Celibacy Is Unnatural

The Roman Catholic church’s stated reason for opposing homosexuality is that it violates a vaguely-defined construct they call “natural law”. This viewpoint is explained in essays like this one:

People have a basic, ethical intuition that certain behaviors are wrong because they are unnatural… The natural sex partner for a man is a woman, and the natural sex partner for a woman is a man. Thus, people have the corresponding intuition concerning homosexuality that they do about bestiality — that it is wrong because it is unnatural.

Unfortunately, this article doesn’t explain how we tell which of our intuitions can constitute “natural laws” and which cannot. A large majority of people once held the view that interracial sex was “unnatural” – in fact, some people still do hold such views – so would the Catholic church also advance a natural law argument for anti-miscegenation laws? If not, why not? How do we tell which of our intuitions can serve as the basis for natural law and which are simply popular prejudices falsely being passed off as intrinsic parts of human nature?

But even beside the problem of subjectivity and clashing intuitions, we can level a charge of hypocrisy against those who make natural-law arguments. After all, what could be more “natural” for human beings than having sex? We’re designed for it, hard-wired for it, physically and mentally. Billions of years of evolution – which the Catholic church accepts – have stamped us with an extremely strong, if not all-consuming, innate desire to pass on our genes. Yet the Catholic church fights against this fundamental part of human behavior by demanding that its clergy should remain lifelong celibates, never having sex and never falling in love. What could be more abnormal, more “unnatural”, for human beings than that?

And the facts bear this out: in a large number of cases, the official rule of celibacy is repeatedly and flagrantly broken. Consider this article from this week’s New York Times, “A Mother, a Sick Son and His Father, the Priest“:

Ms. Bond separated from her husband, and for the next five years she and the priest, the Rev. Henry Willenborg, carried on an intimate relationship, according to interviews and court documents… In private they functioned like a married couple, sharing a bed, meals, movie nights and vacations with the children.

This Missouri woman was approached and seduced by a Catholic priest, a Franciscan friar named Henry Willenborg, which began a long-term romantic relationship. One of their sexual liaisons resulted in the conception of a child, a boy named Nathan. (The article says that Willenborg initially suggested she get an abortion.) After legal prodding, the church reluctantly agreed to pay some financial support to the family, but only on condition that she sign strict confidentiality agreements. By a stroke of tragic fortune, both she and her son are terminally ill, which is why she’s decided to come forward with her story. Willenborg’s superiors were aware of his relationship well before Nathan’s birth, but as you probably expected, he’s never been removed from the priesthood or punished in any way.

But what makes this story more than an anecdote is this jaw-dropping statistic:

A landmark study in 1990 by the scholar A. W. Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine, found that 20 percent of Catholic priests were involved in continuing sexual relationships with women, and an additional 8 percent to 10 percent had occasional heterosexual relationships.

Around 30 percent of Catholic priests engage in sexual relationships with women. This is a clear sign that the Catholic hierarchy’s rules run against the grain of human nature. Celibacy is simply not natural for us, and rules which demand it are bound to be broken. And when that does happen, the outcome is predictable: a sexuality that’s denied healthy outlets will find unhealthy ones. In this case, rather than admit their desires and resign the priesthood to seek happiness honestly, priests tend to use their position of authority to exert an almost irresistible coercion on members of their flock:

“Here I am this small-town girl, and at the time I didn’t feel that I was very attractive,” she said, “and yet he’s putting his vows on the side and he wants to be with me, in the most intimate, loving way. It was quite an honor.”

“It’s such a powerful thing because you think — and this is the illness of it, too — you are led to believe and you let yourself believe, that you are a chosen one. That you are so special,” she said, adding of the priest, “It’s not that they’re putting God aside, it’s that they’re bringing you up to their level.”

It’s the unmerited aura of supernatural wisdom, their claim to possess special status and power with God, that gives priests the ability to ensnare women so easily – and the irrational celibacy rule that gives them the incentive. If the Catholic church discarded both of those, they would have a (somewhat) more rational religion. If they dropped their absurd and prejudiced “natural law” arguments against homosexuality, divorce, contraception, and all other manners of consensual human sexual expression and freedom of association in our relationships, they might actually have one worth following.

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With Liberty and Justice For All
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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