Some people maintain that the celibate priesthood is directly responsible for the sexual-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. What’s more, they argue that celibacy is a frustrated and unnatural abstention from conjugal life, which facilitates—rather than mitigates—moral depravity among its practitioners. Their remedy for the “problem of celibacy” is either a married priesthood, wherein the natural inclinations, instincts, and passions of men are ordered to the propagation of the species; or, worse still, the abolition of priestly life altogether.
Now I am not at all afraid of this argument, for I know it to be a gross misunderstanding of priestly celibacy. What I am afraid of, if I may be so bold, is the arresting, if not appalling manner by which this argument is indiscriminately accepted by those from both within and without the Church. To be sure, something frustrated and unnatural, something obviously disordered, lies at the very heart of any and every instance of sexual abuse, especially when it is inflicted upon children. But what this frustrated and unnatural sexuality amounts to cannot and should not be attributed to celibacy.
And I say this for three reasons:
- First, there is simply no warrant for supposing a correlation between priestly celibacy and the recent sexual-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. To suggest that men become pedophiles as a result of their celibate state is mere conjecture and lacks any and all basis in reality. Claims to the contrary ignore the well-known fact that studies have shown a similar incidence of pedophilia among Catholic priests as within the general population.
- Second, the discipline of priestly celibacy is called unnatural but erroneously so, for it is no way contrary to, or degenerate of, human nature. If it is possible—even laudable—to abstain from food and drink for some good end (e.g., health), so should man be able to abstain from the conjugal act for the good of souls and the greater glory of God.
- Third, the link between celibacy and the priesthood is not something artificial or ephemeral, as if it were easily subject to change. For those who have faith, it is the deliberate work of the Holy Spirit. So to suggest that it is now time for the discipline of celibacy to fold—in favor of a married priesthood—is the height of human arrogance and undersells the problem and pervasiveness of pedophilia in society.
Admittedly, the people who think priestly celibacy is directly responsible for the sexual-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, may find this apologetic way of speaking about the question frightfully insincere. Thus, my last line of argumentation will not neglect sincerity in the least, nor will it appeal, as I have already done, to the unreasonableness of their position. In the space remaining, I wish to appeal rather to my experience of having lived celibacy, and having lived it alongside other celibate men in community.
My personal experience of celibacy, one that has been doubtless challenged at times but nonetheless beautiful, upends the notion that the discipline of priestly celibacy is antiquated and in need of amendment. Men continue to embrace celibacy—even in the wake of the sexual-abuse crisis—because there is something beautiful and real that celibacy still affords men who desire to be priests.
And I say this for two reasons:
- First, celibacy, properly so-called, is all about the love of God. In practice, the discerning man experiences the love of God by a stretching of the mind and a swelling of the heart that inspires him, even invites him, to surrender his body and soul, his whole life, to God. Put simply, a man becomes celibate because he desires to love God with a love that is complete and absolute.
- Second, the celibate man renounces the good of sexual intimacy for another love—the love of souls. It is important to understand that, in practice, the renunciation of human love for divine love does not render the human heart desolate, but allows the celibate man to receive the gift of God’s love in all its spiritual fecundity. In this way, a man gradually begins to look upon souls as a father would his children.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Dominicana as part of their series: Sed Contra: Essays on the Modern Culture. Click here to learn more and support the work of the Dominican brothers. This article appears here with kind permission.