889 Years is a long time.
The celibacy rule is now an
institution in the Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church and sexuality. Opening the can of worms concerning the rule of celibacy for priests.
by Tom Thorne
The Catholic Church has a tortured past concerning human sexuality. Of course the teachings concerning this topic are all conceived to be positive and are directed towards building an exemplary moral life for the faithful. Sexual mores of a Catholic kind can be found in intimate detail in The Catechism of The Catholic Church.
According to the Catechism heterosexual sex is seen as only kind possible and only within the bounds of matrimony between a man and woman with the objective of having children. Marriage is seen as a discipline for human sexual activity and appetites. Marriage is a sacrament of the Church and a covenant with God. Sex outside of this sacrament is clearly seen as sin or a grave disorder.
However, historically celibacy is often seen as a state of being higher than the marriage of a man and woman. However, celibacy is no where near to being a sacrament of the church like marriage. However, it is seen as a higher calling and a departure from the fleshy aspects of life. A high calling and a denial of the flesh whether practiced by clergy or by ordinary Catholics pursuing the single life. It is often prized above marriage as a measure of self control mixed in with a quest for spirituality unobtainable apparently to those engaging in sexual relations.
Christ is the ultimate model for chastity and the basis for celibacy and self control of this kind. And if your sexuality happens to be homosexual, then chastity and celibacy is your only way to live your life because otherwise you are in an automatic state of sin as a Catholic if you live out your orientation in the flesh. It’s the sexless single life for you to stave off sin.
Sex in the eyes of the Catholic Church is seen as a great temptation that requires lots of self control and it is also seen as something very close to the Devil or at least a potential track leading to grave sin of some kind. It is all laid out in The Catechism of The Catholic Church a document rarely examined by the faithful for its finer points on these matters.
When a priest falls from this high celibacy pedestal then the problems really arise. Even if celibacy is defacto a promise to a bishop and not a part of the sacrament of ordination to become a priest, a fall from celibacy is a serious breach of promise in the eyes of the church hierarchy. There is a lot of weight placed on this promise. It is rooted in tradition.
When they fall from their celibacy promise priests are placed on “administrative leave” and often sent to treatment centres devoted to rescuing them from their sexual failings, and sins. It is perhaps in its best form a type of reconciliation or attempt to mitigate sin and remain within a Catholic context. In a way it recognizes a type of contorted sexuality where intimacy is shunned as sin. It places sexual frustrations and tensions on the back burner with the heat set at simmer. The emphasis is on getting back into control if the priest in crisis is to ever return to a parish.
Many priests experience a burnout from trying to live this life of celibate chastity. Parish work is demanding and there is never enough time and when there is downtime for priests on a lonely vigil of sexual self control. The main reason why priests crash or fall from grace is that they often live alone and are frankly lonely people bereft of human interaction except in a controlled “don’t get too close” way. Sometimes it is not enough to live without intimacy. Sometimes this situation slips into pederasty or illicit sexual contacts with young people in their charge.
This inward life plays well for some but for others it is a psychological drag on their self esteem as they suppress their sexual orientations, feelings and desires or at worst the person retains a juvenile sexuality that teenagers usually work through from dating and the experimenting with life. Many priests enter seminary training without these life experiences. Their innocence is eventually their undoing.
The results we know. Case after case of priests burning out from too many parish duties combined with trying to live alone, perhaps praying to God for help as they wrestle with their truncated sexuality and lack of social interaction without anxiety or the potential for compromising their position as a priest. They must always be paragons of virtue. Always on a pedestal. This approach is remedy for a breakdown. This is a recipe for problems. From the Church’s point of view it can always be sorted by more self control and more prayer.
Arguments from the Catholic Church hierarchies that all faiths have sexual problems with their clergy really don’t amount to a solid case to meet their own problem. The truth is that the life of a priest is hard without intimate human company. The Catholic rules at the moment preclude priests from anything but a life of chastity and celibacy. Celibacy is a human rule made that emerged early in church history. It is, however, a rule and therefore can be changed.
So why not change the rules? Why are priests unable to marry? And why do we have issues like married men becoming deacons and they promise if their wife dies they will take on the celibate life. Why can’t a deacon remarry? And if a Anglican priest decides as a married man to join the Catholic Church he can do so and remain married.
The origins of celibacy go deep into Church history but they culminated in 1123 at the first Lateran Council and again in 1139 at the Second Lateran Council. The actual text for 1123 reads:
“Canon 3: We absolutely forbid priests, deacons, and subdeacons to associate with concubines and women, or to live with women other than such as the Nicene Council (NC)(NC Canon 3: states that you may stay with a wife who you married before ordination as a priest ) for reasons of necessity permitted, namely, the mother, sister, or aunt, or any such person concerning whom no suspicion could arise.
Canon 21: We absolutely forbid priests, deacons, subdeacons, and monks to have concubines or to contract marriage. We decree in accordance with the definitions of the sacred canons, that marriages already contracted by such persons must be dissolved, and that the persons be condemned to do penance.”
Sixteen years later after obviously failing to fully implement the 1123 Canons, the Second Lateran Council (1139), in which some five hundred bishops took part, enacted the following canons or rules:
“Canon 6: We also decree that those who in the subdiaconate and higher orders have contracted marriage or have concubines, be deprived of their office and ecclesiastical benefice. For since they should be and be called the temple of God, the vessel of the Lord, the abode of the Holy Spirit, it is unbecoming that they indulge in marriage and in impurities.
Canon 7: Following in the footsteps of our predecessors, the Roman pontiffs Gregory VII, Urban, and Paschal, we command that no one attend the masses of those who are known to have wives or concubines. But that the law of continence and purity, so pleasing to God, may become more general among persons constituted in sacred orders, we decree that bishops, priests, deacons, subdeacons, canons regular, monks, and professed clerics (conversi) who, transgressing the holy precept, have dared to contract marriage, shall be separated. For a union of this kind which has been contracted in violation of the ecclesiastical law, we do not regard as matrimony. Those who have been separated from each other, shall do penance commensurate with such excesses.”
This tortured approach to normal sexuality has gone on for centuries finally culminating in 1123-39 period when it was institutionalized as a rule. After this time it remained very hard to implement with many priests remaining married and even popes retaining wives and families.
In contemporary times there is nothing to stop the Vatican from rescinding these 12th century rules. They were made by men and they can be changed by men. Other reasons for these rules in the 12th century was based on the ownership of land or inheritances and even offices claimed by the children of priests upon the death of their fathers.
This was especially true of medieval feudal bishops, cardinals and popes who often personally owned large estates and were often members of the landed aristocracies. Some of these people owned a diocese as a feudal fiefdom holding the office of bishop and very often without ordination into the priesthood and sometimes taking ordination as a way to hold property. Often they simply hired a priest to execute their priestly functions while drawing on the revenues of the diocese.
The Lateran Council rules also set in motion a devaluation of marriage and to some degree ingrained the misogynistic approach to women that permeates the history of the Church. Women are seen in a temptress role started by Eve and her pact with the Serpent when she defied God’s command. Women are seen as creators of sexual tensions not as partners in the work of Christ. Wives and concubines are seen in the Lateran Canons as one in the same.
More liberal Catholics recently polled clergy throughout US dioceses. The mean average of this poll for the question “Would you like to see the rule concerning the marriage of priests reexamined” was about 70 percent in favour. 25 percent felt the status quo was fine and the remaining five percent had no opinion.
Also statistics for attracting men to the priesthood have been dropping appreciably for the last 40 years. These numbers basically demonstrate that at least the celibacy rule should be re-examined. The married deacon numbers are rising slightly but since they cannot perform all priestly duties they are simply helpers to a waning priesthood.
However, the status quo goes on regardless that an aging population in Europe and North America means fewer men will enter the priesthood anyway. This fact spells severe problems for manning the existing churches of most dioceses. It seems that the church cannot escape old ideas and is willing to see the church fade away rather than make changes that would help to keep churches open.
© Copyright 2012, Tom Thorne, All Rights Reserved
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