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Celibacy for priests a hot issue, just not for church leaders
A young priest runs through St. Peter's Square before Pope Benedict XVI's final audience.
March 5th, 2013
10:36 PM ET

Celibacy for priests a hot issue, just not for church leaders

By Peter Shadbolt, CNN

(CNN)–For centuries, the Vatican has required celibacy from its priests.

It is a vow the Catholic Church says not only underscores the commitment of seminarians to their vocation but also is a model of Christ’s own celibacy.

But with the election of a new pope, many church watchers are wondering whether church teachings could change to allow all priests to marry.

Currently, the Vatican allows married Anglican priests who join the Catholic Church to become ordained as priests. Young Catholic seminarians, meanwhile, must remain celibate, and church leadership seems unlikely to move on the issue.

New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that while changes to church law on celibacy might be discussed, it is unlikely to change soon.

“It startles me sometimes (when people) say why doesn’t the church talk about married priests,” he said. “I think we talk about it; I can’t get my hair cut without my barber asking me about it. (But) I don’t think there would be that kind of change.

“For a pope, the mission statement is to conserve in the best sense of the word … preserve the spiritual patrimony of the church, the timeless teaching that’s taught to us from Jesus to his apostles through 2,000 years of the Church.

“Now that doesn’t mean he might not change the way it’s presented.”

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For the Vatican, the debate on celibacy is nothing new; it has been going on in various forms since the Reformation of the 16th century – but the past 50 years has put new pressures on the priesthood.

The Vatican reaffirmed its commitment to continuing the practice at the height of the social and sexual revolution of the 1960s.

In 1967, Pope Paul VI, who charted the Catholic Church through the difficult shoals of the cultural upheavals of the 1960s, published an encyclical, or open letter to the church, entitled Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (Latin for “Of the celibate priesthood”).

In it, he outlined the reasons for keeping the tradition of celibacy a part of church teaching: it was a superior way of achieving grace, it freed priests from familial obligations in order to devote themselves to God, it mirrored heaven as a place without marriage.

“In any case, the church of the West cannot weaken her faithful observance of her own tradition,” Pope Paul VI wrote at the time.

Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, told the BBC in February that many priests struggle to cope with celibacy and should be able to marry and have a family.  Just three days later he was forced to resign over allegations of a 30-year-old sex scandal with seminarians in his charge.  O’Brien later admitted his conduct had “fallen below the standards” expected of a priest.

“I’d be very happy if others had the opportunity of considering whether or not they could or should be married. It’s a free world and I realize many priests have found it very difficult to cope with celibacy as they lived out their priesthood, and felt the need of a companion, of a woman, to whom they could get married and raise a family,” he told the British news agency.

O’Brien is not the first or the highest ranked Catholic to question the tradition of priestly celibacy. In 1993, at a weekly audience, even Pope John Paul II said celibacy did “not belong to the essence of the priesthood.” Even so, he qualified this, saying there was “no doubt about its suitability and indeed its appropriateness to the demands of sacred orders.”

Celibacy in the Catholic Church is a law, not a doctrine, and can be changed by the pope at any time. Despite this, Pope Benedict XVI made it clear during his tenure that the traditional practice was unlikely to change.

The Rev. Joseph Fessio, founder and editor of the U.S.-based conservative Catholic publishing house Ignatius Press, told Boston’s The Good Catholic Life radio in February that while celibacy is a discipline and not a dogma, it made it no less an important part of the Catholic Church.

“People say celibacy is only a discipline, but it’s not only a discipline,” he told the radio program. “It’s something the church in its wisdom for 2000 years has recognized as a closer, more exact, more profound following of the example Jesus set us.”

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In the meantime, the arguments against celibacy have been mounting.

Opponents argue that Jesus did not require celibacy from his apostles, that sexual repression has led to the sex abuse scandals currently racking the church and that celibacy has been responsible for the dwindling numbers of young men taking up the vocation.

Sister Chris Schenk of the Ohio-based Catholic reform movement Futurechurch believes that celibacy should be made optional.

