Crisis magazine has put together a list of arguments for priestly celibacy and responses to commonly heard criticisms.
5 Arguments Against Priestly Celibacy
Allowing priests to marry would end pedophilia.
It is completely untrue that celibate priests are more likely to be pedophiles than any other group of men, married or not. Pedophilia affects only 0.3 percent of the population of Catholic clergy, and sexual abusers in general account for less than 2 percent of Catholic priests. These figures are comparable to rates among married men, as non-Catholic scholar Philip Jenkins points out in his book Pedophiles and Priests. Other Protestant denominations have admitted to having similar problems among their own married clergy, so clearly the problem is not with celibacy.
- A married clergy would create a larger pool of healthy priestly candidates, solving the current priest shortage.
There are actually plenty of vocations today in faithful dioceses: Denver, Northern Virginia, and Lincoln, Nebraska, have great numbers of men entering the priesthood. If other dioceses, such as Milwaukee, want to answer the question of why they have so few vocations, the answer is simple: Challenge young men to a religious life that is demanding, countercultural, sacrificial, and loyal to the Holy Father and Catholic teaching. This is the surest way to guarantee a greater number of vocations.
Married priests relate better to issues concerning marriage and the family.
To put it bluntly, one doesn't need to be an adulterer to counsel other adulterers. Priests understand the sacrificial nature and sanctity of marriage in a way that few others do. Who better to counsel a person in the ways of keeping the marital vow of fidelity than one who keeps the vow of celibacy?
- It's unnatural for men to be celibate.
This idea reduces men to animals, creatures who can't live without their sexual urges being gratified. But humans are not animals. Humans make choices about the gratification of their appetites. We can control and channel our desires in a way that sets us apart from the rest of the animal world. And again, most sexual abusers are not celibate. It's sexual license that breeds sexual abuse, not celibacy!
- Celibacy in the Latin rite is unfair. Since the Eastern rite allows married priests and the Latin rite allows married priests who have converted from Episcopalianism and Lutheranism, why can't all priests be married?
The discipline of celibacy among priests is one of the distinctive marks of the Roman Catholic tradition. Anyone who chooses to become a priest accepts the discipline. The Eastern rite, Lutheranism, and Episcopalianism, on the other hand, have a long tradition of married priests and the infrastructure and experience to handle it. However, Eastern rite priests and married priests who have converted from Lutheranism or Episcopalianism are NOT allowed to marry after their ordination or remarry after the death of their wife. In addition, the Eastern Church only chooses bishops from among their celibate, unmarried priests, clearly demonstrating that they see an inherent value in the nature of celibacy.
5 Arguments for Priestly Celibacy
- Celibacy reaffirms marriage.
In a society that is completely saturated with sex, celibate priests are living proof that sexual urges can be controlled and channeled in a positive way. Far from denigrating the sexual act, celibacy acknowledges the goodness of sex within marriage by offering it up as a sacrifice to God. The sanctity of marriage is dishonored if it is treated merely as an outlet for sexual impulses. Rather, we as Christians are called to understand marriage as the inviolable commitment of a husband and wife to love and honor one another. A priest offers up a similar commitment of love to the Church, a bond that cannot be broken and that is treated with the same gravity and respect as in marriage.
- Celibacy is scriptural.
Fundamentalists will tell you that celibacy has no basis in the Bible whatsoever, saying that Christians are called to "Be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:28). This mandate speaks to humanity in general, however, and overlooks numerous passages in the Bible that support the celibate life. In 1 Corinthians, for example, Paul actually seems to prefer the celibate life: "Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage. . . . Those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. . . . The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided" (7:27-34). This is not to say that all men should be celibate, however; Paul explains that celibacy is a calling for some and not for others by saying, "Each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another" (7:7).
Challenge young men to a religious life that is demanding, countercultural, sacrificial, and loyal to the Holy Father and Catholic teaching. This is the surest way to guarantee a greater number of vocations.
Jesus Himself speaks of celibacy in Matthew 19:11-12: "Not all can accept this word, but only those to whom it is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of God. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it." Again, the emphasis is on the special nature of celibacy, one for which not all men are suited, but one that nevertheless gives glory to "the kingdom of God."
Perhaps the best evidence for the scriptural support of celibacy is that Jesus Himself practiced it!
- Celibacy is historical.
Most people assume that the celibate priesthood is a convention introduced by the Church fairly late in history. On the contrary, there is evidence that even the earliest Church fathers, such as St. Augustine, St. Cyril, and St. Jerome, fully supported the celibate priesthood. The Spanish Council of Elvira (between 295 and 302) and the First Council of Aries (314), a kind of general council of the West, both enacted legislation forbidding all bishops, priests, and deacons to have conjugal relations with their wives on penalty of exclusion from the clergy. Even the wording of these documents suggests that the councils were not introducing a new rule but rather maintaining a previously established tradition. In 385, Pope Siricius issued the first papal decree on the subject, saying that "clerical continence" was a tradition reaching as far back as apostolic times. While later councils and popes would pass similar edicts, the definitive promulgation of the celibate, unmarried priesthood came at the Second Lateran Council in 1139 under Pope Gregory VII. Far from being a law forced upon the medieval priesthood, it was the acceptance of celibacy by priests centuries earlier that eventually led to its universal promulgation in the twelfth century.
- Celibacy emphasizes the unique role of the priest.
The priest is a representative of Christ, an alter Christus. In this respect, the priest understands his identity by following the example of Jesus, a man who lived His life in perfect chastity and dedication to God. As Archbishop Crescenzio Sepe of Grado explains, "[A priest's] being and his acting must be like Christ's: undivided" (The Relevance of Priestly Celibacy Today, 1993). As such, the sacramental priesthood is holy, something set apart from the rest of the world. Just as Christ sacrificed His life for His bride, the Church, so too must a priest offer up his life for the good of Christ's people.
- Celibacy allows the priest's first priority to be the Church.
The image used to describe the role of the priest is one of marriage to the Church. Just as marriage is the total gift of self to another, the priesthood requires the total gift of self to the Church. A priest's first duty is to his flock, while a husband's first duty is to his wife. Obviously, these two roles will often conflict, as St. Paul noted and as many married priests will tell you. A celibate priest is able to give his undivided attention to his parishioners without the added responsibility of caring for his own family. They are able to pick up and go whenever necessary, whether this involves moving to a new parish or responding to a late-night crisis. Celibate priests are better able to respond to these frequent changes and demands on their time and attention.
This article originally appeared in the CRISIS Magazine e-Letter. It is printed with permission.
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