Celibacy and the Priesthood: Pick a Side

From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy, and the Crisis of the Catholic Church, by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and Robert Cardinal Sarah

Devout reviewers at goodreads.com and on Catholic websites have hailed this book as a powerful testimonial to priestly celibacy as a Church tradition, and a powerful response and rebuttal to its detractors.

We Catholic faithful deeply appreciate and love our many wonderful priests and their sacrifices for us. These men are gems and lights of Catholic culture. Willa Cather described the potential beauty of that state of life in Book 8 of Death Comes for the Archbishop. After a final farewell to Father Vaillant, his lifelong partner in missions, the Bishop comes home dreading his first night in an empty mission house.

But when he entered his study, he seemed to come back to reality, to the sense of a Presence awaiting him…. That feeling of personal loneliness was gone, and a sense of loss was replaced by a sense of restoration…. It was just this solitariness of love in which a priest’s life could be like his Master’s. It was not a solitude of atrophy, of negation, but of perpetual flowering. A life need not be cold, or devoid of grace in the worldly sense, if it was filled by Her who all the graces; Virgin-daughter, Virgin-mother, girl of the people and Queen of Heaven….

In line with this power and beauty, and the example of good priests over the centuries, the book addresses two demands: news coverage of scandals in the church, regarding the celibacy of certain priests, and a suggestion at a recent conference that the Church consider ordaining married men. 

After reading and appreciating my copy of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth, I was eager to read this new book, looking for words of compassion first and foremost for children and vulnerable adults abused by priests; compassion for priests in so much pain that they’ve hurt other people, and need counseling themselves; compassion for priests in pain who never hurt anybody and keep forging right along; compassion for priests in pain who feel that their religious convictions are shaken, who might consider leaving the priesthood or leaving the Church, and need transitional support for the discernment process; solidarity with us allies — single Catholics, living alone in obedience and faith; and, resolve to support and connect all of these people, devoting church space and time so we can help one other lead better lives, and build healthy communities. 

Instead, the book offers this.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI acknowledges that some priests and laity are disillusioned with the Church’s promotion of celibacy, and its track record on living it out. The author blames this disillusionment on “a methodological flaw in the reception of Scripture as Word of God,” and “abandonment of the Christological [and Pneumatological] interpretation of the Old Testament.” As his solution, he then sets out to prove in scholarly detail that today’s state of celibacy among the clergy is a direct heritage of the priestly community in Israel. 

The first similarity offered is that the priestly tribe of Levi had to live on tithes and were not allowed to own land. Psalm 16 is interpreted to cover modern priests as well, with its idea that in celibacy a priest’s natural land is God, and God alone. (It’s a beautiful reading of Psalm 16. But while individual priests do not own their rectory real estate, how does this fit the Church’s historic talent for acquiring land, buildings, and material wealth?)

The second similarity presented is that the Israelite priests were required to abstain from sex while presiding over ceremonies at the Temple. The early Christian church as heirs to this tradition also linked abstinence with the Eucharist. But the book points out that the early Church then found the Eucharist to be a daily necessity, meaning that priestly sexual abstinence then needed to become a permanent state. (Page 41) This meant “the impossibility of a matrimonial bond” as “sexual abstinence… was transformed… into an ontological abstinence.” (I looked up the definition, but still could not figure out what it meant, or how ontological celibacy is different from not having sex.) Just as celibacy is determined to be essential in celebrating the Eucharist, so the Eucharist is seen as essential to celibacy. Later, Cardinal Sarah argues that “No one can remain faithful to celibacy without the daily celebration of the Mass.” (115-116) Does this statement account for us lay people of faith who somehow seem to carry it off?

