Over at the New York Times where hostility to all things Roman Catholic is a longstanding tradition, Frank Bruni has mixed a unique cocktail of one part sharp observation, two parts confusion about Christian teaching, a dash of schadenfreude and splash of scandal. It is, in other words, business as usual at the newspaper of record, where passionate disagreement verging into bitter resentment at the sexual teachings of the Catholic Church (that homosexuals can’t marry, heterosexuals can’t divorce, and that abortion is the willful destruction of innocent human life) is almost as widespread as hatred of the KKK.
(I say almost, noting Ross Douthat’s piece this morning. Maureen Dowd, however, proudly upholds the paper’s traditional foam-flecked hatred of Rome, with the difference that loathing and contempt for Catholic ideas is expressed in our more democratic era by the Catholic or ex-Catholic children of Eire rather than toffee nosed WASPs. In the old days, hatred of Rome was a bond in New York journalistic and intellectual circles between nativist Protestants and aspiring Jewish intellectuals remembering centuries of Catholic persecution. These days everybody is in on the Church-hating.)
For those looking to cast stones at the Vatican there is no shortage of ammunition at hand, and Bruni’s piece, entitled “The Wages of Celibacy,” gives us a full measure of Catholic woe: tortured, self-rejecting gay priests and maybe cardinals and archbishops, ‘elite’ rings of transsexual prostitutes, hints of Vatican blackmail, pedophilia and tragic isolation. (Dowd takes it closer to the bone in a column dripping with juicy innuendoes about the Pope Emeritus’ relationship with his private secretary.)
All these troubles, Bruni maintains, spring from priestly celibacy and homosexual repression. Bruni’s core message is that celibacy is a “trap,” a bad idea all round:
No matter what a person’s sexual orientation, the celibate culture runs the risk of stunting its development and turning sexual impulses into furtive, tortured gestures. It downplays a fundamental and maybe irresistible human connection. Is it any wonder that some priests try to make that connection nonetheless, in surreptitious, imprudent and occasionally destructive ways?
Now I’m no Roman Catholic and my father is a happily married Episcopal priest; after 61 plus years of marriage my parents have four children, seven grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and over the decades their home has been a warm and welcoming place, a visible sign of God’s love for friends, family and strangers alike. It’s not for me to advise a religious body to which I don’t belong how to manage its affairs, but if I were designing a new Church of St. Mead from the ground up, I’d have no problem with married priests.
There are good arguments against a celibate priesthood, even in the special context of Roman Catholic doctrine about the nature and function of priests. It’s not, however, clear that these arguments are as strong as Bruni and many others assume. The last time I looked, college football coaches, BBC celebrities, public school teachers and scout leaders weren’t required to be celibate, but we’ve seen high profile sexual scandals in these fields—complete with coverups. Horatio Alger was a Unitarian minister when he was fired for “unnatural familiarity” with boys, and there have been some recent high profile cases of married Jewish and Protestant religious leaders involved in inappropriate sex with young people.
Human sexuality is tricky ground; many married people have from time to time resorted to exactly the kind of “furtive, tortured gestures” that Bruni thinks characterize celibacy. Few of us live up to our own sexual ideals or standards; gay or straight, single or married, drunk or sober, large numbers of human beings look back on certain incidents with sadness and regret. Not even Maureen Dowd can believe that America’s burgeoning porn industry survives on the patronage of furtive and twisted celibates alone. Celibacy, like monogamy, is a sexual ideal. Not many people live up to either ideal fully, and many fall sadly, woefully, and even horrifically short of the standards their own consciences declare.
But ideals, even unattainable ones, are often there for a reason. The Christian ideal of celibacy wasn’t invented by the Catholic hierarchy and didn’t originate as a tool to capture and repress homosexual men. Nor was it rooted in either Jewish or Roman antiquity. Caesar Augustus passed laws to penalize bachelors, and while Rome had its Vestal Virgins, they had no male counterparts. While ancient Greek culture celebrated many forms of what we today would call pedophilia, it strongly condemned adult men who engaged in passive homosexual intercourse and placed strong social pressure on men to marry women even as they continued to accost high school age boys. The closest thing to the Christian ideal of celibacy was found among some Middle Eastern cults and mystery religions, but the voluntary castration among some devotees of these cults never really caught on among the followers of Christ (Origen excepted).
