Celibacy, challenging the myths

 Originally published on the original Athanasius Contra Mundum, 10 October 2010.

Epigonius, Bishop of the Royal Region of Bullas, declares “With the rule concerning continence and chastity [which] was already discussed in a previous council, let the same be taught with more emphasis. Namely that there are the three ranks that by virtue of their consecration, are under the same obligation of chastity, i.e. the bishop, the priest, and the deacon, and let them be instructed to keep their purity.

Bishop Genethlius declares: As was previously said, it is fitting that the holy bishops and priests of God as well as the deacons, those who are in the service of the divine sacraments, observe perfect continence, so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God; what the apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us also also keep. 1

-Council of Carthage

In the midst of the clerical abuse scandal, one finds increasingly the call for an end to clerical celibacy. According to those claiming that celibacy should be optional, they argue that it is unnatural to be celibate and the requirement is too hard and that’s why we have the problem. Or, that celibacy psychologically unbalances the priest, and that is why he cannot keep away from young boys or women.

Of course we know at a purely natural level, these arguments are false since the percentage of those who molest children are as high (though under-reported) in religions where the clergy are married, and double or triple in education, law, medicine and social work, places where people can get married and there is no requirement which could psychologically unbalance them with respect to marriage. Now in law there are things which would psychologically unbalance anyone, but that is for another day. Thus it is not the mere fact that priests are as a class unmarried.

That however only illuminates what is not the problem. It tells us nothing of its source or its solution. There is something which you will find in common with teachers, lawyers and doctors who molest children and priests, namely it is an unmortified body, or more particularly addiction to sexual sin. The people who commit heinous acts like this are not suffering from a lack of sex, but from too much involvement in it!

There is a false belief today, that once you are married you can have at it and it is perfectly fine. Of course it is true that once married acts ordered toward the procreation of children, which are conducted with due regard for the end (i.e. no heterosexual sodomy) are good, but the failure to commit adultery does not constitute the virtue of chastity. Chastity is rather an interior virtue that mortifies your interior desires and frees one from the attachment to sexual pleasure. It doesn’t mean it is bad, but it means you are not attached to it, as should be the case with other things. The reason for this should be understood by any man who gets married, the desires don’t stop for other women just because you are now lawfully able to engage with one. Neither do attractions, affections, or the potential to be caught in pornography and self abuse. This is because the concupiscible appetite (that part of us that desires food and sexual relations) continues to move the will in that direction, until we have brought that part of us into line by mortification and detachment. When one does not engage in any sexual activity that is called continence, not chastity. Even spouses are required to remain chaste. Chastity simply has a different meaning for them because of their state in life.

Due to the fall, our concupiscible appetites are out of control. As Chesterton said, after the fall we are like a man who jumps on a horse and runs in all directions. Concupiscence, the inclination of our body toward sin, dwells objectively in the body. Grace may remedy it over time, if we are faithful, but it is not automatic. This is the principle error of Mr. West’s Theology of the Body, it gives one the idea that grace will conquer nature through the act of license with one’s spouse and constantly focusing on sexuality, in reality it is the opposite, we conquer concupiscence in this area by focusing on this only when it is proper and suitable. It does not mean you must live a Josephite marriage, but that you must be detached from the goods of marriage. The secondary end of marriage in the old manuals and catechisms was called “The Remedy for concupiscence”, and this did not refer simply to being able to engage in relations, because by itself that does not solve the problem. Rather, it refers to the whole course of married life which serves to mortify the senses of the spouses and move them toward holiness. A man in a state of matrimony is just as capable, if not more so, of committing heinous and evil sins against the 6th and 9th commandment. Now that you are allowed to consider your spouse under this aspect, it becomes tempting to judge someone who is not your spouse by this aspect. If the man is disordered, then this becomes a real problem. That the majority of sex abusers in history have been male should also serve to tell us something.

Now if we look to the clergy abuse crisis, let us also apply this. They say that the priest who has been chaste will not struggle in this area, because he does not have material in his imagination to fuel the flames, that is the fomes peccati. If he fails in this regard, he is going to have problems. If he has already come in with disorders, such as homosexuality or pedophilia, he is going to tend toward disordered behavior even if it never manifests itself. Due to the breakdown in the piety of the faithful prior to Vatican II and the lowering of standards even before the Council, plenty of unhealthy men entered the seminary. They were unhealthy for more than one reason, it is not just the abusers, but those who married their housekeepers and asked to be returned to the lay state (as in the case of one particular ex-priest I knew). The problem that caused the clerical abuse scandal, as well as all the scandals in this regard within and outside the Church, is too much sex, rather than not enough.

Rather, celibacy and clerical chastity are the crowning virtues of a priest by which he is conformed in body as well as the mark of ordination to Jesus Christ, who was perfectly chaste in this life. This is why the western discipline is superior to that of the other Churches, it more perfectly conforms the priest to Jesus Christ than a man who is married but abstains for a period before the liturgy. It can also be looked at in this way, the priest of the old testament is a type of the priest in the New Testament, and the fulfillment of biblical types is superior to what is in the old. In the old testament, the priest would be selected in a certain year to offer sacrifice in the temple, and a year prior to that he had to live apart from his wife. This is so he will be set apart to take part in the things of God. If that is true in the old law, how much more so in the new where the priest offers sacrifice every day (though in some traditions every week), that he should be continually set apart? In the Early Church, while converts who were married were ordained, the general witness is that they had to leave their wives and make a vow of continence. (a more complete treatment of the subject than can be produced here can be seen in The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, by Cochini).

