Thinking Realistically About Celibacy

Bill Keller of the New York Times, who has been something of an agent provocateur with regard to Catholicism, wrote a column in the Sunday Times about priestly celibacy.  In it, he more or less calls for it to go away.  James Martin, S.J., responded strongly in America magazine in defense of celibacy.  Both pieces are very much worth reading, and I won't rehash them here.  Instead, I'll give my take.  The short version---as much as I like and respect Martin, I think Keller is right.

I suppose I should say first that I am potentially biased here, as I left the Dominicans in part (though not exclusively) because I realized that I did not want to make a lifetime commitment to celibacy.  If I thought celibacy was awesome (at least for me), I very well might still be there.  Nevertheless, contra Martin's critique of Keller, I lived with and observed closely many celibate people, so I feel like I have some leg to stand on beyond my own, singular experience.

Anyway, here's the analogy I would use to describe celibacy.  When I was a kid, Mom would once-in-a-while have the Today Show on as we were getting ready for school.  I remember specifically that Willard Scott would come on at some point and read out the birthdays of really old people, often over 100 years old.  In my memory they were all from Iowa, and Willard would add a little factoid about why they believed they lived so long.  I specifically remember a couple of those anecdotes being along the lines of "I ate bacon and eggs every day for breakfast for 90 years!"

Now, I believe that these anecdotes were true--I am not doubting that Edna from Dubuque ate bacon and eggs every day for breakfast.  The truth of the experience of Edna from Dubuque, however, does not mean that eating bacon and eggs for breakfast will result in others living to be 104.  More importantly, Edna's experience does not negate the fact that for the vast majority of people eating a steady diet of high cholesterol will not result in good health.  It is still correct to say that eating bacon and eggs every day for breakfast is a bad idea, notwithstanding the fact that it works for some people.

It's the same with celibacy.  There are certainly happy celibates.  But I have not met people who are happy because of being celibate.  And I don't think it is healthy to promote celibacy as a good solution for most people.

Father Martin has written in the past that he finds celibacy to be a great blessing for him.  I believe him.  But I don't think that this means that mandatory celibacy is a good idea for most people who want to be priests.

Martin cites a study from the Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate that 90% of priests would be priests again if they had a chance.  That's good to hear, but I don't think that is really relevant to the issue.  First, of course, it by definition only surveys the people who are still priests, and neglects the folks who have left the priesthood or seminary.  Second, the fact that a particular priest would re-up does not mean that they would re-up in order to be celibate.  And it certainly does not mean, as Martin suggests, that therefore 90% of priests are not lonely as a result of celibacy.

In my experience, the vast majority of priests fall into one of two categories.  First, there are people who love being priests so much that they are willing to do whatever it takes to do the job, including being celibate.  This is not a phenomenon unique to priests--lots of people sacrifice family and personal relationships for their career.  These people are fundamentally happy, but they are not happy because of celibacy.  The most you can say is that they are not made unhappy because of celibacy, or at least the unhappiness caused by celibacy does not outweigh the happiness they get from their jobs.

For these folks, removing the mandatory character of celibacy would have one of two effects.  Either they would still be so focused on the job that they wouldn't pursue relationships (in which case the "rule" of celibacy is not really relevant one way or the other) or they would take advantage of the opportunity to get into a relationship, with the potential to add the satisfaction of that relationship to the satisfaction of being priest.  Either way, removing the mandatory character of the celibacy rule would at a minimum have no impact, and for some segment would be a positive development.

[Sidenote:  Most of the discussion regarding removing the rule of celibacy involves implementing the rule of the Orthodox Churches--you can be married before you are ordained, but not after.  I understand that this is the traditional approach to the question, but I think it is a problematic one.  First, I think it creates distorted incentives with regard to marriage--a person who wants to be a priest might have a choice between a perhaps unsuitable marriage and life-long celibacy.  Second, I think it is unjust to the men who are already priests.  Under such a rule, they are in effect "punished" for committing to becoming a priest and trying to live a celibate life under the old rules, while other men who "waited it out" get to be married and be priests.  I would hope, at least for the existing priests, some accommodation could be made that would not force them to choice between staying a priest and getting married.]

The second category of folks are those who come to celibacy as a way to make the best of a bad situation.  Maybe they are gay and follow the Church's rule that gay people must refrain from sexual contact.  Maybe they realize that they are not going to find someone to be with, whether because of age, or repeated failures in the dating game, or whatever reason.  For these folks, celibacy is not a choice, but a ratification of a reality they are living, and are going to be living, regardless of whether they stay in religious life.  Here, the mandatory rule is a positive thing, for it provides a socially acceptable context for the reality they find themselves.  They don't have to explain why they can't find someone to be with.  They don't have to fend off the whispers that they are secretly gay (well, that used to be true.  Now, most people assume that Catholic priests are gay).  They do not have to be looked at by many as a failure.

So, sure, those folks see an "official" celibacy rule as a positive thing in their lives.  They would likely pick such a life again assuming that they were going to be celibate anyway.   Putting aside the question of gay men being celibate because they feel they have to, I think it is a good thing that there is an affirming environment where people can love and serve God and make the best of their life situation.  But none of this is an argument for enforced celibacy.  If you asked these men whether, in some hypothetical world, they would prefer to be with someone if it were possible, in my experience most of them would say yes.  They are not really choosing celibacy; celibacy is choosing them.

Two other issues come from mandatory celibacy are glossed over by Martin.  Martin takes issue with Keller's assertion that celibacy contributed to the sex abuse crisis.  I don't read Keller as saying that being celibate makes you a sexual abuser; instead, Keller is saying that celibacy, and the culture that is created by celibacy, contributed to an atmosphere that allowed the cover-up.  One of the clear lessons that I learned from my time with the Dominicans is that celibacy is isolating, in the sense that you lose inputs from people outside of the circle of other priests or religious.  You live with other priests, you talk to other priests, you share your life with other priests.  It is very, very easy for groupthink to worm its way into your thinking and acting.  When you are married, you are accountable to at least one other person who is outside of the circle of work and who can call you out if you slip into groupthink.  If you are celibate, anyone who might be a check is also part of the same groupthink.  I don't know if that is what Keller meant, but I think that is a strong argument against mandatory celibacy.

Finally, there is the practical concern.  There simply is not enough people who are willing to be celibate to do the work we need from priests.  The reasons for this are many and nuanced, but it is a reality, and one that will not be solved by more prayers or vocation promotion efforts.  Scarcity of candidates is a serious problem, because it creates subtle and not-so-subtle pressures to take people who are borderline candidates, whether intellectually, temperamentally, or psychologically.  That way leads to disaster.  It is far, far better to have a host of people to choose from in a discerning way, and the easiest way to expand the pool is to consider non-celibate people.


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