In defense of clerical celibacy

No practice of the Church is as derided as that of consecrated celibacy, and yet it is an ancient Christian tradition, upheld by saints over the course of centuries.  Both West and East agree that religious (monks and nuns) and bishops must forsake the joys of family, of wife and children, and vow perpetual continence.  They also agree that ordained priests may not marry, while the Western Church maintains also that priests must be unmarried at the time of ordination (although they may be widowers).

There are two main objections to the discipline of celibacy.  First, it is said to be unnatural.  Second, it is said that while it may have been approriate at earlier times, it is ill suited to the modern world.  The second objection is easily dismissed.  Neither human nature, nor the nature of marriage, nor the nature of the priesthood has changed in the “modern world”.   The only thing that’s changed is that the majority has less understanding of these natures than formerly.  But the solution to that is to teach them, and a practice that they don’t understand yet grabs their attention is a help to this rather than a hurt.  Besides, if anything, the growing number of unmarried bachelors should make clerical celibacy more rather than less acceptable to the modern world.  It is clear that if celibacy was ever a good idea, it still is.

The first objection, that celibacy is unnatural, is less easily dismissed, but it is also more fruitful because it brings us to the main point, which is nature, or rather the three natures involved:  of man, of priesthood, and of fatherhood.

What do we mean when we say a human practice is “unnatural”.  Either that it frustrates some basic human good or that it violates the natural symbolism inhering in a human act.  By “voilating” a symbol, I mean performing a symbolically meaningful act outside the context that makes its meaning good, so that it comes to express something noxious.  For example, sex naturally expresses marital love, so that when a man fornicates, he expresses objectification, because the act is naturally understood in the context of the vow he has refused to make.  Celibacy is accused of being unnatural in both senses.  First, that it frustrates the primary human good of procreation.  Second, that it uses the symbolism of sex to express contempt for women or family life.  (“If they really respected marriage, they’d let their bishops marry.”)

The answer to these objections is different for religious and for priests.  We must not conflate the two, because celibacy means something entirely different in the two cases.  For consecrated religious, it is indeed true that the basic good of procreation is sacrificed, and that the discipline is “unnatural” in the same way that all ascetic practices (fasting, mortifications) are unnatural.  However, it would be better to call these practices “supernatural”, because they sacrifice natural goods for supernatural ones.  The regular way to holiness in this life is to serve God through faithful and loving family life.  However, family life is something limited to this world.  As Jesus taught, marriage does not continue in heaven.  The intensity of love that glorifies marriage is, of course, part of heaven, but not its exclusivity or its procreative function.  Our ultimate good, supernatural union with God and with each other through that union, transcends this ordinary way to holiness.  Therefore, the Church has thought it good to keep a certain number of her children outside the immersion of family life to serve as an eschatalogical sign for the rest of us, a reminder that our ultimate destiny is beyond family, a reservoir of otherworldliness upon which the rest of the Church may draw.  Thus, the meaning of celibacy is not contempt for anyone, but rather love.  It is a way the monk or nun expresses self-donation to God.  Expressing self-donation is the symbolic function of sex, so we see that celibacy doesn’t counteract this symbolism.  There is a way to express loving self-donation through consecrated celibacy, just as there is a way to express it through marital union.

The case of bishops and priests is different, more complicated and more interesting.  These do not sacrifice the basic human good of procreation, but rather fulfill it in a different way.  The key to the puzzle is the ancient Christian practice of referring to bishops and priests as “Father” or words with a similar meaning (“patriarch”, “pope”).  It is a deep part of the Tradition that priests act as fathers to their flock.  Within this context, it’s not unnatural that these priests are not allowed to have sex with their spiritual children.

Let us suppose for a moment that clerical celibacy in priests has a rationale somewhat analogous to that of the incest taboo, found among nearly all cultures.  Let us remind ourselves:  why are fathers not allowed to have sex with their children?  Is it an expression of contempt for their children?  A sense that their own flesh and blood is “not good enough” for coitus?  Nothing could be more absurd!  We all know that the incest taboo is meant to facilitate rather than block intimacy.  Fathers and children must be free to show affection and confidence without the anxiety that these might be misinterpreted as sexual overtures.  Thus, at the very least we see that if one did want to relax the discipline of celibacy, the only way to do it would be the way the Eastern Orthodox have.  Allowing a priest to keep a wife is much less trouble that allowing him to try to acquire one.  But even the Orthodox way is not ideal, because it gives the priest two families.

