Do the Pope’s Remarks Undermine Celibacy?

shutterstock_93071191 - 2When Pope Francis said he wouldn’t judge gay priests he unwittingly undermined clerical celibacy.

Catholic teaching has always recognized the inherent dignity of all persons, It also holds that only God can judge the heart.  Nevertheless, judgment calls on what is good for the Church, like in every organization, must be made by its leaders.

This in the case with celibacy.  It stands as a sign of the Kingdom of God which is to come and where there will be no marriage.  This witness, by priests of the Western Church, is deemed so valuable that men who cannot bear it are excluded from the ministry.

People make the mistake, however, of seeing celibacy only as a prohibition for physical intimacy.  If this were so it would be no more than a biological act of will power akin to one’s attempt at dieting.

Celibacy is the total giving of the person to Christ and his church.  This means all aspects of a priest’s human condition must find fulfillment in God alone.  For the majority of persons these physical, psychological and emotional needs are fulfilled in an intimate relationship, most notably marriage.

Orthodox seminaries have always been wary of what is commonly called particular friendships (PF’s).  These are exclusive relationships which have always been deemed detrimental to the celibate ideal.  PF’s do not necessarily entail sexual activity. But, for sure, PF’s are indicative of personalities in need of a specific type of relationship. PF’s also warn of a real potential for physical activity which often comes with such intimacy.

Because of this the church has tried to screen out homosexual persons from the priesthood.  The all-male environment of seminaries and the ordained priesthood afford a safe-haven for homosexuals.  Men with same-sex attraction, under the cover of celibacy, can easily “date” and engage in couple type activities without raising an eyebrow.  For example, homosexual clergy can go out to dinner; certainly innocuous in itself.  However, if a straight priest attempts this with a woman tongues will wag.  And, if it is a repeated occurrence he will find himself in the bishop’s office with a stern warning that his behavior is scandalous to the faithful and dangerous to his vocation.

When the Pope rhetorically asked, “Who am I to judge a gay person of good will who seeks the Lord?,  he effectively gave the green light for homosexual men to enter the priesthood.  He also compromised his office.

The Pope is called to govern the church.  This does not mean he is to be judgmental.  It does, however, mean that he must make prudent statements and judgments for the good of the whole church.

Organizational theorists will readily attest that in any organization like brings on like.  Human power structures are comprised of persons of similar vision and compatible personalities.  Therefore, Francis is being naive when, he says, referring to the alleged presence of a lobby of gay priests within the Vatican ranks “that the problem isn’t having the orientation.  The problem is making the lobby.”  The fact is, that any group with a strong common identity is a natural lobby which effects an organization.

Logically then, if homosexuals are welcomed into a clergy which affords them such natural support and power, why shouldn’t heterosexuals be allowed to have the same opportunity for intimate relationships?

Pope Francis’s remarks have implications for the church far beyond a pastoral approach to homosexual priests.


Image credit:

Fr. Michael P. Orsi


Chaplain and Research Fellow at Ave Maria Law. Father Michael P. Orsi was ordained for the Diocese of Camden in 1976 and has a broad background in teaching and educational administration. Fr. Orsi has authored or co-authored four books and over 300 articles in more than 45 journals, magazines and newspapers. He has served as Assistant Chancellor, Assistant Vicar for Pastoral Services, Director of Family Life Bureau, and Coordinator of Pope John Paul II’s visit to New Jersey for the Diocese of Camden. He has also served as a member of The Institute for Genomic Research at the University of Pennsylvania and as a member of New Jersey’s Advisory Council on AIDS. Fr. Orsi holds a Doctorate in Education from Fordham University, two Master degrees in Theology from Saint Charles Seminary, and a Bachelor of Arts from Cathedral College. He is presently serving as Chaplain and Research Fellow in Law and Religion at Ave Maria School of Law, Naples, Florida. He is a member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. In 2005 Fr. Orsi was appointed as a Senior Research Associate to the Linacre Center for Bioethics, London, England. Fr. Orsi co-hosts a weekly radio program The Advocate which discusses law and culture on WDEO-AM 990, WMAX-AM 1440 in metro Detroit and WDEO-FM 98.5 in southwest Florida [also linked at].

