The Church is all too often accused of being “obsessed” with sex. Yet is that really the case? Is it not “the world” that is obsessed with sex and thus constantly badgers the Church to discuss the topic. I believe that most priests are like myself: I don’t wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and say, “Oh my gosh, another day of celibacy!” Truth be told, I don’t advert to that aspect of my life in any conscious way on a regular basis.
Just this week, the media have “discovered” a “secret” document in the Vatican detailing procedures to be followed if a priest has fathered a child. For starters, it couldn’t have been very much of a secret if they discovered it. Indeed, the material the media has “revealed” is a no-brainer and has been the modus operandi of which I have been aware since I was a seminarian. The only value to this discovery might be that for a few minutes the world has been made aware of the fact that there are priests who have “opposite-sex” attraction!
I write today, however, because of an article which has just been posted on Crisis, titled “Celibacy and Priests with Same-Sex Attraction”, by Ryan M. Williams. Dr. Williams is an insightful philosopher, whose Thomistic background is shouted out with every distinction he makes (that’s a compliment). I believe, however, that a few more distinctions are in order.
Very happily, Williams shoots down the notion that “celibacy is a ‘lack’ of something.” On the contrary, he notes that “the Church sees it as a gift given to certain individuals by God that permits them to act more effectively in certain ways.” He goes on to assert that “celibacy is not ‘chosen’ by anyone, but rather, it is received as a special charism. . . .” Showing my own Thomistic tendencies, I cry out, “Distinguo!” Two points. First, one is born celibate and remains celibate either because one does not desire to marry for some reason or for a higher reason (e.g., “for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven”). More to the point: To be sure, celibacy is a charism but a charism which is offered, not imposed; once offered, it can be either rejected or accepted (chosen). In point of fact, to be effective, for the charism’s grace to “kick in,” it must be chosen. In this sense, it is not unlike the situation with the reception of a sacrament: Catholic theology holds that if the proper matter and form of a sacrament are in place, the sacrament “works” ex opere operato (by the very fact of its operation); however, the second shoe must yet drop – the necessity of ex opere operantis (the acceptance of the grace that has been offered by the recipient).
It is good to see that Williams rightly distinguishes between celibacy and chastity – unlike most commentators on the subject who conflate the two: Celibacy refers to the unmarried state; chastity is the virtue by which one lives out fidelity to the sixth and ninth commandments – according to one’s state in life. For a celibate (whether cleric or layman), chastity entails foregoing any and all sexual activity; for a married person, chastity (yes, the married must also be chaste) means fidelity to one’s spouse. Chastity is thus lived out by all the baptized, not merely by those in the priesthood or consecrated life.
One is also pleased to find Williams affirm that “celibate men are not less virile or ‘manly’ than other men who enjoy conjugal union with their wives.” Somewhat amazingly, even Freud holds that view, perhaps even going so far as to say that celibate men are even “more” manly!
Williams says that the Latin Church identifies “two categories” of men called upon “to cultivate the discipline of celibacy.” Priests and men with same-sex attraction. The first problem with the statement is that our author has moved from declaring celibacy a “charism” to regarding it as a “discipline.” This is the very error made by so many who argue against mandatory priestly celibacy as they diminish the charism by referring to it simply as “the discipline of celibacy” – as though celibacy is something one just endures, gritting one’s teeth all the while.
A major error is committed by Williams, however, when he informs us that, from among men “who have recognized and confirmed the gift of celibacy,” “the Church looks for those who have the additional calling to the priesthood” (emphasis mine)! This is totally backwards. A boy (yes, even very young boys – like Samuel) or a young man perceives the call to priesthood, first, and then within that call, he must determine that he truly has the charism by which to live a chaste, celibate life in peace and serenity. We can also look at this from the opposite end of the spectrum: Not a few former married Anglican clergymen (who have the possibility of presenting themselves for the Catholic priesthood, although married) have concluded that their prior call to the married state (in which they have been living) precludes their priestly ordination.
Williams suggests that celibacy can be either “palliative” or “energizing.” By “palliative,” he means something like “preventive medicine,” in that it keeps one from doing something harmful to oneself or to others; “energizing” evokes a positive moving out from the self for the benefit of others. He believes that celibacy can only be “palliative” for those with same-sex attraction. But why? Sticking with the medical analogy, can a diabetic’s fidelity to insulin not only be “palliative” (preventing a diabetic coma) but also “energizing” in that it enables the diabetic to function more effectively for himself and for others? On the basis of this (false) distinction of his, however, Williams holds that one with same-sex attraction can never live celibacy in an “energizing” way – although he later admits that “men with same-sex attraction” can “have active lives for God.”
“The Church has always counseled against ordaining those who have same-sex attraction.” On the surface, that would seem to be the case, but a bit of history and psychology might be helpful here. It is undoubtedly true that “the Church has always counseled against ordaining” not “those who have same-sex attraction” but those who act out that attraction. Indeed, “homosexuality” and/or “same-sex attraction” are modern concepts. Prior to the nineteenth century, those categories cannot be found. What made one be considered a homosexual was the fact that one engaged in homosexual activity. Does a man with same-sex attraction who marries a woman contract a valid marriage in the eyes of the Church? Canonical praxis would suggest an affirmative response, which is to say that his “orientation” may make his marriage to a woman more difficult but not necessarily impossible.
Our author expresses concern that a priest with same-sex attraction, “given the rigors of a priest’s life” could find celibacy “even more of a burden.” I would have two responses here. First, suppose an opposite-sex attracted man has a very strong libido and finds sexual self-control difficult, does he experience less “of a burden” than the other man? Further, one can make the case that since a parish priest’s day finds him surrounded by women (even more so in recent years due to the near-total feminization of the Church), is not an opposite-sex attracted priest having an excessively strong “burden” placed on his shoulders? Of course, this is precisely another of the arguments against mandatory celibacy, isn’t it? And now, another ugly phenomenon is gaining traction: the sexual abuse of women religious by bishops and priests.
To be sure, as the Catechism teaches, a same-sex attraction is an “intrinsically disordered” attraction (par 2352). At the same time, we cannot forget that, after the Fall, all sexual attraction can be disordered, albeit in a different way, as Genesis 3 underscores in pointing to the role of concupiscence. In the hyper-sexualized society we Christians inhabit, chastity is as counter-cultural today as it was for the early Christians in the decadent Roman Empire. Statistics tell us that the average American youth has his first sexual experience around the age of thirteen! The same studies inform us that the average American gets married (that is, if marriage is even on the horizon) around the age of thirty. Seventeen years of promiscuity is hardly fertile soil in which to cultivate a marital union which is exclusive. Similarly, years of promiscuity do not provide fertile soil to foster a life of consecrated celibacy.
The 2005 document of the Congregation for Catholic Education on this topic makes some very careful distinctions:
In the light of such teaching, this Dicastery, in accord with the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, believes it necessary to state clearly that the Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practise homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called “gay culture”.
Different, however, would be the case in which one were dealing with homosexual tendencies that were only the expression of a transitory problem – for example, that of an adolescence not yet superseded. Nevertheless, such tendencies must be clearly overcome at least three years before ordination to the diaconate.
When the clergy sex-abuse scandals first started to break, the late-Father Richard John Neuhaus said the whole issue could be summed up in three words: “Fidelity, fidelity, fidelity.” A gift for which we all must pray.
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