May, 01, 2013

Forced celibacy is a sexual immorality


Name: Niall Thomas
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What, in the name of Christ, is happening in the Catholic Church? I think we can all agree that it’s never been completely kosher, but the events regarding Cardinal Keith O’Brien have brought up an important question – Why isn’t the issue of celibacy and marriage in the clergy not being confronted?

Photo by Catholic Church England and Wales

The story starts in Scotland. The former Cardinal Keith O’Brien resigned in March over allegations of “sexual misconduct”, and he admitted it. “In recent days certain allegations which have been made against me have become public. Initially, their anonymous and non-specific nature led me to contest them. However, I wish to take this opportunity to admit that there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal.”

So, a celibate anti-gay campaigner has been accused of homosexual behaviour during his ministry and apologised. This man is a hypocrite, obviously. But who can blame him? The Catholic Church is broken. It forces its members into impossible situations, choosing between what they think is right and what the church stipulates. The Catechism stipulates that we should follow our conscience, but it does so in a sort of passively aggressive way, stating that the right decision will be “in accordance with reason and divine law” – and when you put your faith in the Catholic Church, their law is divine law. It also says that an informed conscience will be one that does not “reject authoritative teachings”, so it’s actually a pretty useless tool.

So you are left with a choice: follow your conscience or follow the teaching of the church (which is what your conscience should be telling you). If you follow your conscience and it differs from “authoritative teachings” i.e. those of the church, then it is possible that you have been “subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin”. You aren’t given much of a choice at all really; especially as a Cardinal. You have to embody the church. You live under the impossible pretence that you are the perfect example of a perfect child of God. Speaking out against it is to speak out against yourself. For some reason, the Church would prefer to keep important issues under the carpet in the interest of “unity”.

Well where is the unity in having men torture themselves for lifetimes, struggling to come to terms with what they have been told is a flaw, or a sinful way to be, or simply wrong? Where is the unity in allowing men to live lies, to themselves, their peers, congregations and, most likely in at least some cases, to God? Where is the unity in allowing these men to take a weighty decision like celibacy, without first confronting their sexuality? Celibacy will not work if it is used to try and escape the way you feel. You can only make that vow having explored your feelings deeply and coming to the conclusion that your sexuality, your human nature, is compatible with that way of life. To defeat sexual urges, no matter where they are directed, you must first know and come to terms with them. Celibacy as an escape from your sexuality is an impossible situation. It can only go wrong. The vow of celibacy should be a sacrifice you make to devote yourself to God, not a last resort.

That doesn’t mean to say that the former Cardinal O’Brien elected to join the clergy rather than accept his homosexuality. It’s doesn’t mean to say that he is homosexual either. His alleged relations with other clergymen could be the only outlet they had at the time; it could simply be a desperate act that became a habit. It is surely different in each case, and isn’t really for me to delve into, but I firmly believe that they should be offered some help to avoid breaking their vows.

Just days before resigning, Cardinal O’Brien raised the issue of marriage in the clergy, noting that many priests struggle with celibacy. It would be interesting to find out if the Catholic Church has a support method in place to help its clergy refrain from sex. But, as Cardinal O’Brien noted, priests were once allowed to marry and it is not a scripture-based dogma – let’s raise the issue. The fact that he raised the point should be seen as an obvious and desperate plea for help – as if he was saying “Let’s confront this issue, before it’s too late.” Unfortunately, he’d left it far too late for himself, but his example should help others in his predicament. What about the people who still live a lie?

What about people who want to dedicate their lives to God within the Catholic Church, but see that dedication in raising children? Or committing to another individual? Is the Catholic Church saying that the people most capable of becoming shepherds of the flock are asexuals? Catholic asexuals who have had a calling from God? That’s quite a small group of people. The number of Catholic priests is dwindling, and it’s no wonder – my first question when thinking of becoming a priest is not “can I lead a congregation based on Catholic teaching?” but “Have I considered never having sex?”

I know priests are meant to married to the church, but the church cannot give a man everything – like the fulfilment of the needs God gave us. Sex is not a sin, but breaking a vow surely is. Of course, priests will say that the church gives more than any other form of marriage, but if a man cannot love a wife, or indeed a husband, through loving the church, just as he should love every neighbour, then the very foundation of the church must be questioned. Why can’t a man who refuses to make a vow he knows he will not be able to keep be seen as worthy?

I feel for Cardinal O’Brien. How could we possibly expect him, or any Catholic priest, not to seek what his very nature commands him to? Forced to fight against himself, with a natural impulse and on one hand and an antiquated rule on the other. What better way to combat lust than by allowing love to grow? What better way than to dedicate your life to God by recognising the way he made you and honouring him through that path? What better way to combat sexual immorality than by establishing a sexual morality? And for those that will argue that the church cannot simply establish a sexual morality: It can. It did. Or at least it tried. That’s exactly what the rule of celibacy was designed to be, and it has been a catastrophic failure. How can you weigh up the morality of an issue which you refuse to fully address? Denial is not sexual morality. Denial is the absence of it.


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  1. Jasmine Rider

    I’m my opinion, I believe celibacy can be an internal struggle for any man and woman, either straight or gay. I found it unfair for men to chose either being celibate in order to do the duty of God or follow a normal life e.g. get married, work and have kids. As I am anti-religious, my own term for not believing in lifestyles created by those who strongly believe in their religions. I see the Catholic Church as a strict capitalist state trying its best to control issues such as child abuse and homosexuality. I really hated their beliefs, but I’m still being agnostic, since I watched Christian and Syed gay love storyline in Eastenders and studied AS English Literature where I have found that religion is more than a faith in most of places around the world including several countries of Africa and Afghanistan.

    • Jasmine Rider

      I mean religion is more as a state than faith

  2. S.V. Millwood

    I dissent from this vituperation of celibacy. Of course, for many people, it might be a struggle, but surely part of the purpose of this stipulation is to ensure that the people who choose this path are serious and committed. The existence of some high-profile failures should not be construed as a reflection of the system as a whole.

    I would venture to suggest that one reason why celibacy is so important would be to enable the priest to fully serve his community without bias or favour. A human instinct even more prevalent than lust is the propensity to look out for one’s close family first and foremost, prioritising it above the needs of the wider community. This is an issue for a vocation such as the priesthood, where one must surely have some detachment, in order to engage with people at a spiritual level, and sometimes on highly sensitive matters.

    Finally, I should point out that celibacy is not exclusive to the religious clergy. Many people elect to be celibate for non-religious reasons, and (speaking as a celibate agnostic) it is a very fulfilling and locupletative lifestyle that offers a different (and, in my opinion, superior) outlook. It is not a lifestyle for everybody, and it does confer something of an outsider status (which I think is a good thing), but for some people it is apposite and I feel that society as a whole needs people like us, both in the clergy and in the secular sphere.

    • Niall Thomas

      Hi, thanks for your comment!

      I understand the reasoning behind it, but I am simply pointing out some very large flaws. Celibacy certainly does ensure the priest serves his community, but doesn’t that suggest that Protestants can’t serve theirs as well?

      Your point on celibacy not being exclusive to the clergy eludes me I’m afraid. I didn’t suggest that celibacy is useless or unnatural – I was suggesting that forcing celibacy on someone so they can fulfill their calling is immoral. You are right, it is not a lifestyle for everyone. So why is it proscribed as a necessary lifestyle for priests? Some very capable men could not be celibate, and to prevent them from doing God’s work because we have decided that they should follow a particular lifestyle is unfair.

      Why do you think celibacy is superior? I’m just curious, it has no bearing on the article or the argument.

      Thanks again!

      • S.V. Millwood

        Of course many people serve very capably in religious ministries of various denominations without being celibate (although I am agnostic, I happen to know some such people). I was merely pointing out that there is a sound rationale behind the requirement imposed on the Catholic priesthood for celibacy, and that the choice to take such a path should be respected, not derided on account of a few high-profile failings.

        In any Christian denomination, becoming a priest is a serious responsibility, for which one cannot pick and choose the facets of the role that appeal. In Catholicism, celibacy is considered an integral part of the vocation of the priesthood: we have the right to disagree, but I think we should respect the right of the Catholic church to hold that sentiment.

        As for why I personally think celibacy is superior, I suppose it is partly because I think that restraint is in many (but not all) respects a virtue and partly because I am celibate, as a result of which I feel that the few friendships I do cultivate are less superficial and more mature. Also, I find that in rejecting sexuality, I am — in the context of a society obsessed therewith — stimulated to deliberate more deeply what really matters in life (I am not saying that there were or even should be a straightforward answer to this).

