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Clerical celibacy and moral compromise

Freed from worldly concerns, ought not the celibate cleric be more impatient with and intolerant of genuine wickedness and rank wrongdoing of every kind?

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Several voices — high-ranking clerics among them, including the Archbishop of Munich and Friesing and President of the German Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx — have proposed considering a change in the discipline of secular clergy in the Latin Church, which currently prohibits ordaining married men to the priesthood.

While I think we do need to have a serious conversation about clerical celibacy in the Latin West, this essay does not purpose to consider the merits of that proposal. Before that we need to have a serious conversation about the whole clerical culture in the Church, secular and religious, East and West.

Two things have conspired to convince me of the need for such a conversation: First, the unequivocal failure of bishops to grasp the nature of the evil that plagues the Church; Second, the unhealthy docility among the lower ranks of the clergy (especially, though not only, the secular clergy), which has the effect of perpetuating a preference for silence and a mentality of “going along to get along” throughout the whole clerical body.

We are told that celibacy frees the priest from worldly attachments, thus facilitating his undivided attention to the service of the Gospel. Nevertheless, I have heard too often over the past year, that a cleric aware or suspicious of all manner of wrongdoing within the body of the clergy in the jurisdiction of his belonging, could not go on the record for fear of reprisal.

I do not mean to cast aspersions, but I must say I am perplexed by this state of affairs. A man with a family to feed, house, clothe, and educate, must occasionally put his head down and keep his mouth shut in the face of a thousand circumstances less than perfectly ideal in his workplace or in his community. Even in the absence of circumstances that stir up grave moral unease, he might occasionally find himself constrained by circumstance to say, “Enough,” and speak his mind.

Freed from all such concerns, ought not the cleric be the readier to be impatient with and intolerant of genuine wickedness and rank wrongdoing of every kind?

Nevertheless, we are told clerics of the lower ranks — men I like to think are the “grunt priests” in the pastoral trenches — depend entirely on the Church for their livelihood, and so are afraid of losing it. The willingness of some bishops to take heavy-handed measures, such as declaring a man unassignable, or even to use the nuclear option — declaring a man irregular for the exercise of Orders — has been documented. The more frequent recourse for Ordinaries with troublesome underlings, however, is to give the troublemakers thankless chaplaincies.

Those are not cherry assignments, but they are also hardly hardship postings — and in any case, why ought any priest eschew one like it?

Said bluntly: if celibacy is the discipline we have chosen to impose on our clergy in order to free them from worldly concerns and thus make them ready to risk all for the Gospel, it is reasonable to expect they would at least be willing to risk assignment to a nursing home.

One major reason clerics and religious take vows of celibacy is to protect them from precisely the concerns someone with a family would have. “Where will we live?” and “What will my children eat” etc., are concerns anyone with a family will take into consideration when it comes to deciding whether to keep one’s head down and work within the system, or step out and blow the whistle.

There is a point beyond which even a husband, father, wife, or mother will find it impossible to go on without serious moral compromise, if not corruption. Siobhan O’Connor got there. We have a right to demand that the clerical and hierarchical leaders of the Church do at least as well, and indeed better.

Nor will it do for clerics to plead religious or holy obedience, or even pontifical secret.

There is no vow of religion, no promise anyone can make to any bishop, that can absolve, curtail, or otherwise bind the person who makes the vow or promise, from his or her duty under the natural moral law — and if you know about grave harm, and know that your superiors (or your fellow clerics) are part of it, you blow the whistle.

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About Christopher R. Altieri 237 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. The biggest mistake made by Catholic hierarchy was the church trying to enforce celibacy on a man. Especially on a married non-Catholic cleric. You say the following…
    “We are told that celibacy frees the priest from worldly attachments”. Church history says otherwise.

    • The Church hasn’t forced any man to be celibate; nobody is forced to be a priest.

      I remember reading in – hmmm, might have been Radio Replies, but maybe not – where someone points out that the only difference between a priest and a married man is one woman. I can just see someone using the arguments you keep using about celibacy (“But what about men who have really high libidos!”)to say that it’s cruel of the Church to forbid adultery, because, y’know, what if your wife is sick and you have neeeeeeds. Because after all, nobody should expect a man to have any self control.

      • Leslie unless I missed it missing from the conversation is the essence of Catholic priesthood. True that men as you allude have had a free pass because Man the aggressor provider dominant protector presumably by nature must have less control. So a sick wife frees the poor boy. You touch on the heart of the matter that “one woman” differentiates priest from husband. Well if a priest isn’t in love with a certain Someone he turns to other friends Johnny Walker Jack Daniel’s or perhaps Goldielocks. Or tragically today’s sexual deviation. And today the aggressor role is reversed more woman wearing the pants more men acting like paintywaists [at least as I’ve perceived some unhappy marriages and weepy men determined to renounce the mod sin of manliness]. Sexual gratification is for the taking no ticket necessary. Enough said what is missing not addressed in an otherwise good article and converse is priestly marriage. Not to “one woman” [though suggested] rather to One God the spiritual mystical concrete reality of his call, a willingness to unite body and soul with the Beloved. That alone will save our priesthood and Church.

        • Fr. Morello, I’m not understanding your post. I was pointing out that MorganB’s constant posts about how celibacy is impossible and unfair could easily be used to justify adultery, which I presume he believes is wrong. I wasn’t trying to discuss the essence of the priesthood.

          • Leslie I did not intend to criticize your response to morganB in fact I agree. I ‘borrowed’ your critique as a foil to make a statement on what I really wanted to make about priesthood and a priest’s essential commitment to love of God in Christ. Pardon me for the misunderstanding and misjudgment on my part. I suppose I should have clarified that or simply have made a comment rather than respond to your statement.

    • If you can point to one, just one, example of the Church ever holding a gun to the head of a man and forcing him to accept the discipline of celibacy, then your rant might have merit. However, since you can’t, you’ve simply posted absurd nonsense, yet again.

  2. A serious reflection on the practice of the virtues is what is required. Any discussion about the issue of celibacy should be held in the context of Christian ascetism, as well as nature of the sacrament of Holy Orders. Romper bedroom katholicism is no substitute for the real thing. A man who cannot practice priestly celibacy is hardly able to endure the asceticism required in Catholic marriage.
    Let’s tank the sex talk, and talk virtue. The Devil loves this distraction. He is winning this war as long as Catholicism is absorbed by the groin and negligent of our Savior.
    Of all professions police officers experience the highest level of divorce, followed by protestant ministers. I can hardly imagine the scandal which a “married Roman Catholic priesthood” would provide.
    When we were endured the announcement of a fraudulent “Year of Mercy” [more accurately understood as the approbation of license} I was forced to contribute the idea of a year of examination of conscience followed by a year of penance. REAL PENANCE. For ALL of us.
    It long past time to realize this Church is not a faculty party. Lets stop being absorbed by the small stuff and throw our sight on the person of our Savior, Jesus Christ — Crucified.

  3. Not so sure I understand what you are suggesting. Seems to me a man has this conversation before ordination, not after. It becomes a matter of following the promise – vow – that was made. I’ve heard talk about “sexual maturity” and “I didn’t know what I was getting into”. The first began over 60 years ago. The second is an unfortunate excuse. For a generation that seems to pride itself on its sexual openness and its ability to keep a promise, more discussion seems a real revelation of the Devil’s insinuation into the Church’s governance.

  4. The problem is not celibacy. If anyone needs convincing of that, simply consult a book on the topic I edited several years ago, for which all but two contributors were converts.
    No, the reason for the silence on the part of many priests is that they live in terror of autocratic, unfeeling bishops all too often (and those bishops come in all shapes and sizes, not necessarily connected to a particular ideology). If a man is a whistle-blower on IBM and gets fired, he will generally be able to obtain employment elsewhere. If a priest falls afoul of his bishop, he is finished — because the episcopal club (usually, but not always) closes ranks and he couldn’t be a clerical dog-catcher in other ecclesiastical environs.
    Further, the seminary system ought to be training shepherds but in reality trains sheep, mute and supine. The promise of obedience is elevated to cover any and all desiderata of anyone in authority. Therein lies the problem.

    • “… the seminary system ought to be training shepherds but in reality trains sheep, mute and supine.” Father Stravinskas, I could not agree with you more!

      Father Stanley C. Brach, pray for us!
      Not as Briefed: From the Doolittle Raid to a German Stalag
      ISBN-10: 0874222387

      Father Pierre De Smet S.J., Pray for us!
      Apostle of the Rocky Mountains. The life of Father De Smet S.J.
      ISBN 9780895556660

      Father Vincent Capodanno, Pray for us!
      The Grunt Padre
      ISBN-10: 1891280082

      Father Walter Ciszek S.J., Pray for us!
      With God in Russia
      ISBN 0898705746

      These men were courageous leaders. Every one of them. All of these books should be required reading before ordination. But alas, “Gentle Jesus come and squeeze us” seems to be the order of the day. To all of the truly brave and heroic priests today, leaders with a mission to save souls (as opposed to clerical politicians,) thank you and may God bless your ministry.

