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The Sin of Celibacy

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The Sin of Celibacy: Introduction to a Book

by William Cleary


My family was Catholic. I remember my younger sister Catherine, blond and loquacious, as a volcano of energies, athletic, religious and sexual, devoted passionately to her many friends, male and female. My wiry brother Tom – a year older than Cath -- stands in my memory as someone both deeply sensitive and foolishly courageous on the football field where he backed up Terry Brennan (later "of Notre Dame") and tackled with fool-hardy abandon the giant boys on the public school team. I – a year older than Tom – played guard for St. Monica's, but got a convenient knee injury that helped me avoid the dangers of too much violent body contact.

At age 19, I came home safe from the Second World War in 1946, enrolled in "pre-med" with the Jesuits at Marquette University, and a year later told Tom I had decided to join the Jesuits if they'd have me. He instantly said he wanted to go too. A few months later we were on a train to St. Stanislaus Jesuit Seminary south of St. Louis, on the banks of the Missouri river. The next year Catherine entered the convent.

Within two years after that we all had vows of celibacy.

In our home were three other siblings whose chosen life paths turned out to be much more conventional. Of course our parents, deeply Catholic, quietly rejoiced that God had blessed us all with not one but three religious vocations. How proud they felt, especially my father, an immigrant from Ireland, a land where priests and nuns were worshipped.

He did not live to see how it all turned out. Catherine took solemn vows in 1956. My brother and I were ordained priests in 1960. Then over the next dozen years I married a nun, my priest brother married a former nun, and my nun sister married a priest.

We had each found our way out of the confusing puzzle of vowed celibacy, overcome its limiting effects on our particular spiritual lives, and had entered the healthier world of married life. We had escaped the effects of the "the sin of celibacy."

But a dangerous path it had been for us all.

Here's the essential claim of this essay:

Celibacy as mandated for priests in the Roman Catholic Church – a solemn promise or vow to God to totally avoid for all your life sexual activity with another person – is, I believe, shown in the long run to be an offense against your personal self, a form of self abuse. Therefore ritual celibacy is in effect an offense against the God whom we know as the author of the natural world around us, against the gift-giver of the entire web of life and especially against our own body-selves and a diminishment of the matrix of social relationships in which we are enmeshed from our earliest days. And if this claim can be proved true, thenno one is bound by such a vow or promise. If the grounds for religious celibacy are proved suspect and uncertain, then such vows can not be binding. Once the devotee suspects that s/he has been somehow morally impaired or diminished by the vow and by the lifestyle that goes with it, s/he is not bound by the vow – and should no longer profess it.

Seven propositions opposing religious celibacy

Why is religious celibacy a sin? For many reasons.

Reason #1: Because it prevents the revelation of the depths of this world's benevolence, and the mystical disclosure of the goodness and presence of God.

Reason #2 Because demanding the ritual vow against sexual partnering creates – in a homophobic and violence-threatening world – a too-attractive vocation for gay men who then must not only suppress their sexuality, but must pretend to be what they are not.

Reason #3 Because it places the devotee under far too much control of a religious institution, and sacrifices to that religion's purposes something far too precious for most people to appreciate at early age.

Reason #4 Because – as Japanese monasticism discovered and forbad 100 years ago – religious celibacy can become toxic for community morality, and for the development of healthy sexual and communitarian values.

Reason #5 Because it suggests unmistakably as morally superior another life path than the one that produces human life itself and the continuance of the human race.

Reason #6 Because the intense loneliness of religious celibates can be morally ruinous – as the scandal of clerical sex abuse of children demonstrates.

Reason #7 Because it encourages the suppression of healthy sexual mutuality and too much of the joy of life..

Why is religious celibacy a sin?

Reason #1. Because it prevents the revelation of the depths of this world's benevolence, and the mystical disclosure of the goodness and presence of God.

On West 56th Street in New York City is the five-storey headquarters of the Jesuit weekly journal America, and in 1968 I lived on the top floor there in a room that had been occupied by Teilhard de Chardin. Some months earlier I had been ordered to leave my three-year teaching assignment at a university in South Korea, and to come back to the States – in order to become an agent for Jesuit writers in the publishing capital of the world.

One day among the manuscripts that came in the mail was a slender scholarly study by the Jesuit biblical scholar Quentin Quesnell that changed my life forever. I couldn't believe my eyes. So astonished was I by the book that the green wall across the room from where I sat to read the work is forever emblazoned in my memory. I see the large window into the next office, the busy, gray-haired secretary who sat there, the bulletin board to the right of the window with magazine covers and articles pinned to it. Quesnell's article simply claimed that there was really no unambiguous biblical evidence that Jesus of Nazareth recommended religious celibacy as virtuous or that he himself was celibate.

According to historians, young Jews were in his day betrothed to a marriage partner even in childhood. (The non-celibate status of Jesus in the runaway bestseller The DeVinci Code is in fact historically tenable.) The single reference in the Gospels (and in just one of the four), the eunuch passage in Matthew 19/12 was not about celibacy said the scholarly text I read, but – taken in full context – about marriage when it is in trouble. Since in Jesus' view the end of the world was coming soon, men should not bother to marry.

Other scholarship claimed that the often quoted words from Jesus, "Let him who can take it, take it," refers not to celibacy but to Jesus' truly revolutionary doctrine about Jewish marriage. Men had always been allowed to dismiss their wives for trivial reasons, but Jesus condemns this, saying that they should not marry again after discarding a wife for insufficient reason.

So, Jesus had never recommended or modeled a lifestyle without a love partner! (Most priests even today do not know this.)

Yet for me, all my enthusiasm for the celibate life and all my motivation to put myself through the disciplines required for honest celibacy were based on the model of Jesus' own life. "The Imitation of Christ" was not only a classic book on my shelf but the supreme guideline for my spiritual life – despite all its ups and downs.

In that green-walled room that day I suddenly knew that I would marry, that everything I had taught myself to be over the 22 years – Jesuit, priest, and single man – was going to change.

It hit like a lightning bolt. I had not yet met the Sister Roderick O'Neil whom I would marry, but when I did – we met at demonstrations against the Vietnam War – it was like moving to a new world entirely. Not only did life become a thousand times more interesting, my spirituality escalated dramatically. I became a kind of mystic. The Spirit of God spoke to me, sang to me, touched and pleasured my soul as I had never before known. Even today, after 36 years of marriage, Roddy still makes a mystic of me. My little 1988 hardback book of poetry entitled Prayers For Lovers is all about her.

What a sin it would have been to deprive myself of all that revelation, thinking I was thereby pleasing God.

Why is religious celibacy a sin?

Reason #2 Because demanding the ritual vow against sexual partnering creates – in a homophobic and threatening world – a too-attractive vocation for gay men who then must not only suppress their sexuality, but must pretend to be what they are not.

My most beloved priest friend, "Father Bernie" as everybody called him, seemed born for the role, born to be a priest. It would be hard to imagine him a married man with a partner to relate to at home and possibly several children giving him occasional backtalk.

When my day comes to go to God, I would honestly love to have Father Bernie there to talk to, to give me the Sacrament of the Anointing (forehead, eyes, hands, aroma) , to put a little purple stole around his neck and recite in Latin: "In paradisum deducant angeli; in tuo adventu sucipiant te martyres. May angels soon lead you to Paradise, Bill. May the martyrs rush out to receive you as you arrive." The Latin formality would elevate Bernie's soft spoken words above any sound he could make in English. It's the sound of Rome, of the very heart of the world, laying me down to die along the path of Christian history itself that started with the birth of Jesus.

The trouble is, of course, that this comforting aura of illusion is just one of the many philosophical roads we can choose from, and brings with it not a few toxic fumes. Bernie in his sweet tolerant gentility, was surely gay: totally celibate and conscientious to a fault, but with none of the macho tendencies of the conventional straight priest. (Pat O'Brien as Father Duffy in "The Fighting 69th," Bing Crosby as Father O'Malley in "Going My Way," Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan in "Boys Town.") Bernie was born to laugh at himself, born to go the extra mile with his flock, born to feel everything you felt. I knew he loved me: I mean, he enjoyed my company. He was kindly to women, yes, but in the presence of males like me, he softened in a special way, the way straight men seldom do. He cared about me, and were I dying, I would feel good about telling him all my feelings, thoughts I might even hide from my wife and kids, thoughts I would only tell "a priest." Bernie was born to be that.