  3. Wilf Jones

    Hi there,

    I’d like to take issue with a couple of things in the article.

    First of all, Cardinal O’Brien was not and “anti-gay campaigner”, had he been he would have fallen into heresy. He took issue with the definition of marriage being devised by the gay lobby, a lobby which itself is losing strength and credibility as gay people become comfortable in their sexuality as society becomes ever more accepting and there becomes less and less need for a civil rights movements devoted to protecting them. Cardinal O’Brien’s own sexual misconduct is in a very real sense immaterial to his argument and can only form the basis of an ad hominem attack, which fails to engage with the issues in hand.

    For a more detailed discussion of conscience, perhaps refer to John Henry Newman but what you really support in your second paragraph is a relativism which is alien to Catholicism and which in itself is logically flawed. We are increasingly being subjected to this flaw in concrete reality as the idea that every truth must be relative except that of relativism itself, which must be enforced, really takes hold. The Pentagon’s move to court martial any member of the American armed forces who promotes their faith to others is a demonstration of this: for them every truth must be relative and when objective truth is promoted relativism must be preserved by enforcing the objective goodness of relativism. Conscience is a searching for the objective truth. For example, with abortion one searches out the truth with reason. Is a foetus at the moment of conception alive? Yes. Does it have human DNA? Yes. Is it therefore a living human? Yes. Are all living humans accorded the fundamental right to life? Yes. Therefore abortion is wrong. Conscience searches out, through a logical process what is morally good and what is morally bad. I can feel that abortion is right all I like, when I think through the process it is wrong and that, fundamentally is the difference. When I have, as has often happened, disagreed with the Church’s teaching on whatever issue it might be, I have looked at the documents, seen what the Church’s thinking process is and learnt from it. We have two thousand years worth of some of the best minds who ever lived working for the Church, it’s a pretty safe bet that these people will have thought about it more thoroughly than I have and that, unless I’m incredibly arrogant, I have things to learn from them. Christians necessarily believe in an objective truth if only because we believe in a God who is all knowing and therefore what he knows to be the truth must be objectively the truth. There is no room for relativism within Christianity. It is not a case of the binary opposition you suggest in your third paragraph, but in fact of conscience growing into the teachings of the Church through careful thought and reflection.

    In the third paragraph you seem to believe that the Catholic Church has fallen into the heresy of clericalism. I am a layman and have had good and bad experiences of clergy. The idea that I might think that a bishop, by virtue of his consecration, is now perfect is laughable. Talk to any Catholic or parish priest for ten minutes and you’ll realise that the laity and lesser clergy are in wholehearted agreement with Church doctrine on this one: bishops are far from perfect people. They are, however, called to teach the objective thruths of the Church and actually I expect that when he meets Our Lord, Cardinal O’Brien’s faithfulness in promoting teachings which he himself may have had personal disagreement on, will be of benefit to his soul. Indeed, if he didn’t disagree with the teachings, but had experience of sinning in contravention of those teachings, I would have said it put him in a better position to talk about them. The priests I know that are best at caring for gay people are themselves gay and they understand the particular pressures brought to bear in that situation. I think you also misunderstand the idea of “divine law”, it is the sort of law that means when I drop a coin it falls to the ground, it is not one that can be changed. What is wrong remains wrong for ever since it is moral value is objective.

    Looking at your fourth paragraph, the Church has not told anyone it is wrong to be gay. You also seem to be dealing with a situation we haven’t had in the Church for some time. If we’ve learnt anything from the child sex abuse scandals, it’s that repression is a tool of evil and thus to take up a call to a celibate life requires a deep understanding of one’s own sexuality. Seminarians today are monitored closely to make sure that their celibacy is not an excuse for repression because the Church knows that if it is, the sexuality which had been a beautiful gift from God, will be mutilated and pop up somewhere else in their lives as something very ugly indeed. I, as a layman, really appreciate that our priests are willing to devote themselves entirely to God and to us and to do so they’re willing to take on celibacy. It means that they can go into situations where it would otherwise be difficult and removes distractions from their lives. It also means that its less likely people will enter the priesthood for self advancement because the self sacrifice required is so enormous. Similarly, once clergy are ordained they remain with a spiritual director whose role it is to keep an eye out for their emotional well being, as well of course as being encouraged to form strong friendships with their brother priests who perform the same role out of love. Clerical celibacy is not only not a scriptural dogma, it is not dogma at all. The Pope could change it at any time. It is only a Church imposed discipline. It is a wise one, one that I hope will remain, but it is only that. There is nothing objectively morally bad about priests being married in itself, only in the disobedience to their vows it would be a result of. The support network of brother priests and close lay friends should mean that clergy don’t feel they need to lie about their sexuality. I’m blessed with quite a few priest friends, some of whom I’m very close to and several of whom have told me they’re gay. This isn’t an issue for me, it isn’t an issue for them, it certainly isn’t an issue for the Church.

