The Catholic Church should end its policy of celibacy for priests


I can’t think of a single good reason for the Catholic Church to continue its policy of compulsory celibacy for priests. I search in vain in my mind for any convincing explanation to maintain the current harmful discipline.

Until the Second Lateran Council in 1139, most priests married, sharing this experience with the majority of the families of the pews. It seems that the main reason for the unfortunate change in policy had to do with the fact that the children of priests claimed inheritance based on descent. Naturally, this clashed with the church’s commitment to retain ownership of any accumulated wealth.

The problem of inheritance could and should have been settled by means other than the extreme prohibition of marriage by the priests. Sigmund Freud asserts that after self-preservation, the next most demanding human drive involves procreation, and single people must find ways to meet this human sexual imperative as much as married men.

Over the past 50 years, the Roman Catholic Church has been battered by a seemingly endless succession of child abuse scandals. We are talking about priests and brothers demanding a full range of sexual favors from innocent children and using the power of their clerical status to intimidate their victims into silence about their “special relationship”.

If the disastrous behavior was reported to ecclesiastical authorities, bishops and other powerful men in chancery offices sought to protect their institution by moving the culprits to where, in a new setting, they often continued their sexual rampage. Parents trusted these men because of the Roman collar they wore.

Abused children felt isolated and many suffered long-term negative consequences, including a plethora of suicides. It’s hard to imagine the sense of abandonment felt by churchgoers as the depth of the betrayal sank.

Today, religious leaders have lost their credibility and wear a red question mark on their cassocks.

Predictably, disillusioned Catholics left the church in droves when they realized the metaphor of the initial defense over a few rotten apples was silly when reality showed the whole orchard was rotting. . Trust in the American church among parishioners has fallen from a credible 70% to a meager 20%, and weekly Mass attendance has fallen from 31% in 2000 to 17% in 2021.

Revelations are still pouring in as major diocesan and national organizations reveal that the rot was not limited to any geographic area. Stories from missionary countries, made up mostly of Western priests and brothers, are just filtering through now.

Some of these men who have navigated their way through cultures with different sexual traditions and expectations have found satisfaction with mature local women. Children from these clandestine relationships present new challenges, especially for the welfare of unclaimed children.

A French survey last year concluded that at least 216,000 children had been abused there over the past 70 years. Figures from other surveys are just as damning. Early indications of a major ongoing Portuguese investigation suggest another explosive revelation is on the way from the Catholic country.

The dismal numbers fueled calls for change. Already strict instructions from Rome have ensured that any church official – priest, brother or layperson – credibly accused of sexual misconduct is immediately suspended and local police are notified of the alleged transgression – very different from past practice.

Church leaders regularly make the fallacious argument that by renouncing marriage, priests imitate Jesus and can devote themselves more fully to their flock. In fact, Christ mostly chose married men among his apostles, and we read in the Gospel of Matthew that he cured Peter’s mother-in-law who was suffering from a fever.

The disastrous handling of the abuse crisis by single men has raised the important question of how parents would have handled it had they had any clout. Would they have covered up the allegations and moved the evil priests to other parishes, hoping, somehow, that they would behave differently in a new place?

Sexual abusers appear to be unusually common among clergy, perhaps because the job offers a wealth of opportunity to meet children and, until recently, to enjoy unqualified parental approval for such access. Some professionals estimate that between six and nine percent of priests have strong pedophile tendencies compared to one to three percent in the general population.

Irish psychologist Marie Keenan argues that violent priests are products of a twisted training system that has left them obsessed with an adolescent level of sexual development.

The first recognized Christian theologian, Tertullian, considered sexuality to be a “seething cesspool of desire”. For him, it was sin that transcended all others and women were seen as the downfall of man, a view that was later supported by Augustine of Hippo whose misogynistic thinking still influences the approach of Rome towards women.

Thinking about this whole area of ​​youth care, women are much less likely than men to engage in sexually abusive behaviors.

Many Eastern Rite churches, aligned with Rome, allow their priests to marry before ordination. Significantly, these churches have low levels of reported sexual abuse.

The Catholic Church desperately lacks priests. If they let go of their celibacy and their exclusively masculine demands, it would open up a stimulating new pool. Many aspirants don’t want to give up on sex and parenthood, and that will continue to have a chilling effect until the Vatican changes the rules.

Priestly celibacy continues to be a controversial topic of debate among the world’s 1.4 billion Catholics. Outside of Africa, a clear majority of church members want change.

This has a certain weight but is not decisive. The prelates, the men in power, must be convinced of the need for new church structures, and most will use any bogus argument to maintain the status quo and their own continued authority.

Let’s put aside for a moment the various power games that many in the hierarchy will continue to play to justify maintaining the status quo, and instead focus on the terrible damage that compulsory celibacy does to men who are forced to follow this antiquated and dehumanizing politics. to reign.

Compulsory virginity for priests may have made sense in 12th-century culture, but it certainly does not today.

In a recent speech, Desmond Cahill, an Australian professor and expert on world religions, said that many priests “are terrified by their own sexual desire”.

Father Daniel O’Leary of the village of Rathmore in County Kerry was a parish priest and professor of theology in England until his death a few years ago. He is the author of a dozen books, and in his last essay before facing what he calls “the final inspection”, he movingly describes celibacy as “a kind of sin, an attack against nature and the will of God. This obligatory celibacy does violence to the humanity of a priest and leaves wounds on his ministry.

Is there any chance that Rome will heed O’Leary’s profound words and abandon its antiquated ways?

This column first appeared in the July 27 edition of the weekly Irish Voice. Gerry O’Shea blogs at


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