Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Why are Priests Supposed to be Celibate?

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.

Quoting a passage from Matthew 19 about becoming 'eunuchs for the kingdom', Piatt considers possible interpretations against the Apostle Paul's recognition that celibacy isn't for everyone. Quoting further from a New York Times article by the Notre Dame professor, Lawrence Cunningham, he suggests there may be an underlying socio-economic function to clerical celibacy. Distinguishing yourself from secular forms of government, say, and distancing yourself  from the problems of familial inheritance, primogeniture and the like,has an easy solution in the requirement leaders have no children to whom ecclesiastical property might be ceded.

On the other side of the issue, allowing priests to marry may help address problems of sexual abuse. Better if they themselves are fathers with children of their own, Piatt suggests, than leave unmarried men in charge of little children for extended periods of time. The governmental structure of the Catholic Church is also impenetrably arcane and secretive and all the present Cardinals are appointees of either John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Since both of these popes, Piatt says, 'knew of these scandals and failed to act unilaterally for serious reform', the Church hasn't much hope for the future. I could go on.

Enough has been said on this score. Piatt has a very narrow understanding of why Catholic might prize celibacy, and brings a peculiar set of objections, which prevent him from seeing the obvious.

Which are these: 1) silver-bullet solutions rarely ever work and 2) the Catholic Church's secrecy is in line with most every other private and public organization around the world. Remove the beam from your own eye before attempting to remove the speck from your brother's eye...etc., etc..

Piatt's overall point seems to be that celibacy is not necessarily a fixture in Catholic orthopraxy. It's a conclusion, as best as I can tell, he draws by lifting out of context comments made by the former Cardinal Edward Egan, who went on to say, 'Celibacy is one of the Church's greatest blessings. I will have to be more careful about trying to explain a somewhat complicated matter in 90 seconds'. The misquote seems to indicate that an excavation of the deep, deep, deep 'orthodox' origins of this orthopraxy is not forthcoming.

Why are priests supposed to be celibate? and why, pace Cardinal Egan, is that a great blessing? A good place to start, in order to gain a better perspective, would be Piatt's passing reference the 12th century establishment of clerical celibacy in canon law, which comes at the tail end of the period of investiture controversies across Europe. At stake was the relation between sacred and secular forms of authority, and whether noble families could 'invest' their younger sons with the bishop's miter and claim some of the charitable proceeds from the collection box for the family.

A better place to start, however, is in Late Antiquity, in the Latin West, with persons like Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine. I don't cite saints as authorities in this matter for no good reason. Largely responsible for the Latin Vulgate Bible, Jerome's translation and scholarship set the standard for textual criticism through the medieval period. While Saint Augustine's On Christian Teaching, Confessions, and City of God, setting doctrinal hermeneutical, spiritual, and doctrinal standards, function as a roadmap to the medieval mind-scape.

Their answers are built into a long-held understanding of fallen human nature and a redeemed human nature revealed in Christ.  They are worked to answer very difficult questions about how the Christian Church related to the rest of the natural order, to the rest of human society, and to the way things were done in the past and how they were going to be done in the coming Kingdom of God. Jerome is perhaps the more shrill and insistent, and much less measured of the two. In letters written to wealthy women, he called attention to the plight of women in the world. Sold by their fathers into servitude, which sometimes bordered on slavery, to their husbands, why wouldn't they choose a life of celibacy. The dangers of physical childbirth could be avoided, if only women dedicated themselves being spiritual mothers to new believers. There was also the example of Chris to consider: a life-long virgin born of a virgin mother, who set the standard for Christian practice. And you know, if a woman had already given up the 'flower of her youth', renewed commitment to Christ would be spiritually equivalent to re-pristination.

How much of Jerome's statement are merely rhetorical flourish is not always easy to tell, but the essential message about chastity and virginity was a deep conviction. Jerome almost equated Adam and Eve's fall into sin as a fall into sex. Christ, through his mother Mary, who rescues us from sin, also rescues us from our sexuality, which Jerome could understand only in terms of the most brutal forms of violence.

Augustine does something very similar in the City of God. The suggestive answer given to why Rome fell in the opening chapter uses sexual metaphors. Sexual desire is counted among the divisive bodily passions. It tears the polis apart, just as it tears down the rational resolve of a person's will. In the garden, Augustine suggested Adam and Eve may have engaged in purely voluntary coitus, with the sole intention of procreating, or would have if they had not fallen into sin. The fall into sin, however, blinded the rational will, which is why, it seemed to him, men and women behave like animals when in throes of pleasure. (Keep in mind that Augustine was deadly serious in these characterizations. He tells us in his Confessions that he spent a decade with a concubine, whom he loved very deeply. The sort of sex with which Augustine was familiar appears to have been entirely conventional, and yet he still mistrusted the flames of his loins.)

Both Augustine and Jerome were convinced that marriage was okay, fine for most people, who couldn't extinguish the flames of desire, but chastity was better (and virginity, the cat's meow).
A layman, or any believer, cannot pray unless he abstain from sexual intercourse. Now a priest must always offer sacrifices for the people: he must therefore always pray. And if he must pray, he must always be released from the duties of marriage. (Jerome, Against Jovinian 1.34)
By this distress conjugal life is forced to be concerned about the things of the world: the husband how he may please his wife, and the wife how she may please her husband…what would be more fully possessed within the kingdom of God if more thought were given to the manner of pleasing God shall certainly be less when this itself is given less thought due to the cares of marriage. (Augustine, On Holy Virginity, 14.)  
Men like these have been educating the Catholic Church for more than 1500 hundred years. The idea the chastity is a blessing, as former Cardinal Egan claimed, is woven into the way Catholics understand themselves, the course of human history, and the person of God in human form at its mid-point.

Piatt's analysis only scratches the surface, and by doing so, actually  misunderstands and misrepresents the nature of his subject. Celibacy has a place atop a Catholic hierarchy of goods. It's cannot be compared to a coat as easily put on, as it is taken off.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post Richard. I don't think anyone could have written better from the Patristic point of view! Truly balanced ... but 95% of HuffingtonPost Subscribers appear just too stupid to at least read such posts as yours. Keep the flame alive.