The Christian ideal of celibacy comes straight from the source: Jesus, despite repeated attempts by later writers to whomp up romances with everyone from Mary Magdalene to St. John the Divine, never married. (I’m waiting for the Maureen Dowd column on Jesus the pedophile: What can we expect from a man who hung around playgrounds saying “Suffer the little children to come unto me?” Sounds pretty suspicious and, of course, he was celibate.)
Jesus’ example got a powerful boost and some theological buttressing from the life and writings of Christianity’s greatest early leader and thinker, St. Paul. So far as we know, Paul never married in the years before his conversion; certainly, he remained single during his life as the first Christian missionary.
Neither Jesus nor Paul demanded celibacy of their followers. We know that St. Peter had a mother-in-law and St. Paul said that bishops should have no more than one wife. If Jesus ever said anything about his decision to remain unmarried, the Gospels don’t report it, and his recorded teaching on marriage is largely confined to an absolute prohibition on divorce. But Paul was more forthcoming. In his first letter to the Christian community in the Greek city of Corinth, the apostle wrote that while ideally both women and men should remain unmarried, not everybody had the ability. For those who could not, ahem, contain themselves in the single life, he wrote, there was a less demanding if perhaps less noble course. “It is better to marry than to burn.“
The examples of Jesus and Paul’s celibacy have resonated since the early centuries of Christian life, but choosing the celibate life was also often mixed up with pragmatic considerations. Centuries of persecution reinforced the idea that the leaders of the Christian community, bishops and priests for whom martyrdom was in the job description, should avoid earthly entanglements. One can sympathize with their point of view. It is bad enough being fed to the lions without worrying about the hungry family you are leaving behind.
When the persecutions ended with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, Christians had a new reason to want celibate bishops and priests. The Church became one of the wealthiest institutions in the Empire, and its officials controlled great resources and had immense political power. That power only grew when the Empire fell and feudalism appeared. In an era of weak states and institutions, powerful families constantly sought to appropriate ‘common’ property; much like oligarchs pillaging state property after the fall of the Soviet Union, people sought to ‘privatize’ both church and state property when opportunities rose.
Without celibacy, clerical dynasties would surely have emerged, and lucrative offices would almost inevitably become hereditary. Even humble parish priests would try to ensure that their sons followed them in their calling and, in a period of weak institutions and little central authority, the positions and the possessions of the Church were all too likely to fall under private control. Celibacy ensured that priests had no children, or that, if they did (and there have never been many illusions in the Church about the weakness of the flesh and the powers of temptation), those children would at least be illegitimate and unable to claim a right of succession.
Even with celibacy, life in the Church got pretty corrupt. Clerics high and low struggled to make careers for their illegitimate children or their nephews (the word ‘nepotism’ comes from the Latin word for nephew); powerful families intrigued to control the more lucrative posts. But while the ban on clerical marriage didn’t necessarily make the clergy more moral, it helped assure the independence of the Church and kept its property and offices from falling completely and irrevocably into the hands of church dynasties. From this point of view the discipline of celibacy was less a means to sanctify priests than to protect the institutional integrity of the Church.
In the West today these dangers have receded, but in much of the world they remain real. Many African and Asian believers remain very poor, and priests would face overwhelming temptations to, for example, ensure that their own kids received whatever educational opportunities were on offer. A wealthy and well connected archbishop in a non-democratic developing country would have powerful reasons to make sure his kids were plugged into the power system—and also have powerful reasons to keep his mouth shut about corruption and the abuses of human rights. Moral heroes might stand up against the pressure, but not every archbishop is going to be that kind of person. A perennial problem for Rome is that it must legislate for Catholics throughout the world; a system that allowed priests to marry in rich countries but demanded celibacy of priests from poor countries would not go over well.
Even so, there are real questions about requiring celibacy of all clergy. The priesthood is a less economically and socially attractive profession today, but in past centuries (and still in many poor countries) choosing a career in the Church was the only avenue for kids without wealthy parents to get a good education or a job that didn’t involve digging ditches. A hunger for education, a desire to see the wider world, and the hope of a brilliant career are not the same things as a religious vocation, much less a divine call to the single life, but the Church insisted on a package deal. Some young people honored the bargain, many found it beyond their power or were cynics from the start.
More recently, many women faced a similar choice. For poor girls in much of Europe and North America, entry into a religious order was their only way into professional life and their only chance for a college education. As Bruni and others note, the celibate priesthood also provided an honorable exit for another group: young homosexual men. If you told your mother that you weren’t getting married because you liked guys, you got one reaction. If you said God was calling you to the priesthood, you got something else. This doesn’t require conscious hypocrisy; sexual identity and spiritual yearning are both complicated things, and young people in the throes of adolescence jump to lots of conclusions.
It seems pretty clear that many people in religious orders and the priesthood didn’t have a true calling to the celibate life, and one reason that tens of thousands of people left the orders and the priesthood after Vatican II was that in a changing world they had other options. Young Catholic women, whatever their sexual orientation, and young Catholic gay men now have more choices, and the Church seems to be finding that while there are fewer young people entering orders and the priesthood, those who come are better suited to the calling.
I don’t know that it’s fair to blame all the resulting problems on either the Church or on celibacy. One can say that it was less than fair of the Church to offer education and careers to the poor, to women and to homosexuals with such difficult conditions attached—but then nobody else was offering them anything at all. Surely some of the blame has to fall on societies and cultures that consigned whole swathes of their population to ignorance and oppression, leaving the Church to deal with the results as best it could. Within the framework of its doctrinal structures and its institutional requirements, the Church opened a door of opportunity for people who the rest of the world rejected. Surely even the Rhadamanthine judges at the New York Times can give it a few points for trying?
But many critics of the Church, and, unless I am misreading him, Bruni is one of these, don’t just think that the Church has misused the discipline of celibacy. They want to say that celibacy doesn’t even make sense as a religious ideal. One doesn’t want to judge a person’s entire world view on the basis of a single newspaper column, but Bruni seems to make the argument that celibacy is an unnatural state that involves a crippling loss of human connection. As Auden once put it: “Envy warps the virgin as she dries.”
The critique is not new; the belief that the Catholic view of celibacy leads either to futile isolation or to sexual deviance and depravity or both was one of the core arguments that the Reformers made against the Church. Lurid ‘confessions’ of nuns allegedly seduced by priests and darker rumors were widely disseminated during and after the wars of religion. As late as the 1830s a Protestant mob in Boston burned an Ursuline convent after reports of wicked goings on got into the press.
In Victorian times Protestants frequently contrasted what they saw as the healthy, masculine and extroverted nature of the Protestant clergy and its spirituality and the ‘diseased’, ‘feminine’ and introverted qualities they claimed to see among Catholics. Homophobia and anti-Catholicism ran together in 19th century England, and the Protestant cult of ‘muscular Christianity’ claiming that Jesus was an extroverted jock rather than a sensitive momma’s boy was particularly popular among the headmasters of boys’ boarding schools. In the minds of people like Charles Kingsley, tutor of the Prince of Wales, chaplain to Queen Victoria and the man whose attack prompted Cardinal Newman to write his great autobiography, suspiciously celibate Catholic priests with their crafty ways, lace gowns and aversion to marriage were exactly the sort of person one kept away from the vulnerable young.
Today the attack on celibacy, at least in elite circles, cannot base itself on overt homophobia any longer, although it was not all that long ago that the New York Times led the charge against gays and their wicked agenda. Where the Victorians attacked the celibate priesthood because they believed it sheltered homosexual men and gave them social position and power they could never otherwise have, our contemporaries attack priestly celibacy because it warps homosexual men, steeping them in self-hatred, twisting their desires, and forcing the natural healthy channel of their sexuality into at best sordid and furtive affairs and at worst leading otherwise normal gay men into the horrors of pedophilia.
