March 9, 2010

Let them marry ...

“But if they have not continency, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.”
(1 Cor. 7:9)

Swiss theologian Hans Küng has linked clerical sex abuse with priestly celibacy, as reported yesterday by Ruth Gledhill in the London Times. It’s a well-timed provocation, which comes a few days after the Regensburg Diocese in Germany revealed that a former chorister claimed he was abused while a member of its famous choir, to say nothing about the previous scandals of sexual abuse by priests in Ireland and in the US.

Father Hans Küng is a Prominent Catholic theologian—even though in 1979 he was stripped of his licence to teach Catholic theology because of his rejecting the doctrine of Papal infallibility (Infallible? An Inquiry)—whose books have been translated into many languages. Several years ago I happened to read his Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection—in which he argued there is fundamental agreement between Catholicism and Barth’s doctrine and that the somewhat divergent viewpoints would not warrant a division in the Church—and found it very informative and helpful, if not eye-opening. That’s also why, despite his reputation of (old) enfant terrible of the Catholic Church, I am not biased against him.

Writing in The Tablet, Father Küng described the denials of any link between abuse, celibacy and other teaching as “erroneous.” Of course, he said, perpetrators of child sexual abuse were also found in families, schools and other churches, but “Why is it so prevalent in the Catholic Church under celibate leadership?” Citing the New Testament, he said that Jesus and St Paul practised celibacy but “allowed full freedom in this matter to each individual.” He also quoted St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “Because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.”

“Compulsory celibacy,” according to the Swiss theologian, “is the principal reason for today’s catastrophic shortage of priests, for the fatal neglect of Eucharistic celebration, and for the tragic breakdown of personal pastoral ministry in many places.” (Küng also argues that, in order to fight the shortage of priests, besides the abolition of the celibacy rule, the admission of women to ordination would be a reasonable solution. But this is a completely different story.)

Now, I really don’t know what to say about that other than I’m beginning to suspect that Küng is right. After all, the Eastern Orthodox—who are very close to Catholics in theology, so that the Catholic Church does not consider their beliefs to be heretical—do not deny a celibate priesthood, and that’s why priest-monks exist, but celibacy is voluntary and never imposed.

On the other hand, since the official introduction of compulsory celibacy for priests by the Catholic Church, some 900 years ago in the 1070’s, contrary to the decisions of the First Ecumenical Council, held in Nicea in A.D. 325, what have the results been? The history of the Church is full of wonderful and inspiring stories, but also of less edifying examples, to say nothing about the present times.


  1. I have always considered myself a 'bad' Catholic because of my belief in a married seems I'm not alone.

  2. I must say that this time I agree with Fr Kung. Celibacy, besides having caused thousands of priests to leave ministry since the end of the Second Vatican Council, may attract those aspiring to heroic virtue, but may also attract large numbers of persons with very different motivations.

    Here is an interesting read on the subject:

    "In a national study of American priests conducted for the American bishops, my research attempted to determine how priests regarded and lived this condition of celibacy (The American Priest: Psychological Investigations, Eugene Kennedy and Victor Heckler, USCC 1971)

    We learned that even the healthiest priests in the sample did not perceive celibacy as a virtue to be practiced as much as a condition of life to which they had to adjust. This required an enormous investment of energy and often led them to do things--such as taking expensive vacations, having big cars, or costly hobbies--for which they were criticized. Other less healthy priests in the sample accepted celibacy for reasons varied and emotionally self-serving enough to raise questions about how sturdy a foundation it is for ministry.
    While celibacy obviously does not cause pedophilia, it provides a setting and a shield for candidates whose lack of inner maturity dilutes celibacy as both a challenge and a choice. It may, in some circumstances, incubate men who will lead tragic double lives behind its screen. All too often, it has provided an “as if” life of virtue for men deeply entangled in and tortured by sexual conflicts. When they act out these conflicts, they cause others misery whose measure we are just beginning to take.

    The possibilities of celibacy as a freely chosen state of service are overshadowed by the documented realities of celibacy as a forced condition of becoming a clergyman in service to an institution. It is late in the day for popes to do what they have refused to do, despite the obvious evidence of celibacy as a problematic state: examine celibacy in depth for the sake of both their priests and their people."


  3. In my opinion celibacy is to blame.
    It deprives the priest of man's essential humanity and separates him from the world in which he is supposed to minister.

  4. Religion, even Catholic, has to evolve with civilisation to remain practicable. If it never did the Christian world would still be limited to the seven laws of Noah. 'Evolving with civilisation' would mean adapting to what is natural and socially acceptable. Compulsory celibacy is unnatural and seems provoke 'natural or unnatural repercussions' in spite of one's most fervent religious convictions.
    Celibacy should be a personal choice and not an institutional imposition.

    And why not allow the ordination of women? Why should they have less right to publicly express their faith than men? In certain ways women might generally be more spiritually qualified for such a vocation. And wouldn't this development also be essential to 'evolving with civilisation', considering how long in history it has taken for women to obtain basic, human rights?

  5. Mirino, here is an excerpt from an official document of the Vatican (to answer your question about the ordination of women):

    "Jesus Christ did not call any woman to become part of the Twelve. If he acted in this way, it was not in order to conform to the customs of his time, for his attitude towards women was quite different from that of his milieu, and he deliberately and courageously broke with it.

    For example, to the great astonishment of his own disciples Jesus converses publicly with the Samaritan woman (cf. Jn 4 :27); he takes no notice of the state of legal impurity of the woman who had suffered from haemorrhages (cf. Mt. 9:20-22); he allows a sinful woman to approach him in the house of Simon the Pharisee (cf. Lk. 7:37 ff. ); and by pardoning the woman taken in adultery, he means to show that one must not be more severe towards the fault of a woman than towards that of a man (cf. Jn 8:11). He does not hesitate to depart from the Mosaic Law in order to affirm the equality of the rights and duties of men and women with regard to the marriage bond (cf. Mk 10:2-11; Mt 19:3-9).

    In his itinerant ministry Jesus was accompanied not only by the Twelve but also by a group of women: ‘Mary, surnamed the Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and several others who provided for them out of their own resources’ (Lk. 8:2-3). Contrary to the Jewish mentality, which did not accord great value to the testimony of women, as Jewish law attests, it was nevertheless women who were the first to have the privilege of seeing the risen Lord, and it was they who were charged by Jesus to take the first paschal message to the Apostles themselves (cf. Mt.28:7-10; Lk. 24:9-10; Jn 20:11-18), in order to prepare the latter to become the official witnesses to the Resurrection.

    It is true that these facts do not make the matter immediately obvious. This is no surprise, for the questions that the Word of God brings before us go beyond the obvious. In order to reach the ultimate meaning of the mission of Jesus and the ultimate meaning of Scripture, a purely historical exegesis of the texts cannot suffice. But it must be recognized that we have here a number of convergent indications that make all the more remarkable the fact that Jesus did not entrust the apostolic charge to women."

  6. Thank you, Martin!

    Mirino, I must say that I have no prejudices about the ordination of women, but I think that, as the above document shows, there is some problem with it. Nothing to do with the issue of celibacy.