The Benefits of Making Priestly Celibacy Optional
Anthony Dragani is an associate professor of religious studies at Mount Aloysius College.
Updated November 21, 2014, 5:46 PM
The Catholic Church already has many married priests. In fact, in parts of the world the majority of Catholic priests are married men with families. These priests serve in the Eastern Catholic Churches, which are in full communion with the Pope, but otherwise resemble Orthodox Christian Churches.
In the United States, most people associate Catholic with Roman Catholic. But the Catholic Church is a communion of 23 churches, each recognizing the leadership of the Pope while maintaining their own distinctive identities and disciplines. While the Latin Church, which is popularly known as the Roman Catholic Church, has a discipline of mandatory priestly celibacy, most of the Eastern Catholic Churches do not.
Being Eastern Catholic, married priests are a reality that I’m already familiar with. My own pastor is a married man with children and grandchildren, and he is an exemplary priest. I’ve also had celibate pastors who are equally outstanding. In my experience, a priest being married or celibate makes little difference as to whether or not he is effective in his ministry.If priestly celibacy were optional, more people would become priests, there would be greater transparency and celibacy would be a spiritual gift.
Based on my observations, if married priests became more common in the Catholic Church, change wouldn’t be drastic, but there would be benefits:
First, voluntary celibacy would increase the pool of candidates to the priesthood. It’s no secret that the Catholic Church is suffering from a priest shortage in parts of the world. In some cases a single priest must serve three or more parishes. While ordaining married men wouldn’t solve this problem entirely, it would make a difference.
Also, making celibacy optional would foster a culture of greater transparency within the Catholic Church. While most celibate priests do keep their promise of celibacy, there are some who try, but fail. Sometimes these priests resort to living double lives. I’ve seen this happen too many times.
Priests who are engaged in clandestine relationships, even with consenting adults, are compromised. They live with a secret. And these priests, who may go on to become bishops, are sometimes hesitant to investigate rumors of sexual misconduct by other clergy, as they fear their own secrets being exposed. People living with secrets breed a culture of secrecy.
Finally, if priestly celibacy were optional, there would be a greater appreciation for celibacy as a spiritual gift. In Eastern Christianity celibacy is viewed as a sacred calling in and of itself, without it being tied to the priesthood. Because candidates for the priesthood can freely choose to accept or reject celibacy, they can discern whether or not they have this special calling without their future ministries hanging in the balance. Many do choose celibacy, either as priests or monks, and this is viewed as a gift from God, but it is not demanded of anyone.
When celibacy is a requirement for the priesthood, some men force themselves to commit to celibacy, even if it is clear that they don’t possess this gift. While this works out for some, for others it leads to a life of torment and hypocrisy. If candidates for the priesthood are given the choice, those who choose celibacy are more likely to be at peace with this state of life, and this allows celibacy to be seen for what it is – a gift from God, not a burden to be endured. And when celibacy is freely chosen as a gift, not as a prerequisite for ministry, the result is a healthier church for everyone