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  • Jackie Stutmann

    I think the pope really means that he knows that same-sex attraction is a cross to bear, and that he cannot judge them harshly. Doing so only alienates, whereas the Pope wishes to invite more discussion on a subject that seems taboo and lay things out on the table so as to care for these individuals and shepherd them more effectively. Without acceptance of a person, (not their behavior), true change cannot come about.

  • Dessy12

    Pope Francis’ comments have been troubling me and I thank you, Father Orsi, for
    articulating the problem with them. Already I have watched a TV interview where
    the guest used the pope’s words to support so-called homosexual marriage.
    I am wary of Pope Francis’ tendency to act like a politician — hopefully he will
    learn from this mistake.

  • joan

    This aricle is thought provoking to me as I understood Pope Francis to just be saying, who is he to judge. As we know, only God can read hearts. In the escatological sense, does homosexual or heterosexual matter and is that not where the priest is supposed to reside?

    GOD’s Law must be first and foremost. And each will stand before GOD.

    Let us witness, and allow GOD to build HIS church.

    This all reminds me of ‘you are thinking as humans do, not as God does.’

  • M.I.Ke

    I understood Pope Francis to be saying something more. He is at the heart of the conversation that is healthy and intriguing. Celibacy is a choice of our Bishops. It is a discipline not a doctrine. He is working hard to create a dialogue that separates the sinner from the sin. (Not judging the sinner). It has been far too long to have a serious conversation and I admire Pope Francis for addressing it so confidently.

  • FFR

    I find myself for the first time disagreeing with your opinion, Fr. Orsi. Your opinion piece makes the blanket assumption (at least implicitly) that all gay men cannot conform to a celibate life. I respectfully disagree with that assumption. Simply because a man has a homosexual identity, that in and of itself should not deny him becoming a priest ASSUMING (in the words of Pope Francis) he is a “gay person of good will who seeks the Lord.” This should be the focus of the inquiry, i.e. whether the man seeking to enter the seminary is a “person of good will who seeks the Lord.” And that should be true regardless of the man’s sexual orientation. To deny a man who is a “person of good will who seeks the Lord” a chance at the priesthood simply because he is gay, is in fact to judge the person as opposed to the sin.

  • josmart

    That’s the thing. He didn’t say anything you asserted. Not that he couldn’t have meant it, its just that when clarity is missing, projection takes over.

  • Pamela

    Good points, but my understand is that allowing into the clergy those with homosexual tendencies — and who “claimed” to have the good will intentions of seeking the Lord — is how the gay movement found its entrée into the hierarchy of the Church … and is the reason they have such influence today. I believe it is idealistic, at best, to think this won’t continue if those at the highest levels don’t come down on this very publicly and unwaveringly.

  • Luis

    I have to agree with you Pamela..the Pope possibly made a hasty comment…he needs to further explain his comment so as not to cause more confusion within the Church.

  • Harold Norwood

    Dear Fr Michael,

    With all due respects to you and your article we must give absolute moral support to Our Supreme Pontiff and whatever He says, even though every time He speaks he does not necessarily express the ordinary Magisterium of the Church but nevertheless He does Represent St Peter, the Rock on which Our Blessed Lord, Founded His Church and in which case we must listen to it very carefully and accept it as faithful catholics, as coming not only from St. Peter but from Our Blessed Lord Himself in whom He Represents. As the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen said, “We can’t be catholic if we pick and choose.”

  • Bernardo Milhas

    With all respect, I think Fr. Orsi has misunderstood Pope Francis’ words. He is talking about not judging or marginalizing gay people because of their tendencies, etc. That doesn’t mean that he condones that men with deep homosexual tendencies should be ordained priests, as Fr. Orsi suggests. If we were to infere from Pope Francis’ words about not judging gay people that he condones the ordination of gay people, we could also infere that Pope Francis condones homosexual marriage (in fact, he firmly opposed it when he was a cardinal). In short, he hasn’t changed a word of what the Church has said about this. As a matter of fact, in the next sentence he sends us to look for what he’s saying in the Cathecism!

