Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich hit the nail on the head in a New Year’s Day homily when he spoke of the need for the church to modify tradition in response to changing modern times.
Change is needed, he said, “in light of the failure” surrounding the clergy sex abuse crisis. One long-standing tradition that must be up for “review,” he said, is celibacy for priests.
The current measures to address sex abuse are not enough without adapting church teachings, the cardinal said. “Yes, matters are about development and improvement and prevention and independent reviews — but more is also demanded.
“I am certain that the great renewal impulse of the Second Vatican Council is not being truly led forward and understood in its depth. We must further work on that,” he said. “Further adaptations of church teachings are required.”
“I believe the hour has come to deeply commit ourselves to open the way of the church to renewal and reform,” Marx said.
The cardinal’s statements coincide with plans to openly debate the issue of celibacy at the German bishops’ permanent council meeting in the spring. The bishops have said the workshop during the meeting is a direct response to the abuse crisis.
It is wonderful that Cardinal Marx, who is president of the German bishops’ conference, has spoken so strongly about the need to examine mandatory celibacy in light of the abuse crisis, but, it seems to me, this issue needs to be discussed on its own merits.
There were good historical reasons for its introduction in the Middle Ages but mandatory celibacy serves no good purpose now. Many priests have found it an impossible burden. Many others have coped with it in unhealthy and destructive ways. The cost to the church has been incalculable. The celibacy rule has contributed to the vocations crisis that is engulfing the church in so many parts of the world. In countries like Ireland, priests are ageing and seminaries stand empty, while the number of clustered and priestless parishes continues to climb.
Meanwhile, the church loses millions of members every year to other Christian dominations and religions. Between 2014-2016, Brazil lost nine million Catholics to protestantism. Committed lay leaders do their best, but without priests the church dies. Without priests, the Eucharist cannot be celebrated, and the Eucharist is the life-blood of the church. There are many former priests who would love to celebrate the sacraments again, but are forbidden to do so, and many others who feel called to the priesthood but not to the celibate way of life. Celibacy is too big an obstacle for them, and so their priestly vocation is lost. Yet, even in the face of this stark reality, most men in church leadership think that clinging to the man-made rule of mandatory celibacy is more important than meeting the urgent sacramental needs of God’s people. Celibacy trumps everything. This is not just tragic, but catastrophic.
Mandatory celibacy has forced many thousands of men out of the priesthood. They meet someone in the course of their ministry and sexual attraction takes over. They fall in love. They try hard to keep their vows but are not able. They are caught between love of their vocation and love of another person. Ideally, they should be able to love both but they cannot. So they are lost to the priesthood.
Others remain in the priesthood while not observing their vow of celibacy. These priests are conflicted. They know what they are doing is wrong. They are aware of the emotional and psychological damage they are doing to themselves and the person they love, but they cannot stop themselves. They don’t want to or can’t give up the ministry, but neither are they able to give up their affair. And so they juggle the two. It is unfair to everyone, especially the person they love.
Then, there are the secret children fathered by priests. Nobody knows how many secret children are out there, only that it is a scandal that cannot be denied. The damage done to these children and their mothers (and fathers) is incalculable.
Mandatory celibacy is a form of control. It is easier for a bishop to exercise authority over a priest who does not have commitments or obligations as a husband and father. The priest is easier to move around. He is more dependent on his superior, more vulnerable. He costs less to support and there are no potential conflicts around property and inheritance rights. As Thomas Doyle, Richard Sipe and Patrick Wall put it in Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church’s 2,000-Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse, celibacy “is essential to the continuation of the power and prominence of the clerical subculture, the home of the elite minority who rule the church. … To abandon celibacy would be to risk the demise of the fortified clerical world and the consequent loss of power and influence.”
Mandatory celibacy facilitates clericalism. It leads some clergy to a sense of entitlement and privilege. The collar, the vestments, the titles, the role – all these offer status, identity, comfort, security, a feeling of superiority, of being part of an elite club, a special caste. The culture of clericalism compensates for the privations of celibacy. It also stokes ambition. Without a partner or children as a focus or distraction, some priests invest all their energy in climbing the clerical ladder. Promotion and deference provide them with a sense of validation, and help them feel better about themselves.
Mandatory celibacy leads to loneliness and isolation. In the past, most priests had live-in housekeepers or shared rectories with other clergy. They had company, companionship and support. Today most live alone. They are left to fend for themselves, often with little help from those in authority. Loneliness can lead to a feeling of isolation, or the risk of addiction, or a tendency towards melancholia. Some use work as a coping mechanism. They need to be busy, so they don’t have to acknowledge the emptiness they feel inside or cope with the painful reality of spending every night in a cold, empty house. Others have found solace in the bottle, or on internet chatrooms, or in a particular obsession.
Mandatory celibacy promotes a warped notion of sex and sexuality. It implies that sex and sexuality are bad, and over-identifies holiness with sexual abstinence. It inhibits healthy, open relationships that people need if they are to be fully alive. To live a life empty of physical affection is a tremendous burden for many.
Of course, abolishing mandatory celibacy would be no panacea for the church. It’s not going to pack the pews again or solve the vocations crisis. It would create problems of its own but ministers of other denominations and religions have to deal with these challenges all the time, and they do. Whether there is a married or unmarried priesthood, there will always be scandals, because priests are human.
And even if abolishing mandatory celibacy does nothing to address the sexual abuse crisis or produce a single new vocation, it is still the right thing to do because it would make for a far healthier priesthood and a far healthier church.