    Looking at the penultimate paragraph the first thing that jumps out of me is that no one is worthy of the priesthood. The second is that if a man is not able to live a celibate life he should not be ordained, it will only cause problems in the future.

    The last paragraph is where the crux of the issue lies. You present it as a matter of battling with one’s sexuality in the pursuit of celibacy. In fact the opposite is true. One embraces celibacy in concord with one’s sexuality. There is a real integration and having seen it in other people, I can attest to its beauty. One doesn’t stop being attracted to people. If one does, something’ s gone wrong. Your emotions have been castrated and you’ve ceased being suitable for the work of a priest who needs to weep with those who mourn and laugh with those who rejoice. Priests should expect more than to just be attracted to other people, they should expect to fall in love with other people. That doesn’t mean they weren’t created for a celibate life, it just means they’re still human.

    All of the issues raised above come into one issue here: the objective truth that in every age God calls people to be his presbyterate, that clericalism is a heresy, that sexuality is a beautiful gift from God and that repression is the blade which mutilates that.

    Thank you for your thoughtful article. I believe it’s important that these issues are raised and discussed.

    • Niall Thomas

      Hi Wilf, thank you for your comment!

      I must disagree with your first point. The extent to which Cardinal O’Brien was an anti-gay campaigner is up for debate – I am of the opinion that his views on homosexuality went beyond merely taking issue with the definition of marriage being taken out of the church’s control. I don’t think that the definition of marriage should be dictated by the “gay lobby” and neither do I think they are trying to dictate a definition. Furthermore, your comment on the “weakness” of that lobby would also constitute an ad hominem attack. The issue at hand is not O’Brien’s stance, but his hypocrisy and I’m afraid I can’t avoid appearing to use ad hominem when it is precisely the man’s fault which I am discussing.

      Your argument about relativism is interesting, but perhaps beside the point. What I will say is this: Your point about abortion, which boils down to “Abortion is wrong because all humans are afforded the fundamental right to life” presents a problem for objective reasoning. In cases where the mother will die if she continues the pregnancy, what are you to do? The mother is afforded the fundamental right to life too, is she not? Both the birth and the abortion will result in the sacrifice of one living person (under your definition of living) – what gives the unborn child the priority? The situation thus requires a relativist approach.

      In addition, there are other factors which determine if one is alive or not. Consciousness for one. Now obviously, that would mean that those who are unconscious may be seen as not living – well, this is the case to an extent with patients who are “brain dead”. There is a grey area there which must be looked at with relativism. Life is not necessarily black and white.

      I would argue against your comment that there is no room for relativism in Christianity. Jesus taught against the objective laws of the Jews and instructed his followers to be relativist in their approach with the Golden Rule. There are arguments for both sides.

      Forgive me for that tangent, I just thought it was interesting.

      Your next paragraph affirms what I said in the article – celibacy is not a scriptural dogma.

      I agree with your last paragraph – repression is the root of the problem. But that is exactly what my article is arguing against. Why should men who are called to be priests have to repress their sexuality? I am speaking of the men who would find celibacy extraordinarily difficult. Why should their sexuality be the qualifying issue, rather than their ability and willingness to serve God? The rule of celibacy can and has forced some to repress their sexuality, whether that sexuality is gay or straight. So why keep it? Those who want to can be, but those who can’t should not be forced.

      You said “if a man is not able to live a celibate life he should not be ordained, it will only cause problems in the future.” I’m afraid that this shows how confused the Catholic Church has become – an arbitrary rule has come to define who leads our church, when God should be the only factor.

