Pope Francis gave an interview that has become international news, mostly because of his comments about priestly celibacy and pedophilia. Later today I will probably write an article on this topic, but that will be a secular offering. Here I wanted to address the issue of priestly celibacy and why I see it as dangerous, not just because of sexual abuse, but because of other spiritual reasons as well.
An Anglican View
First, I must make a disclosure. I could very possibly be accused of a certain bias on the issue of priestly celibacy. My own father is an Anglican priest and was married to my mother for almost 20 years. Without the option of marriage for priests, I would not be here. So you could say that it is partly my own self interest in living that inclines me to disapprove of priestly celibacy.
Furthermore, I was raised as an Anglican and as a rather prejudicial Anglican at that. While I am currently areligious, my own history may represent a bias in theology and education. However, I was taught in a Roman Catholic school curriculum and went to a Jesuit college, so I am well-versed in Roman Catholic teachings on the issue. All those years of education did not change my mind about the issue, so perhaps there is more to it than just a personal bias. You will have to decide that for yourself.
Having raised the topic of my Anglican heritage, let me just give a couple of facts about the Anglican perspective which has informed my views. Anglicans have not enforced a universal practice of priestly celibacy ever. They have had no reason to as a justification for enforced celibacy is not found in the Bible nor in the history of the early church. Thus, Anglicans believe that their tradition is more consistent with that of the entirety of church history and the Bible. A religious justification for not practicing enforced celibacy is found in 1 Corinthians, chapter 7:
“Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” (9-10)
Anglicans also appeal to this part of the chapter:
“I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivideddevotion to the Lord.” (32-35)
An Anglican, therefore, would say that the Bible does not require enforced celibacy, even though it recommends it as a way of life and service to God (see the bolded portion).
Pope Francis and the Interview
Pope Francis’ interview focused on the issue of pedophilia among Catholic priests, something which he apparently called a “leprosy in our house.” There are certin issues with the interview, not the least is which the interviewers technique of not recording or taking notes during the process. Because of this, the Vatican has been able to come out and deny that everything in the interview (particularly the explosive parts) are directly attributable to the pope. They may, in fact, be the inferences and misremembrances of a 90-year-old journalist with a liberal political bent.
But let’s assume for the moment that such statements are accurate. Let us assume that the pope did say he would find solutions to the “ongoing problem” of priestly celibacy. What might that solution be? And what might be its justification?
In my own personal view, priestly celibacy is dangerous for two specific reasons (there are others, but I want to focus on these). First of all, the pedophilia that has infected the clergy of the church is dangerous to the well-being and safety of children. That is a given. Jesus’ own relationship with children was one of safety and welcome. According to him, children belong in the arms of God under the safety of the church. No child should have to fear the words, “Let the little children come unto me.” This is perhaps one of the greatest sins of our time and of the church and it has not been handled well.
Beyond physical safety, there is the issue of spiritual health. Children and others who have been sexually abused are spiritually wounded. They are not beyond healing, but in many cases they will always be wary of the institution that allowed them to be hurt. How is someone supposed to receive spiritual food if they are too hurt and afraid to step inside the church or trust the hands administering the sacrament? It is necessary for us as Christians to acknowledge that the issue goes beyond this world and into the next. Roman Catholic priests who have abused others emperil souls as well as bodies. Perhaps if we actually believed in this concept, a big step could be taken forward.
The second reason I have for believing that priestly celibacy is dangerous is what it sometimes does to priests themselves. The issue of sexual abuse is not just a problem for victims, but for abusers as well. Those priests who have committed such a grave sin are also spiritually wounded. By their actions, they have damaged themselves as well. Care for their souls would require a removal from the situation that adds to their struggle and gives them opportunity for such sin.
In addition, the people who have allowed them to continue and, to many minds, aided and abetted their actions are also to blame. They have placed a stumbling block in front of the priests, the victims, and the church as a whole. Various popes who did not act to decisively end this problem have not just damaged the people involved. They have damaged the whole church, the entire body of Christ.
My personal view is that the enforced requirement of priestly celibacy should be removed. As the pope acknowledged in the interview, the church did not require celibacy for its clergy until about 1,000 years ago. In this respect, the Roman Catholic tradition is removed from the larger tradition of the early church. Some may argue that the current situation is an outcome of a mistake, but that is largely opinion and conjecture. What is sure is that it cannot be allowed to continue.
Why not allow priests to marry? Why not give the option? As Saint Paul says, celibacy is a wonderful thing to serve God, but he did not require it, so perhaps we should not either. Let vows of celibacy be an option for the ordained to chose from. Let them search their hearts in prayerful meditation and decide if such a step will make them better deacons, priests, and bishops. And if they do not come to that conclusion, allow them to be ordained anyway. As a biblical justification, put forth 1 Corinthians 7:9 and 1 Corinthians 8:9. Appeal to church history. There are plenty of reasons to discontinue the enforced practice of celibacy, outside the church, inside the church, and in the Bible as well.
I do not mean in this discussion to lay the blame for sexual abuse by priests completely on the practice of celibacy. To a certain extent, everyone must be held to account for their own actions. Pedophiles and sexual abusers must carry the consequences of their actions. They cannot blame it on their vows of chastity.
But the church should be taking responsibility for its role as well, both in helping to create a situation for this to happen and for not ending the abuses in the ways it can. Enforced priestly celibacy is one of the factors of the situation and it should be discussed as such. Chastity is meant to allow for greater service to God, not its detriment. When it no longer functions in that way, then the practice should be critically examined and improved. Remember, there are many forms of chastity beyond just celibacy and they should not be forgotten in this discussion.