Away With Celibacy
From the time of the crucifixion of Jesus the Nazarene, to that of the inception of the now infant church, to that of the promulgation of the now Christian sect, and until this very present day, the West and the East have never seen eye to eye. That is, perhaps, to understate the matter audaciously. Better yet, through the course of some two thousand years, every one of them as tumultuous and acrimonious as the last, the Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches have quarreled tooth and nail over millennia and over a great many things.
For the sake of brevity, though, these great many things can be reduced to three. First, and in the minds of most theologians, of greatest import and fundamental concern, is the question of the Holy Spirit. To the Christian pedant amongst us, if still he exists, the issue will be better known to him as the controversy of the filioque. To all others, it’ll be remembered as the last straw before a schism nine centuries before our own.
This particular issue dealt with the emanation of the Holy Spirit. Granting its existence, did it proceed exclusively from the Father, as had been the conclusion drawn by the oldest of church elders at the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople, or was it something secreted by the Son as well? That’s precisely what in Latin the term filioque means—“and the son”. Who, aside from a meticulous religious zealot, would’ve thought that three measly little words would go on to split Europe in two? Ultimately, that’s exactly what happened and East and West haven’t yet healed their sixth-century wounds.
The question of the outpouring of the Spirit brought to loggerheads a still young Christian nation as it hadn’t been since the days of Arius, when that firecracker of a heretic made his bold claim. Oddly, the very council that was meant to nip in the bud that clever Egyptian’s enticing heresy went on to spawn an even greater headache than there had existed before. While Arianism was eventually cut low by Athanasius’s arguments and Constantine’s stamp, the seeds of schism were planted at the Turkish city of Nicaea.
Ever an officious and disputatious group, those priests and bishops who had succeeded the original representatives at Nicaea and then Constantinople simply couldn’t agree which way to go. The question remained as to whether the Father alone exuded the Holy Spirit, of if He shared this emanation with his stigmata-bearing Son? To plant one’s flag in the ground of the former was to become a partisan of orthodoxy and the East; to do so for the latter was to embrace Rome and the Catholic faith.
The second issue dividing Rome and Constantinople, Avignon and Kiev had to do with food and with flesh. More specifically, it pertained to the first transmuting into the next. Much was there ado about a small piece of crust or, rather, a consecrated slice of “Wonder bread”, as it ought to have been called. Not to be overly flippant, this was no ordinary morsel. It wasn’t to be popped thoughtlessly and hungrily into the mouth. This was the Eucharist, the literal and corporal manifestation of Christ. In the shape of a wafer, over which a few holy words had danced, a devoted congregation witnessed the emergence of His body and His very form. Doubtless, the two sides of this influential and growing religion should’ve come to some agreement as to whether or not this “body” was to be made plump and chewy with the addition of yeast or resigned to the crunchy status of a saltine.
The Slavs and the Russians, needing a heartier snack in the colder climes of the north, opted for bread that was leavened. This kind of rib-sticking eating might carry them through a Siberian cold front, so long as it was washed down with their national drink—vodka—that ersatz wine of the chilly northeast. The Italians, French, and Spanish, on the other hand, communed with unleavened bread. Each frowned upon the other’s understanding and application of transubstantiation. The West saw its Eucharist as being more authentically “Christ”, for it was the type that he and his fellow Jews ate at the Passover meal. The East claimed apostolic tradition as its reason for the baked inclusion of the yeast. Perhaps it merely boiled down to subtle anti-Semitism, with the latter wanting to be ever so slightly less “Jewish” than the Judeo-Christians who’d come before. To win the distinction, they’d be willing to pay the price of the sacrament’s authenticity.
The third point of departure between East and West, and what I consider to be the most relevant issue of our own day, was the question of celibacy and priests. While the Eastern Church countenanced this primal urge of man, the Catholics forbade it outright. In the Latin West, clerical marriage and its attendant sexual relations were opposed from on high and from an early stage. So too was concubinage and philandering, but one needn’t be St. Augustine to understand why this second proscription was put into place. The first, though, demands our deeper investigation.
The thought held by the Church leaders who were now sermonizing in the West was that a priest would be lost if he found marital love. He’d become dissolute, unfocused, and filled with sin. He would fail in his religious duties by confusing his two loves—that of the flesh and that of the faith. The one would bring upon him a wild tumescence, and what man—be he holy or lay—wouldn’t want that? The other, that is, the faith, would confine him to a sexually-repressed subservience at the foot of an invisible king. Both pulled with equal but opposite weight toward that which was natural on the one hand, and numinous on the other. So long as both gripped him at one arm and its countervailing leg, he’d be forever in a tension between the two.
