Author: Lisa Fullam, D.V.M., Th.D.
New Catholic Times
March 30, 2009
When I was younger, I was a believer in priestly celibacy as a powerful witness to the sustaining love of God. While I still believe in the sustaining love of God (and that priests-like all the faithful-should strive to live lives that witness to it,) I can no longer say anything positive about mandatory celibacy for priests. Partly it's the question of the shortage of priests, a pastoral emergency that requires immediate and focused attention. Getting rid of mandatory celibacy won't solve that problem, but it can't hurt. Partly it's the dynamic by which celibate men are often subsumed into a clerical culture about which more negative things have been said than I have space to repeat here. But I've seen it in action.
And partly, and importantly, we should pay attention to ways in which mandatory celibacy can damage men who struggle to find human integration apart from the usual means of devoted intimacy and responsibility to which spouse and family. Donald Cozzens notes that psychologists note higher rates of obsessive-compulsive trait, unrecognized anger, and of course the stunning narcissism that can result when people are personally involved only with themselves. (Of course the rest of us are liable to these-my point here is ONLY that these seem more common among celibates than the male population as a whole.)
And then there are those who fend off all intimacy in order to sustain celibacy. One priest I know once was describing ALL his relationships-and he held up his arms as though to fend off an attacker. Everybody must be kept away. Imagine living a whole life in which being personally known and cherished is a dreaded risk. I suspect this guy was broken long before ordination-but nothing about the culture of mandatory celibacy, and nothing in his diocesan formation years ago, has lead him to find this problematic.
I realize I'm generalizing here, and of course many celibates live lives of peaceful integration and profound dedication. But we have tended in the past to romanticize celibacy and not to recognize the toll it takes on many who are forced into it apart from a genuine vocation to that life. I also realize that astute vocation directors are trying to sort out those who have a real vocation to celibacy from those who have a real vocation to priesthood/ministry but not celibacy. But that's hard to do when the Church is desperate for priests.
And-is it too much to hope that once we realize that priests can be married and still serve with holiness and dedication, that maybe women too will be seen as candidates to fully respond to Jesus' command to "Feed my sheep"?
Lisa Fullam, D.V.M., Th.D. is Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at the Jesuit school of theology in Berkeley