This Papal Conclave Will Not Address the Single Most Important Issue: Celibacy

The issues facing the Roman Catholic Church are daunting and well documented: decades of sexual abuse aided and abetted by irresponsible cover-ups, moral and leadership failures, financial corruption, the role of women (or lack thereof), redefining the priesthood, homosexuality, gay marriage, birth control, shrinkage in West, growth in the South, and the list goes on.

I’ve read a lot – especially from progressive Christians – on what the Roman Catholic Church should do: clean house in the leadership, sack every bishop who failed to respond to child abuse, lift the ban on contraception, choose a 3rd world Pope, and so on. Today I reluctantly join that great throng.

I’m an evangelical not a Catholic – I get that. I’m an outsider to this conversation, so it’s likely I’ll have no impact. Nevertheless this is what I think.

I believe the greatest problem facing the Roman Catholic Church is the requirement of celibacy for all priests. I do not believe the conclave will elect a Pope who is in favor of abolishing the requirement of celibacy, so it will continue to cause a couple of deep problems for the church: First, the celibacy requirement engenders a growing gap between the workaday Catholic and the typical priest. Second, the requirement of celibacy weeds out the vast majority of talented leaders.

THE PRIEST/PARISHIONER GAP

Nothing as large and diverse as the Roman Catholic Church can turn on a dime – which has its upside. But the downside is a colossal gap between the stolid dogma of the church and the quickly changing lives of the typical Catholic. Take birth control for example: walk into any suburban Catholic parish church and look at how many families have only 2 kids. How do you think that happens? Birth control… they all using it in direct violation of church dogma. This is just one bit of evidence of the gap.

Catholics won’t typically leave the church over an issue like birth control. Most Catholics are “cafeteria-Catholics.” They pick and choose what beliefs they wish to follow and ignore the others. But, the one issue they have no control over is the priest at the front of the church. On that issue they can only vote with their feet, and they often do. When they do, they sometimes end up at a church like mine. At one point, nearly half of my church was populated by ex-Catholics.

I recently had lunch with one of those ex-Catholic who shared with me that she left the church because she could no longer relate to a celibate priest. “A life of celibacy is strange. The requirement is strange,” she said, “and I think now that I’ve gotten away from the church for a few years, I can see that many of the priests who are attracted to that way of life seem strange to me as well, and I seem strange to them. They do not relate to me as a wife and mother, and I do not relate to them.” She eventually left the church to find a church whose leadership could relate to her life as a mother, to her husband’s life as a father and husband.

She’s not alone. 7 out of 10 American Catholics think priests should be allowed to marry. The curia’s refusal to listen to their own people feeds the huge gap between the priest and the congregation.

I do not believe that a celibate priest cannot relate to married people. In fact, I think all marriages can benefit greatly from the perspective of celibate men and women who can speak into our lives from a perspective free of those relational entanglements. However, to require all priests to be celibate means that for those parishioners who have a deep need to relate to a married priest (and there are many who do), they must leave the church in order to find that relationship.

CELIBACY AND LEADERSHIP

If I went to my church and said, “We’ve got huge issues to work on, a serious crisis that will take great leadership, and we’re going to have to choose a leader who can help us more forward. But, I have a few rules: First, we will not allow women to lead. Second, we will not allow any married men to lead.” How likely would I be to find a called, gifted, extraordinary leader with that requirement right out of the gate? I try not to be overly pragmatic, but this is just an insane strategy for leadership.

If the Roman Catholic Church sits at a crossroads, if it is a church in crisis, if the problems it faces are huge, if the next move is critical, if they truly need great leadership and a new imagination for how the church can thrive in the next century – then they are going about it all wrong.

Among the best and brightest men on the planet, how many have chosen to live lives of celibacy? Why disqualify a huge swath of the most talented, well-rounded, gifted, faithful, and qualified leaders simply because they want to have families? On a purely strategic level, it’s a bad move.

I do not mean to seem overly critical of the priesthood, I deeply respect the calling. I do not mean to suggest that all celibate priests are strange, that is ridiculous. But celibacy is a strange requirement for leadership. It’s strange to the scriptures and strange to the culture.

WHAT IF?

Celibacy per se is not the problem. Celibacy is a beautiful and essential calling and a wonderful tradition. It can serve community and the kingdom just as effectively as marriage can. It’s the requirement of celibacy for all priests which is the problem. If celibacy were optional for priests, it would still remain an important part of the tradition. Many priests would still choose it. But many wouldn’t, and this would have two immediate impacts:

1) There would be an influx of gifted, talented, and called leaders into the Roman Catholic Church the likes of which the church has never seen. I think a flood of amazing people would pursue ordination. It would radically transform the church for the better.

2) The workaday Catholic would instantly feel as though the church finally moved a step in their direction. It would give the RC Church leadership incredible street-cred, & leadership-cred.

Celibacy is the lynchpin. Remove it and the Roman Catholic Church would instantly revive. As an evangelical I’m rooting for this. I deeply desire a healthy Roman Catholic Church. Sadly, the Conclave will likely discuss the issue but not elect a reformer – not surprising given that every person in the room has taken a vow of celibacy. They will not elect anyone in favor of lifting the requirement, and it will continue to cause problems.

About Tim Suttle

Tim Suttle is a pastor, writer, and musician. He is the author of several books: Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church Growth Culture (Zondervan 2014), Public Jesus (The House Studio, 2012), and An Evangelical Social Gospel? (Cascade Books, 2011). Tim's work has been featured at The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Sojourners, and other magazines and journals. Tim is also the founder and front-man of the popular Christian band Satellite Soul, with whom he toured for nearly a decade. He has planted three successful churches over the past 13 years and is the Senior Pastor of Redemption Church in Olathe, Kan. Tim's blog, Paperback Theology, is hosted at Patheos.

  • scott stone

    You may be correct about the lack of attention regarding celibacy but Bergoglio was a gutsy call in my opinion. Especially following Ratzinger.

  • Jimmy

    I like the points you raise but you did not tell why thr celibate rule is wrong, you only gave possible things that could change if the rule was lifted. On a side not there are many rites of the Catholic church that do not require priests to be celibate.

  • Jose Maria

    Do you have any idea truly how brilliant JPII and Benedict are/were? My current chaplain was a full ride Navy scholarship before he received his call to the priesthood. In the Church today, we are receiving many vocations from young, dynamic, personable men. And guess what. They are celibate. They do have a family though; their parish. They are called to be spiritual fathers to many.

    Also, celibacy is not strange to the New Testament. St. Paul writes on many occasions of the beauty of the single, celibate life. He says to the effect that a single man focuses on God, a married man on his family. Celibacy is not the issue of the Church. If someone left the Catholic Church because their priest was celibate, they clearly were not catechized. You get to receive Jesus Christ bodily every single mass!! I do not care if my priest was the weirdest, most ridiculous person ever. I would still go to mass, to receive my Lord. Those who leave the Church do not believe in this fundamental pillar of the faith; that of Christ in the Eucharist.

    The current pope is the 265th in an unbroken line since St. Peter. It is a divinely established office, and it will continue long after we are all dead and gone.


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