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Archaic rule harnesses the church and the Spirit


In June the State Council of the Knights of Columbus ran a full-page ad in the Kansas City, Kan., archdiocesan newspaper, under the title, “In solidarity with our priests.” One part of it read, “In recent weeks, because of the deplorable actions of a few, all priests have come under suspicion, when in fact the overwhelming majority lead exemplary celibate and chaste lives … ”

I have no problem with the Catholic men who took out this ad with the aim of being supportive to priests. But something in me wanted to shout, “On what basis do you make such a bold statement? You have no idea if priests are celibate or not. I know you are sincere in believing the vast majority are, but I sure don’t!”

I want to speak out about this, not because of any desire to smear the good reputation of priests, but simply because I think we all need to face the truth. Jesus said, “The truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32). If the truth is that priestly celibacy is mostly a farce and is a harmful policy both to priests and the church at large, then we need to face it.

I realize my opinion -- that the majority of priests do not lead exemplary celibate and chaste lives -- is just my opinion, but there are three main reasons why I believe as I do: personal experience, public proof of infractions and knowledge of human nature.

I was a nun for 15 years and thus a part of the “inside club” of church professionals and knew of a number of priests who had sexual relationships with women. I know some now. When I attended graduate school at a Catholic university in the 1970s in an environment free from the watchful eyes of parishioners, partying and affection flowed freely among the students, who were mostly priests and nuns.

The second reason for believing as I do is public proof. Priests and even popes have had illegitimate children throughout history. There are support groups for women who have had affairs with priests. We hear news stories of priests raping nuns in Africa and other places. Pedophilia is more common than we ever believed. Many priests die of AIDS. It’s common knowledge in Hispanic cultures that many priests have mistresses or even a family on the side. A South American bishop told someone I know that he thought only two of his priests were celibate, and he wasn’t even sure about them. The way I figure it, if this many things come to light about something priests don’t want known, think of what is yet hidden.

My third reason for doubting the purity of priests is knowledge of human nature. It’s hard to be celibate. The drive for sex and physical affection/intimacy is strong and not easily suppressed, not even for the highest spiritual purposes.

Think of married people. They make a vow to their partner to be sexually faithful, there is great societal pressure to be faithful, they are “getting some,” and yet studies show over 60 percent still have extramarital affairs. If they can’t (or won’t) be faithful, think how much harder it is for a priest who has no outlet for his sexual urges.

The church can preach “sex only in marriage” all it wants, but the vast majority of people don’t live up to that ideal. Why should we be surprised that priests (humans beings, after all) don’t live up to it? I don’t look down on priests who are unfaithful to celibacy. I feel compassion for them. They are put in a terrible position. Each may genuinely want to serve God and God’s people as a priest -- a fulfilling vocation. But they sure don’t want to be celibate and cut off all romance and affection for the rest of their lives. Most priests didn’t really choose celibacy. It just came with the territory. If given a choice, they’d get married. Most haven’t fully embraced and owned celibacy, thinking it is a special gift or calling from God. So many don’t live it, some with a lot of guilt and some who have made peace with their double life.

What we really need is a professional study of how priestly celibacy is being lived, some actual statistics and facts, and not mere anecdotal evidence. Somehow I can’t believe no one has ever done a study, especially the progressive groups in the church that advocate optional celibacy. It would benefit their cause tremendously if the true facts came to light.

I would think the church leadership would want to know the truth, too. What major company would make an assumption about a product or service and never find out if it were accurate? Businesses constantly gather information because information means success and money. Yet in one of the largest institutions, the Catholic church, dealing not with mere money but with things of eternal consequence, absolutely no effort is made to see if one of its major assumptions -- that celibacy is preferable to marriage for priests -- is truly effective.

Would priests cooperate with such a study and answer truthfully? I don’t know why not, if anonymity were assured. They have the most to gain by relaxing the celibacy requirement. They could get married and be out in the open about their love. They wouldn’t be overworked and would see the church they love blossom because of an adequate number of leaders and pastors.

We may or may not get a study. But all of us can be courageous and start speaking up about this issue. It’s time to put aside our fears of being labeled disloyal and to be insistent on married clergy. This is too important to keep quiet about. We should be writing our bishops and the pope, signing petitions, putting pressure on them, joining groups working for optional celibacy, withholding our money -- whatever moral means it takes to get honesty and action. Public pressure finally forced the bishops to do something about pedophilia. Now it’s time to move to the next thorny issue -- celibacy.

We laity need to stop accepting the celibacy rhetoric and myth. It’s easier to stick our heads in the sand and pretend all is well, but it is not. All this dishonesty about celibacy has terrible repercussions for us all. It’s hard on a priest’s psyche and soul, as well as the psyche and soul of the entire church. Insistence on priestly celibacy deprives the church of the influx of new life, leadership, growth and ministry that would come with the inclusion of married clergy (and women clergy, but that’s another subject for another time).

This celibacy thing is not just a minor, internal church issue. In the final analysis, it’s not just about having enough priests to minister to Catholics’ spiritual needs. It’s about a world crying for Christ’s liberation. We simply can’t afford to keep our church harnessed and the Spirit imprisoned because of an archaic celibacy rule when the challenges and needs in the world are so great.

Carol Meyer is director of Wisdomways, a spirituality resource center in Roeland Park, Kan.

National Catholic Reporter, August 30, 2002