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Rant: The Real Problem With Clerical Celibacy

Black smoke. I guess we try again tomorrow.

I had intended to post a couple of pertinent entries during Pope Week, as some are calling this, but got involved in a new book proposal I’m working on. I genuinely expected that we’d have a new pope by now. Not so.

Anyway. I haven’t done a rant for years. Here ya go:

I’m reading a lot about clerical sexual abuse being rooted in clerical celibacy, as though it were obvious. This is not a new argument, nor does it have much grounding in reality. Abusers abuse not because they’re celibate but because they’re abusers, and I don’t think the Roman Church has any more of them than any other large organization. We pay the scandals more attention because the Church and its people ought to know better. We’re right to demand higher standards of conduct from church people than we do from politicians or TV reality show stars. Marrying off every priest and bishop in the Roman Catholic Church would not stop sexual abuse. I’m honestly not sure what would, though we need to continue the search with everything we’ve got. No, we need to eliminate mandatory clerical celibacy for a deeper reason: It selects for dualists.

The more I read of Church history and theology, the more I distrust ascetic theology and its real-world implementation, monasticism. Monastics make much about being “in the world, but not of it.” Excuse me? If you’re in the world, you’re damned well of it, because God gave you a meat suit and put you here. You will be of the world until you’re no longer in it, and what happens then is a whole separate discussion. Deal with it.

The deeper meaning of the mantra “in the world but not of it” lies in a theological system that arose in Persia in ancient times. Spiritual reality to the Persians was an unending war between Good and Evil, with the two being a pretty even match–hence the term “dualism.” There was a high, all-good God who had little to do with physical reality, and a grouchy creator God who had brought physical reality into being and trapped immaterial souls in material bodies that suffered and committed evil. Cooked down to essentials, this meant Spirit Good, Matter Bad.

Dualist thought of this sort crossed over from Persian mysticism into Christian theology several times in Christianity’s early centuries. Some of these threads were eventually declared heresies and suppressed, while others (especially the Great Dualist, Augustine of Hippo) became mainstream, to everyone’s sorrow.

I see dualism very clearly in the emergence of monasticism. Monasticism is more than just living off by yourselves somewhere. Nor does it describe a community simply working toward self-discipline in a systematic fashion. (In our dreams!) Early monastics were powerfully driven by the dualist assumption of Spirit Good, Matter Bad. The human body was a bundle of yukkh that not only had to be controlled but also humiliated, starved, and as often as not beaten and tormented through physical pain. Until Vatican II every Jesuit was given a little whip called the disciplina, and part of the Jesuit Rule specified that a Jesuit must beat himself with the disciplina every night. (Former Jesuit seminarian Garry Wills recalls this vividly in Why I Am a Catholic.) Because Spirit is the only godly part of a human being, torture of the body in the service of God was no big deal. Diocesan clergy certainly had a role in the torturing and execution of heretics, but it was monastics (particularly the Dominicans) who systematized it and made it a science. And over the centuries monastic thought seeped into diocesan thought, until clerical marriage was formally forbidden throughout the Western Church in the eleventh century. (It had been forbidden locally in some areas since the time of Leo the Great, circa 450.)

Monasticism isn’t about torture anymore, but its dualist view of the cosmos remains: Matter is of no great consequence, and the human body is simply a temporary vehicle for a fully spiritual soul. All physical desires are at least suspect. The world is a vexing source of temptation that cannot be redeemed and is best ignored. Sex, in particular, is fallen and unnecessary for anyone with a spiritual inclination. This attitude goes back to Paul, who thought the world was about to end and saw marriage as nothing better than a means of avoiding sexual sin until it did.

Some modern writers (including Garry Wills, whom I otherwise admire) think that clerical celibacy is a good thing because it focuses clergy on matters spiritual. My experience with married priests and bishops in the Anglican Communion (most but not all of them American Episcopalians) and many in the Old Catholic Church points in an entirely different direction: Finding peace and balance with the physical world is not surrender or even accomodation. It is part of our task as Christians. If God created the Universe, the Universe is sacred and cannot be dismissed as unimportant or (worse) evil. Married clergy have a sense of groundedness about them that is not impossible for the celibate, but harder work to achieve and tougher to maintain. (Those who succeed are spectacular clergy indeed, however rare.) This may not be due to marriage itself, but perhaps to an attitude that the married, to succeed in marriage, must maintain: The Other matters as much as the Self. Life is not just me and God hanging out in a private garden. It’s me and God and everyone else sharing a God-given world that must be consciously shepherded for the use of all.

Obviously, not all celibates are dualists, nor are all dualists celibate. That said, celibacy, especially when pre-emptively imposed on all clergy, tilts the graph toward dualism because dualism considers sex unnecessary and the physical world as less important than the spiritual. Those who are willing and able to embrace celibacy are more likely to lean in a dualist direction, with a preverbal if not fully perceived impression that the physical is sundered from the spiritual and the two parts set against one another.

No. Give me a priest who dances with his (or her) spouse, who will raise a glass to the health and success of all present, and who understands the rocky road on which Carol and I walk because he (or she) has walked that road too, with a loved one close at hand. Give me a priest who faces the east at dawn and shouts, like Patrick, “I arise today by the power of Heaven!

I want a priest who celebrates the unity of all creation because all creation is of God, and all men and women are of this, His singular, glorious and undivided creation.


  1. +Sam'l Bassett! says:



    1. “Shema Ah-Dahm! ha-Aretz Echod!”

  2. William Meyer says:

    I agree the conflation of celibacy with ephebophilia is hogwash. It’s simply promoted by those who also insist on calling the problem pedophilia, which it is/was not.

    As to your argument for married priests, I cannot agree. However, now that we have some (those who have come in by way of the Anglican path), there is history being made. The Church has not, and should not, follow fads. I am content to let this be a judgment deferred until a time when sufficient data exist to permit a reasoned evaluation.

    What is clear now, from some married priests who have written about it, is that having two spouses–Church and woman–is a major challenge. Add progeny, and the challenge grows.

    I’ll not indulge in a debate, as neither of us is likely to persuade the other, any more than about the RCC vs. AOCC.

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