What Would Happen if Roman Catholic Priests Were Allowed to Have Sex
Probably more priests. But with the Church under scrutiny over sex scandals across the planet, it might happen sooner than you think.
Image by Nico Teitel
In 1521, four years after a German priest named Martin Luther is said to have nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, the outlaw retired to Wartburg Castle to hide from his inquisitors. There, he translated the New Testament from Greek into his native German, and began a period he referred to as his "Patmos"—an allusion to the small Greek island where the Book of Revelation was apparently written. He delved into his studies, refining polemics against the sale of indulgences (paying the Church money in exchange for salvation), and for the idea of sola fide, that God forgives on faith alone (regardless of one's "works").
These would become some of the most commonly known divisions between Catholicism and Protestantism. But what's sometimes forgotten, amid the general shattering of European politics that soon followed, is where the theologian came down on sexuality and marriage. At Wartburg, he wrote to Nicolas Gerbel, a jurist and scholar of canon law, laying out his views clearly.
"Kiss and rekiss your wife," he insisted. "Let her love and be loved. You are fortunate in having overcome, by an honorable marriage, that celibacy in which one is a prey to devouring fires and to unclean ideas. That unhappy state of a single person, male or female, reveals to me each hour of the day so many horrors, that nothing sounds in my ear as bad as the name of monk or nun or priest. A married life is a paradise, even where all else is wanting."
Like most aspects of the Roman Catholic faith, the requirement that a priest be celibate has been enshrined by centuries of tradition. But the idea has been challenged for almost as long as it's existed. In recent years, as the Catholic Church has weathered wave after wave of sexual abuse controversies (a new one is in the process of exploding in Germany), some have gone so far as to question, in the context of religious piety or otherwise, if living a celibate life is even possible. And with the Church facing more law enforcement scrutiny than ever over pedophile priests—and as well as multibillion dollar liability—the end of priestly celibacy might be closer than you think.
After all, leaving scientific matters of sexuality aside, we do know it's possible for the Catholic Church to survive without the restriction. It already did.
"Celibacy is not doctrine in the Catholic Church."—Father Thomas Reese
"The Roman Catholic precedent [of celibacy] really dates to the 11th-century Gregorian Reform," Julie Byrne, a religion professor at Hofstra University, told me recently. "Pope Gregory VII instituted a lot of changes. Mandatory celibacy for priests was instituted then, and of course, we're talking about an arrangement of society that's so different from our own—so it was partly for priests to be able to do their duties, and partly about the land that priests had, remanding back to the churches, instead of to heirs. So, if priests didn’t have children, it was better for the Church."
The notion of celibacy as a religious matter dates back even further. Kim Haines-Eitzen, a professor of religion at Cornell, explained that it has roots in the emergence of asceticism, the practice most commonly associated with monks. Haines-Eitzen has written extensively on the history of celibacy, offering a cogent timeline that touches on the introduction of priests to the Church hierarchy, the influence of Greco-Roman philosophy, and Christians' eventual views on suffering and persecution. What becomes clear is that the application of celibacy in the priesthood did not derive in a vacuum, nor from a single moment.
"To simplify the historical scope," Father Thomas Reese, a senior analyst at Religion News Service, and the former editor in chief of America magazine, told me, "I often say, 'We had about a thousand years of a married clergy, and now a thousand years of having the rule of celibacy.'"
So the model for not requiring priests be celibate is there. For one thing, Peter, the first pope, was married, if we take Scripture at its word—and the more than two-dozen Eastern Catholic Churches, which are in full communion with Pope Francis, allow for the ordination of married men into the priesthood, as do many independent Catholic churches that have no affiliation with the Vatican. There are also thought to be several dozen Catholic priests based in the US who converted back to the Roman faith from Episcopalianism and got a pass.
The real questions are whether or not the Roman Catholic Church can revert to its previous position, how that would happen, what it could look like, and why it might happen now. The mechanics of making the change are not as tricky as you might think.
"The possibility of loosening the rules about celibacy, about priests not being married, that could be possible, because a discipline is more open to change than a doctrinal position," Anthony Petro, a professor at Boston University who studies the intersection of sexuality and religion, said in an interview. "The discipline of celibacy, these sorts of things, can change. The Second Vatican Council [in the 1960s], for example, changed so much of the discipline around how mass is done. Does it need to be in Latin? How is the Eucharist held?"
There's a subtle difference between how Catholic "doctrine" and "discipline" are defined, but, in short, "doctrine" concerns the teachings of the Church on faith and morals (it descends from God) and "disciplines" are acknowledged to be man-made rules and subject to potential shifts in practice. It's slippery—yet important—phrasing.
"Celibacy is not doctrine in the Catholic Church," Reese explained. "It's a law. It can change. And people like myself, say, are in favor of moving toward optional celibacy—my primary reason being that we need more priests."
The Church has, in fact, been undergoing a priest shortage for years, especially in Latin and South America. As the Wall Street Journal noted in February, "Around the world, the ratio of Catholics to priests has risen sharply in recent decades, to 3,100-to-1 in 2015 from 1,900-to-1 in 1980, according to Vatican statistics. It is especially high in South America—7,100-to-1, almost four times as high as in North America." The logic follows: If we let men who want to have sex and get married become priests, more men would want to become priests. Pope Francis has hinted that he's in favor of discussing the idea, and, in October 2019, bishops from the Amazon are set to travel to the Vatican for a synod that may ultimately have married priests on the agenda.
