Why are Priests Really Celibate? (and Will it Change with a New Pope?)

There’s all matter of speculation about why Pope Benedict is stepping down, especially since he’s the first to do so in 600 years. One theory is that he’s grown weary of the scrutiny around the Priest sex scandal cases, particularly with HBO’s recent release of their movie, “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God.” The film digs deep into the layers of obfuscation, obstruction and denial, in part to see just how far up the patriarchal chain this stonewalling goes. Suffice it to say that Ratzinger/Benedict is implicated as one of the key players who did little or nothing to expose and stop the pervasive patterns of abuse.

This got me thinking about the Church’s relationship to sex and sexuality, and a number of questions arose for me. But the main question revolved around why priests are celibate in the first place.

There is some Biblical basis for those entering the priesthood to deny all physical relationships in order to focus more fully on their relationship with God.  in Matthew 19:11-12 Jesus says, “All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.” Some understand the term “eunuch” to be referring to those who commit to celibacy. Later in the New Testament, Paul recognizes that even a consensual sexual relationship with one’s spouse can serve as a distraction from one’s divinely ordained mission. And though Paul himself doesn’t marry, he recognizes it’s not for everyone.

But there is more to the story when it comes to priests. There have been times in Church history when certain clerics or priests were openly married. There are accounts of the Catholic Church denouncing this practice as far back as the third century A.D., but it didn’t become official canon law until 1123. Still, some priests kept families, either in secret or even publicly, but there is evidence that the church issued decrees as early as 1018 approving the enslavement of priests’ wives and children.

So was this all a matter of sexual purity? Was it meant to keep priests focused on God rather than on earthly things? It depends on who you ask. In March 2009, just before he retired, Cardinal Edward Egan suggested that the matter of celibacy in the priesthood was not a closed issue. In fact, he said that it was something that should be explored, and noted that, though celibacy was a widely held church rule, it wasn’t hard-and-fast Catholic doctrine.

But perhaps more fascinating was a comment in the same March 21, 2009 New York Times article from University of Notre Dame theology professor Lawrence Cunningham about why the Church really wanted priests to remain single and childless in the first place. He claims that, though there is some theological grounding to the rule, the Church’s motivation also is practical. Specifically, Cunningham suggests that the chastity rule is meant to keep the wives and children of priests to trying to lay claim to any church property.

So was the Catholic Church motivated more by finances than by moral strictures? And why does there seem to be so much fuzziness around this rule? After all, there are Catholic priests in Eastern Bloc countries who marry today. And there are a number of instances where an Episcopal priest has converted to Catholicism after already having a family. Is there a double standard? Is it possible, as Egan had hoped, that the next Pope might revisit this and change centuries of Catholic tradition?

One argument for allowing priests to marry is directly related to the sex abuse scandals. While many outside the church (and some on occasion within the patriarchy) have suggested that sexual denial contributes to later sexual deviance, as manifest in these abuse cases, the official stance of the Church on this is denial of any correlation. And truly, it’s hard to draw a straight line between the two. After all, what if people already wrestling with sexual addiction and abuse issues are drawn to the priesthood in an effort to squash their unsavory impulses? And even if priests are married, there’s the matter that they do have access to children in unsupervised situations that would be considered unnecessarily risky in other circles.

But there are more than a handful of critics who continue to assert that imposing a life of chastity on men given unusual levels of power and secrecy is like adding fuel to already glowing embers.

Regardless of the reasons why the Church maintains the rule of celibacy in most cases for the priesthood, evidence revealed through sources like Mea Maxima Culpa point to a culture of secrecy and insularity that endeavor to maintain institutional integrity, sometimes at the expense of those victimized by elements of the institution itself. There’s enough evidence offered by the movie and other sources to lend plausibility to the idea that Pope Benedict was aware of many of these abuses while serving as Cardinal. The Church hierarchy is such that Benedict would continue to serve as Pope indefinitely, largely protected by the religious institution, which is recognized by many countries as having sovereign statehood.

The weight of such criticism bears down on any man over time: even His Holiness. It’s my hope that he recognizes the need for greater reform within the church, well beyond the matter of celibacy in the priesthood, but that perhaps he is too weary to take it on. We can hope that the next Pope will take his on in bold new ways. However given the fact that all of the current College of Cardinals have been appointed by Popes Benedict and John Paul II, and considering that it seems both Popes knew of these scandals and failed to act unilaterally for serious reform, it’s hard to hold out too much optimism as Benedict steps down from his place at the helm of  the Holy See.

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About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He has a memoir on faith, family and parenting called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date, and Hachette published his first hardcover book, "postChristian: What's left? Can we fix it? Do we care?" in 2014. His first novel, "Blood Doctrine," has been optioned by a Hollywood production company for a possible TV series.

