It is estimated that 1,000 people in Britain and Ireland are the children of Catholic priests
Three common Irish surnames translate as ‘son of the priest’, ‘son of the Bishop’ and ‘son of the Abbot’.
-Bishop Pat Buckley, quoted in the Guardian
When we try to assess the value or harm of the rule on compulsory celibacy, we usually think in terms of the priests themselves, or possibly on the parishes they serve. Does a celibate life leave them better equipped to devote their lives to their parishioners, without distractions of their own family – or does it leave them simply incapable of understanding sexual and emotional complexities way outside their own experience?
Sometimes, recognizing human weakness, we acknowledge that universal celibacy is a myth, and then consider also the impact on the lives of their partners (male or female) who find themselves forced to live in a clerical closet not of their own choosing. Even less often, do we consider the impact on the lives of those unfortunate sons and daughters of priests, who find themselves growing up either without a father at all, or with a father known to them – who refuses to acknowledge them publicly (which is worse, I wonder?)
Stephen was eight years old when he first heard his father disown him. The two were out for the day together when Stephen fell into a game of cricket with some local children, and another parent asked whose child he was. Stephen’s father swiftly denied he was his. The child was “the son of one of my parishioners”, said the dog-collared priest – a description that was truthful as far as it went, but omitted a vital detail. To Stephen, it felt like an outright dismissal. More than 30 years later, being the half-acknowledged son of a Roman Catholic priest has cast an enduring shadow over his life.
Stephen (not his real name) is now in his 40s and has never approached his paternal family, has never reached out to cousins and other relatives, for fear of shaming his parents. “I didn’t have a [close friendship] with my father,” he says, “and I have not found personal relationships that easy since then. None of his family in Ireland knew I existed, so you could argue I have been denied another family.”
To me, the saddest part of the whole celibacy debate is that for so long under John Paul II it was taboo even to discuss it. It is an open secret that in many regions of the world, individual bishops and even full bishops conferences have wanted to request permission to ordain married diocesan priests – but were simply refused permission to even open discussion. The official line was that there was some kind of profound theological reason why celibacy is absolutely necessary – but there isn’t. Celibacy is not required for Catholic priests outside the Western rite, it is not required for Orthodox priests, nor for priests and pastors in the Protestant denominations. In Judaism, marriage is a positive expectation for rabbis. What possible justification can there be for arguing that uniquely for Roman Catholic clergy, living alone and outside of any normal human human intimacy can bring pastoral gifts?
The truth of course, is that compulsory celibacy has nothing to do with spiritual gifts, and rather more to do with power and control. The early ideal of clerical celibacy arose in a time when all sex was thought of in negative terms, and virginity was recommended even for married couples – a view that has long since been discarded. Celibacy as a compulsory rule was imposed for the twin purposes of protecting church wealth and power (and to create a two-caste system, with celibate, “purer” clergy set on a higher moral plane than the rest of us mere mortals). Money remains a primary consideration today, with fears that the Church will be simply unable to afford paying a proper living wage, or provide decent housing, to priests with families.
I suppose we should be grateful that, although there is still no sign of the issue being seriously discussed where it matters, it is now being openly discussed in other forums. Several influential people within the formal church structures have been at least raising the issue, and have not been slapped down as once they would have been. When the matter is discussed, it is important that we consider not only the theoretical arguments, but also the reality-based ones: questions like the simple fact that our present priests are not all sticking rigidly to the rule, that many do have regular intimate relationships, in which (for heterosexuals) their will be some unfortunate pregnancies -unless (shock!) they have the sense to defy the rules on contraception, as they do on celibacy.
For Stephen, his relationship with his father never really blossomed. He was provided with occasional financial support, small gifts of money, while his father carried on being a priest. He died in his 60s. “I saw him shortly before his death,” says Stephen, “and spoke to him. He was in a pretty bad way . . . My mother went to visit him in hospital regularly and insisted she should be the one looking after him. I don’t think she ever stopped loving him. When he died she was devastated.
“I was denied a father, my mother was denied a partner and my father was denied a son . . . My father and mother loved each other intensely, and she never recovered from it. My mother dedicated her life to me and her work. She never fell in love with anyone else. She started to drink and . . . that was another measure of the burden.” She died four years ago.
For others, those unable or unwilling to develop sound, committed relationships, but also unable to keep to their vows, there may be more tragic results – public embarrassment at being exposed in gay bars or cruising for sex in public parks, theft of parish funds to pay for prostitutes, or even murder (as in South Africa, and in China,)
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- Should Priests Be Allowed To Worship And Wed? (news.sky.com)
- Should the Catholic church scrap its celibacy rule? (guardian.co.uk)
- The Brits Debate Celibacy (enlightenedcatholicism-colkoch.blogspot.com)