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Fr. O'Leary and Clerical Celibacy

Fr. O'Leary and Clerical Celibacy    Gerry O'Shea

Fr. Daniel O'Leary was born in the village of Rathmore  County Kerry, close to the Cork border, in 1937. He died in January of this year after a short battle with cancer.

Fr. Donal, as he was called by his friends, served as a parish priest in the Diocese of Leeds in England  for the first thirty years of his ministry. After that he worked for  two decades teaching theology in St. Mary's University College in London.

 He authored a dozen books on spirituality and was well-known as a leader of parish and diocesan  retreats. He was a regular columnist in the prestigious international Catholic  news weekly, The Tablet.

In his final column for that publication he stated that he wanted to be "free of fear and bitterness and full of love and desire as I step up for the final inspection."  He goes on to argue in the major theme of his parting essay that forced clerical celibacy is "a kind of sin, an assault against nature and God's will."

Priests married and lived normal sexual lives until the Second Lateran Council in 1139. The change at that time seems to have been caused by economic considerations resulting from family members' claims to inherit church property  after the priest's death.

The creation story in the Book of Genesis is very clear about male and female joining together to propagate the human race. God's words are recounted as a statement of incontrovertible principle: It is not good for man to be alone.

This core foundational wisdom affirming the complementarity of the two sexes is certainly not confined to the Judaeo-Christian tradition. For instance, the same message is conveyed powerfully in the famous two-faced statue with carved hands joined from the back and front on Boa Island on Loch Erne, close to Enniskillen in Northern Ireland.

 This is a fine relic, a message from pre-Christian times of the wise psychological insight that balance is crucial in every positive life force, between male and female, goddess and god, yin and yang - each one needing the other for a full productive life.

The Catholic Church - alone among the main Christian denominations - stipulates that its priests must commit at ordination to a life without sex which is a part of normal intimate female companionship. It is a heavy and unreasonable burden imposed on young men who are usually in their mid twenties when they are ordained.

Sigmund Freud points out that the sexual drive to procreate is second only to self-preservation in the human psyche. The young priest faces fifty or more years of daily struggles to honor his solemn pledge to eschew any sexual contact with a woman. A tall order for many men!

Some priests maintain their commitment to their promise at ordination, but others, as many as 40%, either leave the priesthood to get married or cultivate  a  discreet sexual relationship  with  a woman while continuing in their ministry.

Loneliness is a major problem faced by men who are compelled to avoid the safe haven of sharing their intimate feelings with a partner who understands and relates to their deepest human challenges and frustrations.

Fr. O'Leary is very clear about the serious damage this lack of female intimacy causes: "I am just pointing out that one of the fall-outs of mandatory celibacy is the violence it does to a priest's humanity and the wounds it leaves on his ministry."

He also argues that it is very difficult to maintain a sense of personal authenticity when one is struggling to control demanding sexual and emotional drives while pretending to parishioners that all is well with the world.

He is at one with Pope Francis in condemning clericalism which sets  men wearing the Roman collar apart from the wider faith community and heightens the sense of isolation felt by many priests. In O'Leary's words clericalism "keeps vibrant, abundant life at bay; it quarantines us priests for life from the personal and communal expression of healing and the lovely grace of tenderness."

The distinguished Kerry man reflects on the inadequate seminary training he received in All Hallows College in Dublin where falling in love was viewed as the cancer to be avoided at all costs; prayer and confession were recommended as the cures.

 His own words in recalling those seminary days are very poignant and powerful, leading to an unhealthy and upside-down spirituality: "Emotion was the threat; detachment was the safeguard; becoming too human was the risk."

The Vatican shows no sign of reverting back to the church rules during the early centuries of the church. Pope Francis recently referred approvingly to the opinion of his predecessor from the sixties, Paul V1, who said that he felt so strongly about maintaining the status quo in this area that he would rather give his life than to change the celibacy law for priests.

It is important to note that the Kerry theologian's  cri de coeur does not mention the clerical sexual abuse crisis that continues to haunt the Catholic church. That provides an additional strong argument for seriously reviewing the prohibition imposed at ordination, but O'Leary's entire focus and the ground for his heartfelt plea for change are based on the stultifying and, in his opinion, sinful effects that compulsory celibacy have on the spiritual and emotional development of his fellow-priests.

Is anyone in the hierarchy heeding the profound final love letter written by the late Daniel O'Leary?


Gerry O'Shea blogs at






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