A priest is meant to be a spiritual father to his parishoners.  Like a father, he has the masculine duty of protecting his children–although from the Devil rather than physical danger.  Like a father, he is a provider, but of the spiritual food which is the Blessed Sacrament.  And like his children, we must feel free to confide the most intimate details of our lives to him.  The fatherhood of the priest is an important part of how his parishoners relate to him in the Latin Tradition.  The familial model indicates that priesthood is a vocation rather than a profession.  The priest has no private life, no off-hours–any more than I have off hours from being a father, no family other than his parish.

So, given that priests assume a patriarchal role, the discipline of celibacy makes sense.  We must still ask why a priest must be a father.  Why not just be a Church functionary?  The duties of the priesthood are not really more difficult or time-consuming than many professions.  If doctors, teachers, and business owners can have time for a family, why not a priest?  Here we must remember that the Church is not a “rational” organization, in the Weberian sense.  It’s not organized to generate some sort of output (e.g. preaching, sacrament distribution) with maximal efficiency.  If it were, then we should choose priests solely based on who could do the work.  Neither celibacy, nor male gender, nor perhaps even active faith would be required.

Rather, the priest’s primary purpose is not to do something, but to be something.  A priest is a mediator between God and man.  He speaks for God to his flock and he speaks for his flock to God.  Jesus Christ Himself is, as the Epistle to the Hebrews makes clear, the supreme priest.  Indeed, in a real way, He is the only priest, because all other priesthood, that of the Church herself or of her ordained ministers, derives from Him and is in fact nothing but Him working through them.

The priest’s “upward” mediation occurs primarily during the consecration at the mass.  Here he repeats Christ’s words at the Last Supper, putting on the persona of Christ so that he can speak for Christ’s body, the Church.  This is the priest addressing the Father, with the rest of the Church behind him, as it were (We should be literally behind him, but that’s an argument I’ll save for another day), with the priest speaking for us as well.  The priest’s “downward” mediation is the rest of his ministry.  Here his role is to carry the presence of God the Father to the rest of us.  The Father being a subsistent relation in the Trinity, this is best conveyed through a paternal relationship with those to whom he ministers.

We see, then, that the inherent symbolism in a man’s sexual nature is neither ignored nor ill-used by clerical celibacy.  Rather, the symbolism of masculinity, its orientation toward fatherhood, is utilized to convey a supernatural message, to be a sign of the supreme holy mystery, the Trinity Itself.  In this, the priesthood is like the Incarnation.  Jesus Christ Himself is the primary supernatural message in the language of nature.  In Him, the Divine Logos is, as it were, “translated” or “expressed in” a human nature and a human life.

17 Responses

  1. I blogged about this, from a different angle:

    Reflecting on my argument and comparing it with yours, it seems there is an empirical element to the discussion. Celibate priesthood may *certainly* be a noble path; my feeling, however, is that it is only so for a small percentage of men – smaller than the percentage required for a flourishing Church.

    When men of less intense vocation become celibate, they seem to become lonely, gossipy, spiteful and small minded; and over-indulge in alcohol and tobacco.

    I don’t know how one would set about establishing the truth of this statment – it is perhaps just a hunch.

    I have a friend from Eastern Europe who experienced both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches under communism, and said that the Roman priests were *much* less corrupt, in a socio-political sense – he thought because the Orthodox tended towards nepotism, in order to look after their large families.

    On the other hand, the Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe has emerged from communism with a tremendous rebirth of ascetic religious zeal, and tremendous building of new churches and monasteries – so the faith seems to have retained its purity through persecution, even as they were corrupted in a worldly sense.