"If the majority of the bishops ask for it, then, I do think the pope will grant it," Reese said, suggesting there might be a sort of domino effect if that occurs, and that priest marriage could start locally before spreading to other regions.
But the urgency of the debate is, of course, not just about the dwindling supply of priests. This has been a particularly scandalous summer for the Catholic Church. The discussion around celibacy and whether allowing priests to have sex allows for potentially predatory behavior—or if a celibate life was once more appealing to gay men in a world that was unsafe for them—can often lead to unsubstantiated associations and guesswork. (Byrne, the Hofstra professor, told me, for example, that she thinks the question surrounding celibacy should be entirely separate from how to solve the Church's child sex abuse epidemic.)
But the handling of gay rights and homosexuality in the priesthood has been at the heart of the divide between the more traditional faction of the faith and Francis's more progressive one. Carlo Maria Viganò, probably the most prominent Francis critic on the planet, found a way to blame gay holy men for the sex abuse saga when calling for the pontiff's resignation over the crisis. Francis, on the other hand, has been willing to acknowledge something resembling modern conceptions of sexuality—and has seemed to steer clear of wrongly conflating homosexuality with pedophilia. (In August, the pope told reporters that parents should not "condemn" their children if they're gay, but then veered into a diatribe about psychiatry. The Church remains firmly against marriage equality.)
Perhaps the least bombastic and most nuanced argument against celibacy, and how it's contributed to the present crisis, is that it is fundamentally at odds with openness and transparency—and therefore may serve to foster predation.
"Celibacy," Jason Berry wrote in the New York Times as the Boston Catholic Church faced its Spotlight crisis in 2002, "has given rise to a secretive culture in which sexual behavior in any form must be hidden." According to the Guardian, more than a decade later, in 2017, a comprehensive study found that "mandatory celibacy and a culture of secrecy created by popes and bishops are major factors in why such high rates of child abuse have occurred in the Catholic Church." (That report was also criticized for suggesting priests confused about their sexual orientation were part of the problem.) Perhaps most notably, the late A.W. Richard Sipe, a former priest turned psychotherapist and one of the most prominent researchers to look at connections between celibacy and sexual abuse of minors in the Church, argued that the vow "created a system of hypocrisy and secrecy in which the abuse of minors could take place." According to the New York Times, he also concluded "that 6 percent of all priests were sexual abusers of children and minors," and "that at any given time, only 50 percent of priests were celibate," a statistic the Church insisted was exaggerated.
"I wouldn't want to join the kind of rhetoric that says something like celibacy is a perverse aspect of sexuality," Petro, the Boston University professor, said when I asked him what he thought of the relationship between celibacy and secrecy regarding sex. "From a political perspective, you should be saying, 'If that's how someone wants to live their life, that's great.' But the way that it becomes a rule, and when people try to live outside of that, or acknowledge that relationships can happen, the whole network of secrecy around that is dangerous. It's not so much about celibacy, but the requirement of obedience."
"The Catholic Church has always, in its history, been able to survive, and remain as large as it is, because of its ability to adapt."—Warren Goldstein
Among other things, this cult of obedience can dissuade victims from coming forward.
But no matter where you stand on the Catholic Church or issues surrounding celibacy and pedophilia, it's clear permitting priests to marry would not somehow solve the Church's sex abuse problems. Nor, for that matter, would it be likely to produce a torrent of would-be priests rushing to the doors of a seminary. Indeed, even if more conservative wings of the faith might oppose the move, ditching celibacy wouldn't, it appears, affect the religion itself all that much.
"If celibacy for those who preside at the Eucharist in the Western Roman Catholic Church disappeared tomorrow, it would be just one more situation in which we would have to discover God in our everyday lives," Thomas O'Loughlin, a professor of historical theology at the University of Nottingham in England, told me over email. "There would be practical upsides and downsides to that decision, but the vocation of every member of the Church to discover and follow would be unchanged."
What limited (and less-than-scientific) survey data exists from the early 2000s suggests many American priests have long been open to a dialogue on the topic. And it's been on the table, as a realistic suggestion, since Vatican II, when those disciplines Petro mentioned (nixing Latin and so forth) were tweaked, and there was some hope that Pope John XXIII might consider revising it. "Most other religions don't prohibit marriage [of priests]," Warren Goldstein, executive director of the Center for Critical Research on Religion, told me. "The Catholic Church has always, in its history, been able to survive, and remain as large as it is, because of its ability to adapt."
For his part, Father Reese did acknowledge there were actual arguments against relaxing the celibacy rule—the financial burden Catholics face to provide for a priest's family, and the idea that celibate priests might be holier than married clergy. ("I just don’t buy that," he said. "There are a lot of married couples who are a lot holier than I am.") But he suggested the small problems—priests having to care for their children, for example—could be overcome, and that optional celibacy could realistically happen within the next few years.
"I don't think [getting rid of the celibacy vow] would be as disruptive as it would have been, say, 100 years ago," agreed Kathleen Grimes, an assistant professor of religion at Villanova University, who, among other areas, studies the intersection of theology and ethics. "Because I do think, now, we see married life as a positive path for holiness."
Whenever it were to happen, and for whatever reason, axing celibacy would so obviously represent a step toward reform—a move for the Church in the direction of openness. It'd be a concession that we live in the modern era. Optional or not, married priests would represent evidence of progress—and might help Catholics feel as if their church was responding to an existential crisis.
"Pope Francis has told the priests and bishops not to act like princes," or that they're better than everybody else, Reese said. "That's change we needed. You're the servants, he told them, of the people of God. You're here to serve, not to rule."
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