Christian is the cofounder and cohost of the Homebrewed CultureCast, a podcast about popular culture, current events and spirituality that has a weekly audience of 25,000 people (http://homebrewedchristianity.com/category/culturecast/).

Preorder Christian's next book, "Not That Kind of Christian: Loving God without being an a**hole," at https://squareup.com/market/christianpiatt.

For more information about Christian, visit www.christianpiatt.com, or find him on Twitter (www.twitter.com/christianpiatt) or Facebook.

  • http://twitter.com/SDawlatly Samir Dawlatly

    you are awesome as ever Christian

    I recommend “Vicars of Christ, the Dark Side of the Papacy” if you want a readable in-depth account from an insider… Did you ever wonder why the church switched from using the fish to the cross as its symbol??

    • Evelyn

      I’ve read it. It’s very polemical. The author has an ax to grind and that rather undermines his writing IMO. But if does have some crazy funny stories :-) and it is pretty entertaining.

      • http://twitter.com/SDawlatly Samir Dawlatly

        he was excomunicated, I believe… but thought that happened as a result of the book. Read it a long time ago, if I am honest. Perhaps history is always recorded in a way that is coloured by the person recording it?

        Think the pope joan story is widely discredited…

        • Evelyn

          I’m a historian so I say absolutely history is colored by the person writing it. And that’s not a problem. You just have to know the color if you see what I mean.

  • Paul Freeman

    I’ve been wondering about the onslaught on the topic of sexuality issues coming on the heals of Pope Benedict retiring/stepping down. It seems to be the only issue being discussed in the news the last couple of weeks, as if it’s the only thing keeping our government from focusing on the sequestration front and center. Wow what a boondoggle!

  • Evelyn

    A Nigerian priest once told me that in parishes with multiple priests it helps to be celibate because they can all share the one church house. And that that’s the reason. But I don’t think multiple priests is the norm either historically of geographically. So hmmm on that one.

  • Obliged_Cornball

    “One argument for allowing priests to marry is directly related to the sex abuse scandals. While many outside the church (and some on occasion within the patriarchy) have suggested that sexual denial contributes to later sexual deviance, as manifest in these abuse cases, the official stance of the Church on this is denial of any correlation. And truly, it’s hard to draw a straight line between the two. After all, what if people already wrestling with sexual addiction and abuse issues are drawn to the priesthood in an effort to squash their unsavory impulses? And even if priests are married, there’s the matter that they do have access to children in unsupervised situations that would be considered unnecessarily risky in other circles.”

    I question the validity of this argument. My understanding is that the general consensus among psychopathologists is that sexual attraction to children is its own “orientation.” Though a person can be attracted to both children and adults, many pedophiles aren’t. In the people who were never attracted to children in the first place, it’s unlikely that sexual repression would lead to child abuse. More likely it would provoke them to sexually abuse adult men and women. So while it is plausible that some clergymen who are not *exclusively* attracted to children could be driven to abuse by sexual oppression, it hardly serves to explain most cases and ends up not looking like a very strong argument.


  • Roberto

    Really, it is the Latin rite in Catholicism that focuses on celibacy the most. There are other eastern Catholic churches (Melkite Catholic Church, for example) who are in full communion with Rome, but allow priests to be married. Likewise, all eastern Christian Churches (Orthodox) allow their priests to marry, but emphasize the value of fasting and abstaining during certain periods of the year to strengthen the individual spiritually.

    • Tom

      It’s important to note that in Eastern Orthodox Churches, they maintain a monastic tradition alons side the married priesthood and that only monks, not married men, can become Bishops or of course Patriarch.

  • emd04

    There are several reasons why Catholic priests are celibate: one, because, yes, it does allow them to live together communally. Second, because priests have a *lot* on their plates, and they are the only ones who can celebrate Mass. If priests were married, there would be the tug of war between Johnny’s Soccer Game and priestly duties. Priests have to be available to give anointings, say Mass, hear confessions, offer spiritual direction, etc., besides all the things they have to do anyway (like daily prayer). Third, priests aren’t permanently placed anywhere. In my diocese, they move every 10 years, and our diocese is large. That’s a lot of family moving.
    Now I know that these are not theological reasons; I suppose you could quote Paul and the fact that the Apostles left their families to follow Christ (even Peter, who was married). But a lot of the reasons are just common sense.
    And as for multiple priests: well, there’s rules on how many Masses a priest can say a day. So in a big parish, you need more than one priest, in order to have four or five Masses over a weekend, as well as provide the sacraments, etc.

