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The God Squad: Celibacy for Catholic priests serves a valid purpose

May 27, 2011|By Rabbi Marc Gellman

Question: There's an increasing debate within the Catholic Church on the issue of mandatory celibacy for priests. I last discussed this subject with my regular group of train commuters: one Catholic (myself), one Jew (whose father and grandfather were rabbis), one Greek Orthodox, and one lukewarm Anglican. None could understand the merits of this policy.

My Jewish friend maintained that an unmarried male in the Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., community where he grew up would have been considered something of a troublemaker. There would have been concern that a single man might become involved with a married woman.

What is the Jewish perspective on celibacy? Is it realistic to expect a fairly large group of people to practice it? There are hundreds of Catholic parishes in the Chicago area. Most should have two or three priests but now have barely one. I think the bishops who want to preserve something that enhances "clericalism" and their power are shortchanging the people in the pews.

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Finally, I discussed the subject with a Baptist friend who's had managerial roles in several churches. He said the sexual impulse was too strong to rein in for most people and that it needed to be directed in a positive manner in marriage. He also said he'd never encountered any instance of pastors molesting minors. The closest thing was a youth minister getting involved with young women in the church (not kids).

— V., Lake Forest, Ill., and Jupiter, Fla., via godsquadquestion@aol.com

Answer: I'm happy to surprise your theology/train group with my answer.

I support the Catholic doctrine of celibacy for priests. Well, "support" may be a bit strong, but I do see a powerful and coherent argument on behalf of celibacy that's not often appreciated.

I heard this argument stated most compellingly back in the '60s by the radical priest Fr. Dan Berrigan. His point was that God wants clergy to take big risks and make big sacrifices for God. If a priest was married, he'd have to weigh those sacrifices against the needs of his family and might choose family over duty. I think this is correct.

When my dear friend, Fr. Tom Hartman, was well and we worked closely together, I often had to make family sacrifices to do our work, which was not at all risky but did demand a large sacrifice of time with my wife and children. Tommy never had to make those difficult choices.

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