“Around the world there is a severe shortage of Catholic priests and over 50,000 churches have no pastor,” she said. “While the number of Catholics is rising, the number of priests is in decline – mandatory celibacy can deter quality candidates from entering the priesthood.

“According to the Vatican yearbook, between 1975 and 2010 the world's Catholics increased by 59% from 709.6 million to 1.96 billion, but the number of priests increased only 1.8%.

“In 1975 there were 404,783 priests worldwide compared with 412,000 now. Forty-six percent of the world’s priests are in Europe but only 24% of Catholics live there ... and the number is diminishing.”

It seems her view may be supported by a majority of American Catholics.

According to a survey of American Catholics by the Pew Research Center taken after Pope Benedict announced his resignation, 58% of congregants favored allowing priests to marry.  Even so, the figures showed the divisive nature of the debate: Of those who attend Mass regularly, only 46% supported marriage for priests while 66% of those who attended less regularly supported marriage.

One former seminarian, who did not want to be named because he is still active in the church and not authorized to speak publicly, told CNN the vow of chastity was one of the chief reasons he dropped out of the vocation.

“I had strong issues with celibacy and, at that time, wanted the freedom to get married and didn’t know why there could be Lutheran pastors that led perfectly normal family lives and also ran their congregations.

“I certainly understood the celibate side to priesthood and had a certain respect for it – strangely I still do – but I just felt that you should be given options.”

He said the diocesan college he attended in the United States – a type of minor seminary – was designed to prepare students for their commitments at major seminaries if they decided to continue their studies.

“They were obviously making changes from the middle of the century – in the '30s, '40s and '50s - when the seminaries were packed full, but probably after the whole peace revolution and the sexual revolution guys obviously started having a lot of second thoughts,” he said.

He said he saw little evidence of the kind of sexual abuses that have recently come to light and derailed the Catholic Church.

“When you’re young, growing up in a big, serious Catholic family - and I went to a Catholic grade school, I was essentially raised, socialized and educated by nuns and priests - that has a very deep impact especially if they’re good role models.

“I never had any sleazy nuns or priests when I was growing up, at least none that I knew about,” he said. “When you’ve got such good role models, both nuns and priests, who are celibate, that makes a big mark on you.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • Christianity • Pope

soundoff (112 Responses)
  1. Nga Agreste

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    May 3, 2013 at 11:30 pm |
  2. Over 40,000 denominations of insanity

    Some believe that celibacy is appropriate for certain people, or for certain positions. It's ridiculous. Celibacy is unnatural and will continue to cause problems for the religious institutions that employ it.

    Many of the people from these same institutions advocate against abortion, but don't understand the realistic benefit of the morning after pill or even basic contraception; their unrealistic wishful thinking is causing the death of many at the hands of disease. Realistically, many abortions could be avoided if a morning-after pill were not viewed as such an evil option. Many of these same people bring children into the world at a high pace, and then would prefer that the rest of society take over and educate their children in their particular brand of religion when they don't plan well.

    In the U.S. recently we learned of the head of LCMS chastising a minister of that church for participating in a joint service for the victims of the Newtown school shooting.

    One sect calls homosexuality an abomination while the next one in the same denomination is already performing gay marriage.

    One sect, the Westboro Baptist Church believes Americans are being killed at war because America is too kind to "fags".

    One sect believes that Jesus and Satan were brothers and that Christ will return to Jerusalem AND Jackson County, Missouri.

    One sect believes women to be subservient, while another sect in the same denomination promotes equality between the sexes.

    Conflicted right from the very beginning, Christianity continues to splinter and create divisions and more extremism as it goes.

    =================================================
    Has anything improved with Christianity since 200+ years ago?

    Thomas Jefferson, POTUS #3 (from Notes on the State of Virginia):

    Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.

    James Madison, POTUS #4, chief architect of the U.S. Constitution & the Bill of Rights (from A Memorial and Remonstrance delivered to the Virginia General Assembly in 1785):

    During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution.

    John Adams, POTUS #2 (in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, 09/03/1816):

    I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved – the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced! With the rational respect that is due to it, knavish priests have added prostitutions of it, that fill or might fill the blackest and bloodiest pages of human history.

    Ben Franklin (from a letter to The London Packet, 3 June 1772):

    If we look back into history for the character of present sects in Christianity, we shall find few that have not in their turns been persecutors, and complainers of persecution. The primitive Christians thought persecution extremely wrong in the Pagans, but practised it on one another. The first Protestants of the Church of England, blamed persecution in the Roman church, but practised it against the Puritans: these found it wrong in the Bishops, but fell into the same practice themselves both here and in New England.

    Thomas Paine (from The Age of Reason):

    All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.
    ================================

    March 8, 2013 at 11:05 am |
  3. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    March 8, 2013 at 7:39 am |
    • Jesus

      Prayer does not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!

      March 8, 2013 at 10:59 am |
    • Really?

      "Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things"

      That's why the data has shown that atheists have happier and healthier lives than conservative Christians. Your post is built on a lie.

      March 8, 2013 at 11:14 am |
    • jjflores111

      You know, oddly enough, I've had prayer really change things. I do not support the requirement that people MUST be faith healed in order to demonstrate their faith in God, as some commentators have implied, so let's set that straight right there. I believe that faith healing in life-or-death situations requires more faith in God than most people have and it is dangerous for the inexperienced to attempt it. However, I have had physical healing take place, so I know it is possible.

      March 8, 2013 at 7:48 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      How do you know that it was "faith" or "prayer" that caused the healing?

      March 8, 2013 at 7:51 pm |
  4. Douglas

    Out, Proud and Celibate!

    A declaration of independence from fornication!

    It's Time!

    March 7, 2013 at 11:50 pm |
    • Wow

      Just remember when ever you read these posts from Douglas that sociologists and psychologists hold that the emotionality in prejudice stems from subconscious attitudes that cause a person to ward off feelings of inadequacy by projecting them onto a target group.

      March 8, 2013 at 11:08 am |
    • sam stone

      Doogie is a self loathing closet queen

      March 8, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
    • .

      Translation: "I can't get lucky even if I paid a prostie so NO ONE ELSE should get luck either!" If we're lucky, this old degenerate will eat a bullet.

      March 8, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
    • Quest ion

      Wasn't Pride and Arrogance the sins of the devil?

      March 9, 2013 at 10:17 am |
  5. Douglas

    Celibacy Rocks!

    Gay youth sign celibacy pledge at teen revival.

    Purity has its rewards!

    March 7, 2013 at 11:32 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Gonna lie about the sun-worshipping nudist in SF again, DOOGIE?

      March 7, 2013 at 11:33 pm |
    • Douglas

      Tommy Boy,

      Gay men were walking naked around the school as parents walked their children to the school.

      Your lack of conceren is indicative of your failure to practice celibacy as you know you should.

      Stop defending these walking predators seeking children for a chickenhawk meal.

      Have you no shame?

      March 7, 2013 at 11:36 pm |
    • Douglas

      From the San Francisco Chronicle September 15, 2012:

      "The principal at Harvey Milk Elementary School in the heart of the Castro has seen naked men while going to and from school. And Mission Station police who patrol the neighborhood report a consistent rise in complaints that range from seeing men who walk around with robes on and flash, to men who use props to call attention to their birthday suits and others who wear genital jewelry that stimulates arousal.

      Away with this uncelibate filth!

      March 7, 2013 at 11:59 pm |
    • Pete

      Douglas you are twisting the article to justify your prejudice, it's while the people are walking to and from work. There are other members of the gay community that find this wrong too. Should we bring out all the articles of straight nudist that do the same thing. You are a lying hypocrite.

      March 8, 2013 at 11:10 am |
    • .

      And that is one small part of the larger article, you dishonest queer. Out of all your different troll personalities, this has got to be the most hypocritical ones, being as you are a gay man yourself, who has engaged in that activity many times yourself, BY YOUR OWN ADMITTANCE under your various handles. Do the world a favor and eat a bullet, you skank.

      March 8, 2013 at 5:27 pm |
    • .

