Priestly & Religious Celibacy: Is It Dead, or Should It Be?
November 1996By Benedict Groeschel
Fr. Benedict J. Groeschel, C.F.R., is a psychologist and spiritual writer. He works in the South Bronx with priests and the poor, as a member of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.
Few aspects of traditional Catholic practice have come under so much attack in the past three decades as celibacy in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church. One might have thought that an era that prided itself on altruistic causes would have found such a remarkable example of committed self-giving to be admirable. But in fact, celibate priests, sisters, and brothers find themselves being constantly analyzed, diagnosed, ridiculed, accused of perversion, and betrayed, even by those who once were members of their own ranks. That a discipline chosen by such a small segment of the population (approximately .01%) could attract so much scrutiny is amazing.
Celibacy in Catholicism has always meant complete sexual abstinence. It requires no great insight into human nature to realize that so rigorous a discipline has never been and could never be completely successful. Some writers like Richard Sipe, a former priest and critic of celibacy, make much of this fact (A Secret World, 1990). It is difficult to imagine how any intelligent person could ever think a discipline as demanding as this one could be totally successful. Have the Ten Commandments or the Beatitudes been successful, or even the speed limit? In an important way they have been successful since all three have significantly influenced human behavior for the better, but it is perfectly obvious that they have been and will continue to be violated many times. This is true of any discipline or law that challenges human nature.
The Christian discipline of celibacy as a suggested practice and later as a requirement for the clergy goes back at least to St. Paul (1 Cor. 7:32-35). Those who consider themselves followers of the Gospel might do well to ponder what Christ means when He praises those who have made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt. 19:12). Celibacy finds its roots in the admonition of Christ to His disciples to leave everything, including wives and children, to follow Him (Mt. 19:26-29). The monastic tradition brought mandatory celibacy into the Church, although the practice was much older, and to this day is widespread in Hinduism and Buddhism. There are even rare examples of monastic celibacy in Jewish and Islamic history.
A careful observance of celibacy by religious and diocesan priests has been correlated with the vibrancy and fervor of the overall life of the Church. Older people will remember that celibacy flourished along with a remarkably vibrant Catholic community up to the early 1960s. When the Catholic community began to falter and lose its identity, the observance of celibacy was in trouble, and remains so to this day. Should any fair-minded person be surprised at this when every other expression of morality in our culture, especially in the family, is subject to widespread failure?
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