Priestly celibacy: a sign of contradiction

Who is in need of such a witness?
Much has been said in many places as to why the idea floated at the Amazon synod as to ordaining married men to the priesthood is such a terrible one. I see no reason for going over those arguments again here. But one reason that I have not seen discussed (although, of course, it may well have been) was the powerful witness the celibate priest provides for chastity in this age of rampant sexual promiscuity. At a time when all the world cries out that it is impossible to live without sex or to restrain one’s sexual urges the celibate Catholic priest offers wonderful evidence to the contrary.

Who is in need of such a witness? Almost everyone in our doubly fallen age – fallen first with the sin of our first parents, and fallen again with the ushering in of the so-called ‘sexual revolution’. Although it might be better termed a demonic delusion.

Witness of celibacy to young people.
Let us think first of our young people, those children of secondary school age. The culture tries to normalise every perversion in their eyes and tells them nothing is wrong as long as it is consented to. The internet, which is literally at their fingertips morning, noon, and night by way of the mobile devices they are all but inseparable from, gives them free access to filth that was not even imagined by most people only a generation ago. They are told that not only is masturbation not wrong it is good and healthy and natural. More and more children live in homes where their parents or the adults who are charged with the duty of their care either are not married or not married to each other (at least not in any sense that a Catholic would understand as being married). Their schools teach how to use condoms and other contraceptive methods to ‘protect’ them from pregnancy or disease, implying if not stating directly that it is inevitable that they will engage in sex outside of marriage from an early age – all that matters is that they ‘consent’ and that they ‘feel ready’ (with no consideration given to the value of consent in a society that constantly pressures them to engage in fornication and that feeling ready is meaningless when they have essentially been groomed since before puberty to engage in sexual acts as soon as the opportunity arises).

The only person in the world around them that they know who publicly makes it clear that it is possible to live without sex is the Catholic priest. What will it say to them when even his example is gone (and you can be sure that the media will spin it as exactly that, no matter what the actual details of the change to the discipline happens to be)?

Serial monagamy.
Let us think next of the generation that follows, those in their twenties and thirties. After such an adolescence is it any wonder that they fall into a pattern of what has been called ‘serial monogamy’ – a series of relationships that may last weeks, months, or even a number of years, sexually active in all, sometimes even from the first ‘date’, perhaps living together, perhaps not. All characterised by being sexually active with a lack of any formal commitment.

Eventually most will marry. I remember some time back sitting with a group of priests. The topic of marriage came up. One rather sadly remarked that he had not in many years had a couple preparing for their wedding day present him with a marriage registration form that listed separate addresses. The rest nodded their heads in agreement. All but one. He said that he insisted they go to confession and live apart before their wedding so that they might receive the sacrament of marriage in a state of grace. One can well imagine that the couples are shocked by such a demand; but they can hardly look a man who lives a celibate life in the eye and tell him his request is impossible. They would surely be far more inclined to take less seriously a priest who will depart that encounter to go home to his own wife to lie with her in their marital bed.

A much needed witness.
After this comes those who divorce or separate. The distinction is, of course, meaningless to the Catholic mind; unless the couple has their marriage declared null they remain lawfully wed. In the eyes of the world it would be madness if they were to allow that to prevent them from engaging in any sexual activity they want – the moment they walk out the door they are ‘free’ as far as our society is concerned. Secular society cares nothing, of course, about their immortal soul or that adultery is a mortal sin. Our secular culture says, God, if he exists, doesn’t care about such things, despite what we know from the revelation contained in Sacred Scripture and what has been passed down to us by the Church from the beginning through her teachings.

The world says it is impossible for them to refrain from sex; and it is cruel to ask such a thing of them. The witness of the celibate priest declares that it is far from impossible; and with God’s grace it is in fact more than possible to lead such a life joyfully. Would we really deny them their much needed witness and example?

The situation of same- sex attracted men.
Finally we must consider the situation of those who are same-sex attracted. No one can seriously argue that to act on such desires contravenes Holy Scripture and Church teaching (although there are many who try to pretend that the Bible does not say what the Bible so clearly says, that ‘science’ now makes it clear that such impulses are good and normal, and that therefore Church teaching has either been wrong from the beginning, out of date, or both). Theirs is a heavy burden to bear, a cross weightier than most will be asked to carry. It is even more so in the age in which we live. The same-sex attracted man must surely see things something like this: No one can do without sex; I am only sexually attracted to men; therefore I can and must have sex with men.

There are, of course, many of those who are same sex attracted who struggle to lead lives in accord with what the Church teaches. Their efforts to lead chaste lives can only be undermined if the Church changes her discipline in this matter. They will find it difficult not to take the message from such a move that if even priests can no longer be expected to live without sex then why should they?

An exception that will become the norm.
There are many other examples of those in need of the witness to chastity given by priestly celibacy, but the above will suffice. One could of course argue that the proposed changes are intended to be limited geographically to a remote place far away. To that there are two important points to be kept in mind. The first is that the Church is universal; when a thing is authorised in one place it can not be long before it is done everywhere. We may remember in this context how the practice of Communion in the hand began and spread. The other point is that such an experiment done in a remote place will soon be enthusiastically adopted in more populous areas, particularly the West. Think of the introduction of the permanent diaconate.  This too was originally intended to relieve pastoral pressures in remote places; but most married men ordained as permanent deacons today are in the West.

If this change is adopted I find it hard not to believe that within a generation that the celibate priest will be the exception rather than the rule. The celibacy rule was introduced early in Church history to follow the example of Christ’s life so that the priest might better stand before the people in the person of Christ; and because the Church recognised the value that God’s word in Scripture gave to such a state and how an unmarried man might better devote himself to doing God’s work. Will the Church really so easily abandon an ancient tradition that have given so much to the Church? I pray not; and ask that you pray that it might not be so also.