Father Bernie has now died. It happened in a city far away, and I did not visit him – and I regret that. I could have let him know that I cared too, that I loved him – but of course there were hundreds who did. He stood daily at the church door as the people left after Mass, and took them all into his heart and often his arms. He was born to be beloved, and that is why he made the perfect priest.

The Catholic leadership has now said they don't want gay men in their priesthood. Their gay seminarians must leave, says the pope, and gay teachers in seminaries must go lest they become role models for young men with "homosexual tendencies." That's where it gets insufferably toxic for Catholic spirituality. Besides the domineering maleness of the Catholic God and the lack of women leaders, those who seem by evolution itself to have the special gifts for ritual leadership, gay and lesbian people, are systematically disdained. Yet perhaps nature will have its way, and individuals – like Bernie – of unconventional affectivity will refuse to leave, will know instinctively they should stay, and the Catholic Church will be humanized by it all.

We may ask: what is it like to wake up in your early teens and find yourself a gay man? It's terrifying: that's what gays tell us. Surrounded by homophobia and potential ridicule and violence, they may well look just about everywhere for safety, for dignity, for vocational fulfillment. The honorific, celibate priesthood often looks best: They feel called as no one else feels called. Gay priests report that everything pointed them toward the one dignified profession where they would be welcomed at last, and especially not expected to marry, which many knew instinctively was not for them. Dread was a familiar feeling in youth: would they be discovered, would they be ridiculed and attacked, would they ever fulfill the family expectations? Then the light dawned. The priesthood was a natural, an absolute safe haven for young men deeply anxious since puberty. These were good men, generous hearts, often gifted in just the skills necessary for ministry.

So the situation is complicated: for gays it was often the rule of celibacy that drew them to the seminary, whereas for straights it's celibacy that discourages them.

Why is religious celibacy a sin?

Reason #3 Because it places the devotee under far too much control of a religious institution, and sacrifices gratuitously to that religion's purposes something far too precious for most people to appreciate in early age.

I will never forget how I shocked myself by bursting into tears one Sunday afternoon when I was 20 and waiting to leave to join the Jesuits. Some five of us stood around a piano and were singing the words "O Danny Boy, O Danny Boy, I love you so" and suddenly it all went to my deepest heart. No one noticed but I turned and hurried to the bathroom where I locked the door, fell on my knees and gave myself once again to God amid the disconcerting flood. Celibacy for life. Yes!

Beautiful? No, I don't think so now. It was suicidal. At the time I figured I was a bit of a mystic, and two years later I cried again uncontrollably – and in public – when I took my perpetual vows. Once again I thought it was God's doing, humiliating me to the core: and I was heroically able to forgive him. (How large-souled of me.)

This memory comes back to me now after reading O'Murchu's Religion In Exile, and seeing my own religion's negative side, and how the Catholic Church uses sexuality – meant for sacred purposes – for control and domination.

Religion, for all its benefits, has the power to destroy people. Only some kind of religion could explain a thing so evil as hostage decapitation or for that matter burning someone at the stake or a murderous crusade against unbelieving muslims. Only religion can produce the "sin of the mind" that Aristotle so dreaded, something far more corrupting than a sin of the heart (like theft or injustice) or a sin of passion or power (like assault or sexual abuse). Worse than that – the worst -- is when the mind itself has been torn from its foundation in reality and experience, and some kind of mental illusion is substituted: "God wills it" drove the Christian and anti-semitic crusades; "Allah is great" inspires the Islamic jihad.

Religion—O'Murchu reminds us -- has that great power: to justify an insane and catastrophic level of cruelty – like 9/11, the pinnacle achievement of religious fanaticism. If you "do it for God," then even primary and foundational instincts like self-preservation, like your very life, can be set aside. Then potential suicide bombers emerge, men and boys, girls, even children. Religion can trump common sense – not all religion or every religion but some religion and only religion. That is why people come to prize "spirituality" rather than religion, a humane instinct for the holy and awesome rather than belief on the word or claim – or often the untruth or delusion – of another person or book or beautiful myth.

