The Myth of Clerical Celibacy, Revisited

One of the key points in the recent declaration by German theologians (now joined by others, worldwide), is the urgency of ending the current insistence on compulsory clerical celibacy. This is my cue to revisit, and expand on, some points I have made frequently on previous occasions.

When I wrote a series of posts on the problem of compulsory clerical celibacy nearly two years ago, I listed several problems with the rule:

  • It is not based on Scripture, but in fact contradicts Paul’s clear advice that celibacy is not for everyone.
  • It was not the practice of the early church, and was not compulsory for the first twelve centuries of Christianity – over half of Church history
  • The rule, when it became fixed, was not introduced as a matter of pastoral care, but to preserve church wealth and power
  • Celibacy has never been required for all clergy in the Eastern Orthodox Churches
  • It was swiftly rejected by the Protestant churches after the Reformation
  • It is still not required for all Catholic priests: it does not apply to those in the Eastern rite of the Roman church, nor to those who are already married, and are now converting from other denominations.
  • Many bishops and even national Bishops’ conferences have asked, either privately or formally, for the blanket ban to be relaxed.

I can now add some further observations that I was not then aware of:

  • Research shows that the majority of Catholics want an end to the policy.
  • As a young man, Joseph Ratzinger himself signed a document asking for the ban to end.
  • As pope, Benedict XVI has conceded that celibacy is difficult, but becomes possible when living in a supportive community of fellow priests. He can offer no advice on how it becomes “possible” for one who can not live in such a community, implicitly conceding that for many men, perhaps it is not (agreeing in this, with St Paul).
  • The only objection he raised in the interview to ending the rule was not not one of principle, but of practicality, saying there were questions as to how this could be arranged.

But the most serious difficulty to my mind, is that as a universal practice, even within the Roman rite, it is a myth – and a dangerous one. It is a myth, because it is a rule that is widely broken.

Ordinands: A Lifetime of Celibacy?

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Gay priests: Coming Out, Discovering Love – 2

Bart, a gay priest, continues his weekly series of reflections on the challenges and difficulties of coming out for a priest. In this week’s reflection, he begins to tackle the thorny issue of sexual activity:

Having laid down the groundwork by talking more generally about love (not simply love as eros), I will now enter the minefield. That a priest – of all persons – should wish to directly talk about sex is problematic enough. Throw the gay ingredient into the mix and we have a bomb in our hands. So be it! Let’s talk about sex.

I take it to be axiomatic when I say that we are sexed beings. By this I mean that humans are not simply spirits. We are embodied beings, we occupy space, and one of the major characteristics of this body is that it presents certain features that we commonly refer to as gender characteristics, male or female, or (more rarely) both. Clearly we are not asexual beings, just as much as we are not disembodied spirits. It is most unfortunate that in two thousand years of Christianity we have not wholly succeeded in coming to terms with both our corporeality and our sexuality. I suspect that the Catholic priesthood is the symbolic locus of this neurosis. Cue the film “Priest” (1994).

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Pope Benedict, on the Priesthood

Before I elaborate on Pope Benedict’s views on gay men and the priesthood as expressed in “Light of the World”, I want to put this into the broader context of his views on the priesthood generally, and some other observations on sexuality.  Before doing that, I just want to post verbatim the relevant specific questions that Peter Seewald put to him, and his responses. First, I place here his quoted observations on the priesthood. In a companion posting, I do the same with his responses on divorce and contraception. The questions are lightly edited, to remove some of Seewald’s less relevant remarks, or those which are specific to Germany. Benedict’s responses I have quoted in full.  (My own reflection on these responses will follow shortly).

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Wedding Bells for Gay Priest

Wedding Cake

In the Catholic church, married priests are not new (there were many in early times.  Nowadays of course, there are many more who have joined the Catholic church after first serving as married priests with other denominations.  I noted recently there are also a very large number of priests who have married after leaving active ministry and receiving “dispensation” to marry.

There are also very many gay priests (possibly half of all US priests, according to some estimates).  Many of these have partners, some have married them, quietly and discreetly – but this is the first occasion I have come across of a priest who is not only marrying, but doing so in the full glare of publicity.  In Toronto,  Father Karl Clemens is getting married Saturday to his partner Nick.

Fr Clemens is 70, retired from parish work and has spent the past decade ministering in Toronto’s gay village, so it is perhaps not quite as dramatic a move as if he were a young parish priest with a suburban congregation.  Still, he will have to face the  reaction of the local bishops and other Catholics, many of whom are unlikely to be impressed, and some of whom will be vocal in their self-righteous outrage. Clemens says he is not doing this to start a revolution, but because he feels strongly that it is the right thing to do. Read the rest of this entry »