Our Location

Cypress Hall at The Cypress                                                                                                       
20 Lady Slipper Lane
Hilton Head Plantation
Hilton Head Island, SC 29926

Location Information

Contact Us

843-290-0500 (cell)

Sunday Services

Sunday Services at 9:30 AM
Forum Discussion to follow

« Thoughts on the Day of Brett Kavanaugh’s Confirmation | Main | Memory As a Fickle Faculty »

Is Clerical Celibacy a Reasonable Ecclesiastical Policy? 

The Roman Catholic Church is increasingly besieged by allegations and verifications of sexual abuse of children by priests. The present and future damage from this scandal is incalculable, but also painfully predictable.           

Without question, millions of Roman Catholics worldwide have left the Church in disgust over the volume of reports of predatory priests. Millions of other Christians and non-religious people have become understandably highly critical of the innumerable Catholic clerics who have been accused or found guilty of these crimes.

The ideas in this essay are not based on an historical summary of the reasons behind the evolution of clerical celibacy. Nor are they meant to be supported by hard data regarding the issue it addresses, although such data have been produced from many sources.

Instead, this is an attempt to consider the inevitable ramifications of a tradition which goes back to the Early Church in its first two or three centuries that strongly favored but did not require priestly celibacy. Celibacy did become officially ratified for all Catholic clergy at the First Lateran Council in 1123.

A powerful but unrealistic conviction was constructed beneath the insistence on clerical celibacy. It was the belief that priests could more effectively perform their clerical duties if they did not have the additional responsibilities required by marriage and family life. In theory that seems logical. In practice it demands a physiological status that is at once both supra-natural and unnatural.

Chosen celibacy is supra-natural because it asks the priest to rise above the natural tendency of nearly all human beings to be sexual beings. It is unnatural because it seeks to negate an essential impulse that exists in all species, from those Homo sapiens with the highest IQs to those one-celled animals which live for hours or days but nevertheless are genetically programmed sexually to perpetuate themselves.

To state it in the bluntest of terms, sexual desire is the universally natural impulse which has rendered clerical celibacy perhaps the most difficult vocational human choice in the history of the human race. It challenges ordained Catholic clergy voluntarily to enter into a status which nature naturally abhors.

A very small percentage of human beings are fundamentally asexual. Why that is so has been the focus of many physiological and psychological studies. There are some people who truly are asexual; they have no inclination whatever for sexual relations with any other humans, whether of the opposite or the same sex. But they are a statistical anomaly whose asexuality may or may not ever be fully understood. In any case, they are tangential to this inquiry.

Roman Catholic canon law requires priests essentially to become asexual, or at least to negate the sex drive which naturally exists within them as in the vast majority of other people. Number 277 of the Code of Canon Law says, “Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and therefore are bound to celibacy as a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily with an undivided heart and are able to dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and humanity.” Clerical celibacy is neither a doctrine nor a dogma, but it is a canon law nonetheless.

Those words express an ideal which, if it were possible to be kept by all priests, would very likely result in a Church that is considerably more admirable than the Roman Catholic Church has always essentially been anyway. Sadly, it is an ideal which is virtually impossible for most people, especially the male half of our species, to maintain. Despite numerous claims to the contrary by both women and men, it is apparent that men are more motivated by the sex drive than women, because most males of nearly every animal species on earth are the initiators of sex, and females are the initiated. It is one of the many apparent injustices that females suffer simply by being females.

Sexual abuse of children, or anyone else for that matter, cannot be excused. But the inclination toward that behavior must at least be explained.

At its most basic level, if the Catholic Church wants a celibate clergy, it would be far more advisable to ordain only females. That, however, is extremely unlikely to occur soon, and perhaps ever.

Therefore let us try to examine clerical celibacy --- you should pardon the expression --- as dispassionately as possible.

The perpetuation of every species is the genetic evolutionary raison d’etre behind the sex drive in all species, particularly the males of all species. If there is no procreation, there is no species perpetuation. There are exceptions to that rule, such as worms and other low forms of life in which every individual can function either as male or female. However, we are not worms, even though we might all too often act like them.

Nearly every man who enters the Roman Catholic priesthood does so with a normal sexual motivation. Ordination supposedly requires the sublimation of that motivation, but obviously it does not succeed in far too many cases.