  • FFR

    I understand where you are coming from, Pamela. I used to think that way too, after reading the book “Goodbye! Good Men: How Catholic Seminaries Turned Away Two Generations of Vocations From the Priesthood” by Michael Rose. But Pope Francis has caused me to reconsider my position, and remember that Jesus came to call sinners to conversion. I do believe that diocesan vocation directors and seminaries must do a thorough job of vetting men for the priesthood. And that likely will cause many homosexual men to fail the test, and heterosexual men as well. But we should not be imposing absolute barriers, lest we be found guilty of condemning the sinner as opposed to the sin.

  • Pamela

    More good points, FFR, and I will give this more prayerful consideration. You’re right — the last thing we want to do is post a big “OFF LIMITS” sign to men with homosexual tendencies … or heterosexual men who aren’t quite sure they can commit to a celibate life. I certainly don’t envy the Pope this complex mission!

  • Pamela

    Well, I don’t think the Pope made a hasty comment — it is completely in keeping with our Catechism — but I, like so many others, wanted to hear a more powerful sound bite across the media. At this point, I think it would be good for the USCCB to chime in (perhaps they have and I’ve missed it?), using this as a “teachable moment” to enlighten the world on our position … and being strategic enough to ensure any resulting sound bite cannot be misconstrued. Maybe it’s an impossible dream.

  • I’m with HIM

    you can’t control it. Keep your eyes on JESUS and don’t worry about projection. IT IS A DISTRACTION! God is in charge, it’s up to you to believe that. HE is the rock to hold onto – “be still and know” can you see?

  • Mike Gannome

    The pope was talking about priests with same-sex attraction, not priests who are engaging in homosexual acts. He didn’t undermine celibacy at all.

  • Peter Paul Brennan

    No, Pope Francis, is not undermining celibacy by his remarks in favor of not judging gays. Orsi is making an injudicious assumption trying to make trouble where there is none. Celibacy is a problem. It should be optional. The ideal of celibacy cannot be imposed by law as it is now on those who want to be priests — it is a failure and just does not work. Not every priest has the charism. Celibacy has become the golden calf, an idol, that must be torn down. Its only purpose is to bolster clericalism. It is an artificial and unnecessary burden on the life of a priest. Celibacy must be a truly free choice and the married priesthood needs to be restored. Christ chose married priests. St. Peter was a married priest. It is time to return to the beginnings of the church when a married priesthood was the norm. I take it that Fr. Orsi is a traditionalist who is grasping at straws and will soon be out of a job. If Orsi said this about Benedict XVI he would have heard from the Vatican. This article is sensationalist yellow journalism.

  • johnschuh

    He cannot do this if the sinner make the sin an inseparable part of his personal identity.

  • johnschuh

    I think Fr. Orsi is perfectly capable of making his own judgements.

  • johnschuh

    Celibacy only become problematical in a world where monogamous marriage is problematical. Anyone familiar with a married clergy, as with the protestant clergy, knows that it is naive to think of it as a solution. One exchanges one set of problems with another.

  • GaryLockhart

    If Pope Francis wants a “mess” he certainly did his part to create one. He would be well advised when speaking extemporaneously in the future to make sure his remarks accurately reflect the totality of teaching of the Church and not paraphrasing same, unless of course he just wants to give the wolves in the DLEMM – Dominant Liberal Establishment Mass Media – amongst others, more red meat to chew on. There is a big difference between one’s particular judgment, reserved to Almighty God and judging one’s sinful behavior which is the obligation of all Christians. Condoning and enabling sin is a recipe for disaster.

  • Bernardo Milhas

    I’m not sure I get your idea. Maybe because this isn’t my mother tongue. According to you, Fr Orsi can question the Pope’s judgements, but I can’t question Fr Orsi’s?

  • Jack

    The Pope’s comments had nothing to do with the
    priesthood. It was a comment made with compassion and with an understanding that we as Catholics are called not to judge but to love and work with the marginalized in our society. Here’s an idea about judging, why not try to not judge the Pope!

  • johnschuh

    You can question the Orsi’s conclusions about the pope’s remarks and Orsi can question what the pope said.

