Blame the Celibacy?

Why do priests abstain from sex, anyway?

I promise, this is the last “Blame and the Church Scandals” column.

So far, we’ve discussed “blame the bishops” and “blame the gays.” This week we’ll move on to “blame the celibacy.”

I have to admit that, when I first heard the TV pundits blaming the vow of celibacy for the current crisis, I was offended. After all, as an unmarried Catholic woman, I too live celibacy. (Although I didn’t take a vow, and mine isn’t necessarily permanent.) For someone to declare, with a straight face, that abstaining from sex leads to perversions with children – well, it would be laughable if it the situation weren’t so tragic. Obviously, those who are calling for an end to mandatory celibacy are simply opportunists using this crisis as a hitching post for their own personal agendas. I even wrote a column a few months back, outlining the scope of the problem, and confirming that no correlation has ever been found between celibacy and pedophilia.

However – I have come, in the past few months, to believe that celibacy does play a part in this crisis. It’s not the part that the pundits believe it is. Nor is it cause to abandon the requirement of priestly celibacy. In fact, I am more and more convinced that the vow of celibacy is crucial to the restoration of the Catholic priesthood.

That’s obvious, I know. If all priests lived celibacy, then none of them would be messing around with children, or teenagers, or anyone else. But the real issue goes much deeper – to the way celibacy is understood and lived.

Most people I meet “on the street” believe that priests take a vow of celibacy because the Church thinks sex is evil. Most Catholics believe it’s because we don’t want our priests tied down to a family. The first, of course, is blatantly false. And the second isn’t much closer to the truth.

I’ve always understood religious celibacy to be about the beauty of human sexuality – and about consecrating that sexuality to God, in the same way spouses consecrate their sexuality to each other. That’s the basis of the theology of celibacy, and it’s really beautiful. But, the more I read and learn about it, the more beautiful I find it.

My latest bout of inspiration came from an article in The New York Times Magazine (3/31/02), written by my friend and former professor, Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete. In it, he discussed his own experience of the vow of celibacy. He described, in particular, a time when he was struggling – not with the sexual element of celibacy, but with childlessness. An overseas friend had asked Msgr. Albacete to look after his son, who was coming to the U.S. to study. When Msgr. Albacete commented that the friend was fortunate to have a son of his own, the friend said, “J. is not my son. I do not own him. I must respect his freedom. And I thought that’s why priest took a vow of celibacy, to help spouses and parents understand that to love is not to own, but to affirm, to help, to let go. I need this help now that J. has left home.” 

This really struck me. I thought about a classroom discussion, years ago, when we discussed the advantages to the priestly vows in medieval times. The priest, having taken vows of poverty, obedience and chastity, could be trusted. He could have no ulterior motives. He couldn’t be after a community’s money, or its women. He couldn’t be looking to take over. 

In this light, I read Msgr. Albacete’s conclusion: “I understood then that celibacy has more to do with poverty than with sex. It is the radical, outward expression of the poverty of the human heart, the poverty that makes true love possible by preventing it from corrupting into possession of manipulation.”

Celibacy is about poverty. It’s about understanding that, in the end, none of us can “own” anyone. We don’t own our husbands or our wives. We don’t own our children. We love them. We serve their best interests. They aren’t “things” that we can manipulate at will for our own selfish purposes.

Priests are supposed to be a sign of this – of completely unselfish, service-centered love. That’s what makes these scandals so horrifying. As Msgr. Albacete says, “It places celibacy at the service of power and lust, not of love.”

The key to restoration is poverty. Not literal poverty (although many lawsuit-laden dioceses are certainly headed in that direction), but true spiritual poverty. Those who seek to restore the Church need to let go of everything – personal agendas, concern for reputation, luxurious living, personal gratification – and let Christ take over. He can only work when we let go of the reigns, and when we get rid of all of the “things” that block His way.

In last Sunday’s reading, Peter walked on the water. As long as He was looking at Jesus, he was fine. But when he took his eyes off of Him, and began to look at the storm around him, he began to sink. Celibacy, I believe, is much the same. It doesn’t come any more naturally to the human person than walking on water does. The power comes from Christ. Fulton Sheen once said that, when his eyes were fixed on Christ, he found his priestly celibacy to be a joyful experience. But when he drifted away, even a little bit, celibacy became a struggle.

The answer to the scandals is deceptively simple. We all, as a Church, need to focus a less on the storm, and more on Christ. And then He will reform His Church.