    I have a feeling that the religious life ought to be focused on lay monks, not priests – not least because this allows simpler folk to participate, including Holy Fools. Such people are often more advanced in spirituality than the (sometimes disablingly) intelligent priests.

    I must emphasize that the above ideas are based on ‘intuitions’ and reading more than personal experience; and my intuitions are sometimes seriously wrong. Nonetheless, I believe that this is an extremely important issue for the world, now and in the future – and discussion is necessary.

  2. I’m surprised that you don’t address the problems of homosexuality and child molestation in the church.

  3. The most serious problem with Priestly Celibacy (and marital never- actually- f.cking) is this. How well can the Celibate Priest or near celibate husband endure watching the hot young young women of their dreams throw themselves sexually at other men? To see the wanton eagerness and animalistic joy they display in copulating with a type of man opposite from that of a serious Catholic.
    It seems really important to the structure you have created that married women are OK with infrequent sex. What if you learned that it was only infrequent sex with your kind of guy that they were OK with? That if they got naked with a George Clooney that they would display skill and great enthusiasm for things you doubted she even knew about?
    You could of course divorce her but what would be left of your world view?

  4. What if you learned that it was only infrequent sex with your kind of guy that they were OK with?

    A very skillful put-down. I actually enjoyed it immensely. How do you know that I’m not a George Clooney-like stud though? Am I sending beta waves over the internet?

  5. Demonic taunts would be funny if they weren’t so… well… demonic. Of course, there’s a certain type of woman that enjoys fornicating with bestial men. I wish them as much happiness in this life as they are able, but suspect that even in this life most experience a miserable existence when, past their prime, they get traded in for the newest model. I’m sure sure a wasted life will seem so very worth it then.

    Rum seems to relish the prospect of a George Clooney-like stud stealing a good Catholic man’s wife. He justifies the sin of adultery in in the event a different partner offers potential for better sex. Good for him! I hope he gets to experience the ruin of a broken marriage through no fault of his own.

    As for the adulterers, they should be punished. The just penalty for adultery is death, for both parties. Our society would be a lot better off if adultery were handled properly. The family precedes the state and enjoys rights and responsibilities independent of the state. IMO, heads of households should exercise their responsibility to punish assaults on marriage *whether sanctioned by the state or not*. How’s that for a worldview, scumbag?

  6. What you seem to be saying, Rum, is that the problem with renunciation is that you have to renounce something you really like, and will continue to hanker after for the rest of your life. But that’s not a problem with renunciation, it’s what renunciation means.

    Watching, or rather imagining, the sweaty couplings of erotomaniacs may arouse feelings of envy. It can also arouse feelings of pity. Animalistic joy is, no doubt, joyous; but it is also animalistic.

    Have you ever considered that Game may suffer from a rather acute sampling problem? A bunch of pick-up artists conclude that all females are sluts because all the females they know are sluts.

    Also, sexual fantasies seldom express actual sexual desires. I’d imagine most people would run away screaming if one of their fantasy scenarios suddenly began to be realized. Young men drooling over the Penthouse Forum may not think so, but they have a lot to learn.

    One thing they have to learn is that being sexually attractive to lots of women can be a huge pain in the ass, and that nymphomania is appealing only to virgins.

  7. Celibacy is only a discipline of the Church. So, I would favor thinking about it prudentially. Asking for celibacy undoubtedly changes the pool of men interested in the priesthood. First, because it is so much to ask, it winnows out many of the lukewarm, the disbelieving, and the careerist, which is a very good thing indeed.

    On the other hand, a prohibition on marriage is not much of a sacrifice for a man who is not interested in marriage, say because he is a homosexual. So, celibacy probably raises the proportion of homosexuals among men interested in the priesthood. And, among this subset, there is less of the winnowing described above. So, we should expect this group to be worse priests, not to mention a danger to altar boys.

    Whether this balance favors celibacy or not is a matter of judgement. Now, in theory, homosexuals and other severely disordered people are not supposed to be admitted to the priesthood. But, in practice, no such filter has been applied, at least in the Anglosphere.

