According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), marriage is a sacrament, and “the grace of the sacrament thus perfects the human love of the spouses, strengthens their indissoluble unity, and sanctifies them on the way to eternal life” (CCC 1661). Also, the Catechism claims that “marriage helps to overcome self-absorption, egoism, pursuit of one’s own pleasure, and to open oneself to the other, to mutual aid and to self-giving” (CCC 1609). Well, any honest and objective observer will have to admit that these words do not reflect reality. Therefore, for the sake of the Church’s integrity and for the health of society, it is possible for a Catholic to argue against marriage.
After all, how often has one met people who got married in order to aid in mutual self-giving and sanctification? The large number of unmarried people indicates that good people are staying away from marriage because of these unrealistic demands. If the Church were to remove these burdens, surely more people would get married. In the modern era, expecting people to join together for life as a means of getting to Heaven is naïve and backward, and this medieval notion needs to be abandoned, especially when the majority of Catholic people ignore such obsolete Church teaching.
Also, one must confront the fact that most marriages end in divorce. The number of people leaving the married state is staggering. Any educated person can see that the obvious solution is to abolish marriage and its antiquated taboos and thereby end the scandal of divorce. Besides, has anyone ever heard a homily against divorce, or against divorce and remarriage? From such silence we learn that even priests and bishops recognize that in these enlightened times marriage can no longer be defended.
More grave is the fact that most sexual abuse of minors occurs within families. One need consider only a married man like Jerry Sandusky, the most notorious of married pedophiles. Clearly, if he had not been married, he would never have committed those terrible crimes. No logical person can counter the argument that his sexual abuse of teenage boys resulted from the corrupt culture of marriage, which unreasonably confines a man to an exclusive relationship with one woman. Only a narrow-minded bigot would suggest that his actions derived in any way from same-sex attraction.
Substitute the word “priesthood” for “marriage” in the foregoing and you have the typical argument against clerical celibacy. For example, in the New York Times of December 2, 2013, Bill Keller wrote a column entitled “Sex and the Single Priest.” That title plays upon that of a popular book from the 1960s, Sex and the Single Girl , a manifesto of the sexual revolution. Keller’s point is that for decades good men have been leaving the Catholic priesthood and getting married because of the ancient discipline of celibacy.
That discipline dates, not to the eleventh century, as Keller and many others before him have asserted, but rather to the earliest centuries of the Church. In the late 300s, a monk named Jovinian argued against the discipline of clerical celibacy and against consecrated virginity. He maintained that those ways of life were unnecessary and not objectively superior to the married state. Pope Siricius, Saint Ambrose, and Saint Jerome wrote against Jovinian and reaffirmed the longstanding expectation for priests to be celibate.
Note, please, the phrasing of objective superiority. Subjectively, priests, monks, and nuns have a lot to learn from married people. To take but one example, even non-ordained monks are in passing addressed as “Father,” although the proper title is “Brother.” Monks and priests must be credible paternal presences, and they can benefit from the example of good married men, men who are faithful husbands and edifying fathers. A monk or priest ought to be able to be mistaken for someone’s dad.
Also to be noted is the technical term “discipline.” It is true that the Church’s teaching about clerical celibacy occupies a lower level than, say, what one finds in the Nicene Creed regarding the Person and Natures of Christ. Likewise, clerical celibacy, unlike marriage, has no roots in the Ten Commandments, not to mention anthropology or even biology. As a discipline, clerical celibacy is open to discussion, and as is so often said, this discipline could be changed tomorrow. A discipline is not on the level of a dogma.
Of course, if the discipline of celibacy could be changed tomorrow, then it is not intrinsic to the sacrament of holy orders. As Keller notes, within the Roman rite there are married priests, some having been Anglican priests. Celibacy is essential, however, to the monastic calling; by its nature, monastic life requires one to be a solitary.
Here one may pause and ask whether a discipline for priests that has been around since at least the fourth century ought to be changed. More to the point, what makes this era in Church history the best time for such a change? Would it not have been better to have changed it in the days of Pope Siricius, when Graeco-Roman culture put a noticeably low value on celibacy? Or perhaps it ought to have been changed during the Renaissance, when some priests and even Popes had mistresses and fathered children. Before one insists that the Church must relax the discipline of clerical celibacy, one must explain why it should be relaxed at this particular time.
It is an old principle that the abuse of something does not take away its use. One does not ban handwriting because there are forgers. It is true that just as some married people have been adulterers or child molesters, some priests have failed to live up to the ideal of celibacy. Still, could it be that someone who wants to get rid of the discipline of clerical celibacy really wants in general to do away with discipline?
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B., is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.