One might wonder how the Church accounts for the survival of Orthodox Christianity. Orthodoxy does ordain single men, those preparing for life in a monastic community. But aside from some special dispensations, for parish life their Church requires that if a man is called to counsel and confess families, then to qualify for ordination he must first be a married man committed to family life. The entire married congregation, priests and laity alike, observe sexual abstinence anyway from Saturday through Sunday during their fast before communion and during the very many fast days of the church year. Setting aside the question of whether on an Orthodox altar the bread and wine are in fact transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ (Catholics will passionately argue for or against), Orthodoxy is traditional Christianity which has always accommodated family life within parish priesthood as not only possible, but a foundational support. One factor is that in Orthodoxy, the Eucharist is not assumed to be a daily routine event or a right. It places much more emphasis on preparation for Communion, through fasting, special prayers the night before and the morning before Sunday Liturgy, and often confession. And while a Catholic priest can be condemned in the headlines if he declines to offer Communion to someone at the rail, in an Orthodox church it’s routine. If a priest there knows of any spiritual issue affecting potential communicants, he will not hesitate to greet them at the altar, and invite them to instead stop by confession or counseling first before approaching the Chalice again. Most Orthodox have small commuter congregations, with Eucharist offered in general no more than once each Sunday, so the Church balances days of marital abstinence each week and during the great fasts as a natural part of life.

For the second half of the book, Cardinal Sarah speaks to “priests who are disoriented, disturbed, and wounded in the very depths of their spiritual life….” (63) “You seem lost, discouraged, overcome by suffering. A terrible sense of abandonment and loneliness grips your heart.” (64) That raised this reader’s hope that the conclusion would be “Enough of leaving our priests bereft of stable supportive human bonds! Let’s unite and do everything possible to give these men a closer Church family and home life with parishioners who need them!” (Catholics may or may not approve of all the points raised in Dilemma by Father Alberto Cutié, who left the priesthood to marry and who now serves in the Anglican clergy; but his warning of serious systemic loneliness among our priests is worth taking seriously.) What does the Cardinal name as the root cause of discouragement among his fellow priests? Not isolation, but “violent challenges to the Church’s doctrine” on the part of society. (63) “A priest on fire with faith and apostolic love quickly realizes that the world in which he lives is, so to speak, upside down.” That would indicate that discord is caused not by the actions of certain priests, but rather by society itself and its lack of appreciation for faith and apostolic love. (This conclusion brings back memories of a “Welcome Home” class at my parish for lapsed Catholics. I attended to welcome and support the visitors. The organizers told the lapsed Catholics to share their reasons for leaving. Every one of them related some painful incident which made them fear setting foot in a church again; one guest shared a particularly sad story of sexual abuse. The organizers then cheerfully criticized the logic of the visitors’ reasons for leaving, and announced that they had all left the Church because they had been “poorly catechized” to begin with. One by one the hopeful returnees walked out in tears, while the organizers joked about the people who had left. Finally I walked out too.)

The book responds to a Church conference about evangelization of the Amazon region and its shortage of priests. At the conference, some delegates suggested that the Church start ordaining local married men in that area. The Cardinal calls this a “contemptuous, neo-colonialist, infantilizing” solution (117) brought on by “theological milieus at universities,” (75) “sorcerer’s apprentices, who wish to utilize the distress of poor peoples as an experimental laboratory for their clever plans.” His assessment is that ordaining married men would be a “pastoral catastrophe,” detracting from the honor of sexual chastity and its lineage with Old Testament practices and the early Church. He also warns that the presence of married men as “second-class” priests (71,72) would discourage vocations to celibacy (109). “The faithful of all cultures unfailingly recognize Christ offered for all in the celibate priest.” (116) And for those who fail at this recognition, the importance of the Gospel gives evangelization the right to “destabilize” and “purify” that culture, as Christ brings “not peace, but a sword,” unveiling celibacy as a “scandal for the world.” Could there be anything neo-colonialist in that idea?

As proof of the value of celibacy in impressing the people of a mission, Cardinal Sarah describes a pastoral visit to Guinea. There, traveling in arduous conditions under full sun, he felt uplifted in the journey by the thought that he was “self-giving for the Church Bride.” (70) Is celibate mystical union with the Bride the prerequisite which enables a man to tackle the adversity of mission life? So much for Brother Andrew van der Bijl and his 60+ years of dangerous work in Communist countries, or Jim Elliot, Oswald Chambers, and Eric Liddell, persisting in mission work right up to their deaths. The Cardinal emphasizes that his celibacy is the reason for the Ghanaian people’s “unimaginable joy when I celebrated Mass, which they had not experienced for a long time.” (70) His conclusion is that the people would have taken the Eucharist dismissively for granted if all along they’d had the benefit of local married priests. “The thought of it wrenches my heart. What sadness!” (74) But instead the people of Ghana were able to greet the Cardinal with appropriate ceremony. “What festivity! The songs, the dances, the effusiveness, and the meals express the gratitude of the people for this gift of self in Christ.” It just happens that Africa is blessed with a rich heritage of communities with a genius for songs, dances, effusiveness, and radical hospitality for strangers. But the explanation given for this warm reception is that “Poor and simple people are able to discern with the eyes of faith the presence of Christ the Bridegroom of the Church in a celibate priest.” 

But the book explains that ultimately it is we parishioners who dictate that our priests be exclusively celibate men. “The Church, as the Bride of Christ, desires to be loved by the priest in the total, exclusive manner in which Jesus the Head and Bridegroom loved her.” (82) Quoting Pope John Paul II, the priest’s spousal love must radiate “divine jealousy,” maternal tenderness capable of bearing the “pangs of birth” until “Christ be formed” in the faithful (85-86). This passionate zeal is thought to be especially essential to set a good example “in countries that are just being evangelized… [where] sometimes the meaning of marriage is distorted; the dignity of the woman is trampled on.” (Do new mission fields have a monopoloy on disrespect toward women in intimate relationships?) The book maintains that we 1.3 billion Catholics constitute a wedded Bride ready for love, demanding a celibate priest to consummate our mystical union in the Eucharist, since in any wedding “the nuptial bed is the Cross.” (83) Is anyone else consoled by this favored Catholic comparison between ecstatic virginal lovemaking on a wedding night and death by public torture? It’s always troubled me. I don’t need a priest coming at me with spousal love and divine jealousy. I want him to be stable and fortified in a network of other priests, parents and siblings, good friends, and neighbors. 

This analogy of Christ as Ardent Bridegroom would then rule out the ordination of women to the priesthood. The book points out that the Bridegroom role can be filled only by biological males. What’s more, women are seen as irreplaceable in the pews in their role as witnesses to model the receptive acceptance of Jesus’s virginal love, and carry on Mary’s gift of femininity, of “listening, welcoming, humility, faithfulness, praise and waiting.” (88) The book concludes that women must be left unordained and free, to bring the church their special genius; in relation to the all-encompassing Bridegroom, “in the heart of every woman… there is a fundamental disposition to receive love.” (Is soaking up love the role that women play in this world?)

The womanly role of receptive acceptance of love draws the Cardinal’s concern, that a married priesthood would prove oppressive to women. “What will happen to the wife of a man who has been ordained a priest? What place will there be for her? Is there a vocation to be the wife of a priest?” Yes there is. In the Orthodox Christian churches, the priest’s wife holds a highly honored and well loved place. Of course there are tragic exceptions out there, and marriage is no family guarantee against loneliness, depression, or sexual problems. But when my friends argue for the ordination of women, they are pleasantly surprised to hear stories of how a committed Mátushka (Russian “Little Mother,”) lends invaluable spiritual and practical authority in a congregation. (One excellent article in the Russian press advised seminaries that in selecting candidates for future ordination, they must also seriously consider the character of his wife as a mainstay of his vocation.)

The Cardinal’s concern extends to the children of married priests, born to a life which they did not choose: “A better appreciation of the dignity and of the freedom of each person makes this modus operandi impossible now.” (80) Does it? And do Catholic children freely choose the vocation and habits of their parents? Do the children of military service members, or neurosurgeons, or cattle ranchers? Those families are called upon to make major sacrifices in support; should we allow only celibate people in the military or medical school or farming? Plenty of children grow up inheriting their parents’ way of life; Bindi and Robert Irwin found themselves growing up in their parents’ Australian zoo, and they radiate joy about it. Among my Orthodox parishes the children often became priests or married them, and established churches of their own; some gravitated to careers in classical music and architecture. They flourished in the parish house, surrounded by beauty and prayer and ceremonial languages and music, seasons and feasts, structure and service to others, honorary relatives, and wholesome fun with the other parish kids.  

But finally the Cardinal proceeds to the real concern: “Will married priests have to be paid accordingly?” (A living wage? Why not, if you’re getting the work of a whole family instead of one man?) Yet only celibacy, according to the book, renders the priest “totally available to men and women.” (68) In other words, “How could Christians understand that the priest gives himself to them if he is not entirely given over to the Father?” (69) Earlier in the book, the Cardinal maintained that total self-sacrifice to God makes it impossible to be devoted to one spouse; then he states that only total self-sacrifice to God makes it possible to be  available to everyone. Which is it?

