Another Theology of the Body, Part XVII--Real Talk About Celibacy

Celibacy has a very long and prestigious pedigree in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.  The vast majority of saints in both traditions were celibates.  All priests and bishops in the Western Church are required to be celibate; all bishops in the Eastern tradition must be celibate.  As a result, by definition, everyone who has ultimate leadership in both traditions is a celibate.

In the face of this tradition, I have come to what, for some, is a controversial position--I think celibacy is a bad idea.  I believe, based on my experience, that adopting celibacy is more often harmful to the spiritual development of men and women than supportive of that development.  I believe celibacy is more likely to poison one's view of God than to illuminate it.  Celibates are more likely to do damage to the People of God than to lift them up.  I believe that it would be better, not simply to allow non-celibates to be priests and bishops (though, that would be good, too), but to make married men (and women) the norm for church leadership, at all levels.


To get a sense of the reasons, I would strongly encourage you to read two pieces in Commonweal Magazine.  The first, and the one I want to focus on, entitled "Inside the Seminary", comes from a young man who spent two years in a diocesan seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.  This seminary is one you can characterize as "conservative," and Mr. Blaschko attended after the "crack down" on seminaries after the first wave of the sex abuse crisis in the early 00s.  By contrast, I attended a "liberal" formation program at the tail end of the period before the crack down.  And yet, I was struck reading the article by how many similarities there were between his experience and mine.

More than anything else, Mr. Blaschko seemed to be searching for Real Talk about celibacy.  Let's acknowledge the challenges involved, let's talk about the specific issues in an honest way.  Instead, he was given Fake Talk.  Farcical kabuki theatre exercises involving pretending to be demons.  "I am shocked, shocked, that 20 year old men might be masturbating!" from the seminary rector.  A don't ask, don't tell ethic about anything related to sex.  Having to look over one's shoulder to see if people are disapproving of a friendship for fear it might implicate the Great Satan, homosexuality.  And all of it tied together with authoritarianism.  Lots and lots of authoritarianism.

My experience was not as baroque as Blaschko's.
 But I experienced lesser versions of everything he describes.  Well, except for the part about the demons--we got a half-hearted psychology presentation, denuded of any useful content.  For example, I, too, suggested that we create more space for Real Talk discussions of issues related to celibacy, and received the exact same icy response.  Only, in my case, the issue that drew people's ire was my suggestion that we talk about the sacrifice of not having children, which was perceived as some sort of coded attack on those priests and seminarians that were gay (it was not--it was the question I happened to be struggling with at the time).

The older I get, the more and more anti-authoritarian, and even maybe a bit anarchist, I become.  The heart of this development, I think, is the realization that authoritarianism is not about strength, but about weakness, or at least a sense of weakness from the person being authoritarian.  People in leadership who actually believe in what they are doing and who they are have no need for this kind of abusive crap.  They have faith in the inherent goodness of what they are doing, and they believe that other people will come to see that as well, in their own due course.  It is the people that aren't sure, the one's who don't really believe in what they are doing; those are the one's that need to strong-arm other people to follow along with their program.  It is about maintaining the safety in numbers--if all of us are in this together, I can keep my finger in the dyke and not think about the massive wall of water that I, deep down, know is behind it.

All of this is on display in seminary formation.  All of the baroque crap that Blaschko experienced is a sign that the people at the heart of the Catholic leadership don't actually, in their heart of hearts, believe in celibacy.  If they truly believed, if they really thought that a faithful practice of celibacy leads to human and spiritual flourishing, they wouldn't care about masturbation or screaming at temptations. They believe in the institution, certainly.  They very well may believe in the Gospel.  But they don't actually believe that celibacy is a good thing.  Instead, they construct this elaborate superstructure to keep the building from falling down.  Because they know that, if the building falls down, then everything they have sacrificed--love, companionship, and, yes, sex--have been for nothing.  That, at the end of the day, is the real fear at the heart of clergy authoritarianism, I think.  These guys, Burke et al,, are afraid they have given all this up for nothing.  To ward off this fear, they must cling to the Politics of Certainty.

If these dysfunctions were simply limited to the cadre of priests and those seeking to become priests, that would be disturbing and problematic and sad, but limited in scope.  After all, no one made Blaschko sign up, and no one prevented him from leaving when he decided he had enough.  Same with me.  But it is not limited to the cadre.  Ultimately, these men leave the seminary and play out the same dramas they learned on a basically unsuspecting parish community.

Which brings us to the "Spiritual Assault" piece.  More and more, this is the reality of parish life in the United States--a single (because, of course, there is a massive lack of priests) young priest who thinks he has all of the answers and does not hesitate to impose those answers on the diverse congregation he has been parachuted into.  The problem is not, at its heart, their "conservatism"; the problem is the superstructure prevents any ability to think outside of the narrow world-view the superstructure delineates.  They need the Politics of Certainty to make the celibacy piece work, and thus the Politics of Certainty infects everything else look at or touch.

And it is not just in the Catholic Church.  My friends who are Orthodox, in their moments of candor, tell me that their celibates are just as bad, just as dysfunctional, and just as broken as people.  It is less of direct, day-to-day problem, since most parish priests are married.  But I know for a fact that there are Orthodox dioceses that have been without a bishop for years because they cannot find a moderately well-adjusted celibate candidate to give the job to.  It's not Catholicism--it's celibacy.

To be clear, being married is not a panacea.  There are terrible married clergypeople of all religious traditions.  It is possible that some of these JPII priests would be just as bad and just as rigid if they were married.  But some of them would be moderated by having to go home at the end of the day and deal with another person, one who loves them but has no personal stake in the Politics of Certainty.  And, likewise, these JPII priests would be joined by other, better adjusted voices, voices that have either bailed on the dysfunctional culture of clerical celibacy (such as, perhaps, Blaschko), or who saw the problem from a mile away and stayed far away.  Either way, the priesthood would be stronger and more balanced.  And these men, some so wounded and fearful that they have given up human touch for nothing, could find some measure of peace, or might never have lost it in the first place.

I know Paul endorses celibacy.  I know the Church fathers have endorsed celibacy.  I know.  But I don't see the fruits of it.  I don't see it working in real life.  I see abused, broken people in the wake of celibacy.  It's not working.  It's harmful for the ones attempting to live celibately, and it is harming the people they are serving.  And these people are in charge, with all of the power.  We need to stop, and think about this again.


Anonymous said…
What I find really disturbing is how the young seminarians are taught to view women. Disturbing, and yet fascinating.

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