My religious vows were grossly ill-advised, I see now. At age 22, I took – along with vows of poverty and obedience -- a perpetual vow of celibacy, gave up a very large avenue toward life before my life had seriously begun. I became in effect a kind of suicide bomber (giving up my life), and, thrilling to belong to a brotherhood of similar "heroes," my mind and heart spinning out of control into an ego trip of colossal dimensions, with the dream of a gigantic eternal reward ahead. Believing it all, and taught to exercise a misguided heroism in order to reach "holiness," I peremptorily vowed to separate myself from one of the greatest avenues toward the holy in human life: love, bodiliness and sexuality. But I didn't know that and many vowed people today still don't.

So the Islamic killers in the news who at this writing may well decapitate one of this world's heroic women – with the whole world and all of history watching. They will feel in that unspeakably debased act of murder a personal religious thrill. A "canonization." A great holiness achieved. Fame. Eternal glory. The status of a "Saint." God's admiration. But what an evil god, demanding the world's worst evil: sin in the mind, a colossal lie totally believed. It can mean the end of a rational world or a civilized state: a life led by religion and belief instead of by true, honest, humble discovery of the Divine Spirit where S/He is. In the religious crimes of our time, we see of course how in religion even God can be lost. In misguided faith you can lose your common sense and your sensitivity to the true miracles in life. The imams, the preachers, the gurus may give you a belief system that works for you at least temporarily, but if you want a personal lifelong spirituality, a true inner elevation and sensitivity, there are no short cuts. You have to find it on your own, and base it on experience. #

Why is religious celibacy a sin?

Reason #4 Because – as Japanese monasticism discovered 100 years ago – religious celibacy can become toxic for community morality, and for the development of healthy sexual and communitarian values.

As I write this, seven priests in Iowa this day were named as guilty of criminal abuse of children over the years, and $5 million was paid to victims by the diocese in damages. That amount is to cover the abuse of 20 children who, now adults, have come forward – but other victims will surely appear and there will be more money to pay. A former bishop there, Lawrence Soens, also stands accused today by ten other victims.

Multiply that by 193 U.S. dioceses and you begin to see a church experiencing moral catastrophe. The national figures now stand at over 4000 guilty priests and some estimated 100,000 child victims with $1 billion in damages paid out. (A thousand million-dollar churches could be built for $1 billion.)

Books on the scandal multiply, and theatrical plays and movies now incorporate in almost every drama about Catholicism the suspicion of priestly immorality. Does there come a tipping point where the fundamental assumptions about priesthood begin to be questioned? That is the purpose of this article. We're there.

Celibacy as we know it is, in fact, not a virtuous state but a state of sin against one's self. In some of the earliest of Christian writings, the letters of Paul of Tarsus, this problem seems to have loomed up as a possibility, and Paul writes: "Let your leaders be the husband of one wife, chosen for their proven ability with their own household" (1 Tim. 3). All this wisdom was gradually set aside as celibacy grew as a value, as a proof and guarantor of probity and holiness, and sex and the body downgraded. From our new perspective we can now see it as a cultural mistake of colossal dimensions.

Zen Buddhism in Japan amazingly forbids religious celibacy and has done so for 100 years. The long argument over this matter is fascinatingly told in Neither Monk Nor Layman by Richard Jaffe from Princeton University Press several years ago. Those in charge of Zen shrines are no longer monks (which implies the single state) nor really laymen: but they are clerics. However special honorific robes and roles are forbidden. The explanation given to this state of affairs is complicated with cultural considerations beyond our Western comprehension but in effect the reasons are that celibacy is really both virtually impossible and socially undesirable. Said the decision-makers in Japan at the time: "The subtle function of the universe resides in the power of his husband-and-wife union." Sexual union, they said, is "the fulfilment of a heavenly principle." We would simply say that the normal paths of sexuality and communal life are spiritually preferable. Celibacy as mandatory is not a genuine religious value, and when allowed to run its course, leads more often to diminishment than to spiritual success.

