The problem with the Catholic priesthood

Yesterday I wrote about the problems with the leadership in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, but the problems are not limited to the hierarchy and their terrible decisions. Much of the problem is in the nature of the priesthood itself.

It ought to be obvious: human beings need to have mates. Our media are full of advertisements for the things people need to do to attract, or keep, their mates, ads for weight loss help, personal grooming products and the like, but also for help finding a mate when you don’t have one and are frustrated with doing that search by yourself. There are specialized companies like Our Time, which claims to be “the largest dating network for singles over 50,” and even one called Farmers Only, which specializes in finding dates for people in rural areas, as well as more generalized services such as Match.com.1 While some seem to think that this is just the biological urge to copulate, it really is clear: human beings need other human beings, and marriage is a common thread throughout every human culture, in every place and at every time in which we have any social knowledge at all.

But the Roman Catholic Church has required perpetual celibacy, and prohibited marriage, for its priests since the Second Lateran Council in 1139; this was reaffirmed at the Council of Trent in 1563.

While that part is common knowledge, less well known is that there are married Catholic priests. In 1980, Pole John Paul II opened a path by which married Episcopal/Anglican priests who converted to Catholicism could serve in the Catholic priesthood. Estimates are that there are about 120 such priests in the United States.

And there are more: the Eastern-Rite Catholic Churches have allowed married priests for several centuries, and in 2014, Pope Francis ended the restriction that married Eastern Catholic could serve only in their home countries.2

There were, of course, many married priests in the Roman Catholic Church prior to the Second Lateran Council, including many popes. St Peter, regarded as the first Pope, at least had been married at one point: Matthew 8:14-15 refers to his mother-in-law.3

How can there be married Catholic priests, either in the Eastern Rite churches, or in the Latin Rite, converts from Anglicanism and its off-shoot churches? It’s simple: priestly celibacy is a discipline, not a dogma, and disciplines can be changed. The advantages of a celibate priesthood are clear:

  • Celibate priests can give more of their time an attention to their parishes and parishioners, while married men have to devote more of their time and attention to their wives and children.
  • Celibate priests can be more easily transferred to different parishes. Priests are reassigned every five to seven years, on average.4 Wives frequently have jobs, even careers, while children have friends and school, and transferring a married priest could be much more difficult and disruptive to his family.
  • Celibate priests are easier to house and support. Priests normally live in the rectory, a house for priests normally on church grounds. These buildings are not normally set up to house wives and children.5 Accommodating married priests would mean a larger home for his family. Considering that Catholic dogma opposes artificial contraception, a married priest could have a very large family to support and house.
  • A celibate priest will normally live on parish grounds, while a married priest might have to live in a house away from the church. This means that the married priest might not be a security guard for his parish.

But, if there are clear advantages to having a celibate priesthood, there is one huge disadvantage: with humans being naturally inclined to mate, the Church is expecting the priest to live an unnatural lifestyle. Human beings need to mate, they need to be married, and the celibacy discipline denies to Catholic priests that most basic normalcy in human life. Even St Paul, who stated that he was celibate, noted that marriage was the natural condition of life,6 And St Paul also set down the conditions that a man must meet to be a deacon, priest or bishop:

The saying is sure: whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task. Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way— for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church?7

The conditions for priests and deacon are similar. But clearly, St Paul expected those in Holy Orders to mostly be married.

The Church offers for us The Theological Basis for Priestly Celibacy, saying in part:

Observing celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven does not mean being any the less a man; by renouncing a natural form of existence, the priest discovers life in all its fullness.

Alas! We are at this point, in the sexual abuse scandal rocking the Church, because, in too many cases, the renunciation of this “natural form of existence” has not led a too-large number of priests to “discover life in all its fullness.”

Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk and priest, wrote:

Roman Catholic clerical culture favors doctrinal rigidity, conformity, obedience, submission and psychosexual immaturity, mistaken for innocence, in its candidates. These are the personality elements that lead to advancement and power in the clerical system. Single men are more easily controlled if their sexuality is secret. Double lives on all levels of clerical life are tolerated if they do not cause scandal or raise legal problems. Sexual activity between bishops and priests and adult partners is well known within clerical circles. The secret system forms a comfortable refuge for unresolved gay conflicts. There is a new emerging awareness of the systemic nature of sexual/celibate behavior within the Roman Catholic ministry that is increasingly destabilizing to the church.

Dire consequences will follow the exposure of this sexual system embedded in a secret celibate culture. Authorities who are or have been sexually active, although not with minors, are hard put to publicly correct clerics who are abusing minors. The need for secrecy, the cover-up, extends beyond defending criminal activity of a sex abuser. The power and control that holds the Roman Catholic church together depends on preservation of the celibate myth. The Vatican and Pope John Paul II declared its inviolability.

The truth about secret sex in the celibate system portends grave danger. The reality of celibate violations extends beyond priests who abuse minors and the bishops who hide them.

And this points up another problem: if “sexual activity between bishops and priests and adult partners is well known within clerical circles,” that means that it is largely homosexual activity, something else expressly forbidden. How many priests are homosexual?

Of course, many factors influence a person’s decision to join the clergy; it’s not like sexuality alone determines vocations. But it’s dishonest to dismiss sexuality’s influence given that we know there is a disproportionate number of gay priests, despite the church’s hostility toward LGBTQ identity. As a gay priest told Frontline in a February 2014 episode“I cannot understand this schizophrenic attitude of the hierarchy against gays when a lot of priests are gay.”

So how many gay priests actually exist? While there’s a glut of homoerotic writings from priests going back to the Middle Ages, obtaining an accurate count is tough. But most surveys (which, due to the sensitivity of the subject, admittedly suffer from limited samples and other design issues) find between 15 percent and 50 percent of U.S. priests are gay, which is much greater than the 3.8 percent of people who identify as LGBTQ in the general population.8

In the last half century there’s also been an increased “gaying of the priesthood” in the West. Throughout the 1970s, several hundred men left the priesthood each year, many of them for marriage. As straight priests left the church for domestic bliss, the proportion of remaining priests who were gay grew. In a survey of several thousand priests in the U.S., the Los Angeles Times found that 28 percent of priests between the ages of 46 and 55 reported that they were gay. This statistic was higher than the percentages found in other age brackets and reflected the outflow of straight priests throughout the 1970s and ’80s.

The high number of gay priests also became evident in the 1980s, when the priesthood was hit hard by the AIDS crisis that was afflicting the gay community. The Kansas City Star estimated that at least 300 U.S. priests suffered AIDS-related deaths between the mid-1980s and 1999. The Star concluded that priests were about twice as likely as other adult men to die from AIDS.

What we have, under the requirement of priestly celibacy, is a large group of men forced by their profession to live an abnormal lifestyle. Heterosexual men, anticipating an eventually married lifestyle, face a very difficult choice if they are considering the priesthood, a choice of a lifetime of denial of their sexual urges versus a (hopefully) happy and productive marriage. Homosexual men who might be considering the priesthood might now be able to marry legally, but if they are Christians, in general, and Catholic specifically, they are faced with the concomitant belief that two men cannot marry or have sex with each other; the priesthood just might offer the grace of God, to enable them to resist their sexual urges.

But, for whatever reasons they have, it has been clear that homosexual men make up a significant percentage of the Catholic priesthood, a far greater percentage than their percentage of the population. From The Washington Post:

The Catholic Church is enabling the sex abuse crisis by forcing gay priests to stay in the closet

By Robert Mickens9 | July 23, 2018

The Catholic Church is being rocked — again — by high-level sexual abuse scandals, with allegations in recent weeks surfacing in Chile, Honduras and the District, home to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a once-super-popular cleric who is facing accusations by five males of harassment or abuse.

And again, people say they are shocked and outraged, which shows how Catholics still refuse to see that there is an underlying issue to these cases. It is the fact that almost all of them concern males — whether they are adolescents, post-pubescent teens or young men.

And while no adult who is of sound psychosexual health habitually preys on those who are vulnerable, there is no denying that homosexuality is a key component to the clergy sex abuse (and now sexual harassment) crisis. With such a high percentage of priests with a homosexual orientation, this should not be surprising.

But let me be very clear: psychologically healthy gay men do not rape boys or force themselves on other men over whom they wield some measure of power or authority.

However, we are not talking about men who are psychosexually mature. And yet the bishops and officials at the Vatican refuse to acknowledge this. Rather, they are perpetuating the problem, and even making it worse, with policies that actually punish seminarians and priests who seek to deal openly, honestly and healthily with their sexual orientation.

Something I wrote then comes to mind amid the McCarrick scandal: O’Brien should not have recused himself from voting in the pope-picking “conclave,” as “only a naif could believe that he is the only man among the electors who has broken his solemn promise to remain celibate,” I wrote in the March 9, 2013, edition of the Tablet. “There are likely others. And even those who’ve done worse,” I warned.

There’s much more at the original, but Mr Mickens’ theme is that the Church should simply be more open and honest about the number of homosexual men within the clergy:

Their more conflicted gay confreres — and all gay people, indeed the entire Church — would benefit greatly if these healthy gay priests could openly share their stories. But their bishops or religious superiors have forbidden them from writing or speaking publicly about this part of their lives.

Even if you believe that homosexual relationships are acceptable — the Editor does not — Mr Mickens’ proposal is that the Catholic Church should find some way to accommodate the sexual desires of its homosexual priests, when the Church holds that homosexuals cannot be married, that sexual activity outside of marriage is sinful,10 and that homosexual activity is “gravely depraved”,11 and that homosexuality itself is “objectively disordered.”12

There is, instead, another, far simpler, far more logical path for the Church: the Church should only ordain heterosexual men,13 and only ordain those who are already married or state that they intend to marry. This will not only give us a priesthood which is not denied the basic human need of mating and which understands married parishioners, but greatly expand the pool of potential priests.

But more, it will address the sexual abuse of minors in a way that is wholly politically incorrect to say: the vast majority of sexual abuse by Catholic priests has been against boys rather than girls. Several different Google searches have failed to turn up any notation concerning the number of victims in the recent Pennsylvania grand jury report divided by sex, something of obvious interest, because such would reinforce the rather obvious fact that most victims of an all-male clergy have been boys. The John Jay report noted that sexual abuse cases studied between 1950 and 2002 indicated that, rather than prepubescent children, abusers targeted older children:

The largest group of alleged victims (50.9%) was between the ages of 11 and 14, 27.3% were 15-17, 16% were 8-10 and nearly 6% were under age 7. Overall, 81% of victims were male and 19% female. Male victims tended to be older than female victims. Over 40% of all victims were males between the ages of 11 and 14.14

Yes, this is a celibacy problem, in that priests are forced to live unnatural lives, but while it might be politically incorrect, it is also intellectually dishonest to deny that this is a homosexuality problem as well. We have a priesthood of sexually immature men — what else could they be, having been denied mature sexual relationships by the nature of their careers — who are far more heavily than the population homosexual in orientation. The statistics we do have indicate that they were preying on boys just entering puberty, not prepubescent children, and that is an indication that sexual orientation as opposed to pedophilia is the primary motivation.

We need a priesthood who understand and participate in normal, adult sexual relationships, and, given that the Church does not, and cannot, recognize homosexual marriages as legitimate, that can mean only one thing: a priesthood in normal, heterosexual marriages.

That will not eliminate all sexual abuse; Jerry Sandusky, were he available for comment — and cared to tell the truth — could tell us all about men in stable, heterosexual marriages who still had a preference for underaged boys. Nor will it prevent the inevitable, some priests being divorced by their wives, and some children or married priests turning out badly.

But it has to be better than what we have now, a priesthood with an out-of-proportion homosexual cohort, and all being denied the most natural of human impulses, that of mating.

This is what we must have, this is what the Catholic Church needs in order to survive to serve the faithful into the future. Denying it, because it is politically incorrect, is denying the truth.
Cross-posted on The First Street Journal.
1Links to these dating services are simply for documentation; none are paid advertisements on this site.
2In the Eastern Rites, married men can be ordained; this has been the custom from the first, but unmarried men who are ordained may not subsequently marry. A married Eastern Rite priest is not allowed to remarry if he is widowed. Bishops in the Eastern Rite are all celibates.
31 Corinthians 9:5 has also been interpreted as confirming that not only was St Peter married, but that his wife accompanied him as he traveled with Jesus. Cephas, in the cited passage, refers to Peter.
4I would note here that the priest of my parish, when I lived in Pennsylvania, was at the same parish for the entire fifteen years I lived there, and was still there nine months after I moved away.
5I am personally aware of one instance in which the parish sold the rectory building, and the priest lived in a small room in the church basement.
61 Corinthians 7:1-11.
71 Timothy 3:1-5
8The Centers for Disease Control conducted the National Health Institute Survey in 2013, and found that only 1.6% of the population are homosexual, with another 0.7% bisexual, and another 1,1% either stating that they were ‘something else’ or declining to respond. This does not support the article’s contention that 3.8% of the population are homosexual.
9Robert Mickens lives in Rome and has covered the Catholic Church for decades. He is English-language editor of La Croix International, an online Catholic paper that originally ran a version of this piece.
10Catechism of the Catholic Church, §2353
11Catechism of the Catholic Church, §2357
12Catechism of the Catholic Church, §2358
13“Pope Francis warned Italian bishops this week to vet carefully applicants to the priesthood and reject anyone they suspected might be homosexual, local media reported on Thursday.
‘Keep an eye on the admissions to seminaries, keep your eyes open,’ the pope was quoted as saying by newspaper La Stampa’s Vatican Insider service. ‘If in doubt, better not let them enter.’
The Vatican did not immediately respond to a request for a comment on the remarks, which Vatican Insider and Il Messaggero said were made at a closed-door gathering on Monday.”

14The Nature and Scope of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States, 1950-2002, page 12.