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.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press), The Right Darwin? Evolution, Religion, and the Future of Democracy (Spence Publishing), and All Shook Up: Music, Passion and Politics (Spence Publishing), and the editor of a collection of essays entitled Magnanimity and Statesmanship (Lexington Books). His articles have appeared in the Review of Politics, Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Perspectives on Political Science, and First Things. He is a regular contributor to the online journal The Public Discourse. Holloway was a 2005-06 William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Northern Illinois University in 1998.

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