A few months ago, I had never heard of Alberto Cutie. He is apparently a popular Spanish-speaking Catholic priest in Miami that was caught necking with a woman. Interestingly, he refused to become the Poster Boy for the celibacy requirement of Roman Catholic priests. Less surprisingly, he has since left the Roman Catholic Church to become an Episcopalian pastor. Despite his desire not to become a living, breathing reason to question the Catholic requirement, the departure of a popular priest who had the misfortune to fall in love becomes just that. Of course, those most likely to consider his relevance are those that already don’t agree with the celibacy requirement.

I am generally loathe to make declarations about what groups that I do not belong to ought to do. It becomes sort of like when Republicans used to give “advice” to the Democrats about how to reverse their fortunes. The same sort of advice (from the other direction) that Democrats are giving Republicans now. The problem with such advice is that it ranges from biased to disingenuous. People that lecture a group about what it should be with no real intention of joining said group simply don’t have the standing to have their advice received. Having no vested interest in the success of the group and therefore being immune to the negative repercussions of their advice (if followed), in addition to being biased and disingenuous the advice is simply bad. The churches that do everything the non-churchgoing, irreligious people say that churches should do to grow and stay relevant instead shrink and become less relevant. So I take the point of view that the discussion of matters such as priestly celibacy is the church’s to have.

All of that being said, what point is a blog if not for saying pointless things that you don’t have the standing to say? I’m partially kidding. Though my thoughts are unlikely to be received by anyone that matters, I think that it is interesting to investigate the effect that such requirements have on a pool of candidates.

It seems to me that these requirements would broadly produce candidates that fall into one of two categories: People willing to give themselves over completely to God despite the onerous requirements and people for whom the requirement is, for one reason or another, not much of a sacrifice. The first group are often precisely the people you want as priests. The second group includes others that you might want, too. People that are naturally asexual, homosexual disinclined to act on it, and widowers. The latter group also includes people that you really, really don’t want. I don’t think that there is much need to elaborate on that.

But as important as the quality of candidates is the quantity. The shortage of priests in the United States is well-known. I’ve read statistics suggesting 1 in 4 American parishes do not have priests, a statistic that seems awfully high but even if it is it is a problem that’s getting worse. But I’ve read that despite its dwindling membership that The Episcopal Church has a shortage of its own. And some are arguing that the problem is one of distribution rather than numbers:

In fact, says Fr. Paul Sullins, the level of lay involvement, combined with increased use of deacons and falling rates of church participation among the nation’s 66.4 million Catholics, makes the whole question of a priest shortage not a crisis, but a manageable problem.

“It’s not a national shortage,” said Sullins, a married former Episcopal priest and father of three who was ordained into the Catholic church in May 2002. Rather, “it’s a shortage in certain dioceses” resulting from a “poor distribution of priests.”

“If the priests were evenly distributed among the country there would be at least one … per parish. The number of parishioners has grown a lot in the past 40 years, but the number of parishes has not grown as much.”

So it’s possible that even with the requirement they can pick up the slack with deacons and better distributions. Or by consolidating parishes. Or a bunch of other ways. The celibacy requirement seems to have become part of the character of the church and I could definitely see how it would be unwise to uproot that out of short-term utilitarianism when there are always going to be ways to compensate for it.

Religious traditions are traditions and our perceptions of normalcy are often simply the product of the environment in which we were raised. The reason that I remain a member of my church (albeit a… relaxed one…) is because it is what is normal to me. If I go to a charismatic protestant service, the jumping up and down and clapping and all that comes across to me as a bit of a spectacle. I’ve always felt more at home in Catholic services due in large part to their similarities to Episcopalian. But what I see as the idiosyncrasies of the Catholic Church are… well… precisely involving the areas in which it differs from my own.

So with that in mind I can respect the differences between the Catholic and Episcopalian churches and the value they put on the differences. But I nonetheless do want to advocate one major point that, even if there weren’t a question of shortages or a sex abuse scandal or anything like that, makes me appreciate the protestant way of doing things. I like the fact that the pastors in my church are, to some extent, one of us. I think that it helps them relate to the lives of the parishioners that they have imperfect marriages and children just like we do (or will). While I can appreciate the appeal of priests that are above (or apart from) that sort of thing, I think that there is value in a priests ability to better relate to the people that he is preaching to. In the Mormon church (as well as many protestant denominations), they go a step further and don’t have professional clergy and instead have members of the congregation appointed to the position and so they not only have the wife and kids but also the job and mortgage (Episcopal pastors have their housing taken care of).

In that vein, I found the aforelinked Slate piece by Michael Sean Winters to be puzzling in one respect:

In fact, ending celibacy would bring on a different set of problems and issues. Priests earn very little money, making supporting a family, let alone sending a child to college, seem impossible. Would salaries go up, and are the people in the pews willing to pay for that? The first time a priest abandons his wife and children, people would be clamoring for the good old days when priests did not marry.

Keeping in mind that I go to the church of rich people, is this really an issue? Episcopal pastors support families including a wife who rarely ever works (my own church growing up had one pastor whose wife worked… it caused problems). Divorce rates amongst clergy are generally pretty low, particularly in conservative denominations where losing your family can mean losing your jobs. This isn’t exactly uncharted territory. But I guess it would be for Catholics, and that is not unimportant. Amongst the laypeople, Catholics are not much less likely to divorce than average. That could be said to say that they would get over the first priestly divorce… or to say (as Winters does) that celibacy is a way to shield their pastors from such common human failings.

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10 Responses to The Celibacy Requirement

  1. Becky says:

    I think the difficulty is that Catholic priests use to allow marriage and then chose not to, as priests were willing their lands/fortunes to their families and not back to the church, so if it was okay then, why not now? Also, it’s pretty renown that many priests, even high ranking ones, have kept women on the side and produced illegitimate children — and then there’s also the whole molestation issue. We’re wired to be with a partner and to deny that doesn’t usually seem to lead to much good.

    For me, I don’t think a priest need to give up being a relationship with a woman to be committed to God and his parish. Every other christian religion allows it and seems to be just fine. I like your point about how Protestant leaders seem more relatable — “like us” — b/c I’ve always felt disconnected from every Catholic priest I’ve ever met. Like they have this different idea of reality than the average person.

  2. Barry says:

    I’ve always wondered what was Biblical about the restriction, if anything at all? Was there ever a verse or teaching in the Bible that hinted that higher-level priests/scribes/teachers should “marry the church” and not a woman? Sounds like all the arguments against it boil down to logistics, tradition and money. Not a whole lot to do with, you know, God in those three reasons.

    Let’s flip the coin – what about nuns? Should they get the same consideration as well?

    Perhaps there could still be certain monestaries and convents that require their participants to be celibate in order to purge all earthly thoughts and needs in favor of spiritual guidance, but that’s at the discretion of those priests and nuns that wish to join.

    Finally, Will, I don’t think we should have a problem critiquing (not necessarily criticizing) practices in others’ beliefs of customs simply because we don’t belong. Serious question of any subject can only increase understanding of it, and that’s always a good thing. If a Baptist wants to offer his/her opinion on why they think Methodists shouldn’t sprinkle and only submerge, I’d be glad to discuss and compare the two traditions. Maybe both of us would learn something.

  3. trumwill says:

    so if it was okay then, why not now?

    I think that the position is that it was not okay then. And it’s quite possible that back then as the church was so much more influential that it had to be done*. But that’s less the case now, it seems to me.

    I’ve always wondered what was Biblical about the restriction, if anything at all? Was there ever a verse or teaching in the Bible that hinted that higher-level priests/scribes/teachers should “marry the church” and not a woman?

    My understanding was that it does not have biblical roots but instead was more of an administrative decision. Catholic readers can correct me on that if I’m mistaken.

    More to come…

    * – In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, it is customary for Wizards never to marry. It was first presented as mostly relating to the ineptitude of wizards, but later it was revealed that there was sort of a decision along the way to attach a stigma to that to prevent the escalation of power through wizardrous mating.