Total availability is a lovely idea, except in its present form. In my childhood, priests were much more socially connected. They lived in communities, with some mature neighborhood widow living nearby to rule the house and scold The Fathers for skipping lunch or going out in the rain without their galoshes. The priests worked long hours with many cares, but they also played with us kids in the school next door and were welcome guests in parish homes, and often had parents and flocks of relatives nearby. Today our parish priests generally live alone and commute to two or three parishes. They not only maintain a schedule of Masses and confessions, but must attend to fundraising, event logistics, building maintenance, soup suppers and food banks, strife among the flock, and now pandemic precautions with far fewer donations and far more cleaning and monitoring tasks. From what I’ve seen, in Orthodox families the peripheral business incidentals can be handled by the family, multiplying pastoral availability and leaving the priest more time to prepare for and celebrate the lengthy services and counsel parishioners. Besides, generally the priest or his wife, and sometimes both, bring in money from outside jobs. (The children of one such family asked me shyly how Catholic priests manage church chores without a family to pitch in and help. At the time the kids and I were using citrus oil on the candlestands, polishing off the celestially fragrant beeswax which gives such rich candlelight. “Oh, our candles are electric. We just push a button,” I replied, to their delighted amusement.)

How does the Church account for married Protestant pastors who convert to Catholicism with their families, and are ordained as married priests? The book dismisses these as a transitory situation, not as an exception. (108) What about the Catholic Church’s tolerance of married clergy in some Eastern Churches in union with Rome? This is described as “a gradual development toward the practice of celibacy.” (81) The book further states that all married priests in the early Church were required to observe celibacy with their spouses from the time they were ordained. (42) The book discounts many centuries of marital and family life in the Eastern churches as a transcribing error in canons introduced at the Council in Trullo in the year 691. (79-80) 

What about the Orthodox model of both celibate monastic and married parish priests? “[With that option] We run the risk of inculcating… the idea of a high and a low clergy.” (110) Quoting Pope Francis, “I don’t agree with allowing optional celibacy, no.” (138) The book further states that “there are many Orthodox Christians who would never go to confession to a married priest.” What? Where are they? In 22 years of worship with hundreds of Orthodox parishioners I have never met one. On the contrary, parishioners with families gravitate to the counsel of a family man, and women seem reassured that that man is settled with his own spouse. The Orthodox do not judge their priests as high, low, or “second-class.” Parishioners have profound reverence for men in monastic communities, and make regular pilgrimages to these monasteries. But they are devoted toward their priest at home, and see both vocations as mutually supporting.

The book concludes with exalted praise for the self-abnegating and yet elevated mystical state of the celibate priest, where at the altar he is “ipse Christus; he is Christ himself.” (113) Quoting Saint John Vianney, “A priest is a man… who is vested with all the powers of God. See the power of the priest! The priest’s tongue makes a God out of a piece of bread.” (112) Father Vianney, the Curé of Ars, could make this statement as he stood on solid spiritual ground of holiness, extreme parish labor, hard travel, and strife among the faithful. But in general, a man who declares a vocation as a spiritual figure is vulnerable to hazardous temptations. This is where an Orthodox family can be a tempering force. In The Scent of Holiness, Mother Constantina Palmer tells in Chapter 20 of a priest’s wife who at home after church services would say to her husband “‘Take off that gold cross. Do you think you are someone special because you serve with the bishop? Just because you serve in the cathedral doesn’t make you a good priest. A good priest has humility!’ He took it all very well, with a grateful heart… ‘I have a good presvytera [priest’s wife]; she humbles me.’”

The book defends this elevated state from “detestable scandals,” which it blames for hurting morale and missionary fruitfulness (122, 123). It adds, “How can we bear the fact that some of our brothers could profane the sacred innocence of children?” (125) Here at last is a word of concern for children — but only as a function of how priests suffer. I once saw a priest in a sermon ask in tears how he could possibly bear it, if any of his brother priests had ever committed such an act. He did not ask how the children might feel themselves, or how he might serve them. The book describes the priesthood as “Wounded by the revelation of so many scandals.” But revelations and scandal didn’t wound anybody. Sexual actions did, something the book doesn’t address.

What then does the book suggest, as a solution to the current crisis of faith? It tells us all to pray for more vocations to the priesthood, and more apostolic fervor. It calls on us to reject criticism of priestly celibacy as “theatrical productions, diabolical lies, and fashionable errors.” (146) It tells lonely priests to spend more time sitting all alone with Jesus in prayer. (128). It commands us to voice our support for this teaching (147), calling down on us “woe to the one who remains silent.” (148) (This echoes a recent sermon at my parish, that priest pedophilia will always continue until we the faithful stop it — through prayer, fasting, charitable works including tithes to the Church, and by all of us becoming saints.)

We people in the pews do not oppose celibacy; even detractors on social media are able to recognize good priests doing good work. It’s just that we want our kids to be safe. We want abused and scandalized loved ones to recover from heartbreak and to be okay. We want the Church to help our priests, the ones who suffer from depression, addictions, or personality changes caused by social isolation. Whether they stay or go, they need safe places to talk and find support — long before problems start, long before the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe takes notice. We just need the few troubled clergy to pick a side, not preach one thing at us from a pulpit while practicing another in private.

I still remember the moment years ago that convinced my Catholic mind that the Church can benefit from a married as well as a monastic clergy. At one Orthodox church after a festive Liturgy, a visiting priest finished hours of chanting, standing on his feet on a sweltering day. He descended through the Royal Doors of the iconostasis to bless the parishioners. He wasn’t received with an entire village, singing and dancing for joy. He wasn’t hailed as a man whose tongue turned a piece of bread into God. Instead he got a good talking-to from his three year old daughter, who ran up and cried “Oh Poppy — you locked Bunny Bee in the car all alone, and my sippy cup too.” Uh-oh! Poppy was in trouble now! He took a separate car to church early that morning, while Mom was dressing the kids. He didn’t notice the lidded cup or plush toy stowaway in his back seat. And so our distinguished celebrant, all gold brocade vestments and long hair and flowing beard and scholarly glasses, gazed down at his small petitioner. His grave countenance softened in tender repentance. Sifting through layers of vestments to his belt, he unhooked his keys and humbly handed them over to his wife. Soon Poppy’s wee one was all contentment on his lap at the church supper, with a sippy cup of milk and Bunny Bee safe in her arms. Just a typical moment in the life of a parish. Ceremonial worship bore a man’s consciousness aloft to heaven. His child’s needs brought his feet back to earth again.

After three reads of this book, it took me a few weeks to shake off the spiritual despondency. The hierarchy may be talking from the depths of their hearts, but they are not listening to the depths of ours. If for even one priest in a thousand celibacy simply does not work, then that constitutes a crisis which can harm them, and people around them.

For Catholic priests who feel especially distraught about lack of home life, what ultimate consolation does this book offer? It advises that when sexual deprivation feels like a burden, a priest can connect his feelings of emptiness to the bleeding nailed empty hands of Christ. In addition, on the eve of each Eucharistic celebration, if priests can “remain like children snuggled in her arms, the Virgin Mary prepares us to deliver ourselves body and soul to Jesus Christ” (114) where for comfort they can “get onto the Cross.” (125) Is that the best the Church can offer? Is it even a mentally healthy balanced goal?

That might work for just about everyone. But for a few men out there, a better use of time would be to hand over the keys, and get Bunny Bee out of that car.

About maryangelis

Hello Readers! (= Здравствуйте, Читатели!) The writer lives in the Catholic and Orthodox faiths and the English and Russian languages, working in an archive by day and writing at night. Her walk in the world is normally one human being and one small detail after another. Then she goes home and types about it all until the soup is done.
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2 Responses to Celibacy and the Priesthood: Pick a Side

  1. Robb Scott says:

    Well said. Ritual and frenzy is an insufficient substitute for contemplation and community life.

    • maryangelis says:

      Robb, that sums up the whole thing right there. It deserves to be embroidered on a sampler somewhere. It also means I should go send you an email. Thank you very much for stopping by here. I truly value your thoughtful and kind insights.

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