      Thanks again for your comment. I agree that discussion is the vital component of this issue.

  4. OE

    Hi, I was only able to read the first couple of paragraphs on this post so I apologise if I’m mentioning things you may have already addressed. I’d like start by saying Catholicism like Islam, Judaism and all other religions has its rules. If you chose to become a member of any of these religion, then you have chosen to abide by their rules. If you decide to become a priest and the stated rule is that you have to remain celibate, if you cannot remain celibate then don’t become a priest. It is simple and straight-forward. I personally don’t understand what people’s problem is with this.

    The Catholic Church has been in existence for over 2000 years, yes It has come under attack due to a number of controversial issues, but there is no blood oath in becoming a catholic or a priest or a cardinal. Its like going into a restaurant because they don’t make their burgers the way its done at McDonalds or Burger King, you try to get all the customers to force the chef to change. Really? No-one is forcing you. In the same way, I cannot decide to become a Muslim, where a Hijab during the winter and then because in summer it gets uncomfortable start a movement saying Islam should allow Muslim women to take off their Hijab during summer. All I’m trying to say is this, if as a catholic, you decided that you want to be a priest, after being told of the rules and the way of life etc. then you should have thought really hard about the decision before continuing, that is ranging from 4-7 years (depending on country etc) of thinking. If after all that, you are determined to be a priest, and you carry on accept the position of being a Bishop and then a Cardinal, but then turn around and say… oh I think we should change this rule because I wasn’t able to abide by it, then most-likely you did not enter the vocation for the right reasons. This is exactly the same as marriage and what you have written up there is exactly the reason why the divorce rates are so high. Marriage, like the priesthood is a lifetime vocation, if you decide to enter it you must be sure that, you are doing this for the right reasons, that’s just my personal opinion.

    Bottom-line, you can blame the Catholic Church for a lot of things, but if you as an individual are aware of the ‘rules and laws’ of the catholic church, and with that information, still decide to enroll in a religious order within the church, it is irresponsible to pass the fault your wrong-doing on the church.

    • Niall Thomas

      Thanks for your comment! It isn’t something which was addressed in the post so let m address it here.

      Yes, it is a religion with rules – however, the rule of celibacy is not one of the foundational rules of the faith. It is a rule which was made up in the early centuries of the church’s history and as such should be open to redress.

      Your second paragraph seems to suggest that people shouldn’t try changing things from the inside. You also seem to be suggesting that change in the church is instigated by people who join it. The vast majority of Catholics were born into the church, and really had no choice. They can choose to leave, but in many cases that is a choice which is divisive for families and communities. People don’t want to leave. Additional, you argue that priests “choose” to join the vocation, though I’m sure they would argue that they are “called”. What of the people that are called but cannot commit to celibacy? Does God only call men who have no interest in sex? Or does he call everyone and places celibacy as a test of commitment? If it is a test, it surely would have been part of the foundations of the church and would probably have biblical backing – but it doesn’t. My argument is that the church should rid itself of the rules and laws other than those of Christ to prevent anybody from wanting to leave. Only Christ’s laws should matter. Every other rule is open to change – it is this openness which allowed those rules to be established in the first place, external to the foundational laws of Catholicism.

      As for entering a vocation for the right reasons: the right reason for becoming a priest has absolutely nothing to do with being able to abstain from sex. It should therefore not be a qualifying issue.

      To say that somebody must decide whether or not to be a priest based on whether or not they can abstain from sex is to pervert and warp entry to the clergy. So men who want to devote their lives to God but also want a sexual relationship are less able to lead a flock than a heartless man who has no interest in sex? I don’t believe that to be the case. I don’t think anybody does. So why do the rules make it so?

      I agree that it is a lifetime commitment and a vocation, just as marriage is. However, the rule of celibacy is one which can be done away with without going against the foundational laws of the church. Doing so would make life happier and easier for priests, and make the vocation open to those who want to dedicate their lives to God but have been prevented from doing so by an arbitrary rule. If the Catholic Church preaches love, compassion and open arms, then it should practice it. In this circumstance, the only answer is to redress the rule.

      I did not pass the blame for Cardinal O’Brien’s mistakes to the church, I said that the church makes it very difficult for any priest to avoid such a situation.