Many Patristic writers note that the one Apostle who was held in higher esteem than the others was John. Peter is higher than John because of his office, but John is held higher by his purity of life. The Fathers particularly saw a close relationship between Jesus and John based on his virginity:

St. Jerome declares:

“Yet John, one of the disciples who was said to be the youngest among the apostles, and whose faith in Christ started when he was a virgin, remained a virgin, and this is the reason that he was preferred by the Lord and leaned on Jesus’ breast.” (Adversus Jovinianum, PL23, 246b-c)

St. Augustine tells us:

“Among the commentators of the Holy word, several-and those were not men whose opinions we can hold in contempt-think that if Christ loved the Apostle John with a special love, it was because he had never been married and that from his earliest childhood he practiced the most delicate purity. There are no conclusive proofs in canonical Scripture; nevertheless, what seems to support such a feeling and demonstrate its aptness is that John was a figure of the heavenly life, during which no wedding would be celebrated.” (Tractatus in Evangelium Joannis, 124, 7

St. Paulinus of Nola

“Among his disciples he chose the youngest one so as to entrust his mother, as was fit to a virgin apostle.” (PL 61, 416a)

Proclus of Constantinople

The Apostle John received the principle and most eminent gift from God, virginity. And this is why the two sons of Zebedee were called ‘sons of thunder’. (PG 65, 730b, quoted in Patrology, study of the Greek Fathers)

Lastly, chastity is called by scholastic theologians the crown of all virtues, because without it you cannot attain to clarity in this life. Even the demons who tempt men to impurity are ashamed, because they remember how beautiful their natures were and themselves cannot stand the affront to them by tempting men to such low sins. Chastity orders the other virtues to a clarity devoid of carnal affections and it is easier to attain in one who is not married than one who is. This does not mean of course that everyone who is celibate is chaste, we have the obvious example of the 15th century, pre-Revolution France or of the last 40 years, and other periods where the lack of morals of the clergy are notable. One time St. Augustine appeared with St. Thomas, I believe it was to John of St. Thomas but I’m not sure (if someone who knows can enlighten me I’d appreciate it) to give a testimony to the importance of St. Thomas’ works, and he said that they were equal in glory except that in the splendour of virginity, St. Thomas was the greater.

In a certain sense, it is true that a certain aspect of celibacy is not a doctrine, that it is something that can be modified by the Church. This however does not mean that the Church ought to, or even can get rid of a discipline simply because the world or other elements think it should. St. Basil, witnesses for us that

Among the “doctrines” and the definitions kept in the Church, we have received some from the written teaching and we have obtained the other ones, secretly transmitted, from the apostolic Tradition. They all have the same validity with regard to piety as no one would doubt if he has any experience of ecclesiastical institutions; because if we attempt to do away with unwritten customs, by claiming that they have no great validity, we would unknowingly hurt the Gospel on its very essential points. (On the Holy Spirit)

Just because it can be changed doesn’t mean that it should, as Traditionalists well know. Who now are the agents of change? The world. Everyone in society thinks that the only ones who need to get married are priests. Yet, the stuck on stupid generation as I have termed it, will pass away and what then? As we see from the quotes from the Council of Carthage which head this post, the Early Church ordained married men but required of them perfect continence. It was a time when most who came to the faith were converts, or not all who came to the priesthood were unmarried and it was necessary for some years to ordain married men. Yet the early Church maintained celibacy. The Church has always insisted on it, as a means for chastity. Not the sole means of course, because by itself it is insufficient, but as the state in life combined with interior chastity in the soul to lead the priest to true clarity and true conformity with Jesus Christ. The end to the sex scandal is two things then, the double crown of charity and chastity. Chastity as has been said above, is necessary to attain to any vision in this life. Charity however, is among the faithful, and the priest who will love God above all the things in this world. Why among the faithful, that is the laity? Their prayers and mortification will lead to holy priests. There is a quote from St. John Eudes, though I’m still tracking down the source, which says “There is no surer sign that God is displeased with His people than to send them unholy priests.” Well, with the sacrilegious communions, rampant heresy, apostasy, moral failings and hypocrisy, is it no surprise? Or as the ancient maxim goes, we get the leaders we deserve. We need charity to offer to God fitting sacrifices for worthy priests. We need celibacy, to keep the priests separate from the things of this world so they can be holy priests. We do not need more priests, we need more holy priests especially in this time. Ending celibacy does not make one move toward that goal, in fact given our culture, it will move us further away from this goal. What is needed is for the Church to stay true to her age old traditions.

1: Epigonius episcopus Bullensium Regionum dixit: Cum praeterito concilio de continentia et castiate tractaretur, gradus isti treas qui constrictione quadam castitatis per consecrationem annexi sunt, episcopus inquam, presbyter et diaconus, tractatu pleniori, ut pudicitiam custodiant, doceantur.  Genethilius episcopus dixit: Ut superius dictum est, decet sacros antistes ac Dei sacerdotes nec non et levitas vel qui sacramentis divinis inserviunt, continentes esse in omnibus, quo possint simpliciter quod a Domino postulant impetrare, ut quod apostoli docuerunt et ipsa servavit antiquitas, nos quoque custodiamus.

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