Rereading my last post several hours after it went up I came across a statement that unfortunately is very unnuanced and which I want to correct. I had mentioned that Archbishop Laud, like many churchmen before and since “could make celibacy look like an option for holiness rather than a cover for psychological struggles.” This sounds as if I do not think there is a positive value for clerical celibacy or that celibacy is indicative of a psychological disorder when in fact I believe that in a mature, or maturing, individual celibacy can indeed be “an option for holiness” and is totally compatible with a healthy psyche. I do not believe, however, that celibacy, especially when it is not a choice one can freely make and still follow one’s vocational pursuit, is automatically healthy much less holy. I know many priests and religious who are profoundly holy and mentally healthy; I also know many whose psychosexual development is severely arrested to the detriment of their own spiritual welfare and of the welfare and even safety of those with and to whom they minister.
The celibacy of the clergy is part of a very ancient tradition. While celibacy as a canonical requirement for ordination can be traced in the western Church back to the Councils of Elvira (306) and of Orange (441), it would be centuries before it became universal law in the Western Church. There are a number of factors that contributed to it. First there developed a very negative attitude towards human sexuality and there were various decrees insisting that priests abstain from sexual intimacy with their wives for a set period (usually 1-3 days) before celebrating the Eucharist. It was, thus, a purity requirement. Secondly, with the rise of monasticism in the fourth and fifth centuries, it became more and more common to choose bishops from among the monks—who were celibate—and not infrequently these monastic bishops did not have a positive appreciation of marriage or marital sexuality. That may explain, to a certain degree, the decision at the aforesaid Councils. Through the early Middle Ages celibacy became more and more expected of the clergy and the problem of hereditary churches—churches and church property passing from priest-father to priest-son to priest-grandson—would lead to proscription’s against clerical marriage. This problem was limited more or less to the Western Church. In the Eastern Churches after the fifth century bishops were invariably monastics and ecclesial preferment was limited to celibates, but the pastoral care, especially in rural churches, was entrusted to married priests and deacons. In fact, most priests in rural parishes of the west were married as well, it was just that the Church did not recognize their marriages nor the legitimacy of their children which barred the children from themselves being ordained or inheriting property—thus solving the inherited church problem. It was not uncommon for the secular clergy even in the large cities, and even for bishops and archbishops, to be in what today we would call a common law marriage. While the Reform Canons of the 11th century “Gregorian Reform” outlawed clerical marriage—and declared all such marriages to be invalid—it was only in the 16th century reforms of the Council of Trent that there was any significant enforcement of clerical celibacy. And even then—and now—it is not entirely successful as there are priests and even bishops who are for all practical purposes in a somewhat less than formal marriage. Only recently I came across the story of a priest who has just retired from active duty as an Army Chaplain who has been civilly married at least twice with the knowledge of both his military and ecclesiastical superiors. Some years back during a trip to Africa I was invited to lunch with a Bishop with whom I am acquainted. His wife and three teenage children were all at the table. Their presence was not explained to me in anyway but the priest-friend who accompanied me that day confirmed my surmises. Both these men are highly effective ministers and neither is particularly “liberal” in their theological views. Those who do not know their particular stories would undoubtedly consider them both to be “good priests.” While I must admit that I have found the chaplain to be a man for whom I personally do not have respect, it is not because of his marriages per se but rather what I perceive to be a general lack of integrity; I can’t but stand in awe of the Bishop whose selfless work in building a strong Church under the most challenging of conditions, I have seen over many years. More to the point of this posting, whatever the irregularity of life of either of these two men, my dealings with them have shown them to be psychologically mature and well-integrated men.
On the other hand, I have seen some of the grossest psychological and spiritual immaturity on the part of some priests who conform to celibacy. I remember an American priest I knew in my Rome days—he was a confessor at Saint Peter’s where he was known for his rigid penances and the somewhat prurient questions with which he would interrogate penitents, going far beyond not only what is required but what is allowed a priest to ask a penitent. Younger members of his Religious community learned to give him great distance as he had a tendency to “violate boundaries” in his relationships with them. He was considered a saint by those outside his community but those who lived with him found him controlling, sly, untruthful, and manipulative.
The fuss that some priest have created in refusing communion to those whom they suspect—even with good reason—of not conforming to Church teaching regarding human sexuality: abortion, masturbation, same-sex relationships, etc., and even more their self-righteousness in defending their position when summoned by their bishops or criticized by their parishioners, indicates a probable lack of psychosexual integration. Indeed, the choice of judgment over compassion might well be an indication of an arrested spiritual—and probably psychological—development.
Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s I have vivid memories of how much many of the clergy drank and how common alcoholism was among priests. In retrospect I wonder how much of this was triggered not simply by the loneliness of celibacy for those not called to it, but by the lack of psycho-sexual maturity that mandatory celibacy fosters.
At the same time I write this, I think back on my school days and a Jesuit who taught me junior religion and senior Latin. He was a man of exceptional kindness and compassion, a man who could look into a person’s soul and see beyond all the superficial crap right to the best of what is in the human heart. I also think back on a priest friend of my parents—a Diocesan priest—who was the epitome of priestly modesty and discretion, but in a way that was overwhelmingly joyful. He never drank anything stronger than tea but could sit at the piano for hours making you laugh and making you cry with music ranging from Ragtime to Verdi. This was a man who for all his natural dignity and grace, was not above doing the laundry for a shut-in or frying up some ham and eggs for a homeless man. Celibacy can be one man’s manna and another man’s poison. It is clear from experience that just because a man is given a vocation to the priesthood, he is not necessarily given the vocation to celibacy. And there are more than enough men there who have opted for celibacy but who have not the “shepherd’s heart” that is a sign of an authentic priestly vocation.