SoJo has an interesting interview with Fr. Dwight Longenecker, a married priest in the Catholic church. Longenecker was a married clergyman in another denomination before converting to Catholicisim and taking vows, which allows him under Catholic law to continue his marriage. It’s an unusual situation, and gives him an interesting perspective on how the church handles “sex stuff” – celibacy, the sex scandals, and the like. Do check it out if this topic interests you.
(I was born in the city where he’s ministering, and still have Catholic family living not too far from there who are practicing Catholics. I’ve never met him or heard anything of him before this interview, but it’s still a neat personal connection, at least for me.)
On the meat of the interview:
1) I don’t buy the argument that because Jesus was unmarried, priests should be unmarried as well. Jesus was a unique case, and there are many reasons why He would stay unmarried that wouldn’t apply to us. It also seems… arbitrary to zero in on that one characteristic. Why not encourage priests to have special training in carpentry, for instance? There are probably practical reasons to prefer a celibate priesthood, both historically and today, and I like what Fr. Longenecker says about it being a counterweight against the West’s obsession with sex. But that argument that Jesus was celibate so priests should be too never worked for me.
(P.S.: I’m not an expert on this, but do we really know Jesus was unmarried? The Bible doesn’t mention a wife, and extrabiblical evidence is iffy at best, but couldn’t it be kind of like Legolas or Gimli – just because a wife isn’t mentioned doesn’t mean she couldn’t exist and just be irrelevant to the narrative?)
2) I found fr. Longenecker’s comment about how the church was global to be very interesting. This is part of what I love about the RCC – so unified, so connected – but it also seems a bit like an Achilles heel. The world is so varied, and what will work in South Korea won’t always work in New York. It’s a shame the RCC has to take a one-size-fits-all approach, although I do think I understand the reasoning.
3) On paedophilia, I absolutely agree that celibacy doesn’t cause it. I haven’t read the stats on whether it’s more or less common in church circles. But I do know that paedophilia is a thought process very different from normal erotic attraction. Saying celibate people are more likely to rape children is just as offensive as saying gay men are a special risk to boys. My bigger concern in this area isn’t that some pedophiles were Catholic priests; it was that the RCC had – and in some cases still does – valued institutional reputation and protecting the priests over the well-being of the children placed in their care. That is what truly concerns me; the child, not the priest and certainly not the RCC generally, is the victim in these cases.
4) I wouldn’t be bothered nearly so much by celibacy if priests and nuns weren’t the only people making decisions for Catholic theology and policies. Celibacy can be beautiful, and enriching, I can see the beauty in that move. I mean, I’m celibate myself though I haven’t committed to making it a lifelong thing. But celibate people only represent a sliver of the human experience, and like with anything, there can be failures of imagination where you privilege your own experience and downplay or ignore or whatever the reality of married folks with families. If priests need to be celibate because of their calling, I can live with that. I can even celebrate it. But there’s a reason we value authors and thinkers from lots of different demographics.
Progressive Protestants, for example, are very concerned that we listen to theologians who are women, people of color, LGBT, from around the world, etc. It’s not just because we want to give everyone a chance to be influential; it’s that different kinds of people bring something to the table you wouldn’t think about without those voices. So if the only people debating church theology and social policy etc. are single men… that’s problematic, and not just because it’s excluding a good deal of the human population from those roles. This isn’t about equal opportunity or rights, it’s about the value of a theology that pulls from all of humanity, and that speaks to those different peoples’ concerns. Celibacy does seem to drive a wedge between the priesthood and the world experienced by your non-celibate church member. Now, if the RCC wants to make more room for non-celibate non-priests (and non-nuns) to hold positions of influence and authority, this concern vanishes. But until that happens, I am concerned by the way celibacy makes priests into something Other from most of the RCC faithful.