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Celibacy for Beginners

Yes, Itís an Issue, but Itís Not the Reason for the Churchís Troubles

by Philip Jenkins

In the Washington Post

In recent weeks, as cases of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy have appeared regularly in the headlines, the notion of priestly celibacy has become the subject of talk radio and dinner party discussions. But much of the debate has been rooted in myth and misinformation and clouded by the assumption, particularly in this country, that the time has come for the Roman Catholic Church to end this Medieval foolishness and do away with the practice. In fact, the subject is much more complex. And barring unforeseen circumstances, celibacy is likely to be around in the American Catholic church for a long time to come.

The popular view seems to be that celibacy reflects a hatred and contempt for sexuality--- and for women --- and that it turns priest into frustrated loners who express their inner conflicts through sexual assaults on little children. For many reasons, I think these charges are unfair.

I belong to a church that does not require celibacy of its clergy and has female priests, namely the Episcopal Church. Yet speaking as a historian, I can understand the reasons another church might require priestly celibacy. And as a consumer of news, I see that celibacy's origins and the church's motivations in requiring it are widely misunderstood.

Let's start with what has become a standard misstatement about its genesis: That priests were required to be celibate beginning around 1100, maybe even a little later. We do know that compulsory celibacy was not a practice of the earliest church. We know that Saint Peter had a mother-in-law, that the apostles traveled in the company of their wives, and that some early popes were (without causing scandal) the sons of other popes. Yet beyond these facts, much is in doubt.

The notion that mandatory celibacy wasn't imposed until the 12th century, stated as "fact," seems quite damning to the church's insistence on the practice. If true, modem Catholics would be insisting on an innovation that has been around for less than half of the history of Christianity, one that dates to the Middle Ages, a period that enjoys a dreadful reputation in modem thought. Through guilt by association, celibacy seems to be linked in many people's minds with such horrors as witch-burning, the Inquisition and the Crusades. Worst of all, the reasons often cited for the invention of celibacy are not even spiritual, but rather involve land rights. According to a scholarly myth widely held among historians, the church was just trying to ensure that the children of priests could not become legitimate heirs to church land. Literally, according to this story, the modem Catholic Church is keeping alive a survival of feudal times.

This pseudo-history is wrong at almost every point. Mandatory celibacy goes much further back than Medieval times, if not quite to the days of the apostles. Priestly celibacy was the usual expectation in the West by late Roman times, say the 4th century, and Medieval statements on the subject were just reasserting discipline that had collapsed temporarily in times of war and social chaos. Of course we can find married priests throughout the Middle ages, just as we can find priests committing molestation today, but that does not mean that, in either case they were acting with church approval.

In making this point about dates, I am not just nitpicking in the worst academic tradition. I am stressing that priestly celibacy is a product of the very early church. Just how early? It was celibate priests and monks who made the final decisions about which books were going to make up the New Testament, and which would be excluded. If, as most Christians believe, the ideas and practices of the early church carry special authority, then we should certainly rank priestly celibacy among these ancient traditions.

So if they were not defending land rights, why did successive popes try to enforce celibacy? Odd as this may seem, the main reason seems to have been the increased frequency of the Eucharist or Mass. Because of the need to focus on spiritual rather than worldly interests, married priests in the 3rd and 4th centuries were supposed to abstain from sex the night before saying Mass. As Mass became a daily ritual, this effectively demanded permanent celibacy. Out of this practical need came a whole theology of self-sacrifice. The idea of celibacy is based less on a fear of sexuality than on a deep respect for its power, and with proper training, a celibate could transform or channel this power into a source of strength. Modern psychologists would later invent the term "sublimation" for this complex process.

By giving up the most basic human needs and comforts, the priest was able to devote himself entirely to God and to the people he served. He was meant to treat all the faithful equally, with no need to give special preference to a wife or children. A "father" was meant to be father to all. Of course, changes in society mean that the church no longer needs to prove that its clergy stand above the narrow ties of kin, but other reasons for celibacy remain unchanged. In some ways, the case for celibacy may even be greater today than it was centuries ago. In a society that seems to be so thoroughly aware of sex and sexuality, maybe even obsessed with it, what greater self-sacrifice could there be, what greater rejection of the culture, than the adoption of celibacy?

At the same time, not even the Catholic Church claims that clerical celibacy is a strict matter of faith that can never be changed. The church indeed says that some of its teachings can never be softened --- for instance, the prohibition on female priests or the ban on abortion. But it also makes clear that celibacy (like matters of liturgical practice, for example) is a question of internal church discipline, which could be changed if circumstances demanded it. Such a change would not require any embarrassing backtracking on past policies, any kind of reversal of once "infallible" statements.

It may come as a surprise that Catholic authorities do allow a little flexibility in the matter of married priests. If, for instance; a priest converts to Catholicism from a church that allows marriage, like the Orthodox, then he may be able to enter the church as a married priest in good standing. Some have done so --- often to the annoyance of mainstream Catholic clergy, who are not granted this same privilege.

But now let me ask an outrageous question: Why should the Catholic Church change its stance on celibacy? Much has been said of late about the damage that celibacy inflicts on the modern church and its poor exploited believers. But, like the pseudo-history, may of these contemporary charges are false.

Among the harms caused by celibacy, two possibilities come to mind. One, obviously, is the problem of "pedophile priests," who allegedly commit their crimes because of the frustration and immaturity caused directly by celibacy. The reform motto is beautiful in its simplicity, and inspiring in its urgency: End celibacy and save the children! Yet there is no credible evidence to link the two. Many of the same problems also happen in churches and denominations that allow clergy to marry. Based on some excellent studies using large samples of priests, we can say that about 2 or 3 percent of Catholic priests are sexually involved with minors. There is no evidence that the rate for these priests is higher than that for any other non-celibate group. So how does celibacy come into the picture at all?

Another issue more plausibly connected with celibacy is the growth of gay subcultures in the American priesthood --- not that having homosexual priests is necessarily bad in itself. But when men with gay inc1inations are represented in the priesthood at a rate 10 or 20 times that in the average male population (which studies suggest is the case), this does tend to make the priesthood more of a closed caste separated from the lives of ordinary believers. But ending celibacy now almost certainly would hot change the situation, or make the priesthood less gay. Just look at my own Episcopal church, in which clergy have been allowed to marry since the 16th century: The Episcopal clergy has flourishing gay subcultures quite as active as those rumored in the Roman church, only far more public.

Ultimately, the Catholic stance on priestly celibacy can change in one of two ways, neither of which seems very likely. The American church could go into schism, declaring its independence from Rome, which nobody is predicting. The only alternative is to wait for Rome and the global church to declare changes from the center, an idea that reformers have prayed for over the years. As the hopeful joke goes, at the Third Vatican Council, the pope will bring his wife; at the Fourth Vatican Council, the pope will bring her husband. Yet today, the chances for that sort of reform seem bleak.

There are any number of reasons the Roman Catholic church might want to end mandatory celibacy for its clergy. It might rethink the theology of the whole matter, it might carry out surveys showing that a married priesthood would simply do a better pastoral job of ministering to the faithful. Above all, it might decide that ending celibacy is simply the only way to restore the numbers of the priesthood, and that seems to me an excellent idea ó though as I say, I write as an outsider. But whatever it does, let the church decide its course on celibacy for the right reasons. Let it act according to the logic of its own principles, and not in response to bogus history and convenient mythology.