as Buddhism and as widespread as Christianity usually base their objections on arguments drawn from psychology, frequently pop psychology. A brief summary of those who joyously sound the death knell of celibacy might be helpful in answering the question posed by the title of this article. The big objection to celibacy is that it is rooted in pathology and usually represents either immaturity, repression, denial, homosexuality, or masochism. In response one might observe that Freud and his army of disciples said the same thing about human sexuality in general, but added a few other elements unrelated to committed celibacy, among them regression, narcissism, perversion, and sadism. One of my professors at Columbia observed rather wisely that sexuality is usually the weakest link in most people's suit of armor. Are there any so out of touch with reality that they think America's public attitude toward sexuality today is anything but regressed narcissism or even sado-masochism? Did you ever analyze the attitude toward sexuality and family life presented by a single evening of American television? That attitude would be enough to drive Boccaccio into the Franciscans and Voltaire into the Jesuits.

Celibacy, traditionally and properly understood, requires sexual abstinence — i.e., the avoidance of all voluntary genital pleasure and all other behavior that is likely to lead to it. Celibacy also requires that personal friendships be so organized that they do not lead into genital expression, which obviously includes a lot of things that are not genital. Since most human behavior has some defensive aspects to it, one should not expect all celibates to be so perfectly balanced that they would not use a little "repression" to get by.

Thirty years ago celibacy was seriously undermined by the naive notion that certain expressions of affection would not lead to genital activity. In an effort to be completely unrepressed, whole groups of naive celibates moved toward another defense, namely, regression. When I was an intern at the Psychiatric Institute in New York, one of my fellow students, a down-to-earth Jewish psychiatrist, asked me if I had ever read the popular book The Genius of the Apostolate by Eugene Kennedy and Paul D'Arcy. This was the great manifesto of the "third way," the notion that celibates could engage in warm, close, emotionally expressive behavior with members of the opposite sex and nothing would happen. My earthy friend was shocked when I told him that the authors were deadly serious about their proposition. He thought the book was satire, and walked away shaking his head saying, "You people are going to have a lot of trouble." He was right!

Before accepting the charges of pathology raised against committed celibacy as an ideal, one should recall that in comparison to our own undisciplined and undignified times, American culture in the early decades of this century strongly supported living a chaste life. Abortion, homosexual behavior, public nudity, and even the description of the processes of reproduction were all taboo, and the normal and sacred aspects of sexuality were not spoken of. Mothers were said to be "expecting" or "in the family way." Sergeants made draftees, caught in auto-erotic activity, wear boxing gloves for several days as punishment. If Catholic celibates were repressed, they had a good deal of social encouragement and company. Of course certain people misbehaved, but being chaste in one's state of life was expected of every decent person.

Then came the revolution! As a group, American Catholics are naive — with a tendency toward optimism. Catholics strove to prove to everyone else that the old Church would wake up and catch the SRE (Sexual Revolution Express) with the best of them — the Episcopalians, the Congregationalists, even the Methodists. Not only celibacy, but premarital chastity, sexual discipline in marriage, modesty in entertainment, the taboo against homosexuality — much of all that went down the drain. Catholics were finally part of the American Experience. Reluctantly I was professionally involved in preparing more than 175 appeals for dispensation from vows. Happily I helped more than 70 other priests who had left the ministry get back into the active priesthood.

As a loyal member of the "pro-Papal Peasantry," I have been thrown off two seminary faculties and various programs because I defend chastity and other unpopular ideas like the reality of sin and need for spiritual reform. The fact that I was a psychologist gave me the aura of a detestable traitor who had gone against the sexual revolution — an honor I shared with several Catholics in psychotherapy, all of them quite different, like James Gil, S.J., Adrian Van Kaam, C.S.Sp., James Lloyd, C.S.P., Msgr. Andrew Cusack, and lay Catholic psychologists and writers as different as Mark Stem and Paul Vitz.

Let's tell the truth. Any kind of sexual behavior (and celibacy is a form of sexual behavior) can be done badly. Some kinds of sexual behavior are always done badly, like promiscuity, rape, and pedophilia. Some sexual behaviors are inherently immature and pathological. Celibacy, its critics notwithstanding, is not one of these. I have been celibate all my life (I knew when I was eight years old that I was called to be a priest). Those who denounce celibacy as immature or perverse or manipulation by ecclesiastical authority I accuse of ignorance, ill will, or perversity. Period! I welcome the opportunity to take the saner people with this position on in public debate.

A different objection to priestly and religious celibacy is that it should not be mandatory. This objection does not necessarily imply that celibacy is a sick adjustment. Having grown up in an area that had married Catholic priests of the Eastern Rite, and having prepared married former Protestant clergy for ordination to the Catholic priesthood, I can cope with the thought that clerical celibacy need not be universal in the Church. It goes without saying that celibacy is an anthropological necessity for religious life, but the question is, should the Church change the rules for diocesan clergy now? An army of Catholic saints and authorities from at least the past 1,600 years says "no." Many of them lived through times when celibacy was not doing well, and when they were trying to reform the clergy. Powerful theological and spiritual reasons for the celibacy of priests have been given in ages when celibacy was attacked. Pope John Paul II, in his typically thorough way, has marshaled the arguments in defense of clerical celibacy — but because he is so convincing he has been disregarded without even being read by many of his opponents in the ranks of WAJP (Wimps Against John Paul).

Apart from the powerful scriptural, theological, and spiritual arguments, all of which are summoned in Pastores Dabo Vobis by Pope John Paul, there is one very strong historical reason for not changing the discipline of celibacy at the present time. This reason is the sexual revolution itself. Any decent therapist knows you don't make significant life decisions in moments of stress, confusion, and especially breakdown. Obviously the Western nations are in a severe sexual crisis that threatens the family, the basic building block of society. Public morality, as judged from the media, is at the lowest ebb in American history. One would have to go to the depths of the Renaissance decline or back to the collapse of the Roman Empire to find parallels. As in all decadent times, the worst symptoms affect the affluent and powerful while armies of ordinary folk hold on to what is decent. But severe decadence there is, and in our times it is unfortunately shared with the vast majority of ordinary people by the media.

There is also a serious decline in governmental support for and protection of the family, which is the first focus of sexual morality. In response to the objections of a representative of the U.S. Catholic Conference that the U.N.'s Cairo document on population did not even mention the family, a functionary of the U.S. State Department said that the "family" had become the "F" word. Such attitudes pervade much of what, for want of a better term, we call the developed Western nations.

In such a climate it would be most unwise to jettison the witness of celibacy. It is a sign of dedication and self-giving. If the human race ever needed a witness that we are called to love and serve God above all things, obviously it is right now. The Pope, echoing many saints, has constantly preached to priests and religious this ideal of total service. The proposal to discontinue this powerful symbol of dedication right now is, at best, frighteningly irresponsible. •

Fr. Benedict J. Groeschel, C.F.R., is a psychologist and spiritual writer. He works in the South Bronx with priests and the poor, as a member of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.

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