Author: Cardinal John J. O'Connor


by Cardinal John J. O'Connor

It's remarkable how determined some media and other people are that we priests should be married. How they sympathize with us over the supposed cruelties of celibacy being imposed upon us by a Pope who purportedly has no understanding whatsoever of the compassion of Jesus.

The tabloid writers may be the most maudlin, but most of them don't present our case with a fraction of the vehemence of some of those serious journalists who have taken up the cause of marriage for priests, as a mask of their own hatred of the church.

The latest journalistic outcry on the part of some of the Irish press is illustrative. Two, or is it three, Irish bishops have questioned the discipline of celibacy for priests. The Primate of Ireland, Cardinal Cahal Daly, has questioned their questioning. The press is outraged. Who does Cardinal Daly think he is to question another bishop?

I happen to think highly of those Irish bishops. They happen to be friends of mine, as is Cardinal Cahal Daly. But I disagree with them strongly. I agree just as strongly with Cardinal Daly.

The disaffected elements of the Irish press can question what right I have, as a bishop of another country, to disagree with a couple of Irish bishops. But this is a Church issue of concern to every bishop, not a national issue, a political issue, a patriotic Issue. The fact is that certain of the media cannot accept today what they have never really accepted through the centuries: 'Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia' - 'Where Peter is, there is the Church.' We believe that John Paul II is Peter, as were John Paul I and Paul Vl and John XXIII and countless others before them.

To some segments of the Irish press, the American press. the Austrian and other presses and to a certain number of other people, our belief is both absurd and infammatory. That's the real problem. And that's really what is at issue here, not with the Irish bishops, of course, but with those who would exploit their speculations and those of others. Neither they, nor other pundits can accept any teaching authority other than their own.


Isn't it extraordinary, for example, how many of the current spate of articles calling for abolition of celibacy always chant the same litany about 'freedom of conscience' regarding abortion, sexual activity, receiving Communion regardless of life-style, marital status, etc.? Everything has become a 'human right' and as soon as this Pope dies, they assure us smugly, Catholics will be liberated!

Even without this incessant litany of alleged oppressions said to be single-handedly perpetrated by the current pontiff, I have to disagree with the reasons most frequently given for abolishing celibacy.

One of these is simply outrageous, namely that it would end such tragedies as paedophilia. And this after all that has been published on this horror, all the statistics gathered? Are those who propose this unaware that most sexual abuse, including paedophilia, apparently occurs within families, not excluding parental abuse of children and younger by older siblings? Do they not know that married and single people of all walks of life are accused of perpetrating such abuse on children and other minors? No one has ever been able to correlate celibacy with sexual abuse. Some sexual abuses have been perpetrated by some priests. That's tragic. But it has not been the fault of celibacy.


Some priests are tempted to engage in sexual relations with women. Marriage, it is said, would cure their temptations. Perhaps in some cases. But are no married men tempted to be unfaithful to their wives? Are none of the huge number of divorces in the US attributable to 'sexual incompatibility'? Human nature is weak. Would a priest who married a particular woman never again have 'sexual problems'? That is, would he lose his humanity, hence, his weakness?

But of course, given a priest's training and self-discipline and understanding and sensitivity, one might expect his marriage to be idyllic. Would there be no illness, no poverty, no afflicted children, no drugs, no drunkenness, no boredom, no discouragement? Is that the case? Is it honest to say of a priest who is unhappy because required to be celibate: 'Only lift the requirement, and he will be happy'?

In my judgment, but wanting to be both sympathetic and realistic, many priests are no more exempt from an impossibly romantic concept of marriage than are many very young lay persons in love. Some expectations are rarely fulfilled, if not indeed, unfulfillable. Some marriages are, indeed, wonderfully happy, bordering on the idyllic. But pain free, sorrow free, trouble free?


Make no mistake. We have some priests who are unhappy because they may not marry and continue to function as priests. I understand that and feel for them very sincerely. Their unhappiness is no reason either to condemn them or to abolish celibacy. I meet with a certain number of them; any who wish. I talk very sympathetically with them because I honestly feel their suffering. Ultimately, some are dispensed and do marry, some happily, some unhappily.

I understand them. I don't like to see them unhappy. I believe they know I want to help them. They also know that I believe wholeheartedly in the incalculable value of celibacy and in the mystery of grace that makes it not only tolerable, but immensely liberating. They know that I will encourage them to remain celibate and to continue as celibate priests, but that if they leave, I will condemn neither them nor the women they marry, but will try to expedite a request for dispensation, if they wish and Holy See approves. I try to treat them and their spouses sensitively, whatever happens.

No kudos to me for this, I don't personally know any bishop who doesn't do the same. Priests tempted are still my brother priests, and I love them.

But I know other priests who are unhappy for reasons quite unrelated to celibacy. It's the human condition and again priests are not exempt. Marriage would not change it. We all struggle to be happy, but priests seem to hear in a special way the words of Christ to the rich young man: 'If you would be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor. Then come follow me.' We are told in the Scriptures that the young man turned away sorrowing, because he had many possessions. And Jesus, too, was sad, because He had loved the young man and hated to see him lose what might have been his - not his soul, but a very special friendship with Jesus.

Most priests, most men and women religious, have never had to give up great material wealth to follow Jesus in this special way. Most of us come from families of very modest means. But we are asked by Jesus, to give up that which can be worth far more than money or other possessions, the love of a good wife, the pleasure of happy, healthy children of our own, a home that is ours, truly ours. For some, it's harder than for others. Some turn away sorrowing, because they love Jesus and He loves them.

But most try to use the sacrifice cheerily, heavy though their hearts may be at times to follow Him in a way to which only a few are called, and to be His close friends, not pretending to love Him more than others, or to be loved more intimately in turn. Priests are no better than millions of married and single people in the world. But we have made a choice. I don't think many of us are looking for sympathy even from our friends, and certainly we don't need the crocodile tears of the Church's less-than-covert enemies.


We cannot ignore the repeated proposal that our shortage of priests and prospective priests is attributable to the requirement for celibacy. This seems to be the primary concern of one or two Irish bishops. I disagree with them. Virtually endless studies of men eligible for the priesthood have been done. Why doesn't that answer, if true, leap out at us? But it does not. I talk to literally hundreds of young men and women about vocations to religious life. The 'problem' of celibacy is generally far down on their list of reasons for hesitating or turning away. Why would so many be advancing into early middle age with no intention and often no serious desire to marry if celibacy were the primary obstacle to priesthood or a religious vocation? I'm not speaking of profligates. I'm speaking of good, decent people. On the contrary, I find many men who have thought little about becoming priests, women of becoming religious, because no one ever seriously asked them. Indeed, some will tell me that parents, peers or even priests and religious have discouraged them! There are far more complicated reasons for shortages of vocations.

Why did we go for centuries with huge numbers of vocations in the United States, where celibacy has always been a priority? Why was there a day when some seminaries would accept no more candidates, some bishops ordain no more priests, unless they agreed to serve outside their own diocese? Yes, times have changed, but are we to believe seriously that men and women are more 'sexed' today (not more tempted by a promiscuous environment, but more 'sexed')?

Nor do I believe there has been a quantum change in the need or desire for companionship. Had those who became priests 50 years ago, as myself, or women who became religious, no desire to marry? Were we some kind of freaks? Has celibate life been easier for us? Fewer hormones perhaps? I don't believe any such thing. It was tough then, it's tough now.

The Church will survive and flourish with a celibate priesthood. And one day, sooner rather than later but in any event in God's time - we will be bursting our seams once again with joy-filled healthy celibate priests willing to make the sacrifice. God will wait.

Taken from the Friday, 18 August, 1995 issue of "The Irish Family". The Irish Family, P.O. Box 7, G.P.O., Mullingar. Co. Westmeath. Phone/Fax: 044-42987.


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