16 Theses on Celibacy

The book by renowned historian Hubert Wolf, Zölibat: 16 Thesen (“Celibacy: 16 Theses”), appeared today at Amazon.

This seems intended as a somewhat provocative or even polemical statement of the author’s strong opposition to mandatory celibacy. In the context of the upcoming Amazon synod, ongoing scandals, and Pope Francis’s efforts to renew and reform the church, the book is timely.

I admit to mixed feelings about this topic. My heart aches for people who have little or no access to Eucharist because of the priest shortage, and I feel I must be open to a change in discipline which would address this. But I would also regret if the Roman Catholic church were to lose the distinctive witness of a celibate clergy. And as a Benedictine monk, I worry a bit about our ability as a church to maintain the celibate witness of the religious orders if celibacy is not part of the normal fabric of church life experienced by every cradle Catholic from little on up.

I haven’t read Wolf’s book yet. Amazon.de allows me to “Look inside” (Blick ins Buch) and retrieve the 16 theses from the table of contents. They are given below.

Of course the wordings of the theses are brief to pack a punch. I’m sure that Wolf offers more scholarly nuance in the book itself. But #2’s reference to “priests” in the New Testament is a bit anachronistic; the use of the unflattering term “convert” in #11 is unfortunate; the developments (Neues) since Vatican II sound to me like something in place for 2000 years, ever since Ephesians was written; in #13 and #16 I take it he means the abolition of mandatory celibacy, not all celibacy; and of course #14 is disputed, and objective examination of the available data seems to suggest more than one possible conclusion.

Be that as it may – let the discussion continue. I offer Wolf’s 16 theses as a helpful means for both defenders and skeptics of mandatory celibacy to see more clearly which issues call out for further investigation.

1. Taboos have fallen. The priest shortage and accusations of abuse force the Vatican to address celibacy.

2. The mother-in-law of Peter. Celibacy cannot be justified biblically, since there are of course married bishops, priests, and deacons in the New Testament.

3. Celibacy is not the same as celibacy. Not only were there entirely different understandings of it in various eras; the regulations had to be repeatedly renewed, modified, and implemented against great resistance.

4. Pre-Christian origins. The notion of cultic purity of the priest derives from Jewish and pagan antiquity and no longer fits our era.

5. Jesus was no Stoic. The ideal of the ascetic priest goes back to notions of the philosophical life in antiquity and does not correspond to the model of Jesus.

6. Economic roots. Abstention from marriage in the Middle Ages and early modernity ensured that clergy would not bequest church resources at their disposal to their children.

7.  Flying the flag in doctrinal battles. In the Reformation and Counter Reformation era, celibacy served as a mark of distinction from Protestants.

8. Priests too have human rights. Since the Enlightenment, the critique of celibacy as violation against nature has radicalized advocates of celibacy.

9. The leap into other realms. Since other justifications no longer held, Paul VI exalted celibacy spiritually.

10. It works without celibacy too. In the Eastern Catholic churches there are married Catholic priests as a matter of course.

11. Ever more exceptions. Protestant and Anglican pastors who convert to Catholicism receive priestly ordination with a papal dispensation.

12. Developments in sexuality. Since the Second Vatican Council, marriage is seen as an image of the covenant between Christ and his church and cannot be the reason to prohibit priestly service.

13. Not a dogma. Catholic church teaching allows for the abolition of celibacy at any time.

14. Dangerous promises. Obligatory abstention from marriage is a risk factor with respect to sexual abuse by priests.

15. Weighing goods. Faced with a choice between ameliorating the priest shortage or retaining celibacy, the Church must decide in the interest of the Eucharist which is necessary for salvation over celibacy which is not.

16. The old system has come to an end. The abolition of celibacy as an instrument of retaining power must be part of a foundational reform of the hierarchical clerical system.








11 responses to “16 Theses on Celibacy”

  1. Patrick Freese Avatar
    Patrick Freese

    Re 14., I honestly wonder where people get this oft repeated premise from. Basically every available psychological and statistical study on the sexual abuse of children has confirmed that sexual continence is not a contributing factor to sexual depravity (the overwhelming majority of sexual abuse occurs within families). The only “study” that tries to link the two is the Australian government’s Royal Commission Report, which conspicuously didn’t provide any numbers or facts to back up its claim.

    Let’s also not forget that the Southern Baptists, Boy Scouts, and public school systems (among many others) have been publicly found to have child sex abuse problems that are/were in some cases even more prevalent statistically in their organizations than the Catholic Church. I have a hard time believing releasing priests from their obligations of celibacy would’ve prevented the scandal we’re living through, because it clearly didn’t prevent it elsewhere.

    1. Todd Flowerday Avatar

      In part it may be a connection to arrested emotional development. One of the happiest and healthiest priests I know had a “normal” small town life as a teen: he had a girlfriend, letters in football and basketball, and friends among non-Catholics. “Experience” is over-touted, but if young adults in seminaries aren’t free to grow up, they aren’t all going to abuse children and cover up for their brothers. But their exercise of priesthood will have problems. Not only do we need more priests in outlying areas, but we need better priests everywhere.

    2. Matthew W. I. Dunn Avatar
      Matthew W. I. Dunn

      Read Erik Eriksson. The three things he identifed as stunting a boy’s sexual growth were (in no particular order): prison, military, and seminary. So, it has been noticed by psychological professionals.

