Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Bricks, centipedes and priestly celibacy

Fr. Dwight Longenecker: priest, husband and dad.
Thus the great spoilsman senator, Roscoe P. Conkling: “When [Samuel] Johnson defined patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel, he ignored the enormous possibilities of the word reform.”

The saying, Ecclesia semper reformanda, “The Church is always to be reformed”, is of Protestant coinage but still true and worthy of adoption by Catholics.  The problem is, however, that reformation has always meant different things to different people.

For instance, in an article on NBCNews.com concerning the decline of attendance in Polish churches, Zbigniew Nosowski of the Catholic monthly Wiez “foresees the church accepting a married priesthood this century as a way to counteract the decline in men seeking the priesthood.”

“We will need more priests to fulfill our basic ritual demands — like performance of the Eucharist,” [Nosowski] said.
Some religion writers say the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI could provide an opportunity for other equally bold changes, such as open discussion of birth control, civil unions and in vitro fertilization.
“If we can accept the resignation of a pope, we should be able to accept other big changes,” said Adam Szostkiewicz, a writer for Polityka, a secular liberal magazine. “People here are prepared for deeper changes and a more democratic style of managing things.”

As I’ve said before here, Benedict’s resignation isn’t the game-changer Szostkiewicz and others believe it to be. There are issues the cardinals will speak of when they go into conclave, and doubtless the majority will want a reformer to build on the emeritus pope’s legacy. But they’ll mostly want reform, not innovation. Clerical celibacy gives us a case in point.


First, let’s define our terms so we’re all on the same page. Celibate, strictly defined, simply means “unmarried”. Because in orthodox Christian moral theology sex is only proper within the bounds of holy matrimony, to say that someone is “celibate” usually carries with it the assumption that the person is also sexually inactive (continent); the vow of celibacy is perforce also a vow of continence. Chastity is associated with virginity, but it’s actually less precise than that; it’s more of a manner of living that treats sex with the proper respect and dignity due the potentially sacramental. A husband or wife who’s faithful, doesn’t flirt with other people and doesn’t flaunt his/her sexuality is as chaste as a young person who has never had sexual contact beyond a romantic embrace.

Now, it’s true that the requirement of celibacy is a relative latecomer to the Western rite. It’s also true that priestly celibacy isn’t a matter of dogma but rather of discipline, which can be changed at need and doesn’t reach the issue of the Church’s infallibility.

However, as Fr. Dwight Longenecker — who’s married and has four kids — points out, married priests have their own problems, some of which they share with celibate priests and some which are unique to being family men. “Having married priests would certainly help the vocations crisis, and they may relate better to married people etc. However, believing that married priests are the answer assumes that they are mature, happily married men. Errr, I’m afraid marriage does not automatically make a man mature, self giving and happy.” Read his take on the matter, and make a donation while you’re there … the poor man works too hard.

One point that can’t be stressed enough is that marriage would not prevent priests from becoming sexual predators. The only uniquely Catholic feature of the scandals is the bishops’ cover-ups; among other religious communions, psychological denial does all the work. But you don’t have to do a lot of study to learn that adults who prey on children are very frequently married, either victimizing their own kids or targeting single and divorced parents. The psyches of such men are damaged long before they become seminary candidates, almost always by having been victims themselves; it could almost be said that pederasts reproduce themselves in a manner analogous to vampires.

Spiritually, there are both a positive and a negative aspect to the celibate among us — and in saying this, I’m not thinking only of priests and religious.

The negative[*] aspect is in celibacy’s denial of the flesh’s mastery over us: we are either slaves to sin, which leads to eternal suffering, or slaves of righteousness which leads to eternal life (Rom 6:15-23). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus, using rabbinic hyperbole, advises we pluck out our eye or cut off our hand if either leads us to sin (Mt 5:29-30); it’s in this same spirit that he tells the disciples that “there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:12). Sexual sins take their own toll over time, and reduce us to a kind of slavery too closely related to alcoholism and drug addiction. The celibate among us show that sexual abstinence is not only humanly possible but sustainable and not inherently unhealthy; they are signs of contradiction, standing as human testimony to the falsehood of much which the world imagines to be true.

The positive spiritual aspect is in its indirect affirmation of the goodness of marriage and physical paternity. There is no religious ritual known to man which offers the gods the sacrifice of a dog turd. Rather, the very nature of sacrifice entails the surrender of the best the worshiper possesses — which goes far towards explaining the Carthaginians’ horrific offering of their children to Moloch. Celibacy is no sacrifice if the man to be ordained dislikes the very thought of sex, marriage and childrearing; indeed, such men don’t make good priests, and aren’t likely to be sponsored by their bishops for priestly formation.

C. S. Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, described the difference between the authentic reformer and the innovator most memorably: “It is the difference between a man who says to us: ‘You like your vegetables moderately fresh; why not grow your own and have them perfectly fresh?’ and a man who says, ‘Throw away that loaf and try eating bricks and centipedes instead.’” The point is that the authentic reformer works within the spirit and tradition of that which he reforms, whereas the mere innovator approaches that which is to be reformed from the outside, without any true respect for or understanding of the thing’s essential genius.

Ending priestly celibacy under the present circumstances would not be an authentic reform but a mere innovation. It would create far more problems than it would solve; in sooth, we don’t know that it would even solve the problem of the priest shortage. Reducing celibacy to an option would effectively make marriage obligatory, as happened in the Anglican/Episcopalian communions.

Worst of all, it would deprive us of a vital form of witness that we need today more than ever. True sexual and reproductive autonomy lies only in our self-restraint; the person who can’t say “No” is enslaved. The celibate among us shows that joy and fulfillment are still possible even when we deny ourselves things that are good.

Because, all too often, we end up turning good things into harsh, demanding gods.


[*] By negative I don’t mean that it’s a “down side” but rather that it denies something rather than affirm it.