The Red Herring of Celibacy for the Kingdom

Like Joe, I grew up the the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. The diocese is currently undergoing a painful time. Prayers for the people, clergy, and bishop are most necessary. As we celebrate the tremendous Feast of Pentecost, Christians of good will should ask for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church in Northwest Missouri and especially for those struggling with deep hurts.

As is the case with any scandal, we all eventually try to wrestle with what changes may need to be made. A disturbing trend that has developed in the midst of the sex abuse scandal is the ongoing attack on celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God. One such attack was just published by the Kansas City Star. John Veal, reported as a historian and lifelong Catholic, wrote an opinion piece in which he claims: As I see it, the central problem behind the ongoing clerical abuse scandal is the all-male, celibate priesthood.

Mr. Veal’s opinion is not new. The problem is that it is also not relevant to the scandal at hand. In response to his article, I wrote:

I still don’t understand why a challenge to the all-male, celibate priesthood is brought up in the midst of a scandal that the author himself admits would not be avoided if there were female or more married Catholic priests.

Mr. Veal claims: “The result today is a closed society of men held to a standard Jesus
never established, the apostles did not follow, and many fine priests
cannot meet.”

Jesus himself is a male, celibate priest. He even calls those who are able to be celibate: “Not all can accept this word, but only those to whom it is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of God. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it” (Matt. 19:11–12). Just because Mr. Veal doesn’t see the point of “celibacy for the kingdom” doesn’t mean that Jesus sees no value.

St. Paul was also a male, celibate priest/apostle. His whole seventh chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians is worth reading, but he even notes the value of celibacy among the first generation of Christians: “Indeed, I wish everyone to be as I am, but each has a particular gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. Now to the unmarried and to widows, I say: it is a good thing for them to remain as they are, as I do, but if they cannot exercise self-control they should marry, for it is better to marry than to be on fire.”

A man is not a “fine priest” if he makes a promise he does not intend to follow or does not see as a valuable gift to his own spiritual development and for the good of the Church. Don’t feel sorry for men who take a promise of celibacy. They know what they are promising and why. Celibacy for the kingdom has been part of the Christian tradition from the beginning. If Mr. Veal is still a practicing Catholic, I encourage him to support the many priests and religious who are trying to live out celibacy for the kingdom today in healthy and life-giving ways instead of making a public proclamation their commitment is useless and non-biblical.

We all want to focus on protecting children in every way possible. Trying to focus instead on issues about priestly celibacy is a distraction from real progress that can be made at a time like this. Vilifying Bishop Finn if he doesn’t advocate eliminating priestly celibacy is misguided. If there is a higher rate of child abuse among those who are married than those who are celibate, what is the point of this column?

At times when real hurts need to be addressed, attacking the practice of priestly celibacy is a red herring of the worst kind. Not only does it distract from real reforms and action that may need to take place, it attacks a valuable gift for the Church. When properly understood, celibacy for the kingdom points to the fact that all our desires must be ordered first to God and we are all made to find our fulfillment in God. Now is not the time to denounce such a gift, but to embrace and better understand it.

Update 6/12/11 at 9:15am: I really try to avoid flame wars online (though I do indulge in reading them). It didn’t take long for the comments on Mr. Veal’s article to move away from addressing the scandal. Red herrings aren’t just a faulty tactic. They really do hurt constructive discourse:


Please show in the Bible where Christ established the RCC.


If you value the Bible so much, please show us the Church that gave you the canon of the New Testament. See…we’ve already lost the original topic at hand and you’ve gone on to show how little help Mr. Veal’s column is to the current scandal. I understand you are not Catholic, but your comments prove the point I tried to make before: the whole discussion of celibacy in relation to the scandal at hand is a red herring. Already you are going on about the validity of celibacy in following Jesus instead of what can best protect children and promote healing now. The Catholic Church doesn’t claim that being celibate is the only way to follow Christ, however, it is still valuable (Mt 19:11-12). Trying to throw celibacy under the bus is simply not helpful right now. Addressing the current hurts is paramount for Christians of good will…grinding a theological axe just isn’t appropriate.

Update 6/14/2011 at 8:50pm:

Phyllis Zagano (who has a beautiful first name shared by my mother) takes this jab at Bishop Finn and celibacy:

For starters, Finn entered seminary in junior high school. As a “lifer” he probably didn’t sneak smokes behind the barn, forget his homework, or go to drive-in movies in a car with a generous back seat.

Did he ever break out of the seminary hot-house? He was at the North American College in Rome. Did he ever get to talk any other women besides his three sisters and his mother?

I rather feel sorry for him. Some of this may not be his fault. Finn is the product a system left over from the Council of Trent, which directed dioceses to create minor seminaries to provide for the diocesan clergy. An all-male environment from the age of twelve can ensure celibacy, but at what price?

If the only way to get celibate clergy is to lock up twelve-year-olds until they are ordained, maybe the hierarchy should reconsider requiring priestly celibacy.

It does not need to be this way, except that the chief chaplains in today’s play — the ones who can make the change — are pretty much all “lifers.”

Bigotry against chaste celibates is so thick that Ms. Zagano also can’t resist bringing it up. She practically crafts a “celibacy makes ’em do it” argument. The good news is that she will be relieved to know that the Church doesn’t lock up seminarians, 12 years old or otherwise. The bad news is that many people will focus on celibacy instead of actual best practices and procedures that need to be assessed at a time like this. Red herrings are just too tasty apparently and they are certainly in season.


