Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Celibacy and Integrity

With Padre Alberto now married to his beloved Ruhama, the debate about celibacy will surely grow even hotter. As someone who has been blogging steadily on this issue on CITI's Rentapriest blog for the last several years, I would like to clarify my personal thoughts on the issue:

1. I believe that the mandatory celibacy requirement should be lifted for all diocesan priests -- current and future -- and that the religious orders should be free to set their own policies in the matter. I believe that the Church should admit married Catholic men into the priesthood and develop a way for those who have left the priesthood to get married to return to active service if they wish to do so. There is a place for celibacy. It is a wonderful gift, but only if freely chosen.

2. I believe that anyone who is currently under a vow of celibacy should strive to be faithful to that vow, if possible.

3. I believe that if it is no longer possible for someone to be faithful to their celibacy vow then they should do the honorable thing and resign rather than live a double life, have an affair or cause a scandal. Padre Alberto did the right thing in the end, after a brief ethical lapse.

Mandatory celibacy is not defensible Biblically (many apostles including St. Peter were married), historically (the Roman Catholic Church has had married priests and even Popes), or practically (the Church has managed to accommodate the Pastoral Provision and Eastern rite married priests). It is the single greatest reason why men leave the priesthood or don't enter seminary or go on to ordination in the first place. And it can be easily addressed if the Vatican wishes to do so. It is possible under Canon Law to change this policy.

On the other hand, we already have an unofficial "married priesthood". These men are in the closet, together with their partners and children. It's time to throw open the closet doors and let these couples live openly and with the security and integrity that real matrimony brings.

Making the Celibate Choice

But, given the current circumstances, how should priests and women deal with their romantic feelings? To make it clear: I am talking about mutual attraction between equals, not about priests who abuse their professional positions to seduce women -- another matter entirely. Here are a few insights gained from years of blogging, reflecting and talking about this issue:


Writing about the Padre Alberto case, Fr. Hoyos asked of Ruhama: "Why, if she was so spiritual, did she not look at the priest as a representative of Christ on earth rather than as a man of flesh and bone?"

Because, Fr. Hoyos, that technique doesn't work. It really doesn't work for any woman who enjoys the kind of proximity to a cleric that leads to these relationships in the first place. You hear about all his aches and pains, his illnesses, his dreams and anxieties, etc. and then you are supposed to see this vulnerable human being whom you have come to love as some remote, impersonal "Christ"? I don't think that is emotionally possible. I once heard a woman who is in love with a priest say that when she looks at him it is as if she is seeing Christ up there at the altar. It was so out of sync with everything else she said about the man and her way of acting around him that I wanted to reply: "Yeah, right. Get real."

Instead, it is better to say: "I see the man I love doing the job he loves." Why? Because this statement implies many things. If he is a priest, then "the job he loves" entails being faithful to a vow of celibacy. If he is "the man I love", I should want him to be able to continue to do the job he loves. And that means I support him in his chastity by not putting us into compromising situations, engaging in inappropriate touching, etc...THAT is love; anything else is just selfishness. And if we do not wish to be selfish, we also have to consider the devastating impact that any breach of vows -- whether marital or clerical -- can have on the broader community of believers.

A corollary problem that arises is that a woman who is not able to view her priest as Christ needs to find another confessor, and a priest who is emotionally involved with a woman should not be hearing her confession. I wrote in an earlier article about the priest who reacted jealously to a woman who spoke about other men she was seeing during confession. He "absolved" her but then treated her coldly. He was not detached enough to help her really achieve reconciliation. Also, the privacy and intimacy of the confessional space can, and have, turned it into a compromising situation when there is attraction between priest and penitent.


Priests spend an inordinate amount of time denying their feelings, both to themselves and to others. We are inculturated to believe that if you say "I love you" to someone, you automatically have to act on that statement and that leads to sex, marriage, etc... That is a myth.

One frequently suggested line for priests to use is: "I'm not available. You deserve to be with someone who is free to love you", i.e. "I'm rejecting you for your own good." It is silly and ineffective because neither party really believes it, even though it contains some truth. And did I forget to add "patronizing"? Most women who get involved with priests know perfectly well what they are doing and do not need to be protected, thank you very much.

The truth is far more effective: "I love you but I love being a priest and therefore I can't and I won't violate my vows with you." You don't have a choice about your feelings, but God gave you a choice about whether or not to act on them. Don't blame or shun the woman because you feel attracted to her. Just say "no" and don't put yourself in compromising situations or give out mixed messages through inappropriate words or gestures.

And if you can't or don't want to follow the rules, then the correct choice under the current circumstances, is to resign from the Roman Catholic priesthood because what matters most to God is our personal integrity. A priest with a divided spirit and a double life is useless both to the woman he loves and to the Lord he serves.


  1. I agree with what you write here, very well reasoned. Just some thoughts/questions come to mind:
    The Catholic Church does not approve of divorce. When some priest marry, is likely that after some time there may be a small percentage that has marriage trouble (like any other couple) and may end up in divorce. So…then what? Divorced priest that cannot give communion to divorced Catholics but they can dispense it and take it themselves during mass?
    It would represent a big logistical problem and contradiction.

    Also, the married priest would not be able to live in parroquial houses with there families. They would have to have homes or condominiums for themselves. I have no idea of much is the allowance of a priest, but would it be enough to support a family?
    Most likely the wife will work, but then of course, they will have the same issues that all the families with kids have. School, baby sitting, doctor appointments, etc. this may take time away from their pastoral duties.
    If priest can marry…why not nuns also? If not it would be discrimination.
    That opens a whole new set of problems and circumstances.
    I don’t see it happening any time soon.

    I am not disagreeing with what you said, R.G. I am just pointing out that a new set of circumstances would appear in the mist of the church organization. Of course, the Lutherans manage it, the Episcopalians, etc, etc. but for them is has been like that since the beginning.

  2. Good points, JuanMM.

    1. Divorce: I would assume that a priest would be subject to the same church rules on divorce as any other Catholic. He could separate from his wife and, as long as he does not remarry or engage in extramarital sexual activity, he could continue to give and receive communion. He could also adjust his situation by seeking an annulment, if applicable.

    2. Nuns: I did not discuss nuns in the column but they are also members of religious orders. Each order would have to decide its own policy on celibacy.

    3. Of course, the living situations would change but we know from the Protestant denominations that this is do-able. Some churches provide church-owned housing; others provide a housing allowance as part of the compensation for their pastors. But everybody else manages so I'm sure Catholics are not so special that they can't solve this problem -- especially since, as I've already said, we have experience with the Pastoral Provision and Eastern rite priests and their families.