      "Your lack of conceren is indicative of your failure to practice celibacy as you know you should."
      Why the hell should she practice celibacy when she's married, you stupid reprobate? Still denting that she is, along with you denying you're gay? Get a fucking life, you queen, and stop talking about people who have never hurt a fucking soul, asshat. You're a pathetic old biddy.

      March 8, 2013 at 5:32 pm |
    • ..

      Nothing worse than a self-loathing old queen.

      March 9, 2013 at 12:53 am |
  6. lol??

    "..............but also is a model of Christ’s own celibacy................" Why don't they model a 33 year old dying?? Too tuff??

    March 7, 2013 at 8:09 pm |
    • .

      Please show us how it's done. Please. Idiot.

      March 8, 2013 at 8:45 pm |
  7. Bruno B.

    Plain simple. Everything can not be manipulated by the human hand.

    March 7, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
  8. dorothy

    For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it

    March 7, 2013 at 10:05 am |
    • dorothy

      forget tradition.

      don't put square pegs in round holes. very few are qualified to live a life of celibacy. building the church upon "the rock" was never intended to anoint someone to speak for jesus error free. one dude did that. no "pope" was ever bequeathed that responsibility, nor the power.

      i'd take one assisi over the whole lot of them

      March 7, 2013 at 11:04 am |
  9. clarity

    Some believe that celibacy is appropriate for certain people, or for certain positions. It's ridiculous. Celibacy is unnatural and will continue to cause problems for the religious institutions that employ it.

    Many of the people from these same institutions advocate against abortion, but don't understand the realistic benefit of the morning after pill or even basic contraception; their unrealistic wishful thinking is causing the death of many at the hands of disease. Realistically, many abortions could be avoided if a morning-after pill were not viewed as such an evil option. Many of these same people bring children into the world at a high pace, and then would prefer that the rest of society take over and educate their children in their particular brand of religion when they don't plan well.

    In the U.S. recently we learned of the head of LCMS chastising a minister of that church for participating in a joint service for the victims of the Newtown school shooting.

    One sect calls homosexuality an abomination while the next one in the same denomination is already performing gay marriage.

    One sect, the Westboro Baptist Church believes Americans are being killed at war because America is too kind to "fags".

    One sect believes that Jesus and Satan were brothers and that Christ will return to Jerusalem AND Jackson County, Missouri.

    One sect believes women to be subservient, while another sect in the same denomination promotes equality between the sexes.

    Conflicted right from the very beginning, Christianity continues to splinter and create divisions and more extremism as it goes.

    =================================================
    Has anything improved with Christianity since 200+ years ago?

    Thomas Jefferson, POTUS #3 (from Notes on the State of Virginia):

    Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.

    James Madison, POTUS #4, chief architect of the U.S. Constitution & the Bill of Rights (from A Memorial and Remonstrance delivered to the Virginia General Assembly in 1785):

    During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution.

    John Adams, POTUS #2 (in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, 09/03/1816):

    I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved – the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced! With the rational respect that is due to it, knavish priests have added prostitutions of it, that fill or might fill the blackest and bloodiest pages of human history.

    Ben Franklin (from a letter to The London Packet, 3 June 1772):

    If we look back into history for the character of present sects in Christianity, we shall find few that have not in their turns been persecutors, and complainers of persecution. The primitive Christians thought persecution extremely wrong in the Pagans, but practised it on one another. The first Protestants of the Church of England, blamed persecution in the Roman church, but practised it against the Puritans: these found it wrong in the Bishops, but fell into the same practice themselves both here and in New England.

    Thomas Paine (from The Age of Reason):

    All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.
    ================================================

    March 7, 2013 at 9:29 am |
    • lol??

      "...................Conflicted right from the very beginning,................." Are you fantasizing about sweating blood?? Why don'tcha just try it and then tell the wurld about it??

      March 7, 2013 at 8:14 pm |
    • .

      Why don't you eat shit and die, lollsaboutsuckingthelifeoutofallaroundher?

      March 8, 2013 at 8:40 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.