The Myth of Priestly Celibacy

Until the 12th century, Christian priests led sexual lives resembling those of lay people: some priests and lay people alike embraced voluntary celibacy,  others did not.  Then, at the First Lateran Council of 1123 ,  celibacy was imposed as a rule on all priests. The circumstances and reaction at the time are interesting. John Boswell argues that among the groups strongly promoting the rule were priests who had no wives or concubines, but did have boyfriends.  After noting that Pope Leo IX, who was the first pontiff to take action against married clergy, had shown no interest in acting against homosexual practices by priests or bishops, Boswell continues with:

Contemporaries, at least, were quick to note that gay priests were more willing than heterosexual ones to enforce prohibitions against clerical marriage“;

and again

There is some evidence of a power struggle between gay and married clergy over whose predilection would be stigmatized.”

In the Eastern church, orthodox priests never adopted the rule, and were horrified by the practice in the West. An anonymous Byzantine tract of c 1274, quoted in Judith Herrin’s “Byzantium“, asks plaintively,

“Why do you priests not marry?… The Church does not forbid the priest to take a wife, but you do not marry.  Instead you have concubines and your priest sends his servant to bring him his concubine and puts out the candle and keeps her for the whole night.”

In the centuries that followed, this charge (that clergy at all levels  no longer married, but continued active sexual lives with concubines) was widely accepted. Indeed, sexual scandals even at the level of the papacy were one of the factors that led to the Reformation.  Somehow, in subsequent centuries, many Catholics seem to have adopted the belief that since celibacy is the rule, it is now also the practice.  This is hogwash.  It never has been, and never will be.

It is well known that there has been a haemorrhaging of good men from the priesthood over the last half century, many of them leaving the priesthood explicitly to marry.   It is delusional to suppose that these men kept themselves sexually chaste until after leaving;  it is equally delusional to suppose that all those who maintained active sexual relationships, left the priesthood.  I myself have a personal friend who left the priesthood only when he ‘had to get married’ to the religious sister he had impregnated.  Note the sequence:  first he got her pregnant, then he left the priesthood.

In the concluding chapter of his book, “Global Catholicism”, Ian Linden writes of the state of the church in the 21st century. One of his sections is titled “The Universal Crisis of the Celibate Priesthood.” Among other damaging effects, he notes:

“The number of Catholic priests worldwide in clandestine , and often exploitative, multiple sexual relationships of different duration and kind has undermined the examplary witness of those freed by celibacy for a lifetime of service.  Promiscuous – and paedophile- clergy have been a disaster for the post-conciliar Church, not to speak of their victims’ suffering. Clerical sexual conduct has given rise in many parishes to a myriad of intractable problems. So the moral issue for many lay Catholics in some countries became not whether the priest was failing to keep his vow of celibacy – failure was increasingly taken for granted – but whether he was sleeping with a married woman, failing to care for the children brought into the world, or indeed had more than one sexual partner, in short the degree to which the relationship was socially damaging and individually abusive.”

It gets worse.  Referring to the consequences of the emergence of HIV/AIDS, he writes:

“But it soon emerged that one consequence of the pandemic was that promiscuous priests, for fear of infection, were shifting their attentions to the local nuns on the assumption that they would be free of the virus”, prompting their Superiors to challenge the bishops, without success, to protect their congregations from predatory clergy.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support these contentions.  In The Future of the Celibacy Debate lies in Africa, not Miami Collen Kochivar-Baker writes about the situation in the Central African Republic, where it seems that bishops and priests for years have been living openly with wives and families:

“Africa News had reported Monday that Archbishop Pomodimo and several priests in his archdiocese would be sanctioned ‘for adopting a moral attitude which is not always in conformity with their commitments to follow Christ in chastity, poverty and obedience’.”

In Zimbabwe, the otherwise impressive and respected Bishop Ncube has resigned after as sexual scandal.  From Rocco Palma’s “Whispers in the Loggia”:

“Ncube’s resignation was accepted after the 62 year-old prelate was accused of adultery in what, at the time, the archbishop maintained was a “well-orchestrated plan” by Mugabe and his allies to discredit Ncube for his globally-noticed protests of the country’s authoritarian rule.

Several months later, the prelate admitted to the affair in a documentary interview.” In the same post, Pollo  also refers to situation in Bangui.

There have been many instances publicised in the West (and many more unpublicised), of which  the case of Fr Mario Cutie in Miami is just the most recently prominent.    Nor have the sexual partners been restricted to women.   Censor Librorum at Nilhil Obstat has written on the voracious sexual appetite of the late Cardinal Spellman for young men, and former Milwaukee archbishop Rembert Weakland has recently come out publicly on his experience as a gay Bishop in the church.

A  sexual appetite is a fundamental human urge. Modern research shows clearly that healthy, active expression of this urge contributes to physical and mental health. While I fully accept that voluntary celibacy is entirely possible and acceptable for those who embrace it willingly in maturity, I have grave misgivings about imposing it by compulsion.

The pretence of priestly celibacy is not just a myth:  the consequences are intensely damaging, in many ways, to the whole Church and its people.  I will expand on these consequences later.

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