  • johnschuh

    The gay lobby is hardly marginalized in this world, or in the Church for that matter.

  • Michael

    A priest questioning the Pope? Fr Michael if this was during Pope Benedict 16 days you would have been suspended. You are holding on to conservatism , and rituals forgetting the message of Christ, Love of God and neighbor. Some of the comments here show people trying to be more catholic than the Pope. The Pope answered a question honestly and with a lot of compassion. He did not talk about celibacy. i am an African Christian and some of the comments here are too sad. Let the Pope lead the Church stop opposing him.

  • Wedding

    The Pope has much more wisdom and the insiders capacity to grasp this situation. Anyone looking at this situation is looking at it from a smudged lens. Which of course can enter the Pride Haven spiral. Pick the sin – go ahead – pick the sin and tell the Pope how to react to it, how to govern it, how to abolish it from the face of the earth. Do you take the same stand with divorce and remarriage? Do you take the same position on heterosexuals living together? The list goes on and on,,,,,you think small – you think about the sin you most fear and don’t consider that Priests are slapping on the back every day, the couple living together and receiving communion. There are no banners being waved about those sins. You can’t throw the homosexual in the garbage can anymore than you can throw the “shacking up” couple in the garbage can. And yes, that is your point. Lobby’s apply to all kinds of sins not just these. The Pope has said nothing about “gay marriage” – a civil union is not “marriage.” He has said nothing about “sacramental marriages” being same gender. How do you say a same gender attracted vocation in one area is more of a problem than another? Please enlighten all on what vocation is best suited for the same gender people? You are confused and are out of your league about the Popes message. The Pope is not advocating “sin” he is advocating a call to “stop” casting stones when hidden sins are just as dangerous as obvious ones.

  • Florin S.

    Aug. 4th…I do not believe that Pope Francis is welcoming homosexual men into the Priesthood. He very clearly said that he was talking about homosexual men who are living and intend to live chaste lives. I personally think it would take a superman to have homosexual tendencies to live exclusively with other men and yet – there is grace and the man’s good will.

  • Florin S.

    I understand your concern Dessy but the one thing Pope Francis obviously is not is a politician…I see him as a Shepherd trying to do all he can for the flock in his care to lead them to Christ, the Good Shepherd. He, in his humanity, will make mistakes but the Lord will bring good out of all…we have clergy ‘politicians’ here in the States – in the ‘American’ Church…Pope Francis is not like them, at least not the way I see it. Give him time…the Holy Spirit is guiding him and will lead him to do what God wants him to do.

  • Florin S.

    That’s true josmart…but clarity will come. But no matter how much clarity there is, the media will distort it. They distort the teachings of Jesus – that’s what they do!

  • Jack

    The Pope was not talking about the “gay lobby” he was talking about individuals, similar to those in the aids hospice that Mother Theresa opened in Washington DC. Those people were the marginalized, and in many ways the gay community is often marginalized today which is why they have wrongly chosen to campaign on several social issues which differ from God’s plan. But on this particular topic, once again you are missing the point here, and sadly bringing abut only dissent as well as undermining our Pope and his message of compassion and love for our neighbor.

    He is carefully and skillfully not condoning behavior, bad choices do not make bad people. What he is doing is teaching us that our primary way of evangelization is to love. He is reinforcing the gospel of love. Love does not mean acquiescence, especially to immoral and damaging behavior, but it does mean wanting what’s best for everyone we encounter and living with compassion for each other; seeing the face of Christ in others.,even if they embrace life styles that are misguided.

    But all that aside, you and so many others here are reading far to much into these simple comments about love, judging far too much and in quoting our Pope out of context, instilling inaccurate hidden meanings. You are condemning a message of love, not supporting our Pope, and holding onto divisions that will sadly keep you from really living Christ’s gospel.

  • Jack

    Sorry Fr. Orsi, your dissent is only sad, and totally of the point. The Pope is your and our leader, he is simply promoting love, the gospel of Christ. Nothing to do with vocations or the gay lobby. You should keep your negative division causing comments to yourself and represent your vocation with support for Pope Francis. Were you hoping for a different Cardinal to be elected? Is it just animosity? What good can come from using your very public forum to misquote, condemn and judge our Pope and his message of love?

