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

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.

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

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.

Also, celibate clergy are able to make financial sacrifices by accepting very modest salaries because they have no families to support. On the other hand, I'm obviously aware that many men can't make such sacrifices and this greatly diminishes the candidate pool of possible priests.

As Tommy explained to me, the key sacrifice of celibacy is not sex but loneliness. Families not only demand support and love, but also bestow support and love, and this is, to my mind, an essential element for a happy life in the service of God. Too many people outside the clergy often think of celibacy as a ridiculous demand that encourages pedophilia. I strongly disagree.

There are many administrative and societal reasons why bad priests turn up, and celibacy is way down the list. I'm not asking you or your trainmates to endorse celibacy for priests. I'm simply asking you to give it more patient and spiritually generous consideration at your next discussion.


Q: I'm confused about the Fourth Commandment, which begins: "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy." Most Christians observe the Sabbath on Sunday, while Jews and a few other groups observe Saturday as the Sabbath. However, no one can explain to me when or if the Fourth Commandment was ever canceled. Can you explain? — J., via

A: The commandment for Sabbath observance is equally strong in both Judaism and Christianity. The change from Saturday to Sunday in some forms of Christianity was necessary and typical as religious traditions changed. The change did not occur until around the fifth century, though it may have arisen as early as the second century in some locales.

The New Testament in Luke (4:16 and 23:56) makes it clear that Jesus and his followers observed the Sabbath on Saturday. For many centuries, Christian communities, particularly in Rome and Alexandria, seemed to observe both Sabbath days side by side. Constantine's edict in 321 gave Sunday a real push, but the impulse seems to have been the pagan practice of considering Sunday a "Day of the Sun."

Today, the only mainline Christian denominations still observing the Sabbath on Saturday are the Seventh Day Adventists and the Seventh Day Baptists. Changing the calendar was a clear way to assure that followers of one religious tradition cannot at the same time follow another tradition. The religious calendar both divides and defines.

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