Celibacy Today?

How safe are celibates?

The new emphasis is on companionship and compatibility.

Do celibate Catholic priests need a safety net? How different is safe sex from unsafe celibacy? A recent meeting of the Conference of Diocesan Priests of India, held in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, occasioned these thoughts.

The priests “pledged to safeguard their celibacy vow in the face of modern-day challenges, and treat it as a gift from God.” At the conference Fr. Francis Scaria said that priests in the West and in Africa were facing serious issues related to celibacy. What about India? If there was no problem, then why the concern?

Responding to Bhopal, Fr. William Grimm, a Maryknoll priest in Tokyo, questions the obsession with celibacy, which he avers is a consequence of the Hellenistic aversion to women. He does not consider celibacy intrinsic to the priesthood and says that given the option, he would opt out of it.

Exactly a year ago, in response to the clerical sex abuse of minors, a group of 144 theologians in Germany wrote to their bishop’s conference that they would no longer remain silent on the issue of priestly celibacy. They also referred to the shortage of priestly vocations that had dropped to one fifth of what it earlier was.

What about India? Is it different from the United States and Ireland, where dioceses have gone bankrupt paying compensation to clerical abuse victims? Are we different from Europe and Africa, where sex, not celibacy, seems to be the obsession? Are we also facing a shortage of vocations, necessitating the bishops of Kerala to ask for higher production of children, ostensibly to fill the seminaries?

India is different, but not untouched by the sex virus in the priesthood. Unlike Judaism and Islam, the Indian ethos, be it Hindu, Buddhist or Jain, has valued ascetism and brahmacharya (celibacy). Despite the drop, the priest-to-people ratio in India is five times the world average. So why the sudden urgency to safeguard celibacy?

Before Vatican II reforms, priests wore distinct clerical dress, many had beards or tonsured hair, and lived simple lives. The pre-Vatican mindset of external imposition was replaced by the post-Vatican approach of internal disposition. Unfortunately, several clergymen were just not strong enough to stand without external crutches and fell by the wayside. In my home parish at least six priests quit to get married, and one, who fathered a child, still continues in the priesthood. Obviously something has gone terribly wrong.

Several years ago a seminary professor said to me that most priests were celibate, not out of conviction, but for lack of circumstances or fear of consequences. Today, with safe sex and safe havens, circumstances and consequences are no longer a deterrent to those who lack conviction.

We should not hastily condemn our priests, but need to understand what is happening. I make a comparison with another bond – marriage. The twin goals of marriage are procreation and companionship. When the world was sparsely populated, and personalities were not so keenly developed, the emphasis was on procreation. Today the order is reversed. With the growing population on the one hand, and complexities of life on the other, the new emphasis is on companionship and compatibility.

The same holds true for the priesthood. Unfortunately, the Facebook revolution has also made us faceless and anonymous. TV has encroached on both family and community life. There are more and more lonely hearts in the crowd. They crave companionship.

Ironically, both sacred scripture and Vatican II ecclesiology emphasise this. After speaking about the hardships of discipleship, Jesus “appointed seventy-two others, and sent them out ahead of him in pairs” (Lk 10:1). The Vatican II “Decree on the Life and Ministry of Priests” (PO) has this to say. “No priest can in isolation or single-handedly accomplish his mission” (PO 7). To be “saved from the dangers which may arise from loneliness, let there be fostered among them some kind or other of community life” (PO 8). “Priests should not be sent singly … they should be sent in at least twos or threes, so that they may be mutually helpful to one another” (PO 10).

Unfortunately, this lack of community gets accentuated among the diocesan clergy, who have neither community life, nor community prayer, and are often posted to remote mission stations where they are the little maharajas! Fr. Grimm paints a grim picture of the presbyterium (the gathering of priests). He admits that when they get together they talk about “sports, entertainment, politics and food.” As a marriage counsellor I can tell you that this is mere conversation, not communication.

While admitting the need for companionship one must also see the other side of the coin. Mahatma Gandhi opted for married brahmacharya as part of his spiritual discipline. We have several other high-profile politicians and activists who have opted to remain unmarried (not quite the same as celibacy). We can count among them former Prime Minister Atal Behari Bajpayee, five sitting chief ministers – Mayawati, Mamata, Jayalalithaa, Patnaik and Modi – and social activist Medha Patkar. Should we say that they are unmarried by conviction or commitment rather than circumstances or consequences?

Ultimately the individual has to take the call to be convinced of celibacy. Being human, our noblest internal aspirations still need external assistance. We should encourage more religious priests, instead of diocesan, as the former have more scope for community life. Priests should not be commissioned singly. It is better to have two priests in one place than one priest each in two places.

About celibacy the Church itself admits that “It is not indeed demanded by the very nature of the priesthood, as is evident from the practice of the primitive Church, and from the tradition of the Eastern Churches … there also exist married priests of outstanding merit” (PO16). Jesus himself had already warned that celibacy was only “for those to whom it is granted … Let anyone accept this who can” (Mat 19:10-12).

Let us then accept the wisdom of the Lord, and his Church, and make celibacy optional, not intrinsic, to the priesthood. The contingencies of the time also demand it. It would be the safer and saner way.