The Spiritual Weakness of Mandatory Celibacy

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St. Francois de Sales used to say, ‘I hear of nothing but perfection on every side, so far as talk goes; but I see very few people who really practice it. Everybody has his own notion of perfection. One man thinks it lies in the cut of his clothes, another in fasting, a third in […]

St. Francois de Sales used to say, ‘I hear of nothing but perfection on every side, so far as talk goes; but I see very few people who really practice it. Everybody has his own notion of perfection. One man thinks it lies in the cut of his clothes, another in fasting, a third in almsgiving, or in frequenting the Sacraments, in meditation, in some special gift of contemplation, or in extraordinary gifts or graces– but they are all mistaken, as it seems to me, because they confuse the means, or the results, with the end and cause.’ –Jean Pierre Camus

Today, amidst the many scandals of the Roman Catholic Church, the concept of clerical celibacy immediately evokes a picture of sinister virgins, unhealthy repressed sexuality, pedophilia and, consequently, the Church’s obstinacy to comprehensive reform.

Yet celibacy has been practiced in the Orient, both in India and China –in Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism– since well before the time of Jesus. These religions nonetheless (perhaps because of their lack of an ecclesiastical bureaucracy), do not make it a mandatory policy for their clergy, as does the Catholic Church.

There’s no evidence that Jesus himself was celibate.

In his brilliant 1945 exegesis of universal mystical thought The Perennial Philosophy, Aldous Huxley wrote that, “like all other devices, from psalm-singing to Swedish exercises and from logic to internal-combustion engines, spiritual exercises can be used either well or badly. Some of those who use spiritual exercises make progress in the life of the spirit; others, using the same exercises, make no progress. To believe that their use either constitutes enlightenment or guarantees it is mere idolatry and superstition.”

In my travels across the Middle East, I heard similar words from a Syriac Catholic monk secluded in Deir Mar Musa, a 1400-year old monastery established in the Syrian dessert by Saint Moses the Abyssinian –a place where you don’t find your typical urban clergy. “Celibacy” he told me, “ought to be a result of a life of spiritual work, a fruit, not a compulsory method to reach a desired state of spirituality”.

It seems to me that this wise monk was unwittingly quoting St. Francis de Sales in considering mandatory celibacy a typical case of confusion of means with ends. And this is precisely the point: celibacy is a culmination, a state in which the being, after a life of spiritual training, knows how to channel natural sexual energy without the physical act; not a rule of obedience through which spirituality is reached.

Tom Hall, an incredibly knowledgeable Australian Catholic theologian explained to me that “yes, it’s certainly healthier to see it as being a fruit of spiritual endeavor rather than a means to securing it. Celibacy […] in its purest conception has always been seen as a gift.”

“For those who have the capacity to lead a celibate life there will be a spiritual reward; it’s a little bit like the practice of prayer; as we pray we grow in grace and spiritual awareness, and as we grow in grace and spiritual awareness we are better enabled to pray. I think the same thing could be said about celibacy for those who are truly called to it.”

Historically, it is hard to trace the investiture of celibacy as a general policy. The earliest textual evidence is from the fourth-century rulings of the Council of Elvira and subsequently the Council of Carthage. However, it was indisputably implemented well after the first and more mystical days of the Church. Not only do the gospels omit to mention celibacy as a requirement but Peter –Jesus’s apostle and first Pope– was married and had children.

Furthermore, there’s no evidence that Jesus himself was celibate (although most Christian traditions largely consider him a celibate figure). In fact, the gospels cite his contemporaries often calling him ‘Rabbi’ which, if true, according to the costumes of the time would mean that he was probably married.

Jesus does praise the celibate path, but always as a personal choice. In the gospel of Mathew he says, “not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

Saint Paul also praises celibacy as a choice, but recognizes that it is not God’s gift to all within the Church. In his letter to the Corinthians, he states: “this I say by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”

As Tom Hall tells me “it certainly doesn’t suit everybody; there are people who sometimes enter into religious life with some sentimentalism and then find it’s not right for them; people who live celibate lives have to deal with levels of sexual frustration that come with it, and how that energy is channeled is another story.”

Yet the Church, despite that it might theologically contradict its most important values or spiritually harm its members; despite that its founding figures commended celibacy as a choice only for certain individuals, has done precisely the opposite –it has implemented celibacy across its orders. Why?

Saint Paul also praises celibacy as a choice, but recognizes that it is not God’s gift to all within the Church.

Well, historically there are a number of possible reasons: first, because it is quite convenient in terms of the general management of the clergy. “Chastity and obedience, two of the three religious vows” Tom Hall explains, “go together. It’s a way to exercise control. From a more pragmatic point of view, somebody unmarried is more portable and you can move them around far more easily because you don’t need to look at special considerations.”

Another possible reason is “the need to avoid claims on church property by priests’ offspring” (Vitello, 2009). This way Cannon Law establishes that priests do not own property or land; but rather, the local diocese through its Bishop administers it.

“Well, that’s certainly a historical notion” Tom Hall tells me, “that preventing the clergy from having personal ownership of property or a direct ascendance that would have some entitlement of that property, it would solve that issue.”

“There are many historical issues that surround the question, but having said that, it is true that many loyal people have embraced celibacy cheerfully and still do so. In Anglicanism, for example, there are many religious orders where people enter and voluntarily choose to be celibate.”

The question is whether it shall stay mandatory. Critics of the Church as well as more progressive members within challenge the official policy saying it needs to be examined. The current pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly stood firm saying the Church will not bend its structure because of passing cultural trends.

To sum up the whole matter, I shall come back to Aldous Huxley and his majestic work in which he quotes Meister Eckhart, the 14th century German mystic: “He who seeks God under settled form lays hold of the form, while missing the God concealed in it.” And that is precisely what the Church –unwittingly or not– has done. Your support is important to maintain this site.


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