Priests Tell What’s Wrong with Celibacy
POPE PAUL VI says that the church law forbidding priests to marry is right. He called it a “brilliant jewel.” Earlier this year he said: “It is happy, it is lovely, it is Catholic. We must conserve and defend it.”
But the majority of younger Catholic priests do not agree. In one survey, over 80 percent of them wanted the celibacy law changed. Many older priests also believe that the church celibacy law is wrong. What do they say is wrong with it?
NO SCRIPTURAL BASIS
Many Catholic priests are quick to point out that the law is not a Scriptural one. It is not taught in the Bible. The Bible describes celibacy as a “gift,” and since this is so, priests argue, the church has no business making it obligatory.
Jesus Christ said: “Not all can accept this teaching [as to singleness], . . . Let him accept it who can.” And the apostle Paul, who himself was single, said: “I would that you all were as I am myself; but each one has his own gift from God, one in this way, and another in that.”—Matt. 19:11, 12; 1 Cor. 7:7, “Catholic Confraternity.”
Catholic priest John A. O’Brien also emphasized that these Bible statements are not directed to a specific religious class. He said: “Neither the words of Christ nor those of St. Paul are directed specifically or exclusively to priests or candidates for holy orders but to Christians generally. They simply indicate that the state of being unmarried for the sake of the kingdom of heaven can be an authentic way of Christian life.”
Priest O’Brien then explains that the Scriptures do not forbid marriage of ministers, saying: “Writing to the Corinthians, [Paul] says: ‘Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other apostles of the Lord and Cephas?’ (1 Cor. 9:5) While guné, the word used here, can mean both woman and wife, the context, especially with the reference to Cephas (Peter), indicates that wife is here the most likely meaning.”
Thus, priests commonly point out that celibacy was optional, not obligatory, among early Christians. Catholic theologian Hans Küng notes: “Peter and the Apostles were, and stayed, married even in the full discipleship of Jesus, and this remained the pattern for the leaders of the community for many subsequent centuries.”
It was not until 1139 C.E. that the Catholic church imposed the celibacy law. Before that, many popes themselves were married. In fact, the recent Pope John XXIII said: “Ecclesiastical celibacy is not a dogma. The Scriptures do not impose it. It is even easy to effect a change. I take up a pen, I sign a decree and, the next day, priests who wish to may get married.”
A WRONG BASIS
Priests also point to the erroneous thinking that contributed to the church’s adoption of the celibacy law. They note that the thinking of church leaders was dominated by the teachings of “St.” Augustine, who lived from 354 to 430. This man is called, by “The Catholic Encyclopedia,” “the greatest of the [Catholic] Fathers.”
Augustine had written about marriage: “I feel that nothing more turns the masculine mind from the heights than female blandishment and that contact of bodies without which a wife may not be had.”
Catholic theologian R. J. Bunnik pointed out that such views did, and still do, influence Catholic thinking. He says that Augustine bears “no small measure of responsibility for the insinuation into our culture of the idea, still widely current, that Christianity regards sexuality as something particularly tainted with evil.”
But what influenced Augustine to downgrade marriage and sex? Priests such as John O’Brien say it was the fact that Augustine had lived with a girl outside of wedlock for some eleven years. Also, Catholic law teacher John T. Noonan observes: “Having had this guilt-ridden experience of sexual intercourse in a quasi-permanent union, Augustine believed there was nothing rational, spiritual, sacramental in the act of intercourse itself.”—“Why Priests Leave” (1969).
So priests say that the celibacy law is founded on a wrong basis. Unscriptural and erroneous thinking on sex and marriage contributed toward its adoption.
It should not be surprising, then, that an unscriptural law founded on a wrong basis should bear bad fruitage. Many priests point to this fruitage when telling what is wrong with enforced celibacy. They note that the Catholic church permits, and even condones, gross misconduct on the part of priests, as long as the priests do not marry.
Edward Frank Henriques served as a Catholic priest for sixteen years before he married and left the priesthood. He observes:
“Is it not significant that Canon Law imposes no punishment whatever upon such extraparochial diversions as clerical fornication, adultery, sodomy, flagrant promiscuity, or any other form of sexual aberration, nor even for continued and prolonged concubinage, but only for ‘committing’ matrimony? This is the unpardonable crime. How many times have I heard priests say—and for shame, I have said it myself—do what you will, but don’t marry her!”
Joseph Blenkinsopp, who served prominently as a Catholic scholar, contributing to “The Jerusalem Bible” and the “Jerome Bible Commentary,” pointed to common examples of misconduct. He said:
“I have personally known priests in parish work in a Latin American country who regularly took in girls for the weekend but would not have dreamed of giving up the practice of their ministry. One of them, I recall, rationalized splendidly but was surprised when I asked about the effect of this on the Indian girls in question. . . .
“It seems clear not only from recent experience but from the whole history of the Church that the ‘gift’ of celibacy is of much rarer occurrence than official pronouncements seem to presuppose.”
This is the admission of those closest to the situation. For example, Catholic priest Peter Riga has served as theology professor at Notre Dame and has taught at St. Mary’s College in California. He admits that sexual transgressions of those committed to a life of celibacy are “massive,” and not small as officially represented. Pointing to the dishonesty of church officials who glorify the virtues of enforced celibacy, he explains:
“Honesty would call for the counterbalancing evidence of countless members of the clergy who systematically resolved their difficulties in this area ranging from open concubinage to legal marriage, mistresses, paramours, and platonic dating. And shall we not include the diluted forms of homosexuality and other forms of unwholesome sexual expressions in seminaries and religious houses, for which too much depressing evidence is at hand? The nonpublicity of these widespread phenomena and the loyalty of the understanding flock which glosses over individual instances and subtracts them from notoriety is no excuse for knowingly stacking the cards and ignoring contrary evidence.”—“Married Priests and Married Nuns” (1968).
Faced with such circumstances in the church, what are many priests doing? Priest Riga pointed to “the thousands of cases of more coherent and upright priests” who are leaving the priesthood. In 1968 an estimated 2,700 of them left in the United States alone! Thus the Catholic Church, Riga said, “is not losing her worst but her very best sons.”
A superior of a community of East Coast priests in the United States lamented the effects of this mass departure. He said: “I also feel that the perverted personalities in the priesthood will stand out more clearly in the dwindled ranks . . . I am one of the many who does not look forward to living out a life amidst twisted personalities.”
Can you blame priests for quitting? When a religious organization clings to unscriptural practices, should not any God-fearing person want to leave that organization? Many are now doing so.