The Sin of Celibacy?
By: Dr. Joe Torma
Now that I’ve got your attention, I’ll clarify the meaning of the title of this article. It doesn’t refer to celibacy in itself, but rather to the possibility that the official church requirement of mandatory celibacy for western-rite priests might constitute, at this time, a “social sin” on the part of the institution. Voluntary celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God is a charism that has benefited, and will continue to benefit, the Church. What is at issue is the requiring of this charism for priesthood.
The reasoning for this is simple and based on the moral category of “sin by omission.”
Individually we tend to focus on “sins of commission,” even though since Vatican II our prayer of confession includes a reference to sinning “in what I have failed to do.” Since we often don’t hold ourselves responsible for the actions of organizations to which we belong, we neglect to apply the category of omission to the Church.
We know that the Church, as an organization, has sinned in the past. The Crusades and the Inquisition come immediately to mind. Pope John Paul II apologized profusely for these and other sins of the Church.
Why could the mandatory celibacy requirement be considered a social (or structural) sin on the part of the institution? We must ask the question: “If someone, or some organization, could supply something that is needed for ‘a truly human life’ and refused to do so, wouldn’t we call that a sin of omission?”
There are two elements to be considered here—need and possibility.
That there is a need for more priests in many sectors of the western church is a given. Because there are not enough priests, small communities whose size promotes a genuine sense of community are either being merged into larger groups or are going without a resident pastor, one who can lead the community in both its life and its sacramental worship.
That the western church could ordain married men to the priesthood is clear from the fact that the Latin rite already has thousands of married clergy. Most are deacons, but the U.S church also has about 200 married priests who were formerly protestant ministers before converting to Catholicism. And of course, the eastern rites of the Catholic Church have always had married priests.
The lack of an adequate number of priests in the western church is, then, a deliberate choice of the institution’s leadership.
The institution may say that the good of having a celibate priesthood outweighs the disadvantages of not having enough priests. The sensus fidelium is that this is not true—that what is not universally required (celibacy) can not substitute for something that is universally required (adequate leadership).
What we have is a difference of judgment between the leadership and the faithful. What we do not have, generally, is a discussion of the issue using the category of “sin.”
I believe that using this category in the discussion would bring to the common consciousness the fact that this is not just an issue of institutional personnel preference, but a basic moral one.
I also believe that the conclusion to be drawn in favor of a married clergy is at least as clear and basic, in terms of ecclesiological morality, as the conclusion against abortion is in terms of individual morality.
At least let us discuss the issue of mandatory celibacy in these terms!
Dr.Torma is a social and pastoral theologian who teaches in the Theology Department at Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio.