Celibacy Issues

Joseph F. O’Callaghan

A story in the Connecticut Post (6/23/11) concerning the removal of Monsignor Martin P. Ryan as pastor of St. Edward the Confessor Church in New Fairfield on charges of harassing a female employee raises several troubling issues, both personal and institutional.

In the personal realm there is the question of priestly celibacy, the topic of this essay. Responding to accusations that Msgr. Ryan had molested a teenage girl at St. Theresa’s Parish in Trumbull, the Diocesan Sexual Abuse Review Board in 2002 stated that he had “celibacy issues” but should be permitted to function as a priest. Not quite ten years later those celibacy issues seem to have re-emerged. Msgr. Ryan’s example could be multiplied across the country and indeed the world.

Catholics must ask whether obligatory celibacy is in the best interests of the Church? The struggle to impose obligatory celibacy in the Latin Church was carried out with great violence in the late eleventh century. Not until the First Lateran Council of 1123 (canon 21) was the rule of celibacy made binding on all priests of the Latin rite. The history of the Church since then is replete with examples of priests, bishops, and popes who did not observe their vow of celibacy. The amorous cleric is also a figure in western literature.

The Greek Church allows the ordination of married men to the priesthood, but requires bishops to be celibate. The Anglican and Lutheran churches have allowed their clergy to marry. Recently Pope Benedict XVI created a special rite for Anglicans who wished to join the Catholic Church and to be admitted to the Catholic priesthood, even though they were married.

More than likely the apostles, simple fishermen, were married men with children. The story told by the evangelists of Jesus’s healing of Peter’s mother-in-law is evidence that he had a wife (Mk 1:29-31; Mt 8:14-15, Lk 4:38-9).

The earliest biblical description of the qualities desirable in a priest is found in the First Letter to Timothy (3:1-7; 5:17-19): “Whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task. Therefore a bishop must be irreproachable, married only once, temperate, self-controlled, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not aggressive but gentle, not contentious, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children under control with perfect dignity; for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of the church of God?”

At the time the letter was written, the words bishop and priest were used interchangeably to describe the same function of overseeing the Christian community.

Given all the problems that celibacy has created over the centuries, is it not time to return to the earliest Christian tradition represented by the example of Peter, the married man, and the Letter to Timothy (see also Titus 1:5-9), and allow priests to marry or to remain celibate if they wish? If our priests, our bishop, and our pope shared their lives with their wives, would they not have a more profound and realistic understanding of the lives of the people entrusted to their care?

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One Response to “Celibacy Issues”

  1. Tom Myles Says:

    In this article Mr. O’Callaghan attempts to justify his call for eliminating mandatory celibacy in the priesthood by using an example of a priest who had sexual relations with a teenage girl.

    This is a specious argument.

    The vow of celibacy that a priest makes is in many ways similar to the vow of monogamy that a Catholic man makes when he marries. Each is a sacramental commitment, made in public, and usually with much fanfare.

    I dare say that there are many more men who have violated their marriage vows than men have violated their priestly vows. Would Mr. O’Callaghan also favor doing away with mandatory monagamy in the sacrament of marriage?

    Too often I have heard the argument that it is unnatural for men to take vows of celibacy. I counter that is is just as unnatural for a man to be monogamous. This argument also does not consider the many men (and women) who choose to be celibate without taking a vow.

    As Keith Clark writes in “An Experience of Celibacy”, celibacy in the religious context has much less to do with the abstinence from sex than it has to do with a commitment to a relationship with God by not having a dependent relationship with another human.

    There are good reasons for and against mandatory celibacy in the priesthood. The example of one priest who failed is not one of them.

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