Celibacy—A Diocesan View
Rev. William Messenger
(This article appeared in the National Catholic Reporter, entitled "Celibacy as problem")
Part of the experience of being a living Church is the continued reevaluation of past positions, disciplinary or doctrinal. One such position is celibacy. Given its persistence and the strong opinions on both sides, it should be obvious that the celibacy debate will not end with synodal statements or papal pronouncements. Some modification of the official position is required. But on what basis?
Not infrequently, the approach of the magisterium has been to ignore (deliberately or accidentally) the real questions behind the issue. Perceiving celibacy in terms of tradition vs progress, or restricting the question to its practical implications, combined with the Roman Church's hang-up with sex, the magisterium entrenches itself in the past, reiterating ill-conceived "principles" of little, if any, substance. On this point I would like to refer the reader to an article by John Garvey which appeared in Commonweal Oct. 26, 1979.
Not all the blame, however, should be shouldered by the magisterium. Often the opponents of celibacy posit weak arguments. Weak because they are extreme in their personalism or sweeping in their conclusions. The opponents often do not so much present arguments as identify problems. The shortage of priests and decline in seminary enrollment may be problems, but are not necessarily arguments for abolishing celibacy. Both sides, while possessing an element of truth, have mishandled the problem of declining priestly vocations.
The debate over celibacy (which is really a non-debate as I see little indication the magisterium is listening) will not, unfortunately, conclude quickly. In which case, we need to continue to press the question.
The real issue of celibacy is not whether we should have a celibate priesthood, but whether we should have a celibate diocesan priesthood. The distinction is based on the following considerations: First, the religious priest takes a vow of celibacy the diocesan priest makes a promise of celibacy.
The distinction raises the dimension of freedom. A religious priest freely embraces celibacy, not for the priesthood, but antecedently for his life as a religious. And he does so not because celibacy is part of the religious life, but because celibacy is integral. By contrast, the diocesan priest accepts celibacy for the priesthood. He does so not because celibacy is integral to his priestly life, but because in the present discipline of the Roman Church, celibacy is part of his priestly life. It is something akin to buying lunch at a fast food chain where the hamburger is automatically served with onions.
I, for one, did not choose celibacy. I chose priesthood and accepted celibacy because there was no choice. I do not consider myself to have been free. There was simply no other way to be ordained. And even in accepting celibacy, it was not a vow. The distinction between vow and promise is perhaps more important than is immediately evident, and leads directly into the second consideration.
Although there is a sexual dimension to the issue of celibacy, there is a deeper and broader understanding of that dimension than the obvious one of love-making. It can be called belonging--specifically, belonging to a family. This, perhaps, throws into sharpest relief the distinction between religious and diocesan priests, and forms the basis of why I favor a married diocesan clergy.
When a man enters a religious community, whether or not he intends to become a priest, he enters a family. I do not mean to suggest that all religious communities are ideal or that they do not have to struggle with being a family. Nor do I mean to suggest that the individual religious does not have to struggle with his celibacy or how he fits into the community. I only point out that a religious community is its own family and celibacy is integral to its life style.
In the religious community, the individual can experience and develop the intimacy, warmth and affection that we associate with the basic family unit. In this religious family there is belonging.
When a man enters the diocesan priesthood, however, there is no community, no family. I remember that my first real vocation crisis occurred in college when my older sister began raising her family. When I spent time with them, and especially while caring for the children, I developed a strong desire to raise my own family. I knew I could not if I was to be a priest. So I resolved the crisis by swallowing the party line. Since my ordination, I have again experienced a desire to raise my own family. I have experienced what it means to be alone. I have also experienced belonging. I have fortunately been given the opportunity to develop a very special relationship with some friends--a relationship which is not priest and people, nor is it just friends. It is family. It is belonging. It is home. Here I experience the intimacy, warmth and affection of a family.
But even in the best of surrogate families, the priest is never the father. So the sexual dimension of celibacy, the life-long living out of family is not fully resolved. Nor can it be outside of a vow. For in the vowed state, whether it be celibacy or marriage, those who share the vow are the source of support and strength for each other.
We must face the truth that celibacy in the diocesan clergy is abnormal. As in any abnormal situation, the individual must seek compensation. Some forms of healthy compensation include strong and supportive relationships that other priests which, despite the term "brotherhood", only appropriate a family. Another form might be relationships with parishioners where the priest is comfortable enough to be himself. Most rare, yet most fulfilling is the family relationship described above, where the priest is not just welcome, but truly belongs.
Through compensation, a priest may grow personally, but it is compensation and does not alter the fact that we are dealing with an abnormality. Is there not a correlation in the fact that the diocesan priesthood tends to attract many men who are basically bachelors--men who do not want the commitment of either community or family, desiring rather the freedom to live self-contained lives?
The celibate is no more called to holiness or closeness with the Lord than anyone else. Furthermore, God has created us social beings and he enters our lives through other people. Nowhere does the Lord demand surrendering our humanity as a basis for following him. I have a great suspicion of the priest who says he needs no one but the Lord. I wonder is he has read the same Scriptures I have.
Many religious communities have experienced a leveling off, some even an increase in vocations, while diocesan vocations continue to decline. In the absence of belonging, no person can be fully human. It should not be surprising then, that we find some of the most fully developed priests to be members of wholesome and supportive religious communities.
It should also not be surprising that we find a good number of emotionally crippled individuals among the diocesan clergy, even some of those who, hiding behind the vestiges of authority and power, appear self-sufficient. This should elicit sympathy and understanding for the individual priest and condemnation for the institution which causes it.
It remains to be seen if the magisterium will engage in honest and open debate on celibacy. It should also be noted that because of the authoritarian control exercised over priests on this issue, in the absence of honest and open debate, the regulation on celibacy is an abuse of power.
The Church community would experience untold benefit and renewal if the magisterial position were modified to preserve and support celibacy among the religious clergy and provide for optional celibacy among diocesan clergy.
Optional celibacy is not a panacea for priestly problems anymore than marriage is a panacea for the problems of husband and wife. But should optional celibacy be provided for the diocesan clergy, it would certainly be interesting to see if celibacy would die out. Will we get the chance?
(Rev. William Messenger is a priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles)