The unexpected resignation of Benedict XVI from the papacy and the subsequent conclave and election of his successor produced a blizzard of public commentary on the state of the Catholic Church, and in particular calls to abandon celibacy as a required discipline for priests, notably in Bret Stephens’ Wall Street Journal column “A Church, If You Can Keep It.”
Stephens believes desire must be satisfied, and denial of satisfaction is a kind of self-mutilation. Based on this view, he contends that celibacy in the Catholic priesthood is the cause of sexual scandal among Catholic priests. He sketches the problem of sexual abuse among the clergy, and then announces that the “obvious and needful solution is to abolish the celibacy of the priesthood, a stricture that all but guarantees the sordid outcomes described above.” The Church, he admonishes, must learn “that to require the unnatural means, too often, to reap the despicable.”
Such data as Stephens provides do not support this conclusion. He admits that, according to the evidence we have, the vast majority of Catholic priests are not sexual abusers of children. But never mind. Scientific empiricism aside, his principle at least sounds reasonable, and it might work out to be true in the long run and in the aggregate even if the presently available evidence does not support it. Is it not futile and dangerous to try to conquer our natural and ordinary desires? If they are rooted in our nature, will they not rebel and burst forth in ways that are disorderly and dangerous? Would it not be better to give them their due?
On the contrary, civilization constantly calls all of us to discipline our desires on a routine basis. All of us must control our urges to gratify our pleasures, our thirst for gain, or for revenge, in order that we may submit to just public order or fulfill our moral duties to others. Civilization also routinely requires some small segment of the population to deny its desires in a radical and heroic manner. And when that radical denial results in dangerous distortions of the soul, we cast blame reasonably not on the discipline itself, but on the soul that was not prepared to undergo its rigors.
This is true, for example, about military service. It is deeply against nature, in the sense of being against deeply felt desires, to train men to kill each other. Any normal and decent person has a natural aversion to using violence to the point of destroying another. Yet we train men to do it, we teach them to suppress and overcome their reluctance, because it has to be done. Civilization cannot be preserved if it cannot defend itself against its enemies, who are all too often willing to resort to violence and who can only be stopped by force.
Moreover, in training some of our fellow citizens to kill we must also train them to die—or at least to endure the threat of death to a far greater extent than is normal for a human being. To do their work properly they must learn to discipline and even deny their normal, natural fear of death and violence. They must expose themselves to death deliberately, and still function effectively, when most of us would flee, following the promptings of nature.
On Stephens’ view, such military training would have to be thrown overboard—and civilization along with it—because it frustrates nature and therefore does violence to the soul. And indeed it does, to an extent. Common sense and experience tell us that such training will unhinge some people. Hence the atrocities that are commonly committed in war. Hence also the self-destructiveness that warriors may sometimes display. Train masses of men to kill in a just cause and under orders, and it is inevitable that some will kill when it is wrong to do so. Train them to expose themselves willingly to death, and it is inevitable that some will turn out reckless and heedless of their own lives.
None of this, however, alters the fact that training for combat service is reasonable, honorable and necessary. In fact, we see these men as more admirable than the norm, even heroic. Their nobility, and the real necessity of the function they perform, are in no way negated by the few sad cases who break down under the pressures of this way of life. We rightly attribute the downfall of the latter not to military training, but to the individual’s unsuitability for it.
So it is with celibacy. Any just and reasonable estimate of the Catholic priesthood would hold that the vast majority of priests are good men doing good work, that a few of them are saints, and that a few at the opposite end of the spectrum are wretched moral failures. But the failure of the latter cannot reasonably be made grounds of condemnation of the whole priestly way of life—any more than the existence of war criminals or suicidal veterans should be invoked to condemn the warrior’s life. If the Church’s discipline is to be blamed for the existence of pedophile priests, the problem is not celibacy but error or laxness in choosing who is suited to a life of celibacy. And even here there must be some limit to the blame, since it is beyond human powers to make this determination infallibly.
The critic of priestly celibacy might respond that there is an important difference between the priest and the warrior. It is necessary to run risks with the souls of warriors: Our society cannot even be preserved without them. But one may ask what good celibacy accomplishes that justifies the rigors that it imposes. Does the celibate priesthood serve any real human need? We may suggest two answers to this question, answers that should be intelligible even to the secular conservative, and indeed to anybody.
Human beings seem to have a natural impulse toward religious belief and practice. In the words of Edmund Burke, man is by his constitution a religious being. Moreover, because of our sociable nature, we frequently try to foster our relationship to the divine in groups. Further, our sociability inevitably involves hierarchy. Accordingly, as common observation and experience tell us, human beings incline toward the practice of organized, institutional religion, accompanied by spiritual leaders who superintend our worship of the divine.
On this basis, it is altogether reasonable—although admittedly not absolutely necessary—to ask those spiritual leaders to dedicate themselves entirely to their lofty and honorable calling by surrendering some of the pleasures enjoyed by ordinary people, including sexual pleasures. This surrender is not pointless. It adds vitality to the life of the religious community by reminding all of its members that their worship is directed at something that is real and supremely good and therefore worth the sacrifice of some of our earthly joys.
In sum, religion satisfies a real human need—one just as real as the need for security served by the warrior—and that need is arguably satisfied more convincingly with a spiritual ministry that embraces the discipline of celibacy. This can be seen in the continued vitality of Catholicism as other Christian churches that do not ask celibacy of their leaders decline.
Priestly celibacy reminds us that sex need not be our god, that there are higher things to which we can and should dedicate ourselves. Their example will not lead most of us to be celibate, but it can inspire us to govern our sexuality with a view to those higher things and to the common good. The need for such discipline should be clear when we consider the human wreckage that accompanies the culture of pornography and illegitimacy.
Unlike warriors, the celibate are not necessary to the preservation of our society from external foes. They may, however, be necessary to making the society we wish to preserve truly worthy of our humanity.
Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity.