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Murmuratio About Priestly Celibacy

When the Society of Jesus gathers its representatives to elect a new boss, part of the process is several days of "murmuratio," essentially water-cooler chat about who might be a good candidate. No electioneering is allowed, but this informal dialogue among the members is an important aspect of the election.

There seems to be underway a murmuratio of another sort. Archbishop Pietro Parolin, the Pope's Secretary of State has noted that celibacy is an open question: "Celibacy is not an institution but look, it is also true that you can discuss (it) because as you say this is not a dogma, a dogma of the church."

Absolutely true. And it immediately sparked sharp reaction from the right. Here's Jimmy Akin at The National Catholic Register, insisting that nothing significant was said and we should all just ignore it: "What significance does this actually have? Not much. There is, actually, nothing new here. The archbishop is correct in stating that clerical celibacy is not a dogma."

Parolin did go on in the same interview (this from John Allen at NCR,) both to shore up the tradition of priestly celibacy, but also to make this intriguing comment:

It has always been said that the church is not a democracy. But it would be good during these times that there could be a more democratic spirit, in the sense of listening carefully, and I believe the pope has made of this one of his pontificate's objectives. A collegial movement of the church, where all the issues can be brought up, and afterward he can make a decision.


Tom Reese months ago tracked down some comments by the pontiff-to-be on the question. After reaffirming the status of the current rule, the Pope said "If, hypothetically, Western Catholicism were to review the issue of celibacy, I think it would do so for cultural reasons (as in the East), not so much as a universal option."

But this is a global murmuratio, not just a Western one. Consider this report from Frederick Nzwili in the WaPo about schismatic priests in Africa whose primary issue seems to be celibacy. Breakaway groups have formed in "Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia, and South Africa, according to Bishop Peter Njogu, a former Catholic priest, now married, and working in Kenya." Ignoring the rules of celibacy (everything from intermittent misbehavior to long-term relationships that have everything marriage has except responsibility and commitment,) isn't unknown in Africa, just as it isn't unkown here. Broader dialogue, however, is resisted by Roman Catholic authorities in the region:

In March this year, the Rev. Anthony Musaala, a Ugandan Catholic priest, shocked the church when he wrote a letter published in the Ugandan press saying that many bishops and priests in the country had failed the celibacy test. Musaala was immediately suspended for urging open and frank dialogue about priests marrying.

Many Africans (and Latin Americans, I'd add,) find obligatory celibacy not just difficult, but a counter-witness: “We must realize, for example, the lack of children is the worst evil for man in the African tradition,” Njogu commented.

And others wander past the water cooler. Tracy Connor examines the possible ramifications of a married priesthood. The financial case--we can't pay married men as poorly as we pay our priests now, doesn't hold water. The average salary of clergy in other denominations isn't much higher. And as Sr. Christine Schenk, executive director of FutureChurch, said, "Catholic churches always find the money for what they need." Plus, perhaps the reality of priests with families who need a little financial help might inspire Catholics to kick in more than the 1/3 to 1/2 of the proportion of their incomes that Protestants give.

That piece does end with this stunner from Mark Shea, who "said that while celibacy is not dogma, there are solid theological reasons for holding priests to a different standard. 'Is marriage good? Marriage is absolutely good,' he said. 'But virginity is a higher call.'" Really? On what "solid" grounds, unless you want to ignore the spirit of Vatican II, our own theology of vocation, and a whole heap of contemporary theology that doesn't reduce human interpersonal familial commitment to some kind of consolation prize for the second-rate? That kind of clerical triumphalism really doesn't stand up very well anymore--and that's before we consider the scandals--financial as well as sexual--that reveal the cracks and strains of trying to live a "higher" calling.

And a final voice in this stage of the murmuratio is that of Kevin O'Brien, S.J., who chimes in on the value of celibacy in his own life. While I have issues with some of his statements (one quick example: surely being pastorally available to 6,000 students is fundamentally different from actual fatherhood!!) what sticks with me is his conclusion:

Trying to live chastely, poorly, and obediently frees me to love and serve in ways that give me great joy. This life is no better or worse than any other vocation (like marriage) or way of life, but it is mine.

Maybe, if this murmuratio continues, we can begin there--with respect for vocation, in light of the fundamental commandment to love as well as we can. I'm confident that God is calling more than enough people to serve the Church as priests. God doesn't always seem to bundle that call with the call or ability to live celibate chastity with peace. It seems to me that if the leaders of the Church mean to respond to Jesus' command to "feed my sheep," they'd do well to listen to the murmuratio.

About the Author

Lisa Fullam is professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).



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Fr. Andrew Greeley did a sociological study of Catholic priests in the 70s.  After the scandals began he wrote a book about Catholic priests based on that study and two much later ones done in Los Angeles.  The Amazon ad for his "Priests: A Calling in Crisis",  gives a quote from Booklist (a publication of the American Library Assn.): 

"… Greeley says they [his sociological studies of priests] are usually "not very good" but "the best there is on the subject" because no one else is doing what he does. He dismisses psychologists' studies of the priesthood, suggesting that psychological methods are inferior to sociological methods as bases for global interpretation. He dismisses former priests' and non-Catholics' studies, suggesting that they are biased (his are "empirical"). Be that as it may, the data underlying this book depict the Roman Catholic clergy as representative of the population as a whole. Priests are relatively satisfied in their work and no more or less sexually mature and self-fulfilled than other men. The greatest problem facing the priesthood, which Greeley locates in the institutional structure of the church, is disconnection from the concerns of the laity." Steven Schroeder"


Are priests really happy in their work?  Greeley says in the book that they are generally.  However, he also apparently doesn't always think so.  According to one of the Amazon customer reviews, 


"One troubling fact that Greeley notes: 'Priests tell me that they simply will not try to recruit young men into a group WHERE MORALE IS SO LOW [emphasis mine] and where there is so much dissatisfaction unless and until the Church changes the celibacy rule.' When vocations are already drastically "down" from previous decades, this does not bode well for the future of the Catholic priesthood."

If even Fr. Greeley himself admitted that he worried about priests NOT recruiting seminarians because of the celibacy rule, doesn't that show that even in the '70s they were greatly dissatisfied with the rule?

Isn't it time that somebody did some more fact-finding studies of this very severe problem?

Again, thank you, Lisa Fullam.

Bit by bit by bit, the needle moves.....

I've always considered the priest shortage a blessing that would force change not otherwise possible. Alas though, women will be last in line no matter what. I go to the Episcopal church every once in a while just to see a woman priest preside; does my soul good. 


I'd like to challenge the notion that single priests have more time than married priests. In academia, also a profession that will eagerly eat up as much of one's time as one is willing to give, the best recruits, in term of how much time they have available, are not academics who are single but those who are married with a spouse dedicated to their career. Usually the academic is a man, and the wife provides the stable environment at home, the social connection, the daily tasks, as well as pitching in as the occasional administrative assistant. At a social gathering where people were admiring Professor x's efficiency and the amazing amount of work he was able to accomplish in a short time, I heard such a wife say: "with me behind him to help with logistics, you get  not just [x], you get one and a half times [x]!" - A friend who was single later complained that it was not really fair that at the time of tenure reviews they would be judged according to the same measure.


I agree with Carolyn Disco about women being last in line. I think it makes sense to make celibacy optional and I also like the fact that there are now more permanent deacons.  But part of me feels like these guys will do anything to keep women out of the mix: sure, in order to address our priest shortage, we'll take disgrunted Episcopalian married priests, male permanent deacons, psycho schismatic Holocaust-deniers: all are welcome except women need not apply.

It's hard for me to really care much about things like Curia reform ,because it willl still only be men talking amongst themselves. 

As a  happy former/married priest acive in both Catholic and Congregational congregations and  with two teengers and a supportive, spiritual, and social justice committed spouse, I wrote to the bishop 20 years ago that I was not "resigning FROM" priesthood but "resiging TO" the fact that the Church would not use me with the choice to marry. At that time, I said I was still available should the Pope change his mind

Now, serving as a chaplain for many years witrh hospice in many different settings, maintaining a clerical approbation to allow me to do same-sex weddings, particpate with women ministers on an equal basis, no longer needing to justify birth control or the often felt charade of annulments before remarriage... I don't know what I would do...

