Saturday, March 23, 2013

The attack on celibacy is an attack on the priesthood

Yesterday I pointed to Dr Peters' observation that the legal manifestations of the Church's concern for clerical celibacy were undermined in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, and that practice since then had further undermined it. We can't proclaim the importance of celibacy and carry on as if we didn't believe it is important. We have to walk the talk.

That is one aspect of the problem. Another is the facile argument made by liberals that, if you lower the bar on the priesthood by removing the obligation to celibacy, then you'll get more vocations, better vocations, better priests, and everything will be wonderful.

Implicit in this is a very un-liberal suggestion. They wouldn't dare to say it openly; they are 'dog-whistling' it, to use political terminology. 'Are you thinking what we're thinking?' they ask. 'Well you know, married men in the priesthood wouldn't cause us these sex-abuse problems would they? Not like those homosexuals.' Nudge nudge, wink wink. I wonder what The Tablet's homosexual chums think of this argument.

The fact is that men with a disordered sexuality should not be ordained: end of story. Sex abusers - whether their victims are of the same or opposite sex - have a very seriously disordered sexuality; they should have been picked up at an early stage. If they had been, we wouldn't be faced with empty seminaries, because, as a mountain of anecdotal evidence (collected in Michael Rose's Goodbye Good Men) shows, the sexual anarchy of some seminaries in the 1970s and 1980s put many good candidates off, or forced them out. Today, potential priests have to consider putting on a suit of clothes which will inspire strangers in the street to shout 'paedophile!' at them. Yup, getting rid of the paedophiles from seminary is a win-win strategy.

An upward sloping demand curve
There is also something utterly crass about the idea that you can get more people to do something by making it easier. Yes, it works with selling crisps. But the nature of the priesthood is completely different. Even economists acknowledge that there are some goods whose demand would fall if they got cheaper - diamonds are a standard example. People value diamonds because they are expensive: their high cost is essential to the roles they play in our lives, as a display of wealth, as a demonstration of commitment, or as a store of value.

Cultivating vocations is not like selling crisps. A much better parallel would be with getting into elite institutions, such as universities, clubs, or, best of all, military units. Getting into these institutions carries a high cost, and the cost is directly proportional to the prestige of the institution, and therefore to the demand. The higher the cost, within reason, the higher the prestige, and the higher the demand. You could destroy the appeal of Oxford or the SAS or White's Club in a few years by making them open to everyone at no cost. Good candidates would go elsewhere.

With the priesthood it is not, of course, a simple matter of prestige. It is a matter of the clergy manifesting the self-sacrificial commitment of Christ. There are various personal ways in which priests may be called to do this, which can be very inspiring. As a body, they need institutional ways to manifest it to others, and to cultivate it inwardly. Clerical dress is a powerful means of doing this; the commitment to the Office and the Mass is another. Celibacy is another.

It always has been - celibacy goes back to Christ Himself. The fact that it has been compulsory in the West for all these centuries means that if we, in the West, abandoned it now, it would be a powerful signal that we were giving up on Christ as an ideal for our priests. It would be, perhaps, like the Orthodox clergy giving up their commitment to their lengthy liturgies, or the rigorous fasting of their four annual 'lents'. Is someone going to suggest that when the Latin Church gives up clerical celibacy, it should take up the things the Oriental Churches do which manifest the spiritual seriousness of their own clergy? I've not heard anyone suggest that. No, it not that critics of celibacy want to replace it with some other costly form of commitment: they want to cheapen the priesthood.

Don't be fooled: the attack on celibacy is an attack on the priesthood. The attack is led be people who consciously reject the divine foundation and supernatural vocation of the priesthood; it is followed by people who have forgotten these things. They want to cheapen the priesthood because they think it is cheap and it should be cheap. But it is not: it is something of a value beyond our comprehension. As I said about the Papacy, it is not the man who is necessarily worthy of veneration, but the office; but equally it is the man as priest who exercises the office. He can speak the words of Christ as direct, nor reported, speech: 'I absolve you', 'Do this in memory of me'. The priest is Christ among us, for all his human faults and limitations. When we need to go to Christ we can go to the priest, a human being who can be found by human means, and find Christ there.

St. Francis of Assisi used to say: "If I saw an Angel and a priest, I would bend my knee first to the priest and then to the Angel." (Read this by St Alphonsus on the priesthood.)

But this is not all: tomorrow I will argue that the attack on celibacy is an attack on marriage.


  1. Good stuff, thanks!
    Another "dog whistle" is suggesting that celibacy is a "discipline" not a dogma. It is true but then some of our disciplines are possibly of Apostolic origin, certainly "celibacy" for Christians rather than for priests only is of Apostolic origin, I don't hear much call for the promotion of celibacy for everyone.
    The keeping of Sunday as the Christian Sabbath is another discipline, if not of Apostolic origin, it is certainly of sub-Apostolic origin. So much of our faith is based on these ancient "disciplines" which are handed on, if we break with them, we do serious damage to the integrity of the faith.

  2. Some caution might be in order about "Goodbye, Good Men".

    cf. the review @

    "One difficulty in dealing with the allegations of ex-seminarians is that of checking facts. Often when a man leaves or is dismissed from the seminary with good cause, the seminary officials are bound either canonically or by the common duty of charity to remain silent about the reasons for his departure. That leaves the author with only the ex-seminarian’s version of the story. From the standpoint of journalistic accuracy, this is a highly problematic situation. Just as in any other area of reporting, one simply cannot rely on one person’s version of an event. A case in point: while in seminary I knew a seminarian who was quite devout: he prayed for literally hours of the day in chapel. However, he did this at the cost of the complete neglect of his studies. When confronted by brother seminarians and seminary officials about this problem, he was dismissive, saying that he didn’t “need to bother about that stuff”. What mattered, he said, was that he be holy. This man was eventually dismissed, and rightly so. While it is certainly true that seminarians should strive for holiness, the church also expects them to be diligent in their studies. But after his dismissal, this man told anyone who asked (and some that didn’t) that he had left because they “wouldn’t let him pray.”

    It is certainly conceivable that a man dismissed from a seminary might “color” the facts to make himself appear in a more favorable light. Furthermore, “orthodoxy” in a seminarian isn’t necessarily enough. A man could be perfectly orthodox and nonetheless entirely unfit for the priesthood. ....

    Rose does not take adequate account of these precautions, and can be shown not to have checked his facts in some instances, and thus he has a very serious credibility problem. I know some of the individuals mentioned in the book. Most are known to me as men of integrity and truthfulness, and their stories are presented accurately. But there is also evidence of inaccuracy and perhaps even selective attention to the facts. I also know individuals that Rose interviewed for this book, again reliable men of integrity, whose version of events would have called into question certain accounts found in the book. Rose omitted their version from his book: one can only conclude that Rose selectively presented only the evidence that tended towards his conclusion. Furthermore, he relies upon testimony which is known to be unreliable or even untruthful.

    One unfortunate case of this is Rose’s inclusion of Jason Dull’s highly tendentious claims regarding Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. Mr. Dull was a seminarian in the College division of Sacred Heart during the 1997-1998 academic year. Mr. Dull claims to have been the victim of the sort of ideological persecution symptomatic of the worst seminaries. He claims that he was sent to counseling because of his orthodoxy, and furthermore, that “every orthodox seminarian” that he knew was sent to counseling. While Mr. Dull may indeed have been asked to see a counselor, it strains against common sense to believe that “every” orthodox seminarian was sent to counseling. During my time at Sacred Heart I would characterize most of the seminarians as orthodox, and many of them were never sent to counseling. Furthermore, the mere fact that a seminarian was asked to receive counseling is not per se indicative of malicious intent. A seminarian may be perfectly devout and orthodox, and may nonetheless have a real emotional or psychological maladjustment which requires professional help."

  3. Just a further point about that review. It is not dismissive of Michael Rose's book and it does acknowledge there were or are real problems.