Is celibacy a sin? This question is posed by Walter Russell Mead at his blog. Mead does not mean seriously to suggest that celibacy is a sin. Rather, he poses the question as a way of exploring the mentality of the kind of modern, secular liberal who seems to think that celibacy is a sin, although such a person would probably not put it this way.
Mead’s post is well worth reading. In it one finds a fair-minded and balanced account of the advantages and disadvantages of priestly celibacy from an intelligent and well-informed non-Catholic (Mead is an Anglican) who is nevertheless not hostile to the Catholic Church. It is especially striking as a very critical, but entirely plausible, account of the mind of that kind of liberal who cannot even begin a reasonable discussion of celibacy because he or she starts from a dogmatic assumption that it must be some kind of crime against our very humanity. (Mead’s post is long, but that should not be a deterrant. When a sensible man holds forth at length it at least tends to improve the sense to nonsense ratio in our public discourse, which is ordinarily pretty bad.)
Mead does not get everything right. He correctly notes that the tradition of priestly celibracy is not just an invention out of whole cloth of the Catholic hierarchy but that it has a root in the life of Jesus himself: Jesus did not marry. He errs, however, in suggesting that Jesus merely set an example of celibacy, an example that was developed into an explicit teaching by St. Paul. Jesus himself appears to endorse celibacy, not as obligatory for all but as a blessing for the few. When his disciplines objected to what they perceived as the strictness of his teaching on marraige and divorce by saying that if it were true, it would not be expedient to marry, Jesus responded: This teaching is not for all but for those who can receive it.
This mistake aside Mead’s piece offers a powerful answer to those who assume that celibacy can be nothing but a source of psychological frustration and disorder. The kind of liberal to whom Mead is responding thinks that priestly sexual misconduct must arise from distortions of mind and soul caused by celibacy. As Mead notes by way of rejoinder, the massive amount of pornography in America is surely a sign of sexual dysfunction, yet there certainly are not enough priests around to sustain that sorry industry.
Mead’s discussion calls to mind another point. It would seem that many of the same people who are most bitterly critical of celibacy also tend to denigrate the Church, and especially the hierarchy, as a mere conspiracy of power. They echo, knowingly or unknowingly, the old Enlightenment critique of “priestcraft” as nothing more than a way to exercise illegitimate authority over the masses by manipulating their superstitions. But these opinions are somewhat in tension with each other. If the priesthood is only a way to get power over others, why would the people with the power impose a discipline on themselves that forbids them to marry? Doesn’t the fact of the celibacy requirement at least suggest that the Catholic hierarcy actually believes in what it is teaching, that it sincerely understands itself as a form of service, since it embraces this self-denial as essential to its mission? None of this, of course, need persuade the liberal critics of the Church that it is correct in what it teaches. But you would think it would lead them to at least concede that its leaders are well-intentioned.
Mead ends on his most powerful point: that an assumption of atheism is probably the root of much of the complaining about celibacy. This is an intriguing suggestion. After all, if God really exists then it could well make sense to give up some good things in order to perfect one’s relationship with him. But on the assumption that he does not exist then this would just be madness, self-mutilation. But the assumption that God does not exist does not mean that He does not in fact exist, and the secular liberal’s inabilty to conceive that a person could be happy while being celibate does not mean that some people can’t be happy while being celibate.