The Myth of Clerical Celibacy, Revisited

One of the key points in the recent declaration by German theologians (now joined by others, worldwide), is the urgency of ending the current insistence on compulsory clerical celibacy. This is my cue to revisit, and expand on, some points I have made frequently on previous occasions.

When I wrote a series of posts on the problem of compulsory clerical celibacy nearly two years ago, I listed several problems with the rule:

  • It is not based on Scripture, but in fact contradicts Paul’s clear advice that celibacy is not for everyone.
  • It was not the practice of the early church, and was not compulsory for the first twelve centuries of Christianity – over half of Church histor
  • The rule, when it became fixed, was not introduced as a matter of pastoral care, but to preserve church wealth and powe
  • Celibacy has never been required for all clergy in the Eastern Orthodox Churche
  • It was swiftly rejected by the Protestant churches after the Reformatio
  • It is still not required for all Catholic priests: it does not apply to those in the Eastern rite of the Roman church, nor to those who are already married, and are now converting from other denominations
  • Many bishops and even national Bishops’ conferences have asked, either privately or formally, for the blanket ban to be relaxed.

I can now add some further observations that I was not then aware of:




  • Research shows that the majority of Catholics want an end to the policy.

  • As a young man, Joseph Ratzinger himself signed a document asking for the ban to end.

  • As pope, Benedict XVI has conceded that celibacy is difficult, but becomes possible when living in a supportive community of fellow priests. He can offer no advice on how it becomes “possible” for one who can not live in such a community, implicitly conceding that for many men, perhaps it is not (agreeing in this, with St Paul).

  • The only objection he raised in the interview to ending the rule was not not one of principle, but of practicality, saying there were questions as to how this could be arranged.

But the most serious difficulty to my mind, is that as a universal practice, even within the Roman rite, it is a myth – and a dangerous one. It is a myth, because it is a rule that is widely broken.

Here’s Maureen Fiedler, at Huffington Post, referring to an interview with Fr Cutie, who left the church to marry, and now serves in the Episcopal Church instead:

In the course of the interview, he laid bare an open secret of the Catholic Church: a large percentage of Catholic priests, gay and straight, live as if celibacy were optional. Some have male partners; others have secret women friends and — quite commonly in Africa and Latin America — they have children. He noted that sometimes bishops even pay for the children to have a Catholic education. All this is tolerated if it does not become public and cause scandal.

Most likely, a good majority of Catholic priests keep their vow of celibacy, but there is no way to know for sure.

Note the observation that the bishops are even paying for the education of priests’ children. This flouting of the rule is tacitly accepted, in many parts of the world – at least, until the knowledge becomes just too uncomfortably public (This is not a new claim . This is from Vatican II, nearly half a century ago:

Loreto Sr. Luke Tobin often spoke of overhearing two bishops returning from a coffee break at the Second Vatican Council, where she was an observer.

“Why do they want to get married,” one Council father said to the other, “Let them have their women on the side.”

“Let them have their women on the side”, says the bishop – just don’t let it become public knowledge.

This is why the current system, of public rejection but private tolerance of priests’ sexual lives, is so damaging, to them and to the wider church – it forces them into a clerical closet, in a widespread conspiracy of silence (a theme that Bart will be expanding on in his post for Monday).

  • The closet, as gay men and/ lesbians have learned, is an uncomfortable place, damaging to one’s personal mental, emotional and even spiritual health. Our private closets are also damaging to the wider community, to our friends and families.  Similarly, compulsory celibacy and the clerical closet between them are damaging to the wider church.
  • They deprive us of some excellent potential clergy, by driving away possible candidates who are unwilling to accept the rule, and ordained priests who find they can no longer live with either the continued practice, or the duplicity of the closet.
  • It introduces to the priesthood a disproportionate number of candidates who have not reached proper levels of psychosexual maturity, or have unresolved issues with their own sexuality
  • It is thus, intimately associated, albeit indirectly, with the problems of clerical sexual abuse, of children and adults
  • By leaving us under the pastoral care, including that in sexual and family matters, of men who can have no practical experience, and extremely limited theoretical training, in human sexuality, we all suffer under a form of spiritual and emotional abuse at the hands of the clergy.

This pointless, unjustifiable and dangerous policy has to go. As Maureen Fiedler  says, concluding her piece at Huffpost:

And, it’s important to note: priestly celibacy is not dogma. It is simply a disciplinary practice, and could be changed literally with a flick of the papal pen.

So, why wait? I know the powers-that-be in the Vatican are comfortable with current arrangements, but it would seem that the needs of ministry and the availability of the Eucharist [only priests can consecrate the Eucharist in the Catholic tradition] should trump everything else.

For the life of me, I can’t figure out what’s taking them so long.

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