The unvarnished truth about celibacy

Fifty years ago, Bostonians Bill and Mary Manseau exchanged wedding vows. “Exchanged” is the right word, for not so long before Bill and Mary had been known as Father Bill and Sister Thomas Patrick.

To commemorate the occasion their son Peter penned an op-ed in the New York Times Sunday Review, recycling themes from his 2006 book Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son.

Mainly, it’s an attack on the notion of Catholic celibacy. If only married men could become priests or if only those priests could marry, you guys could turn this thing around, is the message conveyed by the Times.

Married priests do exist in the Catholic Church. In the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church, many priests are married, and some converts who were married priests in the Anglican or Lutheran communion have been ordained as Catholic priests.

But Catholic priests of the Latin Rite (most of the world’s Catholics) are expected to be faithful to a vow of celibacy. Even under Pope Francis, it’s that or the highway. Most women feel the same way about their husband’s vow of monogamy.

To the Times and even to some Catholics, this makes no sense. In Manseau’s eyes, his father and mother were “quiet revolutionaries” pioneering a new way of serving the Church.

As things turned out, their guerrilla campaign flopped. Catholic sociologists calculate that weekly attendance at Mass fell from 55 percent of Catholics in 1970, the year after their wedding, to 21 percent in 2018.

The more relevant figures may be these: Catholic marriages fell from 426,000 in 1970 to 143,000 in 2018 and infant baptisms fell from 1.1 million to 615,000. This was clearly the Sexual Revolution at work, for it was long before the sexual abuse scandals emerged. Fewer Catholics were marrying and more Catholics were shacking up – which meant fewer Catholic babies who grew up, married and had children who became Catholic priests.

Manseau’s parents were true revolutionaries, but they were sexual revolutionaries. As for serving the Church, none of their three children remained in it.

For priests (and nuns) the really revolutionary gesture was, is and will be celibacy. It is a sign of radical commitment to the love of God. People can live without sex; what they can’t live without is love. Celibacy is a sign to a world starved of love that an exclusive and permanent commitment to the love of God is worthwhile, and more than worthwhile, the “pearl of great price”. From that flows love of neighbour, a willingness to be a Good Samaritan.

Both marriage and celibacy are vocations, a personal calling from God. Obviously celibacy is only for a few of the world’s billion-plus Catholics. But just as much as marriage, it is a vocation to a loving dedication. Abandoning it is as tragic as a broken marriage. In fact, it’s no accident that defections from the priesthood ran in tandem with defections from marriage. They are both signs of a crisis of Christian commitment which will not be solved by tweaking it to make it less demanding. Marriage was not made more attractive by making divorce easier. Ditto for the priesthood.  

The breakdown of marriage and the family means that many people are growing up with an impoverished experience of love. The trivialising of love as hook-up sex masks its real meaning, which is self-giving, even if it requires sacrifice.

It’s no accident, either, that nearly 80 percent of men and women religious who took their final vows in 2018 had one or more siblings and 45 percent had four or more. Big Catholic families are a greenhouse for vocations of priest and nuns.

It seems obvious that the key to solving the crisis of vocations is reversing the gains of the Sexual Revolution, not surrendering to it.

In any case, numbers don’t tell the whole story. Young men are still becoming priests, despite the scandals. The number of American seminarians has held steady for the past 30 years. The number of adult converts to the Catholic Church has nearly doubled, from 2.9 million in 1970 to 4.6 million last year. Something mysterious is going on here which is not being captured by statistics.

Returning to Sunday’s op-ed page, it would be unfair for Catholics to complain that the New York Times is waging war on the idea of celibacy. Far from it. As a leading propagandist for the Sexual Revolution, it has bigger fish to fry than subverting Catholic teachings. It’s waging a war on continence, on the very idea of restraint in sexual activity. If it weren’t, its editors would have balanced Manseau’s criticisms with an endorsement of till-death-do-us-part marriage, or saving sex for marriage, or big families, or the like.

Instead, it ran an essay on the same day by Australian journalist Julia Baird, “What I Know About Famous Men’s Penises”.

I rest my case.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.


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