  • pagansister

    Non-Catholic churches have married ministers, rabbi’s etc. They seem to still be doing fine in spite of allowing their faith leaders to marry. The part about not wanting any wives or children to inherit when the priest died makes sense to me—-the selfish reason to not allow a priest to marry. Now the Church has married priests as some Episcopal priests with families have converted to the Church, and naturally haven’t abandoned their families. I expect they can’t advance to bishops and up the chain of command, but they are performing as Catholic priests. I don’t see any excuse for not allowing the priests to marry—-or why women can’t be priests. The excuses they use for not allowing that are also really lame.

    • Tripp

      When I studied medieval history we learned that the church instituted celibacy specifically to prevent family power dynasties or to prevent claims on church property. If what I learned is true, I wonder why the author of this article presented it as a modern “theory.” Looking at the political and social structures of the day, it makes absolute sense.

      • pagansister

        Guess it did make sense for that day and time, and since the Church hasn’t advanced any in the last zillion years, they just kept the rule!

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Every priest accused in the scandals, broke his vow of celibacy. Every priest NOT included in the scandals kept his vow of celibacy.

    This data alone leads me to look at any progressive pointing to the sex scandals as a reason to change the vow as an idiot.

    • http://www.facebook.com/charles.hines.965 Charles Hines

      Idiots must be everywhere – like someone who thinks Priests that were not caught or accursed of abuse most certainly kept their vow of celibacy. More likely they lied just as much about the actual abuse as they lied about the cover up.
      This stain on the Church is not going away because idiots like me are not going to allow it.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        Where is your PROOF of that statement, however?

        It is a proven fact that abusers did not keep their vow of celibacy. It is NOT a proven fact that those who did kept it, but since you can’t prove something without evidence, and you have no evidence other than prejudice, you are the idiot.

  • Steve

    Anyone suggesting a necessary link between celibacy and pedophilia needs to explain why so many married fathers molest their children. The reason why you cannot draw a straight line between the two is because there is no line.

  • kalimsaki

    The All-Wise Maker gave to man as a Trust an ‘I’ which comprises indications and samples that show and cause to recognize the truths of the attributes and functions of His dominicality, so that the T might be a unit of measurement and the attributes of dominicality and functions of Divinity might be known. However, it is not necessary for a unit of measurement to have actual existence; like hypothetical lines in geometry, a unit of measurement may be formed by hypothesis and supposition. It is not necessary for its actual existence to be established by concrete knowledge and proofs.


  • James Stagg

    Silly article. Silly arguments. Silly references (HBO as a REFERENCE?!!!!)

    Could we suggest maybe another line of “serious” work? Bricklayer, perhaps?

  • http://www.wideopenground.com/ Lana

    This is interesting. I figured it had something to do with gnostic teaching trickling down through the centuries.

  • SamHamilton

    Whose theory is it that the Pope stepped down because of an HBO film?

  • alduane

    I don’t think that we’ll really get to the answer until we realize that the Catholic church is an institution of man and has no connection with God.

  • Richard Greydanus

    I have posted a response over on my blog. Here’s the first few paragraphs:

    In an article published over on the Huff Post: Religion page, Christian Piatt has asked, ‘Why are Priests Really Celibate? (And Will it Change?)’ Good question, though the form Piatt gives it confuses categories of theory and practice, or norm and empirical reality. The question is better phrased along the lines of the title given to this blog post. Priests ought to be celibate; but cases are not hard to come by in which they are not celibate. And I don’t mean controversial cases in which charges are brought for sexual abuse against priests. A number of years ago, I took a few classes at a Catholic institution in Toronto. Before class one evening, I was made accidentally privy to a number of questions being asked by a group of young seminarians. What do you do with your live-in girlfriend when you take holy orders? Does she accompany you to your first clerical assignment?

    The questions were seriously intended by the conversations four or five participants. In North America, especially, I am told this sort of thing is not uncommon.

    Piatt offers a number of reasons for why Catholicism might prize celibacy. His very short list is decidedly Protestant, and also shallowly Evangelical. Being of Evangelical Protestant extract, my pointing this out need not necessarily be taken as a criticism, but as an exercise in self-criticism. There is little humour, I find, in watching Evangelical Protestants assess Catholicism in terms of our own idols: absolute faithfulness to words written on a physical page and the methods of social scientific analysis. Remove the beam from your own eye before attempting to remove the speck from your brother’s eye…etc., etc.

    (More: http://rgrydns2.blogspot.ca/2013/03/why-are-priests-supposed-to-be-celibate.html)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Gerry-Hunter/577874041 Gerry Hunter

    The kindest thing to say is this article is fanciful. The Pope’s duty does not entail implementing a political-style platform, and this question is not raised because a new Prelate is being elected. Some may be interested in smuggling it in, though, ecen if there isn’t a chance of success.

    • Mary

      The Catholic Church IS A POLITICAL STRUCTURE.