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

  • Mark Anderson

    This is not a negotiable issue. Christ’s teaching on the issue of a celibate priesthood cannot be altered. In Matthew 19:9-12 Christ explains “I say to you, whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.” His disciples said to him, “If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” Jesus answered, “Not all can accept this word, but only those to whom that is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.”

  • L

    Len, I couldn’t disagree more. Having a celibate priesthood doesn’t mean that sex is dirty or takes us away from God. I knew God well before I had sex and I know him still after. God is not limited in how He reveals himself to us, especially not by our sex lives.

  • Carol Hindman

    You are wrong about that Len. Sacrifice does bring you closer to God. The sacrifice that a Priest willingly makes to remain celibate brings him spiritually closer to God and helps him to perform his duties to the Church in a more saintly way. A sexual relationship with others is not the only way that you can become truly closer to another human being. The bond between a parent and a child is most often incredibly strong. A priest is like our father. He guides all of us to live the life that God wants us to live. Our Priests have dedicated their lives to God and to us and there is no one else in their lives that are more important to them. We need to focus on the good that so many Priests have done for over the last 2000 years and stop beating them up because of the sins of a very few men. I look to my Priest knowing the sacrifice that he has made for God and for me and my respect for him is boundless. We need to stop judging what we do not understand and focus on making ourselves into the kind of person God asks us to be.

  • Barbara Kemple

    Are you celibate Len ? Why don’t you ask those who are about their relationship with Our Lord. i think we need to remember the priesthood is a vocation as is marriage. To whichever God calls one He gives the grace to live it.

  • Lyn Francisco

    I disagree with the notion that “forced celibacy moves us away from God.” First of all, I would not call this forced. Those who enter the priesthood understand they will live a celibate life. If they don’t want to do so, then they don’t have to become priests. Secondly, it’s not just priests who live celibate lives. Laypeople do so as well. (I’m an example of that.) No one forced me to live a celibate life. It’s a choice I made myself. We all connect to God in our own ways. I’d like to think that, through my own celibacy, I’m moving closer to, rather than away from, God.

  • Len

    It seems to me that celibacy does not bring anyone closer to God. Celibacy is a choice each individual has. The Church stance on celibacy seems to imply that once someone has a sexual relationship that they lose some connection to God. For me, that’s simply not so. In fact, a sexual relationship brings a person more closely to God in that we can only know God as well as we know what it is to be human. In other words, forced celibacy moves us away from God.

    • Juan

      @Len. The thing is that celibacy is a higher calling, but as Jesus says, only to “those who can accept it.” It’s not a calling for everyone, and therefore it is not forced.
      St Paul also speaks of celibacy as something better, but not for everyone.
      It’s supposed to mean that you’re so convinced of the kingdom of God, that some are willing to “bet” their lives on it. It’s supposed to be a sign that what ultimately matters is a whole-giving to God, if I’m not mistaking.

    • Vincentas

      Dear Len,
      It is obvious that You don’t really understand what is priesthood. Church doesn’t say that sexual relationship makes a person to lose some connection with God. And the bloger also doesn’t. The idea is that for this tasks that a priest has to do by his vocation needs the celibacy – in the other words no sexual relations makes a person closer to the being a special servant of God.

    • Gregory Sisco

      Len, I just wanted to reply to your comment that celibacy does not bring anyone closer to God.

      When we sacrifice our desires for something greater, when we fast and deny ourselves things such as food as a form of worship in times of Lent, we can grow closer to God. Every single time a priest feels the pangs of sexual desire he has the opportunity to deny himself, take up his cross and follow Christ. What could be more unitive with Christ than this?

      One of the reasons the Catholic Church holds that celibacy is necessary because the Priest is to serve his parishoners and provide for their spiritual needs above all else. This means answering phone calls at all hours of the night to administer emergency sacraments at the hospital, being flexible enough to celebrate mass every day, about 4 times on the weekend, and to do whatever else is necessary for his flock. Doing this while having a family would be incredibly difficult. Even the best Protestant Pastor must give himself to his family before he can give himself to his flock.

    • Matthew

      Celibacy for the sake of celibacy does not bring one closer to God; however, it does give one the opportunity to focus on God more perfectly. “An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.” (1 Cor 7:32-35) Taking the words of Paul, we mus understand that although celibacy does not make one holy, it gives a person a greater opportunity for an undivided heart. Now for those called to marriage, their salvation and holiness lies in the salvation of their family, thus they must give themselves to it fully. However, a celibate can MORE EASILY give their heart to God. So, yes I agree that just because one is celibate does not mean anything, how one utilizes the celibacy is what makes one holy.

    • Tyler

      Hi Len,

      Not sure if you are coming from a Christian point of view or a non-believing one?
      If you are a Christian, more precisely a Catholic, I suggest turning to Matthew 19 for a better understanding.
      “He answered, “Not all can accept this word, but only those to whom that is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it. ”

      For more of an understanding of this, you can visit a post I just made about this very subject.



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