A Protestant liberal defends clerical celibacy

A vow of abstinence can remind a believer of values like contentment and solidarity, even if it's not for everyone

Published March 10, 2013 12:00PM (EDT)

  (Shutterstock/Africa Studio)
(Shutterstock/Africa Studio)

This article originally appeared on Religion Dispatches.

Religion Dispatches

Frank Bruni’s recent op-ed on clerical celibacy states in no uncertain terms that “celibacy is a bad idea with painful consequences.”

“The pledge of celibacy that the church requires of its servants is an often cruel and corrosive thing,” he writes. “It runs counter to human nature.” People need companionship, including bodily companionship, and it’s plainly unnatural to ask them to forego it for an entire lifetime. He also sees it as a sort of spiritual neon sign that attracts people who are uncomfortable with their sexuality, usually because it falls outside the one-man-one-woman pattern. “It’s a trap” for those who stray from cultural norms, whether gay men or pedophiles, “falsely promising some men a refuge from sexual desires that worry them.” Thus he concludes that celibacy is a large factor in the sexual abuse of children within the Church.

It is difficult to argue against the idea that unhealthy isolation and loneliness can be inherent to priestly life, indeed any clerical life. Most Protestants grow up sharing Bruni’s idea of the unnaturalness of celibacy -- an idea that Luther, Calvin and others worked hard to cultivate in their followers. They had good reason to think this; issues of priestly “private vices and public virtues” are not something invented after the sexual revolution. Sordid immorality does indeed seem endemic to a culture in which celibacy is required for those who desire the gift and honor -- or the power and privilege -- of ordination. But it doesn’t therefore follow that celibacy is impossible for all people, and to blame the Church’s sexual crisis on celibacy seems as facile as blaming it on homosexuality.

The biblical witness, often perceptive on issues of human nature, is enlightening here. While the Hebrew scripture is fairly unequivocal in its praise of marriage and family life, the New Testament is more ambivalent about it. Matthew’s gospel (chapter 19) recounts a story of when Jesus told his disciples they weren’t allowed to divorce their wives. They were horrified, needless to say, even to the point of concluding, “It is better not to marry!” But Jesus responded that not everyone could manage this: “there are eunuchs who were born that way … and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs … and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.” (Jesus himself kindly spared some poor wife the pain of widowhood, poverty and heartbreak.)

The apostle Paul echoed this idea in 1 Corinthians 7, saying that he saw singleness as the best, most hassle-free way for Christians to serve God, “But if [people] cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn.” The message here is pretty clear: A few folks are gifted with the call and the ability to live lives centered on something other than married life, but most of us will need to marry if for no other reason than to keep human sexual energy under reasonable control.

Thus, while it would seem prudent and courageous for the Catholic Church to consider adapting its rules on celibacy so as to foster happier, healthier priests, it would nevertheless be a shame to denigrate the entire concept of celibacy, which at its best is a witness to something more important in life than sexual satisfaction; more important, even, than exclusive love between two people and their offspring.

Celibacy can also be a red herring that draws attention away from issues of power that are part and parcel of the Catholic hierarchy. We are often reminded that rape is a crime of power rather than sexual desire, bred from the will to dominate someone else, usually by someone who has previously been dominated. Surely it is worth considering, then, that a culture in which lower-downs are required to submit themselves to their superiors may do at least as much to encourage the abuse of children or harassment of seminarians as celibacy does.

In her book, "The Cloister Walk," Kathleen Norris discusses vowed celibacy (along with vows of poverty and obedience) as embodied forms of “radical doubt” -- a powerful way to question the assumptions of society, to challenge given norms. In a world where we are inundated with images and media messages telling us that our sexuality, our beauty or our desirability are the sum total of our identities, vowed celibacy makes an argument that there really is more to life than sex.

In an era when “post-familial” women are shamed for having flourishing careers but few children, vowed celibates live as a witness that there are other important goods in life besides marriage and fertility. In a culture that values money and self-interest over humility and kindness, vowed celibates remind us that something in human nature is lost when we can no longer imagine a “good life” built not only on material goods, but on priceless things like friendship, contentment and solidarity.

Yes, it is problematic when unhealthy people embrace celibacy as a hiding place, but not all priests fit this description. We would do well to avoid stereotypes and to remember that there are still good people with good reasons for taking vows.

By Kate Blanchard

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Abstinence Catholicism Celibacy Protestants Religion Dispatches