An important contribution to this discussion is made in The Bingo Report: Mandatory Celibacy and Clergy Sexual Abuse by Louise Haggett (CSRI Books, 2005). In the book you hear from some 200 priests and victims scientifically chosen who tell you how faithful-to-vows they think priests are (not very), and how much the official church cares about misbehaving priests (not at all, unless scandal arises.) In the book you hear heartbreaking comments from victims of predatory priests and get a sense of the horrific state of despair among clergy persons worldwide. They make sense to me. My ongoing solutions to these scandals are radical, and include advising the Church in the US to close down the seminary system entirely. In Haggett's book there is plenty of evidence that only something radical will make Catholic children safe and heal the illness – which is picked up by priests not so much from the flow of culture in general – shows this study -- but from the subculture of the priesthood itself. The principal conclusions of the Haggett study demonstrate that most priests:

1. Don't believe in divine retribution for breaking their vows,

2. Know overwhelmingly that other priests break their vows,

3. Know overwhelmingly that the church acknowledges the breaking of vows,

4. Know that the church almost never disciplines misbehaving priests, and only does when scandal is present.

Haggett asks whether celibacy is the issue beneath it all? As an explanation for the abominable clergy sex scandals throughout the world? Most likely, yes. Not homosexuality as Rome claims? No. Scientifically, that's untenable. Celibacy is not exactly the "cause" but creates an atmosphere conducive to sexual deviance, something the Catholic clergy has, alas, in spades.

Why is religious celibacy a sin?

Reason #5 Because it suggests unmistakably as morally superior another life path than the one that produces human life itself and the continuance of the human race.

Dick was a college senior, just skin and bones when I first saw him on his hospital bed. Dotted red lines formed a necklace across his chest, then traveled below his shoulders and encompassed his biceps on both sides. He could feel from the red line. . . up. Nothing else. Swimming accident.

His smile was broad and winning but he had to struggle to draw in breath to speak. "Hello," he said, and a motionless hand rose into the air on my side of the bed, and I took it. It was cold and stiff. I held the hand while I introduced myself. "I'm a theology student like the other guys," I said. We visited this hospital as part of our summer vacation.

"Of course you still pray -- for more. . . ," I stuttered.

"I hope to walk," he whispered, and grinned wanly. We talked, a brash young Jesuit scholastic and a paralyzed, gifted math student.

The next week Dick thought he'd felt something in his toes, he said. A month later, the red marks hadn't moved. I began talking to him of the value of religious celibacy. (It was before Vatican II.) He replied that he wanted marriage, and had a lovely girlfriend. However her visits to him were becoming less frequent. I explained how I had decided to follow Jesus all the way, including his (alleged) celibacy. "I'm making myself a eunuch for the kingdom," I explained, adding, "and so is my brother, and my nun sister." It was beautiful, I said. Maybe he was called too?

Dick was adamant: he couldn't get his mind around celibacy. He wanted love. He wanted a family.

We became friends, and prayed together over the summer, but I couldn't take seriously his dreams of finishing college, much less of marriage and parenthood. It seemed so profoundly hopeless.

After the summer, as I left town to resume theology studies out in the country, I presented him with a "reading machine" which I built for him. It enabled Dick to turn the pages of books by simply raising his otherwise lifeless arm about 12 inches. He thanked me profusely (though it never worked very well), and our friendship simmered down to just occasional post cards from me.

Six months later I was told Dick was back in school. I was astonished. "Healed?" I asked. "No, not at all," my informant said on the phone. "Still can't move."

A year later I got word Dick had graduated and had been hired as a university teaching assistant. I was again amazed. "Plus he has a new girl friend," someone told me. Then came word of a marriage, and finally of an adopted child. But my life had moved to another part of the world, and we lost touch.

I also lost that celibacy argument, of course, as mentioned earlier. After 22 years of vowed celibacy, I married. Looking back, I had thought I could inspire a kind of spiritual resurrection in my paralyzed friend. Instead I wonder if his truer resurrection into love did not in some way inspire my own new life.

One of the theological bombshells that exploded early in the Second Vatican Council that began to meet in Rome in 1962 was the decree that "religious life" or the many communities of men and woman who lived with vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, could not claim a life path in any way superior to marriage. This utterly reversed the church doctrine of many hundreds of years that monks and nuns led a "life of perfection."

