CELIBACY ISN'T THE PROBLEM
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
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
'FREEDOM OF CONSCIENCE'
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
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
SHORTAGE OF VOCATIONS
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
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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