There has been a lot of loose talk about the current crisis facing the Catholic Church and the Vatican in particular. Some conservative writers have suggested that the liberalization of the Second Vatican Council led to an atmosphere that encouraged clerical sexual abuse, and have gone on to say that the American bishops appointed by Pope Paul VI at the recommendation of Archbishop Jean Jadot did little or nothing to discourage it. On the left, some blame celibacy itself for the crisis. As an Orthodox Christian who was a Catholic in his youth, and who encountered sexually active priests in a Catholic high school (which I attended between 1959 and 1963, before Vatican II), I have to disagree with both extremes.

The Catholic priests who taught at my all-male high school were on the whole decent men, but two tried to seduce friends of mine. This was before the era when some fools argued that celibacy was about being available for all rather than about, you know, actually being celibate. (That argument led to its own abuses. I met one post–Vatican II monk who was indiscriminately predatory—he went after both sexes and, for all I know, the household pets.)

Recent news reports have shown that when the alleged sexually rapacious activities of Fr. Jeyapaul Palanivel came to the attention of Bishop Victor Balke, in whose Crookston, Minnesota, diocese the priest had served, Balke tried to get the Vatican to remove Palanivel from any further opportunity to abuse. He wrote to Cardinal William Levada of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith repeatedly, and once appealed in person to the Vatican, to no avail.

I know Victor Balke. He was a diocesan priest in my hometown of Springfield, Illinois, when in 1976 he was chosen by Paul VI as bishop of Crookston, at the recommendation of Archbishop Jadot. I was moving toward Orthodoxy at the time, but thought—and told Fr. Balke—that sometimes Rome does something right. Balke retired in 2007, having tried to do what was right during this dreadful time. He deserves the gratitude of all Christians. The Vatican does not. But this example at the very least should show that the anti–Jadot (and by implication anti–Paul VI) accusations are false.

As an Orthodox, I have seen a church in which the vast majority of parish priests are married men with children. I have no doubt that this is healthier and pastorally much more beneficial than the current Latin-rite Catholic practice. The argument that celibacy gives a priest the ability to serve more people more selflessly is not something I saw confirmed among Catholic clergy, some of whom were quite adolescent in their use of their own time. The pastor with whom I currently serve, a married father of four, is untiring in his parish service and his outreach to the homeless—no Catholic priest I’ve met does more. This is not to say that many Catholic priests are not overworked and overextended, and that most are not quite generous in their service; but the heavy loads they bear have in part to do with the shortage of priests brought on by mandatory clerical celibacy.

To say, however, that celibacy is the cause of the crisis is also something of a stretch. Celibacy does provide a cover for someone who is sexually confused or predatory. But it can hardly be called a cause. Most celibate priests I have known, including those whose orientation is homosexual, have been faithful to their vows and serious in their commitment to serving the church. Many spouses whose husbands and wives died at young ages and who have not remarried are celibate, as are many divorced and single people. It can be done, and done well.

The problem is not celibacy, but its conflation with the priesthood, something that did not exist for the first thousand years of Christian history. During that time we had married priests, East and West—for a time early on even married bishops (including Peter, if indeed he was considered or considered himself a bishop)—and also great reverence for celibacy. The current questions about celibacy may be the result of this conflation.

I have met a few celibate monks in whom celibacy is truly a gift, a charism from which all—married or not—can learn, a genuine eschatological witness. I think of one monk whose witness seems to me to exemplify what Paul calls “the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). This sort of celibacy is a sign to all of us that, married or single, we all depend from second to second on God’s willing us into being, and that in the end we are alone—all one—before God. When celibacy is in addition made something someone must endure to serve God as a priest, it is watered down, and so is genuine celibate witness.

A monk told a young man who was wondering whether to marry or to be a monk, “If you have to ask that question, you shouldn’t be a monk. You should be a monk if the alternative to being a monk would make you go crazy.” That’s the kind of celibate we need. The celibacy of Jesus and of John the Baptist, the patron of celibate monks, is a sign of the kingdom to come. It suffers now, because of a legalism that obscures what it might teach us.

Published in the 2010-05-21 issue: 

John Garvey was an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal, and author of Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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