Did the fathers of the Council have any idea how that "bombshell" would take effect? Thousands and thousands of priests and nuns have left Religious Life since that liberating decree. Now they write about their married paths without regret, with ecstatic praise for it in fact. Meanwhile very few novices have entered monasticism and most congregations seem destined for extinction. But an even more devastating phenomenon has set in: sexual scandals of colossal magnitude. Still the delusion of moral superiority goes on against all the evidence. As long as priests dress up in roman collars, Catholics will feel that they are in some way superior to ordinary people. Is it time to discourage clerical garb? Yes, high time.

Why is religious celibacy a sin?

Reason #6 Because the intense loneliness of religious celibates can be ruinous.

The mystique around Catholic priesthood is no more. But not just the mystique is collapsing. So is the good name of the Roman Catholic Church. The four marks identifying the true church, remember: one, holy, catholic and apostolic? Obviously it's getting hard to prove that second one anymore. It's "holy"? According to a John Jay College research team reporting April 27, 2003 at least 4% of all US priests are credibly accused of sexual crimes, higher in some places. If we knew that 4% of cars going by a school would hit a child, what would we do first? We certainly would stop the traffic. I wonder: should we not stop ordinations awhile? We should. Should we close the seminaries and take stock? Yes. Hundreds of Catholic universities are capable of educating priests – without adding clerical illusions to the result.

We need to start with the facts in the U.S.. We got some on April 27, 2004 but experts like the former Vatican Embassy canonist Father Thomas Doyle say that can't be very accurate: lots is still hidden simply because people take decades to face up to sexual abuse by a priest. For many, he says, they will never speak of it, it was unspeakable – like the very death of sacredness itself, an unforgettable defilement of everything sublime in life.

Still the rest of us have to face the truth, and that's where the book by David France book is helpful: Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal (New York, 2004). It is God's blessing that a gifted writer and reporter has taken up the priest abuse scandals and given us the whole catastrophe, bones and all. Someone might call the story too detailed, or too grim, or too horrifying. Mary Gordon spoke of feeling "atrocity fatigue" in her New York Times review of it: we almost can't take any more.

Our personal perspective of the ongoing collapse of the American church – like our remembrance of the twin tower disaster – may consist of scattered horrific images in the hope-to-forget-it section of our brain, but if we really want to know what happened on 9/11, we need the remembrance of each floor of the Twin Towers and their exact contents, of each desperate final phone call, of each name in fact – and what their last minutes of life must have been like. Similarly in the clergy abuse disaster, it sobers us and steadies our justified anger to learn how each child was targeted, approached, terrified, and finally defiled, especially where the drama ended in the child's often lifelong trauma of personal guilt.

Our church overseers, our bishops, saw it all happening and did nothing: yet not one of them has yet been jailed and punished for that. Some lay leaders suggest that any bishop who attempted to simply silence a victim, or who knowingly passed an offending priest on to another location should resign. We do not yet know all those names just yet, but we shall, say the activists. Remember, pedophilia is not some kind of odd misbehavior by a self-indulgent old man, or a desperate young man: but a whole continuum of mental and moral disorder all the way to unspeakable crimes and dementia – while pretending normalcy. Daily Mass went on. Can we trust any system that in our lifetime produced a documented 4,500 sex offenders, poor, benighted fellows?

And poor fellows they are, and so are Catholics poor hurt and abused people. Still we have that unmistakable message of Jesus of Nazareth: forgiveness is always possible even if rehabilitation is not. In fact, every sinner's personal forgiveness depends on our own rising to this challenge. As hard as this is to imagine, I made myself imagine such a prayer of mercy, and now, whenever feeling judgmental, I make myself say it. If it helps, you're welcome to it.

"Holy Forgiving God, merciful and eternally wise, send your healing spirit into the tortured souls of offending people everywhere, especially to the deserts where our anguished religious leaders walk on hoping for an oasis ahead.  Provide that place of respite for them where they can at last forgive themselves as you in your sweet understanding love allow for our worst choices even in the midst of our essential human goodness.  It is our souls that are at stake here too: we must forgive in order to be forgiven our own self indulgences and temporary meanness.  Bring us all -- especially our offending clergy -- back to a healed and humbled lifestyle where, with wise Mary and large hearted Jesus, we can all dance together, healthier and wiser now, humbler too, and safer than ever in your care.  Amen. "

Why is religious celibacy a sin?

