The Practical Problems of Celibacy

The Practical Problems of Celibacy April 17, 2009

We had supper last night with a newly ordained priest, and one of the topics for discussion was priestly celibacy.

In a rural state like South Carolina many priests end up in small parishes. They’re isolated and alone. Often they are looking after two or three far flung parishes. They live on their own and celibacy really means they end up like hermits. 
There have been huge changes in our society and in our church. Fifty years ago a man would come from a Catholic community in a large city like Philadelphia. He would go to the local seminary and return to his community or one like it. His whole extended family would be there. He’d live in a big rectory with other priests and a house keeper. Not too far away he’d have a big collection of brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and nephews and nieces. He was celibate, but he was not alone.
Now, with increased mobility and social change all of that Catholic way of life is gone. The priest is one man in one parish. Because of scandals in the church it is increasingly difficult for him to establish close friendships with either men or women. He can’t get close to children or young people for fear that people get the wrong idea.
Other things have changed which also make the celibacy option more difficult for young men. Fifty years ago a young man  took a hard look at his options for the future. Marriage was an option, but it was a tough option. It meant hard work, scrimping and saving for a house and all the stuff to go in it. It meant four or five or more children. It meant sacrifice and hard work. Now a young man looks at marriage and it seems much more attractive. With contraception and women’s liberation he can have two children and a wife who works. A double income and easy credit means he can have that house in the suburbs and everything much more quickly.
Fifty years ago a Catholic young man had a choice: tough life in marriage or tough life as a priest. Both were tough, but compared to the difficulties of marriage the priest’s life actually seemed to have some advantages: a job for life, a great community of priest friends, a certain amount of status in the community and a job with meaning and purpose. Now, when a young man compares the hardships of celibacy and the other difficulties of modern priesthood and then looks at what seems to be a life of ease in the suburbs, no wonder the sacrifices seem so much more extreme.
Don’t misunderstand this post: I am not arguing for married priests. I’m just laying out some of the increased difficulties our priests face today. What is the solution? I don’t know, except that we need to love our priests, pray for our priests and realize how very difficult it is for many of them. 
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  • I hadn’t thought about the priests in the rural areas being that lonely. It’s heartbreaking to hear that. And I’ve had a similar thought about contraception and the priesthood. It used to be a priest would see families with 10 or more kids in the pew and he could wipe the sweat from his brow and say, “whoo, dodged a bullet there.” 🙂

  • MAB

    I think we the laity should be more proactive in befriending priests. I mean, invite him over for a family dinner once in a while. Sit with him at the parish coffee hour and have a chat. Invite him to a round of golf, or whatever. I am just as guilty of not doing this as the next person in the pew. Perhaps now it’s time for me to make a new effort.

  • Other options becoming easier is also a reason for the decline of interest in women’s religious communities, but I think that’s actually a good thing. There used to be so many women who turned to the convent because the idea of marriage didn’t appeal to them, and thus their lives were way tougher than they needed to be (hence all the horror stories concerning teacher nuns from hell).There are some emerging communities of diocesan priests, which is wonderful to see. Being a parish priest in a rural area is a vocation in itself. Unfortunately bishops don’t have the luxury to leisurely find out which priest will thrive where…

  • The polarization of the Church is another factor. Many priests basically live in fear of their parishioners, for one reason or the other.My former pastor in another town was accused by several people of an inappropriate relationship with a woman in the parish. Now, as it happens, I’ve lived in several parishes where that has happened. In this case, it really was a false accusation. He was investigated both by his religious order–the Redemptorists–and by the Diocese of Charleston. Both found him innocent. Now, some of us would argue that the relationship still constituted “paritcular friendship” and giving the appearance of scandal. But the basic fact was that this woman was one of the only people in the parish–which had been very factionalized by the past several priests–who really reached out to their new pastor.A parallel point is that many people point to examples like you and asy, “Well Rome allows *them* to be married.” Most of us are unaware (I just learned of it recently) of the requirement that married priests remain continent.

  • Father, could you comment on the level of desire that priests have to be invited into parishioner’s homes for dinner and such? Is this something they see as a blessing and look forward to, or do they dread it?

  • I am a pastor in a small town. I love it when people invite me over to their house. I got rid of my TV so that I would have to go to a families house to watch sports. For me the main thing is to get out of the rectory, take walks around town, visit work places. if you are interested in the lives of the people then they will open up to you.Kingman, KS

  • Fr. L., Please comment on the “requirement that married priests remain continent”. Is this, in fact, the case? Either way, what difference would the requirement make to those who love and support such priests?

  • BHG

    Your post underscores how important it is for parishioners to care for their priests, and offer them friendship . I get very annoyed when I hear so much carping about priests, and want to ask the complainers what they have done to help their pastor lately.

  • Great post. I am also skeptical of the claim that married priests are to leave off sexual relations with their spouse. The term “continent” seems unfortunate to me in so far as we are all called to continence (as the term is understood in moral philosophy–notably from Aristotelian thinking). That is, a continent person is one who controls their passions and desires, and so is a kind of pre-condition for the virtuous life.

  • Father, as my aunt Ruby used to say, “the phone lines work both ways”. I’d encourage anyone looking for friends — priest or otherwise — to pick out some likely candidates and extend an invitation. For want of cash or cooking skills, pot luck or coffee-hour are both workable formats. This takes courage, a little effort, and the willingness to fail every now and again. But it works.Jen.(PS to my parish priest if you are reading this, you’ve got an open invitation to come affirm your vocation by wading into the morass our family dinner hour anytime you dare. Phone first if “cleanliness” is important to you.)

  • Priests are NEVER alone…they have Jesus Christ with them and confirm and celebrate their relationship with Jesus by being Celibate. Let’s enjoy and allow the sacrament of holy orders to flourish.Thanks, Ray Long Branch

  • I agree with Fr. Weldon. It is always a pleasure to join a family for dinner in their home.I anointed a parishioner last evening who underwent surgery this morning. After the anointing I was invited to their home and spent a most enjoyable hour with them.Sometimes it does happen that it might take a few times to find a day that works both for the family and for the priest. Please do not let that discourage you. Some weeks as busier than others.

  • Your point about loneliness makes sense, but I wonder if it isn’t more complex? In _Intimacy_ Henri Nouwen presented a pretty bleak picture of priests struggling with not having boundaries between work and rest. It seems that this has been true for a long time. And living with other priests may not be a solution. At least I know of one priest who left the priesthood for marriage. His wife claims that it was not the celibacy that bothered him as much as the isolation. And he was not a parish priest. He lived with his order, but as each man returned from his duties in the community they would apparently sequester themselves in front of their individual televisions. And it seems laughable to imagine that marriage is really less difficult for those who care about following the Church’s teachings. Yes, contraception is an option for most Catholics, but it should not be for those serious enough about their faith to discern ordination. It is not that Christian marriage has become easier, it is that alternatives to Christian marriage are easier. If anything, wouldn’t marriage be much harder since there is less support?

  • Not to belittle or detract from the situation of our priests, but there are plenty of single lay Catholics who can empathize pretty well. We may not be vowed to celibacy, we may not be called to ordained or consecrated life, but sometimes it feels as if we might as well be, because our prospects for marriage can look pretty bleak. As faithful Catholics, those easy ways out you mention, Father, (especially contraception) are still not options for us. We still hold marriage to the same high standards as our ancestors–the standards of God and Church.Actually, I sometimes think it would be easier if I were a nun because at least I’d have a definite place in the Church and in the world (or rather, out of the world). I wouldn’t have to worry about finding a husband… or face the possibility of never finding one. But running away from my life is no reason to seek the consecrated life!I don’t mean to make it sound like I’m utterly miserable, hopeless, and ungrateful. The difficulties are real, though, and weigh very heavily at times. And support is very often lacking, even from within the Church, much less the world around us. I’m a bit limited in what I can do for priests. But one of my greatest joys in life is doing what I can to care for and support priests, and seminarians too. I pray for them, write to them, send monetary gifts when I can. It draws me close to Mary, Mother of Priests, and to her Son, our High Priest. It also gives my maternal instincts an outlet. 🙂

  • A big part of the solution: married couples need to stop contracepting.When married couples start living out their marriages properly then priests, and everyone, benefit; when we see the proper ends and fruits of the sacrament of marriage lived out.Priests bestow the sacrament of marriage. When the couple starts contracepting they are putting up a lying facade to people; to priests.When someone sees a couple living out their marriage fully, they experience some kind of freeing-up; for they are seeing marriage played out to the full. When they see marriage not played out to the full (contracepting) it’s as though a blockage happens inside the person, like a lie they cannot quite identify; it somehow paralyses and begets isolation.

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

  • “married couples need to stop contracepting.”Indeed. And when parents have more than one son, it becomes a little easier to have one of them become a priest. We have 3 sons, and the youngest will be attending a discernment weekend this month. It’s selfish to say this, but having the lot of ’em makes me more sanguine about what this one may choose.

  • It’s in the Code of Canon Law, 277. There have “recently” beem some discussions about it regardnig work Ed Peters did, as well as a series of articles/letters in _Homiletic and Pastoral Review_ regarding its application to permanent deacons.Scott W offers an interesting alternative interpretation of the canon, but the Church does not use “continent” as a synonym for “temperance” but “abstience.”

  • The families of our parish and of our home school group regularly invite our priests into our homes. One of the highlights of our entire month is First Friday Mass, after which several families share a meal with the priests who come to minister the Sacraments to us. They kick off their shoes and sit on the couch with a pile of kids nearby, or play cards with the dads, or have pie served to them by the moms. Sometimes one of us will mend a tear or fix a loose cassock button for them while they relax with our families.We take care to honor them and care for them as best we can, but also to keep them close to our families so that our sons (and daughters) can see that our dear priests are real, actual, genuine people, who enjoy being among us. We want our boys to see that a vocation to the priesthood does not have to mean a life of solitude.It also helps greatly that the priests we know and love are very traditional, reverent, holy men, with a true love for all things Catholic. They are willing to discuss the faith with us in a way which helps us better grow in our own faith. They come into our homes wearing a cassock. They ask our sons to serve at Mass. They are Godfathers to our children. They encourage families to celebrate being Catholic by making appearances at festivals, picnics, celebrations (like the upcoming Divine Mercy Sunday), and interracting with us. How amazing it is, as a mother, to know that my children love going to these wonderful men in Confession, knowing that the priest they see before them truly loves and knows them.Priests are people, for Pete’s sake. What a shame more Catholics cannot see past the title.