Wanting to relieve this tortured cleric of his natural propensity to romance and therefore sin, the Church sought to deny him the temptation from the start. Subject to the Church’s oversight, his devotion was to be directed toward his ecclesiastical rather than his physical wife. He was to be denied family and kin and that which makes man a man. Above all, he wouldn’t be allowed to have a child. In the far-seeing mind of the Church, the thought of a horde of clerical offspring running afoot posed a real threat.
The Church—having developed tendencies toward acquisitiveness and greed—certainly didn’t want him to have a boy of his own. It didn’t want a competitor upon whom he would shower his adoration and, more importantly, his possessions at the time of his death. Nor did the Church want bequeathed from one generation to the next this particular priest’s ecclesiastical titles and roles. The rationale was that the Catholic Church wanted to avoid the formation of a new clerical “caste” system—in whose mold places like India and Africa had already shaped themselves to ill-effect. Should such a system be given room to grow in the Latin hemisphere, the papacy (which was happy to be sole proprietor and executor of the religious See) would be put into a compromised state; it would be made to contest with a new, economically powerful hereditary class of preachers’ sons.
For those reasons, upon taking his holy orders, the Catholic priest was to be henceforth chaste. In all but name, he was to become a functional eunuch. With the draping of the vestments and the donning of the cloth, his virile instrument was to become vestigial; his unhappy penis, superfluous; his most amorous member, resigned for naught. Sexual abstinence on the one hand, religious obeisance on the other—that would be the new and only way forward in this world toward that of God’s. It would save him from all of those lurking sexually-compromising situations into which a lesser man might fall. At the same time, it would serve for his flock an example impossible to achieve.
Impossible, I say, because chastity is the most unnatural of all the sexual perversions. And, in light of the recent and horrifying sexual abuse scandals that’ve emerged from the Catholic Church, that’s saying quite a lot. I won’t recount them here, as I haven’t the stomach to do so again, but the perversions are as heinous as they are various. That said, I can’t help but think that the imposition of clerical chastity hasn’t played a big part in making them all the more common and all the worse. And though all denominations and religions (be they Jewish, Buddhist, or Islamic) are complicit in the predation and abuse of their vulnerable and young, I have to believe that these molestations are made worse and more common when they come from an organization explicitly committed to the sexual repression of its employees.
As you might’ve guessed, those adherents of the church of the Orthodox East do things rather differently when it comes to their men, their women, and their sex. Much like later Protestants, Orthodox Christians permit the marital and sexual pursuits of their priests (within the bounds of normal, civil congress, of course). That’s not to say, of course, that neither the Protestant nor the Eastern Orthodox cleric isn’t at times guilty of the types of carnal sins that we’ve come to attribute to the Catholic bishop. Doubtless, he is. It becomes, however, a matter of repetition and scale. One must consider the ubiquity and the regularity with which these sexual abuses happen in the Catholic Church when compared with those other houses of worship. And on those metrics, Rome appears to be leading the field by a sizable margin.
My resolution? Permit Catholic priests to pursue adult women, at adult times, in adult settings, who can consent with adult agency to love that is freely offered and voluntarily returned. There must be reciprocity without coercion, decency without sacerdotal pressure. Rather than preying on boys and girls who are ten, twenty, thirty, forty, maybe even fifty years their junior, allow them to marry as any well-adjusted man might be keen to do. This was the approach, after all, of the earliest of Church fathers; for the first three centuries of Christianity’s existence, celibacy wasn’t required of its priests. It was a rarity, if not an abomination, if it existed at all. The same might’ve been said about pederasty at that time, but can’t equally be averred in our own day.
While I haven’t an immediate dog in this fight (being neither Catholic nor Greek, but a shameless agnostic to the quick), I would offer my Catholic neighbors some secular advice. I would tell them to rethink their attachment to clerical celibacy; it’s a clearly failing goal. I would advise them to look not only to the past of their own religion for guidance, where they’ll find Church elders far different from and more respectable than those they see before them today, but to the East as well. Build a bridge over that ancient schism and borrow from Byzantium those ideas that are more consistent with and sympathetic to the nature of man. The filioque dispute and the unleavened bread quibble are small beans in comparison. The future of Catholicism depends on a change. Celibacy must go.