Reason #7 Because it encourages the suppression of healthy sexual mutuality, and too much of the joy of life.

My 12-year-old son once said to me after Mass one day: "Father Dubois is really a special kind of man. I wouldn't mind giving up marriage if I could be like him." That forced me to sit down and write a long letter to Tom, telling the whole story of my own priesthood and departure from it. It came together especially in describing my positive experience of being married to his mother.

I wrote: "Tom, I found such new treasures of human living that I can now see ritual celibacy in a new light, as not only an unfortunate and misguided misinterpretation of the Gospel call, but really an offense against the God I have come to know. Remember, I am not talking about St. Paul's celibacy (his was explicitly not "from the Lord" he said), nor the celibacy of chosen singleness, or useful, pragmatic celibacy. I mean the celibacy that hands over to God, as if handing God a great gift that He/She will lovingly accept, one's freedom for marriage-plus (because "getting married" is not what one gives up but every step along that path, prior and subsequent, the joy of courtship, the deep fun of belonging).

"That ritual celibacy, religious celibacy, an allegedly purifying act, is in my view now, a hurtful, self-hurtful act: and the true God does not sanction it or endorse it, or want it or honor it; in fact, wants the whole sad tradition to come to an end. Why? Because the path of sexuality is the one that most reveals the Divine Being, and most reveals who we humans are, the incredible depths of this world's goodness. Sexuality thus helps toward prayer, contemplation, and all the religious and humane virtues – and the same applies to same-sex unions.

"It begins with the discovery of the joy and excitement of mutuality and mystery, the born-again experience of a new life of someone in love, the adventures of courtship, the communitarian riches of sharing family links and the rich sacramentality of the wedding day, the sweet mystery of two lovers with their armor off, and of each enactment of the sexual discovery at its best always new and unspeakably elevating, the joys of doing so many things together, the discovery then of what death is (the loss of love, and of a lover, and a loss to one's beloved), of what skin is (a language between lovers and with the divine); the astonishing miracle of fecundity, the terror and wonder of pregnancy; the constant symbolic melting of person into person, sleeping alongside your love, all through the night, so many hours so intimately with your beloved; and the double warmth of two in bed and the symbolism of that, the double strength and intimacy of embracing one who is embracing you; the fortuitous coming of a child (which happened to us), his face, his manner toward you, the arrival of new terrifying risks and fears, the call for faith and courage, the demand for acceptance of God's clear gift of an offspring whoever he/she be, the companionship with the human race in child-rearing (the most demanding of human tasks), then the possible multiplication of children and all the interactions opening into the world of family: all this reveals the Divine Being -- because marriage is a sacrament and so are all the parts of marriage. And although no one has an absolute right to marriage, and many, rightly, choose other paths, it is a path of grace which no one may offer to give up on the allegation that the sacrifice may make one closer to God, or become more like God's Christ. God does not, in my view, accept such a colossal self-impoverishment and abuse, just as God could not accept someone's voluntary deafness, nor the deliberate sacrifice of a hand, or of an eye."

" To deny yourself the normal sexual path in the interest of contemplation is improper since so much essential knowledge of God comes through the body. To deny this to yourself in the interest of community is shortsighted since a richer community is possible in the normal life paths. To deny marriage to yourself based on the model of Jesus ignores biblical scholarship: he was no such clear model, and never invited anyone to celibacy -- which he could easily have done. To deny marriage to yourself in obedience to Church leaders or tradition is to deny the value of one's own intelligence and judgment, an abuse of self at the deepest level. Any denial of the sexual path to one's self for a purely religious reason cannot be endorsed by the real God."

Tom is now himself a happily married man, as devout a church-member as any priest could be.