Charles Kingsley would have interpreted the current avalanche of stories about pedophile priests and the rumors of gay sex rings in the Vatican as clear proof that Catholicism was rotten to the core and that a hierarchical culture resting on priestly celibacy was a big part of the problem. That is not as far from the Bruni position as either Kingsley or Bruni would like, but where Kingsley saw celibacy as tailor-made cover for insidious homosexuals and sexual predators, Bruni sees it as an instrument of homophobia and sexual repression.
From my wretchedly Anglican standpoint, I can only say that the problem seems less about celibacy as a sexual ideal than about the attempt, intrinsic to Catholicism, to embody the ideal Kingdom of God in a human institution. Priests, nuns, bishops and monks are not going to be perfect. They are going to abuse their power; they are going to misread the will of God even on those occasions when they summon up the fortitude to try to follow it. Catholics believe that even so the purposes of God are being worked out through the visible Church on earth, and that the institution, however weighed down with crooked bankers, bent priests, conniving bishops and hypocritical pedophiles really is the primary channel of grace into this fallen world, and the place par excellence where God’s perfect love meets human failure.
That Catholic approach to the institutionalization of the ineffable has led to great triumphs of the human spirit and nourished extraordinary saints down through the ages, but there is a darker side too. The attempt to bond a high and difficult sexual ideal to the routine business of running a global institution is bound to create some big problems; I wish the next pope every success in managing this great institution in tumultuous times, but I don’t have a lot of advice to offer.
There is a final point to make. It’s striking that Bruni’s discussion of celibacy omits any possible benefits that might flow from this way of life. Proponents of celibacy have often spoken of a closer union with God as both the motive and the consequence of their choice. Pastor Rick Warren tells the story of the bride who insisted that as she came down the aisle to meet her future husband the choir sing the old hymn “I’d Rather Have Jesus.” For millions of Catholic and Orthodox monks, priests and nuns down through the centuries, that was a choice that they consciously made. They felt called to sacrifice earthly ties to deepen their relationship with God and to focus exclusively on serving him rather than tending families on earth.
Bruni doesn’t even think this idea is worth discussing; as far as I can tell, there are no ‘brides of Christ’ in his world view, only delusional and embittered old maids. The argument boils down to this: since human beings can’t be satisfied or fulfilled by relationships with God, celibacy has no point. It subtracts but it does not add. The celibate priest or nun is running away from normal human life and running toward… nothing.
Bruni is of course entitled to his opinion, and it’s one that many great scholars and philosophers have held. God either doesn’t exist or is so much in the background of things that he might as well not be there at all. Satisfaction is to be sought in the here and now; this life on earth offers all we need and in any case is all we have. Forget all this talk of mystical unions with Christ, forget the ecstasies of the saints, the Beatific Vision, the dream of fulfilling your life by picking up your cross and following Christ as closely as you can. Find an age-appropriate spouse of whatever gender works for you, and lead the rich and satisfying life of an upper middle class professional who enjoys the newspaper of record, and try not to think about old age, death, or anything else that suggests that the natural order is either incomplete or flawed.
This is a perfectly coherent point of view, but it is not very rational to suggest it to the Catholic Church. Bruni’s argument against celibacy is predicated on the disappearance of God; he is giving the Church advice on how to organize its affairs in the absence of Christ.
If Bruni is right, we shouldn’t just get rid of priestly celibacy. We should get rid of priests. We should turn our churches into art museums. Perhaps a few should stay open for the old people and the poor people and the semi-literate immigrants still bitterly clinging to their missals and their rosaries, but the Catholic Church is of value only insofar as it adds texture and color to the wonderful pageant of civilized modern life.
A lot of modern and progressive thinking people think this way in America and beyond; it’s a safe bet that the new pope, whoever he is, won’t agree.