  1. All these folks who want married priests should be asked the following questions:

    How much will you be increasing your weekly contributions to the Church to pay for the wife and kids, and their educations, and their medical and life insurance, and the large house and the second car and maybe third car?

    Will it be OK with you if your pastor gets four weeks vacation to be with his family?

    Will he be able to charge overtime for sick calls and weddings on Saturdays, taking him away from his family?

  2. Plus, how are you going to replace the priests who leave? Protestant ministers are more likely to leave than Catholic priests, and the stress of their families is a major reason.

  3. Fr. Andrew

    Your points are well made about the calling of ‘some’ who are given the charism of celibacy or a life devoted to serving God as a single person.

    What I do not see however is the ‘requirement’ for all ‘priests’ to be celibate. Could it be that we are requiring of those who would serve God in this capacity, something that Jesus Himself did not require?

    After all the first Pope Peter himself was married and was able to serve Christ faithfully.


    Dan Soares

  4. Dan,

    If you don’t mind my taking a stab at it, it’s true that clerical celibacy isn’t required by Christ (although it’s praised by Christ). And He comes quite close to requiring it for any capable: “Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.”

    So the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church essentially says, those would-be priests who can accept celibacy should, and those who can’t accept celibacy aren’t the men we’re looking for. Likewise, Paul describes marriage as an option for couples who can’t keep their hands off of each other, but a husband who marries for that reason is probably not of the fiber to become a great priest.

    Those are admittedly broad brush strokes, and the Church is wise enough to realize that there’s a difference between a cradle Catholic who says “I can’t or won’t commit to celibacy, but still want to be a priest,” and a Protestant pastor who converts, and says, “I’m already married!” In the latter case, She’ll often ordain him as a Catholic priest anyway.

    In the Eastern Catholic churches, priests are allowed to be married — we follow different customs in this regard. In total, about 20% of Catholic priests globally are married. I don’t know if that helps at all.


  5. This is something many Catholic sources have pointed out that utterly refutes the celibacy red-herring: the great majority of abuse happens within the public school system and within families (i.e. non-celibate people, either married or cohabiting with kids).

  6. John Veal reportedly states:
    “As I see it, the central problem behind the ongoing clerical abuse scandal is the all-male, celibate priesthood.”

    This is a rather common argument which can best be disproved by slightly restating it: “As I see it, the central problem behind the ongoing marital infidelity scandal is monogamous marriage.”

    Simply taking away celibacy won’t stop men from taking advantage of their position if they are so disposed. Simply having “open marriages” won’t stop the feelings of betrayal when a spouse does stray.

    An argument could be made that removing the stigma of breaking vows would potentially increase abuse. And if a priest won’t keep a vow of celibacy, why would he keep a vow of chastity and fidelity to his wife?

    This argument is a red herring and pulls attention away from the real issue, which simply is the idea of chaste living, whether as a priest or as parents of 10 children.

    If you want good faithful priests, they will most likely come from good faithful families – so the crisis here is not in the priesthood, but in society at large.

    When we all stop pretending we are essentially dogs at the mercy of our genitals, and accept that we are humans made in the image of God and that we can transcend eros and achieve agape, then these problems will fade away.


  7. Ray from MN- the money issue is another red herring. Eastern Catholic priests make much less than Roman-rite priests. In our eparchy, the ‘guideline’ is each priest gets housing and $1000 each month. He receieves another $100 for each dependent. That’s it. We survive because my husband is a full-time hospital chaplain and I am a part time college instructor.

    I think the best ‘argument’ for celibacy in the Roman rite is that it has been a tradition for a long, long time and it works when the men have a commitment to it.

  8. and Ray from MN- last night, after church activities in the early morning and working all day, he came home for dinner and then had to go back to the hospital for an annointing. Priests around here do not do sick calls- there are about 20 parish priests within 5 miles plus ordered priests and they do not go out — and my husband didn’t make even a stipend for the wedding he did last Saturday…as you can see, I could go on and on

  9. Wow, priest’s wife, what part of the country are you living in? That’s embarrassing. Are the diocesan priests overwhelmed with their other pastoral needs or something, or is the problem with the men themselves?

  10. Thank you Joe and Fr. Andrew for your response.

    I began to post my response to you Joe, but I think I’ll read Fr. Andrew’s article first and post my comments after that.


  11. No, I think most people would consider curfews and ‘lights out’ and needing permission to leave campus for adult men to be ‘locking up.’ A Total Institution atmosphere like that does create creepy unhealthy sociological dynamics (add sex segregation and a uniform too…)

    As for saying the church only selects Latin priests from among those already called to celibacy, great. But when half our priest are over 60, it seems a mistaken priority to maintain this feature (no longer a witness to our culture, but rather looked askance at) over having Mass in every parish every week. Especially now with their blanket ban on homosexuals, I don’t know how big a pool they plan to have left. Especially given how they destroyed the liturgy in the 60’s, I think it bespeaks very odd priorities that they’re so obsessed with maintaining THIS tradition.

    As for supporting their families, that’s the REAL red herring. As I’ve written about on my own blog, there is no need to imagine all priests as a full-time salaried caste either. Volunteers on the model of permanent deacons could go a long way to alleviating the shortage (which mainly revolves around availability of Sunday Mass). Also, even if it were a family man’s full-time occupation, did you ever stop to think that, in the modern world, his wife might work too?

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