I’ve just come from a discussion on the Stephen Nolan show, BBC Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh. It lasted twenty minutes and it was on the topic of celibacy in the Catholic Church. The former Bishop of Derry Eddie Daly (who features with his crimson handkerchief in that Bloody Sunday mural) has a book coming out tomorrow and in it he argues strongly for optional celibacy in the Catholic Church. He says he wants a measured debate on the topic.
He’s spot on. It’s only a pity that the Catholic Church has been more or less forced into thinking about the matter because of a critical fall in the number of candidates opting to become priests. When I was young, the argument was that celibacy freed priests from the bonds of marriage and family, allowing them to concentrate 100% on their work. There’s something to be said for that: we all know public figures who throw themselves into their work and their family life pays a heavy and sometimes terminal price. Celibacy also provides a strong sense of brotherhood among priests – when they come together you sense that companionship. But it’s a male companionship which produces a mindset where women are essentially peripheral to life. That’s bad. It’s why there are a great many Catholic priests who have no real understanding of the lives of half their congregation.
Some men are suited to the celibate life – they prefer the solitary existence. That’s the case too in the lay world, by the way – more people live alone now than has been the case for decades, maybe centuries. But these people opt to live alone. The man who wants to be a Catholic priest has no choice: the celibacy and the priesthood come together – both or nothing. As a result many men who would make marvelous ministers are turned away or leave the priesthood.
One final point. You ‘ll get those who will speak of optional celibacy as a cure for clerical sexual abuse. Don’t listen to them. They’re either ill-informed or malicious. I have yet to see any research which shows that sexual abuse is more prevalent among celibate Catholic clergy than among non-celibate Protestant or Jewish or Muslim clergy. Or any other religion. Or among the general population. So let’s hope when and if there’s a debate, at least that moth-eaten old canard won’t be pushed into the discussion.