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Priestly Celibacy


Priestly Celibacy               Gerry OShea

St Augustine is recognized as a distinguished Doctor of the Church with learned writings dealing with obscure topics like the Christian idea of three persons in one godhead. However, his pronouncements in the area of sexual ethics have done serious damage to the Christian story.

Until his mid-thirties he lived the life of a libertine who, in his own words, “was a slave to his sexual impulses.” He had a concubine who bore him a son. His mother, Saint Monica, pleaded with her son to join the Catholic Church and leave behind his wayward lifestyle. The family was well-off and the matriarch felt her son’s partner should not be a commoner but ought to come from an aristocratic family.

 Augustine was baptized at age thirty-two and, similar to many converts throughout history, he spent the remainder of his long life as a very committed Christian. He was ordained a priest after his son died and later was appointed Bishop of Hippo where his learned sermons enhanced his reputation for holiness.

He espoused really hardline thinking on sexual behavior, writing about that whole area of life as “a seething cauldron.” He preached that procreation provided the only legitimate reason for sexual expression.

Augustine re-imagined the biblical creation story, blaming Eve for seducing Adam. There were serious negative consequences to a scholar of his standing pointing the finger of guilt at a woman for the fatal transgression in the mythical garden, which according to the poet John Milton’s words in Paradise Lost “brought death into our world with all its woes and loss of Eden.”

Augustine’s theory about the Genesis creation story, discredited by most modern scholars, helps to explain the misogyny that has dominated Christian thinking since the fifth century. Too often women have been viewed as the devil’s agent for man’s downfall. Canon law still mandates that only those in sacred orders are allowed to exercise governance or jurisdiction in the Catholic Church.

This was evident in the synods organized by Pope Francis, where a few nuns played major organizational roles, but the bishops were joined in the various crucial votes by some priests and a few laymen with not even one woman casting a ballot.

 No wonder that about 900,000 Catholics - mostly young people - leave the church in America every year.

The regulations which demand that priests remain celibate are part of the same limiting Catholic culture. It was during the papacy of Pope Gregory V11 (1073-1085) that mandatory celibacy was introduced in the Western church.

Gregory was a sincere reformer who also banned simony - the sale of senior positions of power in the church ­- and sought to assert a primacy for himself as Bishop of Rome over all the other dioceses. He faced a herculean task, considering that the civilian rulers of Rome felt that their wishes had to be pre-eminent. Intrigue was the order of the day.

For instance, a few decades previously, Marozia, the daughter of the ruler of Rome, was Pope Sergius’ lover, starting at age fifteen, and she made sure that her son from a different relationship became Pope John X1, and wait for this, she also arranged for the murder of her former lover, Pope John X, who was nominated for the papal job by her mother, Theodora.

The culture in Rome was a miasma of licentiousness and skullduggery. It was in this context that Pope Gregory asserted his authority and instructed all bishops that only celibate men could be ordained. That rule prevails in the Roman Catholic Church to this day with a few exceptions for a couple of hundred married Anglican priests who changed their allegiance from Canterbury to Rome.

Gregory had two main reasons for his new policy. He decided that church leaders needed to raise the image and prestige of the priesthood, and he wanted to obviate claims by priests’ children for monetary or property entitlements to church resources.

An additional argument for the discipline, according to proponents, centers on a special spiritual grace imparted at ordination, an ontological mark - their words - that sets the priest apart, places him higher even than the angels in some imaginary heavenly pecking order. Readers who find it difficult to comprehend this mystical gobbledygook may suspect – with good reason – that clerics came up with this bit of rationalization to enhance their own importance.

No doubt the absence of a wife and family can be seen positively as enabling the priest to devote all his attention to his work. Removing the humdrum everyday demands of raising a family can be viewed as facilitating the priest in his vocation.

On the other hand, Christ mostly selected married men as his apostles. The four gospels have nothing to say about celibacy; indeed, apart from some reflections on divorce, Jesus showed no inclination to preach on sexual issues which have preoccupied popes and prelates since the early centuries.

 We wonder how his church continues to devote so much time and effort making rules about sexual behavior – abortion, contraception, homosexual acts, masturbation and so on - when none of these matters was a priority in the sermons of the founder.

Back to the immediate issue. A clear majority of Catholics in the United States (62%) favor priests being allowed to marry. On this and other issues, the church should listen to its members, solemnly described by the Second Vatican Council, as “the people of God,” reflecting the spirit and wisdom of our time, and get away from the arrogant supposition that somehow Father knows best.

 However, the Catholic clerical culture emanating from some strong voices in the Vatican shows no interest in changing, despite pleas from many dioceses. They live by the ancient adage: Roma locuta est; causa finita est – a pronouncement from the Vatican ends all debate on any issue. It is a game of power and the Vatican rules the roost.

After self-preservation, the sexual drive for procreation is the most compelling human imperative. Lifetime preclusion from sexual intercourse is a huge demand from priests and many find other ways to meet their natural needs. Pope Francis conceded a few years ago that Vatican research confirmed that some priests in Africa turned to nuns when the AIDS crisis ruled out sexual relationships with local women.

Fr. Peter Daly, a writer and retired priest who served in Washington, asserts that close to 50% of priests, bishops and cardinals are or have been involved in sexual relationships of one kind or another.

The abuse crisis by a small minority of priests has done immense damage to the church. Celibacy certainly played some part in this awful scourge. Some bishops and cardinals participated in the sordid behavior and nearly all the hierarchy failed to act decisively to deal with it.

Marie Keenan, the distinguished Irish psychologist and professor, makes a very cogent point that what the system sows, it will assuredly reap: “Abusive priests are not isolated monsters but are products of human and psychological formation that fixated them at an adolescent level of sexual development.”

The prevalence of pedophiles among the clergy is not a compelling argument for change in the celibacy discipline, although it is appropriate to wonder about the wisdom of Ms. Keenan’s thesis leading, in her estimation, to the ordination of men versed in scholastic philosophy but way behind in the vital area of sexual maturity.

The wider question of clerical celibacy was raised by an impressive priest from Rathmore in County Kerry, Daniel O’Leary, who authored ten books on spiritual issues and worked for much of his life ministering in the diocese of Leeds in England. He gave retreats to clergy and was reputed to be a wise and holy man.

In his final column in The Tablet, a prestigious weekly Catholic newspaper, before his death from cancer he condemned mandatory celibacy “as a kind of sin, an assault against nature and God’s will.” He is very clear about the serious damage to a man who is forbidden an intimate relationship with a female, cut off from “expressions of healing and the lovely grace of tenderness.”

He also argues that it is hard to maintain a sense of personal authenticity when one is struggling to deal with sexual and emotional drives while pretending to parishioners that all is well in his life.

The Rathmore man’s cri de coeur, in anticipation of, in his words, “the final inspection” pointed to loneliness as a real problem for men who are compelled to avoid sharing their intimate feelings with a partner who can relate in a loving way to the inevitable ups and downs in life.

Pope Gregory’s sincere response to widespread corruption of the clergy a thousand years ago should not determine church policy in our time.

Gerry OShea blogs at


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