The Church's tradition of priestly celibacy has been called into question in the past. But recent revelations that some priests have engaged in sexual abuse of minors have led some people to allowing priests to marry would solve the problem.

In a statement after their meeting with Pope John Paul II last month, the U.S. cardinals noted that a link between sexual abuse and celibacy “cannot be scientifically maintained.” They said their discussions with the Pope “reaffirmed the value of priestly celibacy as a gift of God to the Church.”

Statistics seem to back up their claim. While 4% of married people and 7% of the general lay population have engaged in sexual abuse of minors, less than 2% of priests have been involved in the behavior, noted Norbertine Father Thomas Nelson executive director of the Institute on Religious Life and professor of philosophy at the Norbertine seminary in Orange, Calif. A recent Associated Press report found that less than a half of 1% of priests have been convicted or even accused of sexual abuse of minors in America in the past several decades.

“So celibacy helps to decrease the problem,” said Nelson.

In interviews with the Register, several priests spoke of the value of celibacy as central to the meaning of the priesthood. Some echoed the cardinals' words that it is a gift, not an unbearable burden, and said it would be “disastrous” if the Church dispensed with the requirement or made celibacy optional.

But they also said that more must be done both by the individual priest and by the Church to reaffirm the meaning and practice of the priestly vow.

A Former Priest's View

Robert McClory, a former priest and a member of the national board of Call to Action, acknowledged that celibacy is a “marvelous charism” but maintained that it is a gift given to only a very few. Call to Action advocates discarding what it calls the “medieval discipline of mandatory celibacy.”

But celibacy goes all the way back to Jesus and the early bishops, like Paul, Timothy and Titus. The argument that celibacy was imposed in the Middle Ages to prevent Church property from being handed down to priests' sons is “invalid,” said Father Thomas McGovern, author of “Priestly Celibacy Today.” (See interview, page 10.) From early on in the Church's history, the married men who sought ordination were required to commit to perpetual continence for the rest of their lives, a requirement that was codified in the early 300s, he said.

The link between celibacy and the priesthood was established in Christ himself, said Father McGovern, a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei in Dublin. Jesus went against the socio-cultural and religious climate of his time, which saw the lack of descendants as a curse, and freed himself to be “totally available to do his Father's will.”

“By sacramental ordination every priest is configured to Jesus and shares his priesthood in such an intimate way that he acts in the person of Christ,” he said. “The sacrament of Orders gives the priest a share in the mystery of Christ as Spouse of the Church. The priest, as icon of Christ, has then to love the Church with the same spousal love, loving her with an exclusive, sacrificial love which results in the fruitfulness of spiritual paternity, generating new children of God through his sacramental and pastoral ministry.”

McClory said that polls and sociological studies find that celibacy is the biggest obstacle for young men considering the priesthood. More specific polls, however, find that while celibacy is a serious issue, it is not a deterrent to young men pursuing a call to the priesthood. A 1997 survey of youth and parents conducted by the U.S. Bishops Committee on Vocations found that those who have seriously considered a vocation are more likely to fear parental or peer reaction to their inclination to the priesthood than the challenge of celibacy.

Though he wasn't ready to assert that it is at the root of the sex abuse crisis, he said that mandatory celibacy “does violence to human nature.”

“You have a lot of priests who thought they had the gift (of celibacy) but don't ,” he said, asserting that a man ordained at age 25 or 26 is too young to know. If after ordination he finds out that he doesn't , he is stuck. Priests then go on to “lead lives of intense loneliness and anguish.”

McClory was laicized in 1971 after 13 years as a priest and then married.

A Catholic University of America survey of priests' attitudes in February found that only 11% of priests feel that celibacy is a great problem to them on a day-to-day basis.

The Meaning of Celibacy

Simply put, celibacy is the state of being unmarried. But priestly celibacy is a consecration, which entails freely renouncing the goods of marriage and family. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting Matthew's Gospel, explains that priests are chosen from among men of faith who “intend to remain celibate‘for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.’”

“Called to consecrate themselves with undivided heart to the Lord and to‘The affairs of the Lord,’ they give themselves entirely to God and to men,” the Catechism says (paragraph 1579). “Celibacy is a sign of this new life to the service of which the Church's minister is consecrated; accepted with a joyous heart celibacy radiantly proclaims the Reign of God.”

Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, explained that priestly celibacy is a model of what heaven will be like, where there is no marriage.

Priestly celibacy has a triple motive:

P The relationship of the priest to Christ the High Priest, who voluntarily chose to be celibate and invited others to do so.

P The relationship of the priest to the Church, the Bride of Christ.

P The relationship of the priest to the core of his message: the future goods of Heaven, where they neither marry no are given in marriage.

Priestly celibacy is thus essentially different from the celibacy of a religious, who is celibate primarily in order to imitate Christ more closely.

Once ordained, a celibate priest is never free to marry, and a married priest, if his wife dies, cannot remarry.

Not all Catholic priests are celibate. As in the Orthodox Church, it is possible for married men in the Eastern Catholic Churches to be ordained. And the Eastern Churches have a strong tradition of celibate monks. Bishops in the Eastern Churches are chosen only from among the celibate priests.

Also, there have been exceptions made in recent years in the Roman Catholic Church. A number of married Protestant pastors or ministers who entered the Catholic Church have been permitted ordination. But in both East and West, a man who has received the sacrament of holy orders can no longer marry, and a widowed priest may not remarry.

Celibacy entails, as an essential element, renouncing love, marriage and family for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The important thing is not so much the necessary renunciation as on the motives for doing so.

It is questionable whether a homosexual can be a proper subject to receive the charism of celibacy, since a homosexual cannot truly renounce the goods of marriage and family—they are not goods which he desires.

Some of the priests interviewed for this article regard celibacy as entering into a life of sacrificial love, marriage to the Church and the begetting of spiritual children. Father Nelson, a priest for 21 years, regards it as a matter of “undivided love.”

“When you enter into marriage, your whole center of gravity shifts to your wife and children, as it should,” he said. “For the priest, your center of gravity shifts to Christ and the Church. (Being a married priest) would put a strain on your relationship. You can't give the totality of a commitment to two people. St. Paul speaks of the undivided heart, of being concerned about the things of the Lord.”

Screening and Forming

Seminary personnel and professionals who help priests experiencing difficulties say there are issues other than celibacy involved in sexual abuse. These include a lack of maturity and a loneliness that is deep-seated in childhood experiences but responsive to therapy. And they stress the essentials for living celibate life successfully, including prayer and the proper motivation.

At St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, psychological screening looks for problems in a candidate that might make it difficult for him to live a celibate life. Admissions personnel look for a man's ability to maintain mature, healthy relationships and “whether there is a spiritual calling to celibacy,” said Capuchin Father David Songy, a psychologist on the faculty.

“Quite a number of people apply for the priesthood who have sexual difficulties,” he said. “Many don't know where to go in life and haven't done well with relationships… So they might say,‘I'll try the priest-hood.’ That's not a good motive, and we screen them out.”

Candidates begin seminary with a spirituality year, focused mainly on prayer, and hear presentations on Pope John Paul's “theology of the body.”

Throughout their education, celibacy is discussed regularly in meetings with spiritual directors. “We teach them how to pray about it,” Father Songy said. He consults with students about a range of human issues, including how to interact with a variety of people while exercising proper boundaries. From time to time he asks them, “How do you think you're doing with celibacy? Do you think it's possible for you?”

Father Songy tells seminarians they have to develop “a tremendous love for the people.” But he advises future priests to maintain a healthy distance from those they might be counseling and “not to get in over their heads.” An example of a danger would be in counseling a couple going through marriage difficulties. “It is possible that the priest's feelings of sympathy for the wife may lead to an increasing emotional investment,” he said. “He may find himself attracted to her if the marriage breaks up.”

