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Priesthood is not about celibacy

Subject is a distraction from some of the more important issues Church needs to address

Priesthood is not about celibacy
Father William Grimm MM, Tokyo

February 16, 2012

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UCA News reported that diocesan priests meeting in Madhya Pradesh, India have resolved that "Jesus is the ultimate model for celibate life and His self-sacrificing love for the Church is to be imitated by priests." This followed a talk by Archbishop Pascal Topno in which he said: "Celibacy is the highest expression of discipleship."

While the priests’ commitment to make Christ their model for living celibacy is truly praiseworthy, there are many other ways of being a Christian that are at least as high -- and maybe higher -- expressions of discipleship, ways that the world needs more than celibacy. In any case, trying to rate discipleship is a dangerous endeavor.

As God told Samuel, "The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look upon the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart."

A callow couple pledging their marriage vows today because they love one another will, after years of growing, realize that there were probably additional unconscious reasons that brought them down the aisle.

Some of those reasons may not even be attractive. No one makes major choices based upon a single reason, whether they are aware of all the reasons or not.

In the same way, there are many reasons why the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church has mandated celibacy for its clergy.

Some of the reasons have been culturally conditioned, like a Hellenistic aversion to women and sex as somehow unclean. Some have been economic, like problems of inheritance where Church property was involved. Some have been more "noble," like being signs of the Reign of God, where "they neither marry nor are given in marriage."

Theoretically, at least, celibacy is supposed to make priests more available to serve, though married clergy are clearly as generous with their time and talents as celibates.

One thing the celibacy of the Roman clergy certainly does is provide a point of obsession for all sorts of people. For many it would appear that the definition of priesthood is celibacy rather than the Eucharist, mission or service to the Christian community.

There are people who seem to think celibates are half-men who deserve condescending sympathy or some sort of self-sacrificing heroes who deserve compensatory "rewards."

When novels, films and other entertainment media deal with priests they often picture frustrated men who long for sexual fulfillment in the arms of a woman, a man or a boy. I know a lot of priests, and despite the headlines, most are at least as satisfied with their lives as most married men I know.

On the other hand, some of the rapturous pronouncements of senior churchmen like Archbishop Topno about the great joys and privilege of celibacy almost make me wonder if we should give it up for Lent. Celibacy is an ascetic discipline. It’s not supposed to be fun. We give up what we want and like, not what we’d rather do without.

I am a priest. I am deeply happy that I am a priest. Celibacy is part of the price I have paid for that happiness. If along the way, celibacy had been an option rather than the set price for this happiness, would I have chosen to be celibate?


In this, I am like most of the priests I know. We are happy. We would like to have someone with whom to share this happiness and our lives through marriage and family. But, the happiness has been worth the sacrifice.

And consequently, we are not obsessed with celibacy as either a source of frustration or a source of holiness. It is simply a fact of our lives. When priests get together, we neither bemoan our lonely beds nor sing hymns to their glory.

We have more important things to think about. We talk about the people we serve and the sorrows and joys of that service. (When not talking about sports, entertainment, politics and food – the things men generally talk about with each other.) If anything, we laugh at the fictional priests of both the media and the hierarchs.

And so, special gatherings of priests to affirm the importance of celibacy have a false ring to them, as if someone were trying to deal with the problems of priests who find the demands of celibacy an unbearable cross.

There are such priests, and their suffering and the suffering they can cause others are among the many reasons that celibacy should not be imposed indiscriminately on men who feel called to serve in priestly ministry.

However, there are more important things for the Church and even meetings of clergy to deal with than the celibacy imposed on a few hundred thousand of us.

In a world that needs the Gospel to be proclaimed by every follower of Christ, celibacy can be, and often is, a distraction. Changing the rule should be on the Church’s To-Do list, but it need not be at the top of the list.

Father William Grimm is a Tokyo-based priest and publisher of UCA News, and former editor-in-chief of Katorikku Shimbun, Japan’s Catholic weekly.

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