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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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Celibacy is the Solution

Author’s Note: I am amazed at how much negative feedback, especially from non-celibates, was sent to me about this article– much unworthy of publishing.  It demonstrates to me that there is a real and dangerous prejudice against Christian celibacy and a reductionism from some that minimizes its importance and value.  I was happy to see that a brother priest, who is actively involved with our archdiocesan seminary in Washington, DC, has shared positive thoughts on the topic that are similar to my own.  Fr. Carter Griffin has written a wonderful article first published in FIRST THINGS and now posted at the CERC website: “Celibacy: The Answer, Not the Problem.”

var38While there are trite sayings to the contrary, simple answers are not always the best answers.  This is particularly the case with the assumption of some that the impetus for the clergy abuse crisis is the imposition of an “unhealthy” and “unnatural” celibacy. Despite the deceptive eroticism and deprecation of both celibacy and purity that permeates our modern culture, there is nothing malignant or disordered about celibacy. Acknowledging a supernatural component to Christian celibacy, it is a manner of living and loving that is completely natural.  Given the current scandals, celibacy is not the problem, but the solution.  The answer that many are seeking to our troubles is not the wholesale allowance of married clergy.  That would not resolve issues of abuse; indeed, it would introduce a host of new difficulties like marital infidelity and divorce.  This is not to say that men in good and holy unions could not serve as faithful Catholic priests; all I am asserting is that this is no miracle solution to the Church’s ills.

What is the real solution?  We should demand that celibate priests remain faithful to their sacred promise.  If priests behave themselves then there will be no incidents of child abuse, assaulted nuns, illegitimate children and homosexual liaisons. Just as the Church implores married couples to keep their vows; our priests should do the same and thus give a witness and proclamation devoid of duplicity.

While we cannot demand that all heterosexual candidates for priesthood must be virgins, we can certainly establish it as the Church’s preference.  Sexual activity prior to a life of priestly celibacy is not a positive element in their formation.  We cannot make mortal sin a prerequisite for the sacrament of holy orders.  I have known seminarians so tragically shadowed by memories of heterosexual promiscuity that they felt compelled to discern out of formation for holy orders.

I still do not buy the argument that repressed but active homosexuality is not a major factor in the current abuse scandal.  There are few pedophile cases and way too many instances of homosexual pederasty.  Given this assessment, I think the Church should have a general prohibition against “active” homosexuals in formation and priesthood. When I say active, I mean “one strike and you are out.”  We cannot give homosexual relations the same moral value or weight given to heterosexuality.  Homosexual acts are always sinful; heterosexual relations in the marital act are holy and befitting the plan of God.

Given this distinction, I would argue that a priest who falls with a woman might be forgiven by the Church and returned to ministry.  Prudence and discipline would demand a period of real penance and soul-searching.  That is why I have suggested a few years of suspension in such cases where a man might deliberate with professionals and speak to the Lord about the status of his vocation.  If his priesthood should prove salvageable, then he could reassigned, preferably to another diocese.  Admittedly, some would disagree with me but the problem here is no disorientation and granted consensuality, not a matter of abuse.  It is simply, albeit tragically, a case of mortal sin that can be absolved in the confessional.

The matter of an immoral heterosexual liaison becomes more problematical if there should be offspring.  Whatever determination is made, the priest in this situation has an obligation to both claim the child (fatherly relationship) and to help provide financial support.  Forgiveness does not dismiss the need for restitution.  While discretion is required, there should be no cases of women being paid off by dioceses and children growing up without knowing the identity of their fathers.   Hopefully, God’s people might be forgiving when such stories are inadvertently exposed.  I do not foresee published lists of priests who have had children out of wedlock.

Christian celibacy cannot be identified with the variation in Buddhism which is directed toward spiritual enlightenment.  Christian celibacy is not the same as that practiced in Hinduism for the sake of greater physical strength and longevity. Christian celibacy finds no counterpart in Islam which utterly renounces celibacy. Christian celibacy cannot be compared with the secular or humanistic version that temporarily utilizes celibacy to target one’s energies and purpose toward economic or business success.  More than chastity, Christian celibacy is regarded in Catholicism as a gift given by God and then returned to God by the disciple.  It is a manner of fulfilling the request that Jesus gave to the rich man who went away sad because his possessions were many.  It is the ultimate response to the twofold commandment of Christ.  The Christian celibate loves the Lord with his whole heart, body and soul.  That same love spills out into a loving service of others.  Married Christians can also keep this commandment, although that divine love is first showered upon one’s spouse and children.  It is a love and commitment shared.  The celibate priest sees himself as married to the Church. He belongs wholly to the Lord and to his people.