  • Being alone doesn’t mean a person is lonely. In fact, living alone offers a priest the opportunity to truly relax, meditate and be himself. I enjoy the company of my priest friends but after a few days of vacation with them, I’m more than ready to return to my “aloneness.”As for the frequent dinners with parishioners, some of us aren’t all that keen on the matter. Word gets around that Father likes to visit for dinner and you get a hundred invitations to join families for dinner. Many of those evenings are incredibly boring (sorry good people of God). After a 10 or 12 hour day, I’m ready for a bit of prayer, a bit of TV news and sports, a bit of reading and a good night’s sleep.By the way, I have a chapel in the rectory with the Blessed Sacrament. So I am never alone.Really, most of us are OK living by ourselves. It is a choice we made because we prefer it that way.I hope my honesty hasn’t offended anybody.He is Risen. He is truly risen.

  • Dont like your new blog format Father. Why have you got a pic of a chalice and thurible on a shelf? I’ve been a catholic for 40+ years and never seen a chalice on a shelf with the thurible. What a funny little church you must lead!

  • ”Most of us are unaware (I just learned of it recently) of the requirement that married priests remain continent.”Is this true? Can anyone clarify?To be honest the thought of an incontinent priest makes me feel rather ill!

  • The Title is misleading. The Problem is not with Celibacy, but with sin and poor policy. Celibacy itself was extolled by Our Lord (Matt 19) and by Paul (1Cor7) & We don't just up and change tradition because it's difficult. You mentioned a cause as small families and the "easy" married life because of the widespread, potentially mortal sin of contraception. Perhaps if Priests were more concerned about getting Souls to Heaven instead of loneliness they wouldn't be lonely (by preaching on the topic). But even then, one should expect to sacrifice to follow their vocatio (Priestly or otherwise). Could another problem also be the rotating of Priests. When a priest is moved every 5 or 6 yrs, do they really get to live out being Father?

  • The upshot is we tend to get more people entering seminary who are genuinely called to the priesthood and aren’t just picking what they think will be the best worldly option, at least in the US, in poorer counties the priesthood is still viewed as a easy escape to many.Personally I think the automobile has played a large part in making everyone more isolated including priests. At one time the priest would bump into people as he walked about town and in that way he would get known, now that he drives around he doesn’t get that opportunity for chance encounters with the people in his community and this is a big loss not just to his personal life but also to his ministry.A priest needs to be visible in the community and to often this is not the case, people who don’t go to church never even see the priest, this is a great shame.

  • “My former pastor in another town was accused by several people of an inappropriate relationship with a woman in the parish. “Priests, and married men for that matter used to have the good sense to know to avoid been alone with women, its a matter of discretion and prudence.There have always been suspicious minds in the world that has not changed, what has changed is the constant mingling of the sexes to a degree unheard of in prior times when men recognised their weaknesses and knew to avoid even the possible occasions of sin as much as possible.

  • It sure does seem odd for a married priest — a position that’s not supposed to exist — to be talking about this subject.

  • @TheWizard,there have always been married priests. It is primarily in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church that the discipline of priestly celibacy has been kept, and if I’m not mistaken, only since the 12th century or so. But a number of the Oriental rites never embraced the discipline for their priests.Recently, dispensation from the discipline has been extended to a number of converted, married Anglican priests. Fr. Longenecker is one such.

  • I know a few seminarians who are big supporters of the idea of married priests. They themselves want to be celibate priests, but think that more married priests would be good. In talking with them about it they said that it is not the right time for that now, but maybe someday. I bring this up because I tend to agree with them. How it could work without opening the floodgates, I have some ideas but who knows. If I understand it in some religous communities the Abbot or Prior is the one who when there is a need in the community for someone else to be ordained will ask a brother that he feels might have a call to consider it. If it all falls out that the brother has a call then he is ordained, after training of course. The same could be done in dioceses, if a bishop felt that a certain deacon in his diocese may make a good priest he could ask him to consider it, after prayer, etc. the deacon could begin a process, to prevent abuses that would have several bishops (or maybe a curial department in rome) review the deacon, and his possible call. If all were in agreence that he did have the call and there were no problems in their minds then the deacon could be ordained a priest. But this way the Church keeps a tight control on this, and no married man can seek out the priesthood. He could seek out the diaconate, but their is no garuntee that he would ever be a priest. After all a vocation is not a calling just from God, but from the Church too. This way the call and response would have to be initiated by the Church. If the floodgates to married priests were opened I have a feeling we would get alot of dissenting priests in that first generation of married priests. But who knows. It is an interesting issue.

  • This group has a panel discussion on this subject, with a married priest.