"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Priestly celibacy: what's important is the fascination

At his blog Ascent to Mount Carmel, Catholic seminarian Paul Hamilton remarks: "I have had more conversations about priestly celibacy with both Catholics and non-Catholic strangers alike than I have had about any other single topic." Amazing, isn't it? More than on any other single topic. Alas, I believe it. And it's got me thinking anew about a topic about which I'd thought there was little left to say.

Over the decades, I've tried more than a few times to explain the point and value of requiring celibacy to people who are mystified by, even skeptical of, that feature of the Catholic priesthood, be they non-Catholic or Catholic. I've relied chiefly on the work of Fr. Benedict Groeschel, a PhD psychologist and ascetic as well as the founder of a new religious community, and encyclicals by popes Paul VI and John Paul II. But in my experience, the only people who take such explanations at face value are those who, for reasons of their own, are keen to defend the Eastern-Catholic and Orthodox tradition of a married parish clergy while, at the same time, upholding the concurrent tradition of celibacy for bishops. The rest generally take for granted that the stated reasons for the Roman-Catholic requirement are not the "real" ones which, of course, are then triumphantly proposed in the most cynical terms. Just as oddly, it has rarely occurred to anybody unbidden that I might actually be interested in consecrated celibacy for myself, which I once was and am again, even when they know me as a deeply committed and well-informed Latin-Rite Catholic. The few to whom I've expressed such interest wonder, not so covertly, what DSM heading(s) my particular form of derangement is to be classified under. But a bright, mentally healthy young man such as Paul who's actually about to commit himself to lifelong celibacy cannot be so easily dismissed and, indeed, compels attention to what that commitment stands for. The phenomenon of such a person seems to compel attention even when talking directly about what it stands for would not.

That, I have come to believe, is the best argument for retaining the Latin Church's norm of requring celibacy of its priests—the exception to the norm being, of course, those ordained under the Pastoral Provision, which will necessarily remain exceptional. When lived faithfully for the right reasons, its evangelical witness is incalculably powerful. In former times, the witness of giving up the possibility of children attested sharply to the reality of the Kingdom to come; in today's sex-obsessed world, where children are often seen as more of a burden than a blessing, the witness of giving up voluntarily induced orgasms is testimony enough. Of late, that witness has been somewhat obscured by the sex-abuse scandal; but there's no reason to believe that such abuse has been less prevalent among married people, even among married clergy of other churches. As the Church tightens her measures for excluding pederasts, the witness will re-emerge once again.

In the meantime, Paul, I'll support you or oppose you—whichever you think would help!
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