Jude Collins

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Catholic priests and celibacy: time for a re-think

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. 


  1. I'll come at this from a different angle; I look at Churches as vestiges of the old state. In the days when the Church was a secondary arm of state they controlled the hoi polloi.
    They dribbled Knowledge towards them, they controlled by use of religion as a weapon of terror focussed on the next life. People in an already parlous state were promised worse after death if they didn't obey. So what's changed ? education for the masses makes more of us sceptical about the motives of these men who dress in funny clothes and in reality produce nothing to sustain their rather luxurious lives. We are told that it is only a few that abuse their position and their clientele but in reality the perpetuation of the whole ethos is an abuse. we know from history that modern Christianityis a construct of the meeting in Niccea which was aimed at stoppng division and intercommunal strife. It's all alie time people were told the truth.

  2. reasonable post, Jude. Bishop Daly's earned the right to present his views - not sure I agree, but that's another matter. Your last point is spot on though - no connection between celibacy and abuse that I can see.

    PJD - if you don't want to believe that's your choice. Christianity comes from Christ - the clue's in the name. I believe in Him and the Church he founded. What we did in Ireland is more, I think, about being a colonial and post-colonial country. We've never exactly had a decent settled history.

  3. I'll take 'reasonable' as a compliment, Taoiseach...

  4. It was meant as a compliment. I've a lot of respect for Bishop Daly. He retired when he could no longer do the job, didn't hang on like some do, but then got another job as chaplain in the hospice. I know you probably don't agree with his views on republicans but he had a very influential effect on me at I time when I was inclined to support republican violence as so many in the Free State were. I was just looking up the words he used at the funeral of Patsy Gillespie "They may say they are followers of Christ. Some of them may even still engage in the hypocrisy of coming to church, but their lives and their works proclaim clearly that they follow Satan". Since then I've never looked kindly on any form of political violence.