  8. The question of celibacy in relation to somebody’s sexual disposition is not one of principle – but perhaps more a pragmatic matter to take into consideration in making arrangements. There have been examples of great holiness among celibate men of homosexual disposition (such as Fr Seraphim Rose, whom I revere as a Saint) – and also (I believe) among eunuchs in the Byzantine Empire – and a eunuch became Patriarch of Constaninople; yet eunuchs were banned from Mount Athos (along with women) on the pragmatic basis that their presence tended to cause excessive temptations for the other monks. It has also been cogently argued that the celibate religious life is a vital path to keep open for men and women of homosexual disposition, perhaps above all others. Probably these matters are easier to regulate, and celibacy to be supported and disciplined, among enclosed religious than among secular priests.

  9. JM Smith
    The thing is, all females are “capable” of acting as total raving sluts. Just as all men have it in them to be absolutely dissolute and amoral. Both issues need attention.
    My criticism of Traditionalists, in their modern forms, is that they only gets the sex-thing half right. So many overlook womens true nature and-or throw it up onto a pedestal of idolatrous unreality..
    IMHO, just as much effort ought to be put into the forceful shaping of attitudes deserves to be put on young women as young men. Because their “original” instincts are at least as wayward and destructive as the guys of any sustainable, tolerably honest and sanctified sexual order.

  10. Andrew
    My taunts were not demonic – in their force. At least I hope they were not. Oh, dear!!! I am just a middle aged guy who began to study game seriously because he found out that his adored wife was fucking bartenders and shampoo salesman. After he had done everything the Right Way.
    But I am a good student of most things including game.
    And she is nowadays snuggling up with cats.
    And most of my fuck-buddies have stories they want to tell me about their husbands,
    You may or may not want to hear them.

  11. I grew up in an extended family of Physicists.With completed degrees for the most part.
    As a family, we followed our innately whorish instincts towards
    the OIL Business.
    Finding oil is a very close thing to finding money. BTW.
    Someone ought to do a study on the effect of high pressure petro-dollars on the sexual receptivity of the average human female.

  12. Rum,
    Revelry in impurity of abandoned lust while at the same time mocking godly chastity (or at least honest considerations of how chastity applies in real life) sure looks demonic to me. It’s practically the definition of demonic.

    I’ll agree with Bonald though, it was a skillful put-down. I don’t think I’ve seen the existential dilemma put any better.

    Okay, Rum, so you genuinely attempted the Right Way and got burned for it. I’m sorry. Shit happens.

    But the lesson I draw from your circumstance is, that on top of the fact that human beings are sinners, the system is screwed up. When the system allows spouses to cheat around without experiencing legal consequences and social ostracization, basic human problems are exacerbated to threaten social order.

    Basically, we need salvation: deliverance for individual souls and the social order together. Such can never be achieved through natural effort alone. The sickness runs too deep. Game is an illusory, and hence, futile diversion from the real issue. Its supposed psychological benefits (self-esteem & masculine prowess) are counterfeits for integral development of manhood, which proceeds from a heart set confidently on the LORD.

    Your efforts and abilities would be better engaged elsewhere.

  13. Rum: I agree with what you say here. Everyone has a tendency to evil, and this tendency is strengthened when we deny that it exists. I’d like to think that traditionalists have a clear understanding of the ubiquity of evil tendencies, but you may be right to say that they imagine themselves protected by their traditionalism. Those traditional values won’t do much if you find yourself snuggling up beside someone not your spouse, with a couple of drinks under your belt.

  14. I’m kind of baffled by Rum’s claim. Is he seriously suggesting that traditionalist Catholics are uninterested in constraining female sexuality? Seriously? All those girls in chapel veils with covered shoulders and ankle length skirts at Traditional Latin Masses are a fig’ of the ole imag’?

    If someone says “gross, what a slut,” this makes him think the speaker is less likely to be a traditionalist Christian than he thought before they spoke? Seriously?

  15. […] Icerocket blogs- read full christian families article: In defense of clerical celibacy […]

  16. I agree that adultery should be severely punished.

  17. […] what feels like a long time ago, I would have been able to muster the energy to fight over this, but Pope Francis has already attacked something much closer to my heart, so all I I can do is […]

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