      Also, read your history: Concubinage and other sexual sins have been an ever-present cancer on the clergy in the West. It was so common that, in Germany, during the time of Luther, bastard children were derisively called, Priesterkind (“a priest’s child”).

      To whatever seminary you go to, celibacy is always the “elephant in the room”.

      Taking away celibacy won’t suddenly make the Church flourish, but it might allow for a healthier view of sex, Holy Orders, and sex-plus-Holy Orders!

      1. Patrick Freese Avatar
        Patrick Freese

        TMI on that last sentence.

        Nice theory, but again, it is not supported by the bulk of current psychological evidence and statistics on this subject (much of it more recent than the late Herr Eriksson). Priests had problems with sex because society has problems with sex, if we’ve learned anything from the #MeToo movement. And nothing suggests that our priests were more susceptible to sexual deprivity than other non-celibate men (at least a few studies I’ve read actually suggest the opposite). In any case, the rigorous psychological screening prospective seminarians go threw has gone a long way towards weeding out potential predators, to the point that other denominations and some public schools have begun to adopt what has long been standard practice in at the U.S. Church.

      2. Paul Inwood Avatar
        Paul Inwood


        You seem very defensive on this whole question. But responding to your last point:

        If you think the “rigorous” psychological testing that prospective seminarians go through is at all effective, you need to ask around. It is actually pretty easy to fool the system, and many have not only done so but in some cases have boasted about doing so. The answer is not more and better testing but more and better supervision, appraisal, discernment….. including lay people in that process.

        In my experience as a member of serminary faculty on both sides of the Atlantic, and as a member of a seminarian discernment and support team, one commonly-encountered feature is the marked difference in the way that seminarians behave toward clergy faculty as compared with the way they behave toward lay faculty. Often the lay faculty can see behavioural and psychological problems that the clergy are not aware of at all. I have lost count of the cases when I and my lay colleagues said “Don’t ordain him”, or “Give him time out for a while” or “He has unresolved issues”. and were roundly ignored by seminary rectors and bishops, only to see those newly-ordained blow up or leave within just a few years.

        And yes, many of the issues are sexual. Seminaries routinely do not treat this area in enough depth, probably because they realize that they are trying to defend an indefensible practice.. There is in fact no such thing as TMI in this context. Seminarians need a lot more information about dealing with sexual issues, but they generally don’t get it. The result is many newly-ordained priests who have not yet matured psychosexually, and who are then a risk to themselves and to others.

        As a Church, we need to take this seriously.

      3. Patrick Freese Avatar
        Patrick Freese

        Paul, FWIW I agree with everything you said. Seminarians and priests ABSOLUTELY need more tools to help them manage their mental health, and seminary administrators, vocations directors, and empowered laypeople in between are in a unique position to make positive change in this area. If I recall correctly, Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe gave a similar assessment in a interview with PT earlier this year.

        However, I stop short at suggestions that abolishing mandatory celibacy is a real solution to this issue. Not only is contemporary psychological research very skeptical of this assertion, but I’ve found that this proposal is often undergirded by a particular view of sexuality, oft promoted in pop culture, that is suspicious or even hostile to such radical commitments to sexual discipline. And I don’t think those in the Church who promote this view have considered how flat out insulting this also is to the millions of religious and consecrated men and women who freely live this life in chaste holiness. Further, I think it presents a rather degrading view of women and marriage, since it reduces them to mere solutions to the problem of a priest’s presumed sexual depravity (a view that I think many sex crime prosecutors would wince at as well).

        Full disclosure, I’m not opposed to the idea of admitting married priests to the Roman Rite in principle, as many holy men serve the Church in this way in the Eastern Rites, Personal Ordinariates, and the Pastoral Provision. But as I’ve said before, there are better arguments for it, and IMHO as a solution to the sex abuse scandal is not one of them all things considered.

  2. Lee Bacchi Avatar
    Lee Bacchi

    Celibacy is not the same as celibacy — celibacy is not the same as chastity?

    1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
      Karl Liam Saur

      And the other c word: continence.

  3. Abe Rosenzweig Avatar
    Abe Rosenzweig

    Number 4 seems a little strange to me, and I’d be interested in learning how Wolf expands on it. It seems odd to discuss celibacy as a feature of cultic purity from days of yore when celibacy was hardly a noted feature of Jewish or Roman Pagan cult. Anyway, if one (supposed) borrowing from these ancient models is worth jettisoning because it “no longer fits our era,” why not any of the many, many others?

    1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
      Karl Liam Saur

      The list is more akin to a PowerPoint eye-holder than anything substantive; as someone who in a former life had to review thousands of PowerPoint presentations from an editorial perspective, I cannot vouch for any trend towards substantive accuracy. Same thing goes for headlines and tables of contents. It can be better to skip right over them.

  4. Gerard Flynn Avatar
    Gerard Flynn

    As well as referring to the biblical period, the list could also gather evidence from the patristic era. For example, there are the two popes (Anastasius 1 [399-401] and Hormisdas [514-523]) whose sons (Innocent I [401-417] and Silverius [536-537/8]) respectively, were also popes. There is too some support for the view that the reference in one of the letters of Leo the Great (440-461) to his ‘beloved son’ is to his biological child.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *