If priests were husbands and fathers, they would have more credibility in
giving guidance to Catholic couples and familiesae"and in challenging today's
sex-saturated culture. One priest argues that's the best reason to reconsider
Last year's letters to the U.S. bishops from priests in several dioceses have
brought the issue of optional celibacy into the headlines again. The priests'
initiatives highlighted the serious shortage of priests and the growing lack
of available eucharistic celebration for the faithful. I agree with the
contents of the letters. But there is a broader and equally serious reason that
needs to be raised.
These days we humans are having real difficulties with our sexuality. A brief
glance at TV, the movies, the Internet, and the local magazine rack gives a
quick sampling of our unbalance. Advertisers use sex to sell products. Singers
use sex to mask their lack of musical talent. Talk shows are obsessed with
sexual aberrations. Considering the extent of prostitution, adultery, group sex,
pedophilia, and spousal abuse, one must conclude that our society hasn't got a
clue about why we were created male and female.
For much of our society, sex is seen as something people use for
entertainment, for selling products, or for manipulating others. The problem is not just
sexual aberration and exploitation. The real offense against human sexuality is
that it is trivialized. Many people experience sex as something that is
pleasurable but devoid of meaning. Sex for them becomes a shallow activity,
intensely involving the body but offering little connection to the soul. Their sexual
encounters engage physical organs but not the person. They settle for sex
appeal, when what is possible is self-realization. They settle for technique,
when what is possible is transcendence.
Very simply, what was designed to reach the very core of the human soul has
been relegated to the surface. What was meant to free people from their egos
has instead entrapped them in the realm of self-centeredness. There is no
commitment. There is no trust. There is no love.
In the midst of this mess, to whom can we turn for help?
Logically, people should turn to their ordained spiritual leaders for
guidance. Ah, here is the problem for Catholics. A medieval law still in force in our
Roman Catholic community requires all bishops and priests to be celibate. No
doubt there are many great and holy bishops and priests. But we all lack in
one basicae"a lived experience of married love.
All the good will in the world doesn't make up for this lack of experience.
As spiritual leaders we priests haven't "walked a mile in the shoes" of the
married people we are meant to lead. We are lacking the sexual experience that is
possible within marriage. We can preach about the shoulds and should nots of
sexual morality. And we can certainly say a lot about abstinence, denial, and
sublimation. But what do we know of the human wholeness and spiritual holiness
that can be achieved in the bonding of body, heart, will, and soul through
the sacrament of Marriage?
Our world, more than ever before, is in critical need of a healthy vision of
human sexuality. Young people especially need believable pacesetters in sexual
maturity. The church needs to proclaim from the rooftops that it has a better
message about sex than the culture offers. We priests, who are the most
visible wisdom figures, who are ordained to be teachers and sages, need among our
number those who will give prophetic witness to the goodness and beauty of
Approach married couples in a typical Catholic parish and ask them: "When was
the last time you heard a Sunday homily about married spirituality?" Most
likely, they will scratch their heads, think for a while, and then respond,
"Maybe once last year," or "A long time ago," or even, "Never."
Most of the people in our pews are either married, have been married, or will
one day be married. They live much of their life practicing their faith and
finding their path to holiness through the sacrament of marriage. They could
certainly use some guidance, direction, and even leadership in their holy
vocation. So, logically, they should be able to turn to the church's main spiritual
leaders for help.
Unfortunately, they cannot get much help from priests because we are all
celibate. Let's be honest. In the eyes of the faithful, we are very limited in
what we can preach. Our homilies and other teachings are narrowed to life as seen
through the eyes of a celibate.
The result? At best, there is a vast population of married people floundering
about with sparse spiritual direction for a major segment of their lives.
Many turn to other churches where a married clergy understands their experience
and speaks their language. At worst, there are dysfunctional families, a high
divorce rate, spousal abuse, and a large array of other problems that are
compounded when there is no effective conjugal leadership from our pulpits.
The first moral statement in the Bible proclaims, "it is not good for the man
to be alone." Where do we find the church proclaiming by word and example the
goodness of God's plan for sexuality? Where does our ordained leadership
witness to communion with the Creator through communion with one's spouse?
The Catholic Church needs to give clear spiritual direction, by word and the
example of its spiritual leaders, that will guide married couples on their
sacramental journey to God.
The Catholic Church needs to promote respect for the human body, teaching by
word and the example of its spiritual leaders the dignity, nobility, and
sanctity of human sexuality.
The Catholic Church needs to proclaim to our youth, by word and the example
of its spiritual leaders, the power of premarital and marital chastity to shape
the human heart for a trust-filled and lifelong union.
The Catholic Church, in stating its position on homosexuality, needs to show
by word and the example of its spiritual leaders what it truly believes about
marriage between a man and woman.
In responding to the crisis of pedophilia, the Catholic Church needs to do
more than apologize with words. It needs to declare by the example of its
spiritual leaders what wholesome relationship with children is like, especially in
To fulfill this mission is the urgent challenge before our church today. In
the early days of his pontificate, Pope John Paul II wrote eloquently about the
"Theology of the Body." But words alone are not enough. It is time for
visible witness. I believe it was St. Francis who advised his followers, "Preach the
gospel at all times. If necessary, use words." He knew that people learn by
observing. Our world needs no more "words, words, words." It longs for leaders
to show me by the power of example what the Creator intended in creating
sexual beings. A return to our apostolic roots by opening up ministry to a married
clergy would be an eloquent profession of faith by our church that married
couples are called to holiness of life.
It would make no more sense to mandate that priests marry than it makes to
mandate celibacy. The vocation of marriage should not be imposed but should be a
response to a call from the Lord. In view of the reasons above, now would be
the perfect time to bring back to active ministry all those ordained who went
on to answer a further call to married life.
It is not difficult to find people who have the courage of their convictions.
What is rare to find are people who have the courage to reexamine their
convictions. St. Peter, the first pope, had this second brand of courage. He went
through much of his life regarding gentiles as unclean. He thought they were
unworthy of his association. This was part of his tradition. But new
circumstances (and a dream) forced Peter to reexamine his convictions. And he came to a
new conclusion. "I begin to see how true it is that God shows no
partiality."(Acts 10:34) This was such a significant change for Peter that Luke relates it
twice in the Acts of the Apostles.
I pray that our American bishops will somehow find the courage to reexamine
their convictions. They are being asked to reexamine if they "teach as dogma
mere human precepts." (Mark 7:7)
Then, inspired by the bravery of our American bishops, I trust that the next
pope will have the courage to reexamine the church's rule requiring celibacy
for all priests. Yes, it will take courage to change. But 21st-century pastoral
needs cannot be answered with an 11th-century law. A law of mandatory
celibacy is powerless to reverse the mentality of our present culture's sexual
sickness. It is time for a change.
I believe a new Pentecost for the Catholic Church will soon be realized and a
renewed excitement about human sexuality in the context of conjugal love will
soon be experienced. Just imagine a time when words preached from the pulpit
are spoken in a language and mirrored by an example once again understood by
married couplesae"and young people on the way to marriage.