Meeting Challenges

For Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, spiritual director of Communion and Liberation, it is vital to live celibacy not as a principle but as a “response to being asked by Jesus Christ to follow in this way.”

“If you're doing it to hide from your sexual desire or even for good motives like having more time to serve people or help the poor, it's not enough.”

Msgr. Albacete said he “highly values” his celibacy. Yet he recognizes that there are challenges, including loneliness.

“Rectory after rectory has priests living alone or living as if they are in dormitory rooms, saying hello to each other only in passing, in some cases not even eating together,” said Msgr. Albacete, former president of the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico.

In answer to the loneliness, priests need “more chances to live friendships,” he said.

But don't blame celibacy for loneliness, says psychiatrist Richard Fitzgibbons, who has treated scores of priests over 25 years. Loneliness is the most common complaint he treats in people of all ages and states of life, including married people.

Fitzgibbons, of West Conshohocken, Pa., has identified several causes of loneliness: not having had a warm relationship with one's father or growing up in a home where “there wasn't a flow of love between your mother and your father,” for example. The most common type in priests who have made sexual mistakes with male adolescents and children stems from isolation from their childhood and adolescent peers, he said.

“This loneliness and peer rejection is most often a result of an inability to play baseball, basketball or soccer due to a lack of eye-hand coordination,” he said. Their attraction to adolescent males is an “unconscious attempt to gain acceptance, warmth and affirmation.”

Community Life

In addition to therapy, many priests need to improve their lifestyle, observers say.

The Institute on Religious Life's Father Nelson, who has lived in a religious community for nearly 30 years, finds that in the diocesan priesthood celibacy “no longer seems to be connected with the common life with other priests, as Our Lord intended.” Christ called 12 men, who left their wives and children and lived a life in common, he noted.

Diocesan priests could cluster into communities and have a common life of prayer and meals and drive to their respective parishes to celebrate Mass, Father Nelson suggested. That way, they would enjoy a camaraderie centered on prayer and a rule of life such as in a religious community.

This arrangement would provide a sense of belonging, which is “a very deep need we all have,” he said. It also would provide a safeguard from sinful actions.

“The way we live community life here, it would be very difficult for a priest to get in trouble,” he said of the Norbertines he lives with. “We'd notice small problems before they turned into larger ones. And we'd correct them.”

Celibacy does not cease to be a challenge, priests say, but the nature of the challenge changes over time. Not being able to have sex is not the biggest obstacle, if one is “psychologically healthy,” said Father Nelson. The temptations and desires can be overcome with the help of prayer and asceticism—spiritual effort or exercise in the pursuit of virtue.

“But then there's a challenge coming from the idea that you'll never have a wife, a female companion sharing your life, someone to share on a deep level,” he said. “You have to develop that companionship with the Lord.”

There's also the aspect of father-hood, not having one's own children. Over time, this can be a deeper problem than that of intimacy.

Companionship with the Lord becomes real for the priest in four ways, which all have counterparts in marriage, Father Nelson explained. Communication is as essential between spouses as it is for the celibate priest and the object of his faith. For the celibate, it's called prayer. The Norbertines spend several hours a day in community prayer, including two hours beginning at 5:15 a.m. But Father Nelson also advises a daily holy hour for the individual priest, such as an hour of Eucharistic adoration.

As a husband and wife live under the same roof, sharing the same table and the joys and hardships or raising children, priests live a commitment to the common life and to the Lord, he continued. “We have the Blessed Sacrament right in our home, which is a great privilege. We can live with the Lord in a way that lay people can't .”

Third, there is a “conversion of wills” both in marriage and the celibate life. In marriage, husband and wife mutually submit to each other in Christ, he said, while celibates submit themselves completely to Christ. “We must be obedient to him in being obedient to his law and to the Church, which regulates clerical life.”

Finally, while there is conjugal union in marriage, “the priest has given his body to the Lord—and to no other person.”