Cards on the table: I am not a Catholic, and I believe that
priests should be allowed to marry the Catholic Church should, as a matter of policy and discipline, accept married men as priests. Yet I greatly appreciated Walter Russell Mead’s essay on the value of celibacy. Mead is an Anglican whose father is a priest, which gives you a good idea of where he stands on the issue of clerical celibacy. He begins by laying into the callow, bitchy columns of the New York Times‘s two most prominent anti-Catholic Catholics, Maureen Dowd and Frank Bruni, who continue to write with remarkable stupidity (there really is no other word) about the Church and sexuality. Reading these two in the Times on anything to do with Catholicism is like going to an fancy restaurant and being served those cruddy, cheap Hostess Sno-balls for dessert.
Then Mead delivers some truly thoughtful commentary on celibacy, anti-Catholicism, Christianity, and the meaning of sacrificing one’s sexual life for the sake of Christ. I can’t begin to sum up his case, but it’s well worth reading, no matter what you believe on the issue. This ending is very, very good:
Bruni doesn’t even think this idea is worth discussing; as far as I can tell, there are no ‘brides of Christ’ in his world view, only delusional and embittered old maids. The argument boils down to this: since human beings can’t be satisfied or fulfilled by relationships with God, celibacy has no point. It subtracts but it does not add. The celibate priest or nun is running away from normal human life and running toward… nothing.
Bruni is of course entitled to his opinion, and it’s one that many great scholars and philosophers have held. God either doesn’t exist or is so much in the background of things that he might as well not be there at all. Satisfaction is to be sought in the here and now; this life on earth offers all we need and in any case is all we have. Forget all this talk of mystical unions with Christ, forget the ecstasies of the saints, the Beatific Vision, the dream of fulfilling your life by picking up your cross and following Christ as closely as you can. Find an age-appropriate spouse of whatever gender works for you, and lead the rich and satisfying life of an upper middle class professional who enjoys the newspaper of record, and try not to think about old age, death, or anything else that suggests that the natural order is either incomplete or flawed.
This is a perfectly coherent point of view, but it is not very rational to suggest it to the Catholic Church. Bruni’s argument against celibacy is predicated on the disappearance of God; he is giving the Church advice on how to organize its affairs in the absence of Christ.
If Bruni is right, we shouldn’t just get rid of priestly celibacy. We should get rid of priests. We should turn our churches into art museums. Perhaps a few should stay open for the old people and the poor people and the semi-literate immigrants still bitterly clinging to their missals and their rosaries, but the Catholic Church is of value only insofar as it adds texture and color to the wonderful pageant of civilized modern life.
A lot of modern and progressive thinking people think this way in America and beyond; it’s a safe bet that the new pope, whoever he is, won’t agree.
This ex-Catholic says: Thanks be to God for that!