The Struggle With Celibacy
What a national scandal says, and doesn’t, about a priestly practice.
By Lorenzo Albacete
In the New York Times
When I was in fifth grade and was invited to become an altar boy; my father would not allow it. He had made a promise to safeguard my faith, he explained, and if I got too close to priests, I might lose that faith, or --- what seemed worse for him --- I might become one of them. My father was born in Spain, and Spanish anti-clericalism flowed through his veins.
His main objection was to priestly celibacy. He thought it divided priests into three kinds: saints who lived by it, rascals who took advantage of it to hide sexual desires of which they were ashamed, like homosexuality, and those who cheated. Since I gave no evidence of being saintly, I think he feared I might end up in one of the other categories.
I was angry and hurt by this response. I felt accused of something, though I wasn't sure exactly of what. Eventually my father relented, and I became an altar boy. I tried hard to prove him wrong, and I resisted every indication of a priestly vocation. Many years later, though, having already begun my life as a secular adult, and on the verge of choosing a wedding date with my girlfriend, I found I could not resist anymore. My second Mass after ordination was at my father's grave. I hoped he would understand.
Now, with each new revelation of priestly pedophilia, in addition to shock and anger. I feel accused again. I worry that mm altar boys and girls — not to mention their parents — are looking at me as a dirty old man, as a possible threat. When a case of abuse is exposed involving a married man, I doubt that most other married men feel implicated, embarrassed in front of their friends and relatives. They don’t worry that the parents of their children's friends suspect them of horrible crimes. But because of my vow, even wearing my priestly garb has made me want to scream, "I'm not one of those!"
Like my father back then, an increasing number of people today think that celibacy must be blamed for this shameful situation. With none of the usual outlets, the theory goes, sexual energy inevitably explodes in manipulative forms based on the abuse of power.
This has not been my experience of celibacy. Still, I cannot help believing that there is some truth in the suspicion that celibacy is somehow related to the present crisis. There are those who use priestly celibacy to hide sexual desires. But I know a good many priests --- in line, I believe, with the vast majority --- who struggle to be faithful to a vow they hold dear and are appalled to see it abused by others. They wonder how the requirement can be maintained without facing these issues. We priests owe an answer to our scandalized people.
My opinion is that the problem lies not with celibacy as such, but with the way it is understood and lived. One standard defense of celibacy is that it frees priests from the obligations of marriage and thereby allows them to respond to the needs of the faithful without reservations. I believe this to be completely false. I think it is an insult to the countless married doctors, social activists, non-Catholic clergy and counselors whose dedication to others is second to none. In fact, there is the danger that celibacy will give priests a feeling of being separated from others, forming a caste removed from ordinary men and women. I think it is precisely because priests evoke this mysterious world of the sacred that pedophilia among them seems more despicable ---and more compelling --- than the same behavior among non-clerical men.
When I decided to go into the seminary at the age of 28, I broke up with my girlfriend ---not because I was suddenly opposed to marriage, but because church law requires it. Asked whether I would have chosen a life of celibacy had it not been required, I have to admit that I would not have. But I experienced a profound call to follow without reservations or conditions, and in that spirit, I accepted the celibacy requirement with trepidation, but with the faith that I would be sustained in doing whatever it took to conform to it. Throughout the years, though, I have come to value the vow of celibacy highly.
I began to understand the meaning of celibacy, oddly, during a time when I was seriously questioning it. A dear friend of mine in Europe had sent his only son to study in the United States and asked me to watch over him. This friend told me how much he was suffering from this separation. I told him that at least he had a son, whereas I would never experience being a father. This aspect of celibacy; I said to him, was much more difficult than the lack of a sexual companion.
"But you have many sons and daughters,"he said." Look at the way young people follow you. You are a true father to them."
"Yes," I replied, "but let's be honest. They are not really my sons and daughters. Each one of them would have existed even if I had not. They are not mine as J. is your son."
"But Lorenzo," he said, "that is the point. J. is not my son. I do not own him. I must respect his freedom. And I thought that's why priests took a vow of celibacy, to help spouses and parents understand that to love is not to own, but to affirm, to help, to let go. I need this help now that J. has left home."
I understood then that celibacy has more to do with poverty than with sex. It is the radical, outward expression of the poverty of the human heart, the poverty that makes true love possible by preventing it from corrupting into possession or manipulation. That is why child abuse by priests is so shocking, so horrible, so destructive. It places celibacy at the service of power and lust, not of love.
In the future, the church may decide that particular pastoral situations require a change in the requirement of priestly celibacy. Still, I believe that even if priests marry, they are called to be witnesses of that "celibacy in the heart" that human love requires --- namely; the absolute respect for the loved one's freedom. It's time for those of us who treasure priestly celibacy to live it in accordance with its intended message or else give it up as an obstacle to what we wish to say.