The Other I

June 22, 2008

Re-assessing celibacy in the Catholic Church

Since the documentary last week about Father Cleary, I have been re-evaluating my thoughts about clerical celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church.  Despite the fact that recent popes have adamantly refused to consider a married clergy, it is worth remembering that even in the RC Church, clerical celibacy did not become a requirement until the 13th century, when it was imposed in an attempt to control wide-spread abuse.  Additionally, it is a practice which has never been introduced by the Orthodox Catholic Church, and a requirement which is not being universally imposed on some converts from among the Anglican clergy who are already married.  So clerical celibacy is not in that circle of doctrinal beliefs like the divinity of Christ, for instance, or the Trinity of God, which Rome believes could not be changed.

The traditional argument in favour of clerical celibacy with which I grew up, and which is still the principle defence used by the Church, is that celibacy frees the priest from the demands of a wife and family, giving him greater freedom to respond without limits to the needs of the Catholic community which he serves.  I pretty much accepted this view as I was growing up, including the corollary that celibacy was a higher calling demanding greater sacrifice than marriage.  This puts the celibate on just a little higher level than the ordinary laity who have succumbed to the more basic needs of human life.

Examining this view in the light of nine years experience as a nun, and thirty-five years of marriage, I humbly suggest that this view of celibacy is a little off the mark.  Marriage is not easier than celibacy.  It is not a series of riotous romps in bed night after night.  On the contrary, living full time with another adult with opinions, evaluations, goals, and traditions different from ones own is one of the most demanding experiences life can offer.  Raising children together makes the task doubly demanding.  In my view, there is no other circumstance in life that puts greater demands on one’s personal egocentrism.  You just cannot make a marriage last without being willing to re-examine and frequently to relinquish many of your pet practices, assumptions, even, on occasion, convictions.

Sex can bring great pleasure.  But it often does not.  The divorce rate makes it clear that sex in itself does not hold a marriage together.  In any case, making a marriage work sometimes is simply impossible.  But even in the most successful marriages, there are days when it seems unachievable at any cost, or at least more difficult than is worth it.  I like being married.  It is one of the best things that I have ever done, and my husband is one of the most wonderful things in my life.  But it has not always been easy, and it is I who have made it difficult as often as my partner, as we each attempt to stretch and grow and reach across that great space that exists between the human consciousness of two separate human beings.

So I think is marriage potentially one of the most maturing and rewarding of all human endeavours.  At the same time, I think celibacy is frequently a dangerous state in which the self-centered egocentrism of childhood remains unchallenged throughout adulthood.  As a result a tremendous number of celibate priests remain immature, cursed with the arrogance that comes with a life-time of never being challenged, lacking the courage that comes when one enters into a close enduring relationship with an equal adult.

I fear this childish arrogance and unexamined self-satisfaction often reaches deep into the  Roman Catholic hierarchy itself.  Many in the hierarchy also strike me as incredibly naive about sexual matters, placing all sexual indiscretions in the same shameful category.  Homosexuality between consenting adults is just as sinful as paedophilia, which is equally as perverted as transvestism or having an affair with a woman, married or not.  An underlying assumption is that these problems occur because some men simply do not have the strength of character and self-control to maintain their vow of celibacy.  Sexual indiscretions have been treated with such cowardice and secrecy and their discovery the source of such shame that serious help for the errant priest to face and deal with his problems has often been effectively unavailable.

Of course, just as marriage is not a fail-safe map for growth and maturity, celibacy is not an inescapable curse of immaturity.  But having lived both life styles, it’s going to take a lot to convince me that celibacy is the higher road.

Thinking it over, I think the Roman Catholic Church would benefit a great deal more from a married clergy than a celibate one. 


  1. You have my permission to believe what you choose to believe. I believe, however, that it is unjust to judge others without having walked in their footsteps.

    The source and strength in life that is God is always within each of us. Instead of being brainwashed, children should be taught to question everything. Exploring what is right for them should be a way of life as each of us grows. It is not easy to understand what causes others to choose brainwashing over the reality of life, unless we understand motivation by fear.

    The message brought by Christ is as valid today as it was 2000 years ago. It does not need to be interpreted by an organization of corrupt celibate males whose goal is to ‘own’ this world.

    No human being is perfect, and those who purport to be the final arbiters of right and wrong without explaining (or attempting to justify) their reasoning are enablers evil.

    I am old, and I did not learn what I now know to be truth easily. Each of us has a life to live and is entitled to truth, love, peace and justice. The church does not teach, live, or understand any of those premises. We are all different, and how we live depends on us. Fear is a very strong motivator.

    Judge not, lest ye be judged. Fear not, for I am with thee always. Love one another as I have loved you.

    Beautiful statements, easily understood. The rest of organized religion, in particular the Corporate RCC is pure and unmitigated hoaxology.


    Comment by Kay Goodnow — June 23, 2008 @ 1:02 pm | Reply

  2. First I would say I don’t need your permission to believe what I believe. I do believe the message of Jesus Christ. I do not believe the Catholic Church is corrupt, and their goal is to” own the world.” I don’t know how you have come to that conclusion. The RCC has been involved in so many works of mercy. Helping those suffering from terrible diseases, helping the homeless, single mothers, I could go on. I think it’s unfair to blame all Catholics for the terrible mistakes of some. The “church” is all Catholics. Most who everyday go about their lives quietly trying to live a holy and good Christian life.


    Comment by DJC — June 23, 2008 @ 10:42 pm | Reply

  3. Kay Goodnow , I congratulate you on this fine paper . You think clearly and freely , obviously a thoughtful Christian. Tom McMahon , San Jose , Ca.


    Comment by Tom McMahon — June 26, 2008 @ 3:01 pm | Reply

    • I would like to get in touch with Tom McMahon. Could an email address be provided. I am a non practicing catholic living in Brisbane Australia and I write a lot of poetry and reflection on God which I would like to have Tom McMahons comments on
      Thank You


      Comment by Hubert van Hoof — June 30, 2013 @ 10:21 pm | Reply

  4. Hello,

    A very thoughtful and intelligent blog entry. It’s refreshing to see a mature discussion of priestly celibacy. I think that one point regarding what the Church says about celibacy got overlooked however, and that is that celibacy is a gift from God to the Church. Certainly when a Priest or consecrated religious takes a vow of celibacy, they are giving up something that is not bad, but actually quite good and sacred. And it is precisely this vow of celibacy that virile young men and women make, which is a sign to the people that there is something higher than their passions and wordly concerns to strive for – and that is the Kingdom of Heaven. Celibacy is important today, not because it is easy, but because it is hard (and because it is difficult, it shows that men and women can rely on grace to achieve things that the world says is impossible.)

    Thank you for your thought-provking discussion.
    God Bless


    Comment by conway23 — December 1, 2008 @ 11:29 pm | Reply

  5. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this subject – and for your comments on my blog entry. It is a difficult subject and too often in my experience people with different views cannot discuss it with respect and openness.

    I do agree with you that many priests and lay people believe that celibacy is a special gift from God. I’m no longer inclined to believe that, although I do respect the immense sacrifice required on occasion by men who have struggled to accept what they believe is a calling from God.

    And I do agree wholeheartedly that men and women can sometimes achieve things that “the world” says are simply impossible.

    Thank you.
    The Other I


    Comment by theotheri — December 2, 2008 @ 10:35 pm | Reply

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