But why are predatory priests more likely to abuse children than adults? It is possible there may be more instances of priests having sex with women or men than with children, but statistics do not appear to bear that out.

If a priest feels compelled to have sex with another person, as compared to having sex with himself, i.e., masturbation, he is far more likely to use a child, for the simple reason that children are far less likely to accuse a priest of sexual abuse. Children are thus the least dangerous sexual prey to the predator.

Many children do not even understand what happened to them if they are sexually abused, so they are too bewildered by the experience to tell anyone about it. And they may be more afraid to tell their parents than anyone else, because the assault seems naturally so confusing and shameful, and they believe they will be in terrible trouble with their parents if they tell them what transpired with their priest.

It is terribly unfortunate because of the pedophile sex scandals that many non-Catholics as well as Catholics have assumed that the priesthood attracts men who are pedophiles by nature. Almost certainly that is not true. Nor is it likely that the priesthood attract homosexuals more than do other vocations or professions. However, the priesthood, like every other calling, does attract men who have a natural sex drive, and either they can or they cannot utterly negate that natural inclination because of the canon law insistence on celibacy. If they cannot, it may manifest itself in any number of sexual encounters, but more likely than not in pedophilia.

The real issue here is celibacy. As noble as it may be as an ideal, celibacy is an almost impossible goal for most people, but again, particularly men. It is historically understandable why the Catholic Church finally commanded celibacy from its clergy, but the experience of the centuries has proven that it was a defective idea, as benevolent as it may have been in theory.

If Protestant or Eastern Orthodox clergy are less inclined to engage in the sexual abuse of children, it is not because they are Protestants or Orthodox. It is because they have legitimate sexual outlets with their spouses, and thus the very thought of pedophilia is far less likely to occur to them. Nearly all humans participate in sexual activities or one sort or another, but marriage at least provides widespread moral and ethical support for sex within marriage as the most widely accepted and socially approved sexual activity of every conceivable variety.

It is tragic that apparently there has been so much sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests. It is also ecclesiastically and morally unacceptable that there is sexual abuse of anyone by any clergy.

Major changes come very slowly in every Christian denomination, but especially in the Roman Catholic Church. The outcome of the growing number of allegations of priestly sexual abuse of children may be the factor which finally prompts Rome to jettison the theoretically grand but demonstrably impractical notion of a celibate priesthood.

Pope Francis I is surely one of the three most important and influential popes of the past century. He has expressed muted hints that he is willing to consider the concept of married clergy. He has convened a meeting of the world’s bishops to discuss the huge problem of clerical sexual abuse of minors. For the good of Catholicism, for the good of Christendom, may he live long enough to see his hints begin the decades-long process of coming to a satisfactory conclusion. For the continuing successful mission of Roman Catholicism, clerical celibacy must be abandoned.

In many cultures where Catholicism prevails, celibacy is considered to be a strange and even morally unacceptable idea. It is usually in such locations where the priestly shortage is the most drastic. A bishop in Brazil complained that he had 27 priests to serve 700,000 communicants. One priest for every 26,666 Catholics is no way to run an ecclesiastical railroad. 

If the celibacy issue is thrust once again back into the longstanding secrecy of the Vatican, the Catholic Church shall pay a terrible price for its historically admirable but also overly cautious conservatism. “Celibate” priests shall continue to seek out innocent children as long celibacy is a priestly requirement.

In the twenty-first century, it is almost inconceivable to imagine that God expects unmarried priests to overcome what Physiology 101 declares nature took millions of years to instill within them. Without the sex drive, humanity could not possibly exist.

The Second Vatican Council called millions of non-Catholic Christians “separated brethren.” Along with countless millions of Roman Catholics, we who are separated brethren hope and pray that finally Catholicism will join the rest of us in allowing their clergy to be married. It will definitely not eliminate all sexual predations perpetrated by the clergy, but it will surely lessen them. 


-       The Rev. John M. Miller is a separated brother who is pastor of The Chapel Without Walls on Hilton Head Island, SC, and is also an Honorary Trappist at the Mepkin Abbey Cistercian Monastery in Moncks Corner, SC.     

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend