An ordination Mass at St Peter's Basilica, Rome, in 2016. Photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA
“If I had one hour to save the planet,” Albert Einstein reportedly quipped, “I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.”
It has now become excruciatingly clear that we have a problem in the clergy of the Catholic Church. Stories of clerical sexual abuse and episcopal negligence seem to be endless. We want the problem fixed, and we are all tempted to seize on the nearest shifty suspect. To many, that shifty suspect is priestly celibacy. It’s not hard to understand why. We live in the aftermath of the sexual revolution, and the very idea of celibacy is met by many, even by many faithful Catholics, with a skeptical smile. The crisis in the Church, after all, is caused by priests committing sexual sins. Those priests are celibate. The problem must be celibacy.
Like Einstein, though, it is vitally important to define the problem correctly. In Einstein’s hypothetical scenario, getting the diagnosis wrong would be catastrophic for the planet. In the Church, through whose ministry we receive eternal life, the stakes are even higher.
Those who confidently declare that celibacy is the problem usually make an unspoken assumption that living a fulfilled life without sexual relations is a contradiction, in fact that it is unhealthy and leads to abuse. Many, I fancy, see us celibates as quivering bundles of sexual energy ready to explode at any moment. And yet, when Our Lord enjoined celibacy on those among his disciples “who can accept this teaching” (Mt 19:12), he was not making an impossible demand or one that would stunt emotional and psychological growth. In fact, the great majority of celibate priests are living, and have lived, their vocation joyfully and faithfully. Every study of priests I’ve come across indicates that their levels of personal happiness and “job” satisfaction are far higher than the median. Anecdotally, even Catholics who are exasperated with the Church in general, with priests in general, with celibacy in general, almost invariably admit that their (celibate) priest is different.
The real problem: celibacy lived badly
The problem is not with celibacy; the problem is with celibacy lived badly. Clerical sexual abuse is no more caused by celibacy than adultery is caused by marriage. Both are violations of sacred promises, promises for which the Lord guarantees his help to live faithfully. To put it differently, allowing priests to marry would not prevent sexual transgressions. Marriage is regrettably no stranger to scandal. Indeed, the notion that “marrying off” priests will resolve the sex abuse crisis suggests a rather dim view of marriage as well as a certain naiveté about the rate of sexual abuse committed by individuals who are married. The holy vocation to matrimony is not a cure for sexual drives that are imagined, erroneously, by the popular mind to be irrepressible. The proper response is not eliminating celibacy but demanding that priests, like married people, live up to the expectations of their vocation.
Celibacy itself, in fact, is a precious and irreplaceable gift to the Church. As St. Paul VI wrote in Sacerdotalis Caelibatus fifty years ago, “Priestly celibacy has been guarded by the Church for centuries as a brilliant jewel, and retains its value undiminished even in our time when the outlook of men and the state of the world have undergone such profound changes.”
Celibacy is usually defined negatively as “not getting married” but in fact it is a positive choice, a powerful way of loving with a singleness of purpose and a unique openness of heart. It enables a priest to live his spiritual fatherhood with particular force and efficacy. In the words of the Second Vatican Council, celibacy is “a source of spiritual fruitfulness in the world” which renders priests “better fitted for a broader acceptance of fatherhood in Christ.”
The spiritual benefits of priestly celibacy have for centuries enriched the Church and even the wider culture. Were celibacy to be abolished in our moment of exasperation, however well-intentioned, we would not only fail to solve the problem of sexual abuse but also deprive future generations of the innumerable graces of spiritual fatherhood that come to us by way of priestly celibacy.
Would making celibacy optional help?
Some, conceding the value of celibacy, would nevertheless like it to be optional for those discerning a priestly vocation. This too, however, fails to address the problem. After all, if celibacy is the cause of abuse, then the answer is not optional celibacy but mandatory marriage! Moreover, in our cultural landscape, if marriage is an option, then the blunt reality is that priests who opt for celibacy will be presumed, in the minds of many, to have ambiguous sexual attractions.
Furthermore, since episcopal ordination would presumably still be limited to celibate priests, as in the Eastern Church, the choice to forgo marriage (and hence remain eligible for the episcopate) would invite cynical conjectures for its reasons. Optional celibacy would lead to a two-tiered priesthood in which either mediocrity or ambition thrive all too easily.
Even if these pitfalls could somehow be avoided, optional celibacy would throw needless confusion in the path of those discerning the priesthood. Celibacy is a beautiful gift to the Church and to the priest himself, but without a doubt it is sometimes a gift difficult to understand, difficult to receive, and difficult to live. It enkindles a noble generosity in the heart of a young man, but like all deep human loves, the capacity for celibacy takes time to mature.
It is true that some seminarians would still choose celibacy, even were it optional. However, who could doubt that many – who otherwise could receive the beautiful grace of celibacy – would simply assume it is not for them? How many graces of celibacy would be forfeited by making it unnecessarily difficult for those in priestly discernment to receive this gift?
There is yet another, even greater difficulty with calls for optional celibacy. The priesthood is not a position over which the Catholic Church has complete control, since it is fundamentally not her priesthood but that of Jesus. Certainly, since there are valid and married priests in the Eastern Church and by exception in the Latin Rite, it is clear that celibacy is not necessary to exercise the ministerial priesthood. Nonetheless, it is also true that the priesthood itself, that is the priesthood of Christ – that in which all ministerial priests share – is a celibate priesthood. Jesus exercised his ministry on earth as a celibate priest, and continues to do so from heaven. Celibacy is therefore somehow essential to the priesthood, even if it is not exercised by every ordained priest.
The question of priestly celibacy, then, is only partly subject to the Church’s prudential judgment. That is why priestly celibacy (or perpetual continence) has been a part of her life since apostolic times. There has been historical development, of course, but despite repeated calls through the centuries to abandon celibacy, the Church has steadfastly refused to do so. In fact, she has repeatedly reaffirmed the blessing of priestly celibacy and recommitted herself to fostering it more faithfully in her clergy.
Sexual abuse is a failure of chastity, and priestly formation
That brings us back to identifying the real problems facing the Church today in her struggle against clergy sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is not caused by celibacy but by not living celibacy, that is by living celibacy badly. It is, in other words, caused by priests failing to live chastity. Since there is no reason to believe that married priests would somehow be immune to such sins, the solution cannot be found in eliminating celibacy but in demanding nothing less than exemplary chastity from all our clergy.
This, then, is the source of our problem: for decades, far too many priests were not properly selected or formed to live healthy celibate chastity or were allowed to persist in sexual transgressions with little oversight or accountability. The consistent testimony of priests formed after the sexual revolution – primarily those who attended seminary in the 1970s and 1980s – substantiates this claim. It is a sad story, but there is good news to share in the end.
For years, there was astonishingly little scrutiny for men entering priestly formation. A demonstration of academic aptitude and a pastor’s recommendation were usually enough. No thorough investigations into moral character and spiritual maturity, no references, no psychological examination. Many were admitted who were psychologically or emotionally immature.
Additionally, the Church has repeatedly insisted that men with persistent homosexual inclinations should not be admitted to the seminary (the latest official document that addressed it, incidentally, was approved by Pope Francis in 2016). Nevertheless, such men were admitted to the seminary in great numbers. Most priests with same-sex attractions, of course, are not guilty of sexual abuse and live their celibacy faithfully. Even still, it is beyond doubt that the great majority of priest abuse cases involve the homosexual abuse of boys and young men. However controversial, the wisdom of the Church’s resolve has become crystal clear in hindsight. Disregarding it has had shattering consequences in the lives of thousands of young men over the past several decades.
Once they were enrolled in the seminary, the picture does not get much better. Formation for chaste celibacy was inadequate to say the least. The interior life and ascetical practices needed to sustain healthy chastity were not widely inculcated. Many men were even ordained under the false impression, reinforced by their seminary faculty, that the requirement for celibacy would soon be lifted. In some seminaries, depraved cultures of sexual license among seminarians and even faculty members corrupted vulnerable young men or drove away in disgust those who were seeking virtue.
To make matters still worse, in many seminaries theological dissent and liturgical experimentation was rampant, leading to a hypocritical double standard that men carried with them into the priesthood. Intellectual infidelity invariably bleeds into moral infidelity. If I can arrogantly bend the teaching of the Church to my own opinions, preferences, and whims, why should that arrogance be limited to dogmatic propositions and liturgical norms? Why not moral precepts too? The dissent that festered for decades in theological faculties has taken a devastating toll on the Church, not only in doctrinal and liturgical confusion but also, I would argue, in sexual abuse.
The failure of bishops to hold priests accountable
Finally, once ordained, some priests who grew up in this climate of lax duplicity were, unsurprisingly, unfaithful to their promises. And they were seldom censured for it by their superiors, at least in any meaningful way. Some were repeatedly transferred to new assignments; almost none were dismissed from the priesthood. The sheer extent of clerical corruption was a painful embarrassment to bishops and, as a result, there arose a culture of deep secrecy that is now coming to light.
There are undoubtedly many reasons for this mess. It was a time of social upheaval in general, contributing to uncertainty and restlessness in the Church. Many priests were unsure where they fit. Their authority and their priesthood – in a way, their very manhood – were gradually undermined by the suspicion of authority that was so prevalent. Some priests surrendered to the uninhibited spirit of the age, and many bishops lost their nerve and their sense of self-confidence. The Evil One stepped up his war against the human person in his sexual identity, a brilliant and successful campaign of deception that continues unabated to our day.
Perhaps all of this simply overwhelmed many otherwise good bishops; I do not know. However, what we do know today, beyond any doubt, is that priests were not held accountable and were too often allowed to abuse their people doctrinally, liturgically, and even sexually. Expediency, all too frequently, trumped integrity.
Seeds of renewal: chastity
These, then, are some of the sources of clerical unchastity today. But that is not the end of the story. Even in those years of deepest confusion, the Holy Spirit was sowing seeds of renewal that are bearing tremendous fruit today. Many seminarians, priests and bishops, against all odds, remained faithful through those bleak decades, and today we thank God for their heroic witness.
Then came the sweeping pontificate of St. John Paul II. Among his many reforms perhaps the most pivotal, if seldom noticed as such, was his 1992 landmark document Pastores Dabo Vobis in which he proposed a bracing and positive portrait of priesthood and of seminary formation.
In the ensuing years it was implemented unevenly throughout the world, but the upward trend in the quality of formation was unmistakable. Standards of admission in most dioceses have sharply risen and the quality of formation in most seminaries has improved dramatically. Though many of our people do not fully realize it, the reform of the clergy began well over two decades ago.
Addressing the problem of clergy sexual abuse means, first of all, firmly recommitting ourselves to chaste fidelity in our respective vocations. For both priests and faithful, the best response to the gut-wrenching revelations of clerical abuse is a firm resolve to grow in fidelity and holiness ourselves. A new flowering of chastity, especially among young Catholics, will do more to strengthen future priestly celibacy than any official program or initiative.
The vocation of priestly fatherhood
For those promoting vocations and forming seminarians, cultivating chaste fidelity means helping them understand their celibate vocation in the light of spiritual paternity. Candidates should therefore have a confident masculine identity and a normal, healthy desire for marriage and fatherhood, the mature capacity to forego these great goods in order to focus on supernatural fatherhood, and possess, or show aptitude for, the human qualities and virtues of the best natural fathers. In the course of formation, a mature and virile spiritual paternity should be instilled, an appreciation for the gift of celibacy and a capacity to live that vocation peacefully and authentically.
Once ordained, priests should be held to the highest standards of chastity. Violations should be addressed consistently, promptly, and fairly, with the seriousness that befits a severe breach of trust against one’s spiritual family. Chastity, in other words – serene, deep, and joyful – at the service of priestly fatherhood is without a doubt the path to genuine reform in the priesthood.
Those who believe that celibacy is the cause of clergy sexual abuse are, like the rest of us, simply trying to prevent the horrific abuses from happening again. But Einstein was right. We must pause long enough to identify the real problem. The real problem is not that wayward priests were unmarried; the problem is that they were unfaithful. The decadent priestly lifestyle that led to their infidelity is the very opposite of the loving and generous spiritual fatherhood to which celibacy is rightly ordered.
Medieval doctors, with the best of intentions, often treated diseases by draining the blood of their patients, unwittingly depriving them of the very nutrients that they needed to get well. Even so, those looking to cure the disease of sexual abuse in the Church by draining her of the grace of celibacy would do little to cure the disease, and yet deprive the Body of Christ of spiritual nutrients needed to return to health.
If we wish to address the problem of clergy sexual abuse, we should begin by expecting the same fidelity from our priests that we expect from everyone else, and call them to embrace, through the gift of celibacy, the blessings of priestly fatherhood that we need today more than ever.
Father Griffin is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington. Since 2011 he has been engaged in the selection and formation of seminarians at Saint John Paul II Seminary in Washington, D.C. A graduate of Princeton University and a former line officer in the United States Navy, he holds a doctorate in theology from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. Father Griffin’s upcoming book, Why Celibacy? Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest, will be published by Emmaus Road this spring.This article first appeared in First Things and is republished with permission.