It is somewhat ironic but true that even the necessary measures put into place to thwart the abuse of minors has damaged the actualization of this celibate love.  The priest’s relationship to the Church is spousal.  His relationship to those in the pews is paternal. He is to exhibit a spiritual fatherhood in his ministration of the sacraments and pastoral care.  Unfortunately, so as to protect the young, their access to their priests is seriously undermined.  A terminal distrust and suspicion has walled the priest off from many of his spiritual children— thus hampering spiritual bonding, counsel and even (in some cases) their access to sacraments like confession.

Despite the negative propaganda and the ill-informed solutions that attack the heart of the priesthood, celibacy remains one of the great treasures of the Western priesthood. We should not be quick to throw it away.  Here is the big surprise for many critics— most celibate priests remain happy with their vocation.

3 Responses

  1. Actually, chastity, poverty and obedience are the answers. If one doesn’t want to teach this, then celibacy becomes a façade which hides unchastity, gluttony, and disobedience. Wouldn’t you agree? I think this is the second time I’ve made a comment on this matter.

    FATHER JOE: Yes and no, because priestly celibacy is much more than the dictionary definition. At the heart of this form of loving is a profound obedience to Christ. It is the evangelical realization of the rich man, not going away sad but saying YES to the Lord. He embraces what the world regards as loss or poverty to be rich in the treasures of the kingdom. It is more than a mere discipline. This manner of loving should consume the man. Sin of any sort damages our vocations. The virtues make possible their fulfillment.

  2. Maybe chastity, obedience and poverty are the solutions? I understand from some diocesan priests that they don’t think they are bound by theses – but only those in religious orders. That’s what I was instructed during RCIA some time ago. That’s not the right attitude.

    FATHER JOE: I do not know of any active priests who would say this.

  3. Paedo priests were celibate.

    FATHER JOE: No, they violated their celibacy.

    So were paedo religious.

    FATHER JOE: They committed mortal sin. That strips the soul of sanctifying grace.

    Celibacy – which is the state, in men, of never having been married – is totally compatible with forms of sexual depravity: such as sodomy, fornication, adultery, incest, bestiality, polyamory, necrophilia, & with masturbation.

    FATHER JOE: Celibacy is not the state of never having been married. It is not the same as virginity. Married men may become widowers and later become celibate priests. There is nothing about celibacy that immediately leads to sin. All the sins you cite are offenses to the fidelity mandated by pledged celibacy. It is about more than not having sex. It is about loving God in an exclusive way that spills over into the love or charity toward neighbor. It is an evangelical calling to a single-hearted life and love. Celibacy is a manner of loving that is perfected in Christ. The priest follows the pattern of Christ, St. Paul and others. Would you assert that they were immoral to remain celibate? Our Lord speaks of the life to come where there will neither be marriage nor the giving in marriage. This makes the priest and consecrated religious into eschatological signs of the kingdom.

    So celibacy is no solution to the paedo scandals in the slightest 😦 A bishop who copulates with another man’s wife and begets an [illegitimate child] on her can be celibate; he is nonetheless an adulterer.

    FATHER JOE: Actually you would be an adulterer (married or not) if you have relations with another man’s wife. Celibate men are no more likely to sin than married men.

    Celibacy is not what is needed – chastity according to one’s state of life, and continence (whether in the clerical or religious states) are what are needed. Joined with charity and the cardinal virtue of temperance, of which continence (in the married, unmarried, or widowed states) is an application.

    FATHER JOE: Chastity and continence are vital elements in both the celibate and married states. Celibacy is sometimes defined as perfect continence. This was often demanded in the early Church, even of married men, who became priests. The Church has maintained and cherished this tradition. There is no need to ordain married men. Celibacy is, as I said, not the problem… faithful celibacy is the solution.

