Under sharp attack in recent years is the Roman Catholic Church's insistence that every man called to priesthood at this time (in the Latin Church) is also given the gift, or charism, of celibacy. This mandatory discipline among the Church's requirements for ordination is considered by many to be outdated, unfair and unhealthy at best, and repressive at worst.
Many criticisms center on the decline in the number of active priests and the recent sexual scandals caused by celibate clergy. These and other concerns leave some cynical about the viability of the celibate state. Celibates are suspected of repressing sexual energy, resulting in unhealthy, if not pathological, vices.
It is true that celibacy is not intrinsic to priestly life; it does nevertheless have great value in the Church. Christ bestows it on those He chooses for priestly ministry. While it is true that the discipline of celibacy could change, there is no sign whatsoever of that happening soon. So maybe Roman Catholics, who should exhibit acceptance of the magisterium (the teaching authority of the Church on matters of faith and morals), should ask why the Holy Spirit might be insisting on this charism for priests at this time.
It is a very serious question with far-reaching consequences. Whether one struggles to understand a teaching, or condemns it, reveals two spiritual dispositions that are not necessarily close.
Might I suggest that believing the celibacy rule to be the main source of the declining number of priests or the pedophilia scandals is overly simplistic and spiritually myopic? Would optional celibacy fix these crises?
The Church's teachings on human sexuality and the sexual act are understood within the context of giving of self to another in a union consonant with God's covenantal plan. Chastity (to be practiced by every Catholic in every vocation) is not the same as celibacy. Celibacy is the freely chosen state of forgoing wife, children and genital activity for the sake of the Kingdom of God. The Church considers this gift given to a small percentage of the members of the Body of Christ.
Only worthwhile, good things are worth sacrificing. Celibacy in no way denies the sexuality of a person in that state nor does it diminish the view of the beauty of sexuality and marriage. Sex is sacred, not dirty.
Celibacy does not cause pedophilia. To believe this would be to undermine the psychological community's research into this pathology. Pedophilia is notorious and its effects dark and forever damaging, to be sure, but to say celibacy is the root of pedophilia is like saying that the natural desire to quench one's thirst leads to alcoholism. Every celibate is expected to maintain a healthy, integrated sexuality in concert with his promises made.
Celibacy does in fact leave a priest radically available to serve others, and often he experiences real intimacy with Christ and others. Celibates do enjoy healthy relationships with both sexes and people of various vocations. Too often, people feel bad for poor deprived Father, who in fact experiences great joy in the celibate state, since God calls him to it.
Some say priests can't be effective shepherds because they have not had marriage and family as part of their own personal experience. This, too, is an unfair assumption. The priest's own objective heart, coupled with his configurevment to Christ, renders him uniquely able to heal and support those experiencing challenges in relationships. No one would require a male OB/GYN to have experienced pregnancy in order to deliver a baby, or a therapist have personal experience of the same emotional crisis.
As vocation recruiter in the Diocese of Providence for the last four years, I have worked with men of all ages who quietly discern the urgings of Christ toward priesthood and celibacy. While some struggle with the celibate state, most do not in a way that is a stumbling block.
Our culture is permeated by the dogmas of materialism and sensuality preached daily from the technological and media pulpits. Every committed Christian who sets out to live a chaste life is daunted by the tide that is larger than at any time since Christ (a celibate himself) walked the face of the Earth. The celibate must go against the tide, too. And the sheer counter-cultural nature of the witness of celibacy at a time like this may be more valuable to the Holy Spirit than it was 30 years ago.
Celibacy is, in fact, a tremendous experience of love. Don't tell priests how bad you feel for them. Support them!