  5. Amen Mr. Altieri!

    And Amen to Fr. Stravinskas – who is of course correct, and the position stated by MorganB is not logical.

  6. I find it disheartening that even well known columnists continue to make mistaken statements about celibacy. I.e. “one major reason clerics and religious take vows of celibacy…” (above). Religious take vows of chastity, not celibacy. Latin Rite priests do take a vow of celibacy. Every Christian is bound to practice chastity, according to their state in life. The two are not interchangeable. One is a vow to forgo marriage for the sake of the kingdom. The other is following the commandments.

  7. My observation from being a diocesan seminarian in the 1990s is that this habit of not speaking up in the face of abuses of power (of various kinds) often became firm habit in the seminary. If I had a dime for every conversation with fellow seminarians to this effect —“your job is to shut up and get ordained” — I’d be a rich man. The temptation was to believe that a compromise then could pave the way to heroism later. But then ordination arrived, and the fears associated with telling the truth didn’t disappear; they simply became attached to different consequences. And so the compromises deepened.

    And all along the way, the men learned not to trust either authorities or their peers… so guys were ordained who had developed Lone Ranger habits of coping with adversity. This has tended not to end well, as both fraternal correction and fraternal support were not part of the equation.

    Perhaps I’m speaking of a different problem, but I feel like the roots of the compromises extend back into the formation environment and the culture of fear that ruled the day.

    • Clayton,
      I think you’re on to something. I also spent time in a diocesan seminary in the late 80s and experienced the same thing. I also witnessed men who may have had motives other the Christ for entering the seminary.

      The priesthood can serve as “cover” for homosexuals who need an excuse not to marry; it has protection from being fired by your employer; and it doesn’t require a solid job performance rating. In short, it can attract men who have an exaggerated fear about the risks of life.

  8. The problem is that no serious conversation about any of the crisis’ in the church is possible as those who rule, who have the power and the wealth, are the reason for the crisis’ and the majority of Catholics are willing to accept the blatant lies, the destruction of the true faith, and the perverted, immoral, lying, blaspheming, and sacrileges these rulers are and perform, including all of the popes since Paul VI.

  9. Yes, priests who made a vow to be celibate for life, broke those vows. Yes, instead of saints, we got sinners, and in some cases devils. Now, laity have to take a deep breathe and determine what we want.

    Do we want priests to be allowed to marry women? Jesus did. Read the scriptures.

    Do we want the priests sins to include criminal sexual abuse of children and minors and seminarians? The laity have paid a lot of money for these sins, while clerics have spent very little time in prison for these sins.

    Do we want priests to teach us how to repent, not unlike the 50 days of repentance aka Teshuva done by Jews during the annual high holy days, commanded in Exodus 34 – feast of the Tabernacles, which Jesus practiced – read the scriptures. In other words, rather than expecting clerical perfection and holiness, maybe we should ask the priest/s to show up from example, how to repent. Having perfect priests will not get us into heaven. Having a sinful priest show us how to repent will save our souls. John the Baptist and Jesus preached salvation through repentance and forgiveness of sins. Read the scriptures.

    • “Do we want priests to be allowed to marry women? Jesus did. Read the scriptures.”


      “Do we want the priests sins to include criminal sexual abuse of children and minors and seminarians? The laity have paid a lot of money for these sins, while clerics have spent very little time in prison for these sins. ”

      Is there a point to that? If so, it is phenomenally well concealed.

      By your reasoning, we want to recruit priests who will commit the most heinous sins imaginable, just so they can show us how to repent. Ummmm, no.

      Your constant refrain of “read the scriptures” [sic] is actually your way of saying, “Read the Bible, and the accept my interpretation because only I know what it really means, unlike the Church which has been misinterpreting it for millennia.”

  10. I understand the author’s point but think he has seriously underestimated the problems that can be faced by priests who complain. They cant go anywhere else. They cant get other colleagues or jobs. Objectively, a “bad assignment” doesn’t seem so bad compared with digging ditches for the next 50 years – but there’s the problem: it’s THE NEXT 50 YEARS. we would like it if all people, regardless of position or state in life, were people of integrity who stood up for what is right. Reality should teach us how uncommon doing so actually is, and how it has to be encouraged and taught. It seems that in most dioceses, it has not been encouraged or taught. Faithful men today are already being counter-cultural and bold when they become priests in the first place. If we want them to be even braver, we have to expect it and we have to do the same ourselves.

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