Why I’m Not Celibate & Am Glad Catholic Priests Are
A PROTESTANT PASTOR SPEAKS
What kind of chutzpah does it take for a married Protestant minister to expound on priestly celibacy? For that’s what I am — a member of the Protestant cloth, married, the father of three children. I’m tickled with my wife and delighted with my kids, I don’t have to take cold showers or avoid eating oysters, and my back is always warm at night. For those reasons and others, the recurring request of some Catholic priests for that which has been a given for Protestant clergy — permission to marry and procreate — strikes a powerful personal chord.
But my point in writing is not to say, “Nyaah, nyaah, nyaah” to the celibates, but instead to say (to the extent that a noncelibate has any authority at all in the matter) that clerical celibacy is probably a pretty good idea — maybe even a holy one. After over a decade in the ordained ministry, I have reached the unexpected conclusion that there’s a compelling case to be made for the disciplined separation of the clerical and the marital vocations. One can serve and honor God in both, of course; but human frailty intrudes. For what we have in the familial and the clerical offices are competing goods. The joining — or rather, the forced fusion — of the two does not produce a single greater good. Instead — and here I can speak with authority — such a fusion diminishes one or both. For at some point almost every married member of the clergy must make a decision: To which of my vows — the one to my office or the one to my spouse — do I owe the greater allegiance? A few, no doubt gifted with extraordinary grace, can honor both simultaneously. Most, I think, do not. Either implicitly or explicitly, the deal is struck: I will sacrifice one on the altar of the other.
I know about these major options. In the first, the internal covenant goes: “My ministry matters more to me than my marriage, and my wife must accommodate herself to that fact.” St. Peter may have been the greatest apostle of them all, but the New Testament record of this peripatetic disciple doesn’t portray a prize-winner among husbands. And what of the wife who’s married to a cleric who gets his jollies from public acclaim instead of at home? Sometimes, she’ll suffer in silence, and sublimate her unhappiness by trying to live up to the degrading, time-hallowed fantasy of what a Preacher’s Wife ought to be — sweet, helpful, never ubiquitous but always ready to pitch in when a potluck dinner needs overseeing or the Vacation Church School needs superintending.
One of the pastoral care horror stories I picked up at seminary concerned the institutionalized wife of a Presbyterian minister. Six days of the week, she went from patient to patient and asked, “Can I help you? Is there anything you need?” On Sundays she flew into such violent rages that she had to be restrained and sedated. The sympathies of the congregation, of course, were largely with her long-suffering, saintly spouse, whose halo gleamed more grandly because of his fidelity to a looney. Not all the spouses of plaster saints wind up with a life full of lithium, of course. Sometimes a spouse will decide she’s had enough and fill up her life with her own work; sometimes she’ll just fax her husband the name and number of her attorney.
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Ed. Note: The first installment of this two-part series appeared in our May issue.