    But not celibacy. That is not enough, because it is not a virtue – unlike chastity and temperance and continence. It is not even the same as virginity.


    No, you are wrong. You really do not know what you are talking about. Celibacy is more than virginity. I cannot say if the problem is entirely that of your ignorance or just plain bigotry, but you are far from the truth about the meaning and value of Christian and priestly celibacy.


    [24] The response to the divine call is an answer of love to the love which Christ has shown us so sublimely. This response is included in the mystery of that special love for souls who have accepted His most urgent appeals. With a divine force, grace increases the longings of love. And love, when it is genuine, is all-embracing, stable and lasting, an irresistible spur to all forms of heroism. And so the free choice of sacred celibacy has always been considered by the Church “as a symbol of, and stimulus to, charity”: it signifies a love without reservations; it stimulates to a charity which is open to all. In a life so completely dedicated and motivated, who can see the sign of spiritual narrowness or self seeking, and not see rather that celibacy is and ought to be a rare and very meaningful example of a life motivated by love, by which man expresses his own unique greatness? Who can doubt the moral and spiritual richness of such a life, consecrated not to any human ideal, no matter how noble, but to Christ and to His work to bring about a new form of humanity in all places and for all generations?

    [56] We readily grant that the natural and lawful desire a man has to love a woman and to raise a family is renounced by the celibate in sacred orders; but it cannot be said that marriage and the family are the only way for fully developing the human person. In the priest’s heart love is by no means extinct. His charity is drawn from the purest source, practiced in the imitation of God and Christ, and is no less demanding and real than any other genuine love. It gives the priest a limitless horizon, deepens and gives breadth to his sense of responsibility—a mark of mature personality—and inculcates in him, as a sign of a higher and greater fatherhood, a generosity and refinement of heart which offer a superlative enrichment.

    Priestly celibacy invokes many virtues and requires chastity and continence. Temperance is regarded as a Christian virtue necessary in all things. Celibacy is ordered to the perfection of charity. Both are divine gifts. I suspect that you define priestly celibacy in too narrow a fashion. It is not something negative. Marriage is not devalued even as it is personally renounced for the kingdom. The priest improperly lives out his celibacy if he closes himself off from love. Priestly celibacy signifies his perfect chastity. It is defined as a level of chastity that immediately expresses his love or charity. Celibacy becomes a charism of a tremendous love that reflects that of God. It opens the man to further grace and holiness. The space that other men might fill with a human spouse is satisfied in the priest by the presence of Christ and his Church. Living it out in worship and service facilitates his growth in holiness and obedience.

    Christ lives in the priest and within the chastity of his celibacy. He is to share in Christ’s love and the yearning to save souls. Priestly celibacy resonates with the sacrificial mission of our Lord. You profane something profoundly important, good and holy. Priestly celibacy would not be possible apart from divine grace and the man’s willingness to receive and cooperate with that grace. It is for this reason that priests are committed to daily offer the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours. They sanctify significant moments of the day with prayer. Everything depends upon his personal relationship with Christ.

    The priest is celibate so as to live more intimately with Christ. His whole life must be viewed as a single and extended act of praise to the heavenly Father. Again, as I said before, this love is so abundant that it cannot be contained and touches the neighbor in ministerial service. The heart of priestly celibacy is a profound union with Jesus Christ. Jesus, where ever he is found, surrenders himself for the brethren. This is true for the priest as “another Christ.” The chaste love that is exhibited by the celibate priest is inseparable from his mission and his call to holiness. It is in this that genuine celibacy is the solution to the ills created by scandal. Priests must remain faithful to their promises. They have been given all the graces they need to be good and holy. Genuine priestly celibacy does not isolate the man and neither does it make him more prone to decadence and sin. Fidelity to his priestly celibacy opens him to love God and others more profoundly. Faithfulness is crucial. The crisis is one of faith. Faith is more than just a profession of words but is a believing relationship with Christ lived out in loving obedience. This is true for us all. This is most true for the man who would be a good, holy and celibate priest.

    I will say it again… the answer is not to dismiss celibacy but for priests to remain faithful to their celibacy.

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