Celibacy continues to be praised by the Vatican, of course. Msgr. Pedro Lopez-Gallo, a Vatican spokesman on theological matters, skirting modern scholarship entirely, wrote recently: "Christ invited to perpetual continence those who would consecrate themselves entirely to the kingdom of God, giving to His future Church an indication of His preference to have priests totally dedicated to Him. In time, celibacy came to be imposed on priests who are the followers of Jesus par excellence. . . . St. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, speaks very clearly on this matter: 'About remaining celibate, I have no direction from the Lord but I give my own opinion as one who, by the Lord’s mercy, has stayed faithful. I believe that in these present times of stress this is right: that it is good for a man to stay as he is. If you are tied to a wife, do not look for freedom; if you are free of a wife, then do not look for one. But if you marry, it is not sin. . . .' " Msgr. Lopez-Gallo promises future celibates that they can thereby achieve the greatest human joy, deepened spirituality on earth, and a rich reward in heaven.

Alas, this ethical ideal is now, in the light of history, seen as misguided and misleading. The priestly state in Roman Catholicism is in a shambles, and the most salient evidence of the catastrophe is the large numbers of sexual abusers found among those expected to be models of human sanctity. A medieval epigraph applies: Corruptio optimi pessima. "The very worst is the corruption of the very best."

Psychologist and former priest Richard Sipe summarized his count of sexual abusers among Catholic celibates at around 10%. At an important speech at St. Thomas University in Minnesota late in 2004 he gathered the statistics at the time. "The John Jay study commissioned by the American Bishops said that between 3% and 6% of Catholic priests abuse minors. They also cautioned that the figures they reported could not accurately determine the exact dimensions of the problem because of under-reporting. The bishop of my own diocese (La Jolla, Ca.) acknowledged that 66 priests had been reported for abuse. He dismissed, using only his own judgment, 22 of the reports as "unreliable." The diocese, however, now has 150 civil law cases pending against it. Documents to be produced in court will give us a more accurate account."

"The Boston Archdiocese," Sipe went on, "recorded that 7.6% of its priests abused minors during the same period recorded by the John Jay study. Because of further revelations -- the inclusion of order priests -- that percentage is now approaching 10%. New Hampshire reported 8.2% of its priests were abusers. Twenty-four per cent of the priests serving in the diocese of Tucson, Arizona in 1986 were sexual abusers. Fifty-six of 710 priests in the Los Angeles Archdiocese in 1991 were sexual abusers. That figure includes two bishops. Los Angeles is a jurisdiction where 244 priests have been acknowledged abusers. Seventy-five per cent of the parishes of the Los Angeles archdiocese have had one or more abuser serving them. At least forty-five per cent of the parishes in the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese have had sexual abusers on their staffs. Boston registers the same. Studies of the number of priest abusers belonging to religious orders have not been completed, but preliminary indicators point to figures over 10%. " Add to this another frank report in 2004 from the giant religious order of Christian Brothers wherein a study by a major superior, Brother Barry Coldrey, concludes that fully 10% of his Order have been guilty of sexual abuse.

Conclusion: the ideal from Rome clashes resoundingly with the reality in the churches.

The new pope's first encyclical has emerged: "On Love" is its title. Rhapsodic as it is about almost every aspect of the subject, one paragraph is missing – and perhaps it will be the very first paragraph in his next encyclical to the one billion humans who look to him for guidance. "Dearly Beloved: With great joy and confidence in the Spirit of God who inspires the Church, I turn my attention now to healing the wounds of the body of the faithful. To this end I hereby decree an end to vows of religious celibacy in our Church. Like St. Paul, "I have nothing from the Lord regarding this," and in my judgment, the historical moment has arrived to allow it no longer. We shall praise and encourage the single life whenever it is one's choice, and encourage marriage and partnership for all who shall make that their choice. But no longer shall we allow or encourage non-marriage as a permanent vowed state of life offered to God as a personal sacrifice. Well meaning as have been its devotees, its Scriptural bases are no longer defensible, nor have human efforts to make it fruitful a success. It has led instead to the steady diminishment of the vitality of our church, and as Pope it is my duty to bring it to an end."

Amen? Amen.

(William Cleary resides in Burlington, Vermont and at www.clearyworks.com or bcleary412 (*AT SIGN*) aol.com He is the author of Prayers to an Evolutionary God (SkyLight Paths 2004) and other books. )




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