In Defense of Priestly Celibacy

Over at First Things I have an article in defense of priestly celibacy.  Not surprisingly, many commentators on the left took the occasion of Benedict’s resignation to claim that celibacy is contrary to nature, a cause of priestly misconduct, and should be scrapped.  More surprisingly, this argument was also pressed from the American right, notably by Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal.  My piece is mainly a response to Stephens.

Stephens’s argument has been heard many times before.  Celibacy asks men to deny their natural sexual desires.  This cannot be done successfully, so it is not surprising when those who try to do it end up acting out those desires in ways that are wrong.  As Stephens says, “to require the unnatural means, too often, to reap the despicable.”  In response I note that the figures Stephens cites (which show that most priests don’t in fact become abusers of children) don’t really support his central claim.  Moreover, I go on and argue that even if priestly celibacy does warp some men, the fault would be attributed most reasonably not to celibacy itself, but to a faulty process of selecting those men who truly are able to live it.  More positively, I contend that a celibate priesthood serves as a living example that God is real and that it is worth giving up good things in order to follow him more closely.


There were a couple of other things about Stephens’s column that bothered me, that I did not note at FT but that I will point out here.  First, even though Stephens writes as a friendly critic of the church, he does not even try to take the Church seriously on its own terms.  Put another way, he reduces it to the status of a political tool, although a tool in a political cause that Stephens no doubt regards as a lofty one.  He wants the Church to abandon celibacy so that it can have some credibility with the mainstream culture when it speaks up for human dignity and freedom against corrupt and tyrannical governments.  Although this is a worthy cause, it overlooks the fact that the Church regards itself as existing in the service of the worship of God and reconciliation of souls with Him–things that are more important than any political concerns, even the struggle against tyranny.  Moreover, Stephens’s argument really points beyond itself into territory that is indefensible.  After all, if the Church wants credibility with the mainstream on matters of human sexuality, it would have to give up its teaching on contraception, the nature of marriage, and homosexuality, among other things.  These are not mere disciplines but doctines that the Church has maintained with its teaching authority.  Revision on such issues would destroy the Church’s credibility with anybody by showing it to be nothing more than a reed bending in the wind.

Second, Stephens at one point in his article asserts that the Church “lost its presumption of innocence” in relation to charges of sexual misconduct “long ago.”  “When did you last read a news story about a Catholic priest not in connection to a sex scandal?”  This is really indefensible.  Stephens says he is worried about how celibacy perverts the soul.  He might better worry about how journalism perverts the mind.  His claim here is based on the assumption–ridiculous to anybody who can think independently–that there is a perfect correlation between reality as it exists and the contents of news stories.  Yet the very statistics he cites, as well as common experience, tell us that the vast majority of Catholic priests have not been involved in sex scandals.  Going to the mainstream media for a fair and realistic account of the Catholic Church is about as reasonable as going to it for a fair and realistic account of the Republican Party or the conservative movement.  Stephens is intelligent enough to realize that.


Categories:Theology Vocations

  • Lee lim

    Dear priestly congregation,
    As far as Christianity is concern;
    likewise the Italian congregation of Rome is still presently engaged in the ministry of St. Paul since the he was called by Jesus Christ. In the ministry of a Christian govt. silencing what is supposed to be the merssinary of such callings and individual resolutions of each churches!
    I therefore submit that a pausible demand as Christ’s worker in the present time.
    In the reality that the gospel is proclaimed in the basis of families
    in the ordinary time.
    There I pause that the knowledge of knowing the Gospel is a majority in a termed life and sacred indulgence!
    To fulfill the duty of priesthood or any distinct approach is a difference to submit as to internalize the the real calling as to direct this subject in the calling of christianity.
    Like the saints nowadays is
    marginalized not to preach but to signify the meaning of the cross.
    so it is the church which is christ’s affliction in the grace of everyone who listens and deliver the message.

  • Meghan

    I think priests should be given a choice to live their celibate or not. I’m not saying they should be sleeping around either. I know quite a few men, who would have been wonderful priests but wanted to have families. As a Catholic married woman, I would never go to a priest if I needed marriage counseling. What do they know about being in a loving, committed relationship with another human being? I don’t want them to quote scripture to me. Other faiths allow their ministers, pastors, etc. to be married. The Catholic church needs allow priests to marry if they chose so and also allow women to become priests. I live in Chicago and the amount of priests ordained just gets sadder every year. In 2012, 14 men were ordained. 14? there was a time when that number was 100 or higher. If the Catholic church continues on the path they are, they will sadly become extinct.

  • Gerald

    Jesus called His Apostles from the thousands of disciples that followed Him. When women ignored their supposedly womanly duties, in that patriarchal society, to follow Him, He did not shoo them away, but He did not call them to the Apostleship/ Priesthood. Also, Jesus called His Apostles to leave home, family, the material life, and follow Him in the Spiritual Life. This is why only men can be priests, this is why priests must be celibate; not because the Church says so, not because the Pope says so, Because God Said So!

  • Anthony Marino

    For the first millennium there was no prohibition against married priests, hence it is not a divine notion, but “man-made” if you will. Holiness and/or saintliness does not flow down from celibacy. That said, the choice should be up to the individual. To say that celibacy has led to the sex abuse which has riddled the church is naive, at best. How many married ministers of other denominations have been caught in the throes of abuse? Unfortunately, many, however the media doesn’t focus on them as it does on priestly violations, unless of course they are high profile ministers ala Swaggert! Remember that there are elements within the Catholic Church, I.e. the Byzantine rights, which allow married men to be ordained. We now have the Anglican ordinariate which has married priests. The orthodox church allows for ordination of married men, good and holy men. In this day and age when the aspirants to the priesthood are severely dwindling, opening the doors to married men could alter the numbers significantly.

  • michele

    Celibacy does indeed bring you closer to God for several reasons. First, Jesus was celibate, so it makes sense that the priest, who is in persona Christi, would also be celibate. By being celibate, he more closely resembles Christ. It is also a sign of his death to self. Second, being celibate gives you more time and energy to devote to Christ’s Church. I am a parishioner of my diocese’s Cathedral and we only have 4 priests. They celebrate 2, sometimes 3 daily Masses, 6 weekend Masses, hear confessions, baptize, teach RCIA, and do all the administrative things that need to be done to run a cathedral. They are also on-call 24/7 to give Last Rites. If someone with these duties had a wife and family, he would either be a lousy husband and father, or he would be a lousy priest. On the practical level, there are many good reasons to have celibate priests. Could you imagine having to raise a family of 10 on a priest’s salary? If priests married, they would have to be paid enough to support their families. This is simply economically unfeasible. The rector at my church has enough trouble getting people to tithe.

    • Lilian




Receive our updates via email.