Paradoxically, I surely more and more appreciate the value of celibacy to allow for witness and risk taking and some greater simplicity of life style. Unfortunately, I see little of that in many clergy although feel blessed with a few in this diocese whom I admire greatly and call friends. Likewise, I am active in various interfaith circles and see some Protestant clergy live in far greater witness and at greater risk through their comitments.

I hope the murmuratio continues, but it is not simple to contemplate any married priesthood that would still have the clerical model and exclude women.

Democracy is a good thing.  Apparently, it is also the natural and human thing as well [although it will take time for the feudal crowd in the Vatican to warm to the idea after all these centuries of omnipotent oligarchy].  

Biologists and evolutionary scientists even believe that it is imbedded within our evolutionary DNA where democratic decision-making is selected for by most species.  Apparently especially social animals make most if not all their decisions when the group (herd, school, flock, etc.) reaches a 51% consensus.

Of course, the Roman word for democracy is collegiality - apparently it isn't as offensive term to feudal ears.  I wonder if this new openness to democratic principles as expressed by Parolin extends to us serfs in the pews?  Maybe we need a Catholic Magna Carta?  Democracy has been practiced in Catholic religious communities for centuries (a la Jesuit "murmuratio").  Franciscans, Benedictines, Sisters of Mercy, etc. have been self-governing democracies for centuries.

Now, in most societies, the people are as least as educated as their "clerical" brothers.  That argument that the serfs in the pews are just too ignorant and unwashed to organize their own affairs is really antiquated. 

The People should decide who is their parish priest; who is their local bishop; whether their priests and bishops should be married or celibate, male or female, gay or straight; what ministries to support; what evangelization programs to promote.  


@ Claire, Oh, yes, that's another of the many myths used to shore up obligatory celibacy. Any seriously undertaken professional life poses questions about work-life balance--ask a medical intern, for example. Yet we don't say that MD's should be celibate, or that God intends it. Academics likewise. In fact, I think good work-life balance is one of the best things a professional can model for those they mentor. (Some say that the influx of women into the professions is, over time, raising these important questions to the fore. But that's another topic...) 

How about "You can't love people generally if you love someone specifically?" Another myth. Why would intense love for a partner and/or children make people LESS compassionate? True love echoes beyond partners to the world. If loving specifically makes one less able to love one's neighbor, then we'd have to declare marriage immoral for Christians, not just for priests. 

I'd say most of the non-triumphalist ("celibates are better") justifications for obligatory celibacy (especially life-long celibacy) are myths. And the triumphalist ones are not just wrong, but downright offensive.

Re:  whether Catholic could/would/can support a married priesthood.  Many of us have spent time in non-Roman congregations, most of which were significantly smaller than the average mini-diocese called a Catholic parish.

We quickly learned the necessity of (1) active participation to ensure the congregation's survival, and (2) regular and proportionate financial contributions.  In my particular case the congregation was about 250 people and EVERYTHING had to be funded by that group:  salaries, benefits, rent, utilities, insurance, upkeep of the building, travel expenses, etc.  There was no diocese or endowment to fall back on.

It was a wakeup call of the nth degree and at least 1/3 of the group came from an RCC background.  I served as the treasurer of that congregation for 4 years and some of the most faithful and generous contributors were the ex-Romans.

People rise to what is expected once it is explained and understood.

Ann Olivier: Andrew Greeley also favored the option of a term-limited priesthood, which seems like a great idea to me.  He said that some men told him they would be happy to serve as celibate priests for a decade, or fifteen years at the most, but that they weren't willing to forgo having a wife and children for a lifetime.  

I have long suspected that the Church's stand on artificial contraception is at least partly behind its stubborn defense of mandatory celibacy.  Given what priests are paid, it seems predictable that unless a priest inherits money or marries an heiress, he and his wife will want a small family.  

When Father and his wife have only one or two children, the parishioners may wonder how they managed to be no more "fruitful" than that--and if the Pill is OK for Mrs. Father, why isn't it OK for the women in the pews. 


The financial picture certainly would be more complicated with married clergy -- let alone living arrangements and assignments! Yet...other faiths have worked on this for centuries and learned some things.


Also, the "myth" of the simple-living cleric needs to be debunked some...There are many spoken and unspoeken "perks" that contrribute to real worth that are hard to quantify.

There's no need to assume that married [male] priests would require higher salaries and/or be a financial drain on the church. Women have careers these days, you know.

I think allowing priests to marry would serve to break the back of clericalism in a way that nothing else might.  That's not to say that I want a married clergy simply for a utilitarian purpose; it is good and right in itself simply because celibacy is a separate vocation and not necessarily---or  wholesomely---connected with ordination.  But back to my point:   having "women in the mix" as marriage partners of priests could serve to ground those men in ways simply impossible in the dysfunctional culture of enforced celibacy.  How would your self-image as "alter christus" (another delusion) survive the nitty-gritty realities of childrearing, for example?   Would you be as caught up in your special status while rocking a fretful, sleepless child who keeps you up all night and also keeps throwing up on your cassock (IF you insist on wearing the cassock at home...)?  Would you continue to obsess about your indispensability when you have an equally gifted partner who equally shares the burden and joys of family life and marital with amazing skill, creativity and graciousness, and who also knows you through and through?  Humility is rooted in being truly grounded, and I have no doubt that a good marriage is exceptionally grounding for the human person.  And then there's the power of having this all rub off on your brothers...yes indeedy, a married clergy could go a long way to snap the spine of clerical self-delusion... 

Angela, I chuckle. Just a bit of the unconscious working in the background?

And maybe a dilution of that distorted version of the vow of obedience?


Angela: along those lines...

What is the first reason why women cannot be priests? Because a few of them would surely get pregnant outside marriage, and that would look rather disordely, wouldn't it? Think of the image...

What is the first reason why priest should not be married? Because a few of them would surely want to get divorced, and then that would be the beginning of the end of protection of the marriage institution, wouldn't it?

A serious myth is that the priest, through ordination, is somehow holier than his fellow men. In too many cases, they have never washed their own socks, made a living apart from their stipends, nor worried and paced the floor with a sick, crying child. Celibacy gives them both armor and excuse to disengage with the real world. Thus we are so often disappointed in their shallow homilies which come from living unreal and shallow lives. I have worked amoung Protestant women clergy for several years. They are far more caring examples of the Good Shepherd Christ meant for his ministries to be. All that and dirty diapers, peanut butter, and tears with their childrens little hurts and aches. Peace be with us all.

I believe celibacy should remain an option but should no longer be a requirement.  It absolutely must no longer be seen as the most clear, real world proof of devotion to the teachings of Christ.  It is primarily the living of that devotion that matters.  It seems nonsense to even imply bringing a spouse and children along for the journey is suggestive if not indicative of less of a devotion.  Often enough being a partner in raising a family plays a large role in testing and shaping a person's humanity.  And if you plan to spend a great deal of your waking hours dealing with other's humanity you best have a great deal of your own to share.

Re: Celibacy in the Ugandan Church

Celibacy does not cause sexual transgressions. See the evidence;


Furthermore, the 2009 public allegations against Fr Musaala (and other priests) were not the first – others went through the official channels. He was then put under investigation. The Archbishop’s recent decisions following that process are the trigger for Fr Musaala’s outburst.

FINALLY, see the film called Fr Anthony Musaala Scandal on YouTube or


I cannot vouch for its accuracy but the producer says his father is called Alexander Basima and in 2012 he gave his address as

1 Lancefield House, Nunhead Lane Peckham Rye SE15 3UB London UK.

I read your piece on Mubiru and there was a lot in it about his abuse of position. Does this yardstick not aply to people you happen to be friends with?

God bless you.

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