    His message is clear in that interview as well as here:

    “The cross of Christ invites us also to allow ourselves to be smitten by his love, teaching us always to always look upon others with mercy and tenderness,” the Pope prayed July 26 on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro.

    That’s what he was saying on that plane interview, it’s what he has been saying all along.

    I urge you to pray more before making such destructive comments in the public forum. Your holier than though attitude smacks of pride, not respect or loyalty to a simple gospel of love.

    I hope this sad incident your comments have fueled will give you pause and help you to reaffirm you vocation back to it’s basic mission.

  • Jack

    On this same webpage, an article by Sean Fitzpatrick, “Who are we to judge” says it all, and returns the focus to what the Pope’s comments were really about:

    “The Pope replied that though a “gay lobby” as a pressure group remains a concern, he does not judge people who are homosexual. “If someone is gay and accepts the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Pope Francis said in his typical, straightforward fashion. “They should not be marginalized. The tendency is not the problem… they are our brothers.”

    The problematic tendency of the media is to pounce on a reactionary statement like this and turn it into something radical. Many are suggesting that the Pope is “evolving” with the Church in the perception of the gay community, and moving towards a new acceptance of homosexuality. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Pope merely reiterated the Church’s old acceptance of homosexuals. What the world would pass off as unorthodox is the most orthodox thing in the world. The Pope’s statement about his reticence to judge gay people was not the Seinfeld “Not-that-there’s-anything-wrong-with-that” moment the media would have it be—which reflects the difference between the Catholic acceptance of homosexuals and the earthly acceptance of homosexuals.

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that homosexuals “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.” (CCC, 2358) Though the catechism also affirms that homosexual acts are acts of “grave depravity” and are “intrinsically disordered,” it does not deny the trials that homosexual people undergo who refrain from giving in to their biological or psychological inclination, and the love we all owe them free of uncharitable judgment. After all, who are we to judge?”

    Thank you Mr. Ftizpatrick.

    Brothers and Sisters, let us pray that we too may be able to strive in seeing the face of Christ in others and therefore be ambassadors of Christ’s love for our fellow man. For it through that act of love that we will win souls for Jesus.

  • johnschuh

    Be that as it may, this is a highly politicized matter and while AIDS patients deserve our compassion as much as anyone with a killing disease, the truth is that the Gay lobby have cynically used the suffering of others to build a powerful political movement which is overwhelming traditional morality. The cynicism was shown in the use of Ryan White –a young boy unfortunately transfused with blood sold by an HIV donor–as an argument that huge resources most be diverted to combat a disease that was about to break out into the “straight” community. Given the cavalier use of drugs by persons of every sexual inclination, this was prudent up to a point. But it has also served to give homosexuals a false sense of security about the consequences of their actions. Alcoholism is as rampant in the world as homosexuality and as devastating–at least in the First World– to families as AIDS, yet no equivalent to AA has appeared among gays. Indeed, gays want to enact laws to outlaw such organizations, which the Church would be only too happy to encourage. Rather gays wants to put much pressure on the Church to join with other Christian bodies not only not to condemn but to celebrate and empower their life style. Hence, the way that the media have leapt on the Pope’s remarks has encouraged them and many liberal Catholics to think that after two “reactionary”popes, they have got the liberal pope they have long dreamt of.

  • einheber

    Bernardo, you’re absolutely correct. The Pope has firmly rooted his comments in the context of the Catechism. It’s only the media and others irresponsible enough to ignore this fact that are to blame for any confusion here.

  • eponymous1

    We have had horrible, abysmal popes in the past. Not everything a pope says to the media is “ex cathedra.” Understood rightly, the Pope said nothing contrary to the consistent teaching of the Church, as he included the part about someone trying to live a moral life, and the tone was conciliatory. However, the media picks and chooses what part of his statement to emphasize, and activists have already used his words to suggest that the Church has changed its stance on homosexual behavior. This puts, or can put, people fighting for the normative family and defending the church’s teaching on human sexuality in an awkward position.