  4. web says:

    The problem for the Catholic Church is as follows:

    – Originally, the priesthood wasn’t limited only to people of religious orders. Members of religious orders commonly (and now universally among Catholics, due to consolidations/extinctions of the monastic orders that didn’t) take vows of piety/obedience, poverty, and yes chastity.

    – During the middle ages, as stated above, there were issues with “hereditary” priesthoods, property/title being left to sons rather than going to deserving individuals, monetary scams/charges being made (the practice of “indulgences”, or paying a priest money to confess certain sins, as an example).

    – The end result: during the reformations following Martin Luther’s split, the Catholic church began restricting who could be a priest. The monasteries, which had run seminaries, began refusing to graduate anyone from seminary who wasn’t a part of their order. Without graduating seminary, you couldn’t be ordained a priest (thanks to the hierarchy as it had developed). So today, you have the religious orders (with their vows of piety, chastity, poverty, etc) monopolizing who can become a priest, and thereby also who can become a bishop or Pope.

    When the Pope says he sees the celibacy/poverty requirements as “time-honored tradition”, it’s because he came up through the system. When he defends such a system, there is at least some “I had to do it so they all should too” inside his ultimate “this is the way it should be” conclusion.

    That being said, not only is the celibacy thing NOT in the bible, but it’s contradicted rather explicitly. 1 Timothy 3:2 and 12, for instance, state: “2 The overseer [model for the “priests” later] then must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, an able teacher,
    12 Deacons must be husbands of one wife and good managers of their children and their own households.” The only other bible verse to reference celibacy, 1 Corinthians 7:1-7, is a reference to a group of people who had taken the “model” of Paul (who embraced celibacy) way too far – and of the various book writers and apostles, it’s also important to remember that most of them (all of the original Apostles except for John) were in fact married.

    Also, speaking originally, many of the monastic vows were not “for life.” Someone entering the monastery started out without vows, learning about the order and living with them, and then were either asked to leave or invited to become a “novice”, for further training. It was only after 6 months as a “novice” that they were allowed to take their first vows (for a 1-year period), then the semipermanent (renewed every 4 years) vows, and only the most dedicated and respected were allowed to take the “unbreakable” lifetime vows (usually upon assuming some major duty, such as abbot or mother superior of a particular monastery, or becoming head of the order itself). Most people obviously didn’t get to that point, and either would leave the monastery and enter normal life (and presumably be at least open to the possibility of marriage and family) after one of their terms was up, or would take “permanent” vows after becoming a priest and assigned to a parish somewhere.

    Overall, I don’t see where the celibacy thing is helping in modern times. There are plenty of monks/sisters who leave their monastic orders later in life and find someone to marry. There are even priests who do this. Plus, while there’s the deal about how priests’ salaries are “very low”, there are plenty of two-family households out there and plenty of low-income households out there, and the indicators from other denominations indicate that monetary concerns shouldn’t be the major reason to prohibit priests from marriage. If anything, given that a good deal of seminary school involves training in marital counseling, one would think priests would be better prepared for marriage than others.

  5. Peter says:

    Some degree of parish consolidation would be necessary if the Catholic Church allowed married priests. Parishes with few members would find it difficult to raise enough money to pay a married priest the higher salary that he would need. Consolidating parishes has become a highly controversial issue, with parishioners sometimes going so far as to stage sit-ins in the churches scheduled to close. Parishioner opposition might be less if the reasons for the closing were because of the financial changes needed to accommodate married priests, but that’s no guarantee.

  6. web says:


    at least part of that problem would be fixed if priests were not double-taxed by the US (their wages are hit as “employees” by both State and Federal taxes, and then doubled up on by treating them as “self employed” when it comes to Social Security taxation). Another part of it is that priests usually also receive (in addition to their basic pay) a set of living-expense allowances for things like room and board, transportation (usually with access to a specific Parish vehicle), and so on.

    Yes, it’s on the lower end of the spectrum – but again, plenty of parents raise children on a $30k/year salary. It may mean being a two-income household, or some other workaround, but it happens and I am extremely disheartened by the Church telling anyone, at any point, that the basis for telling people they can or can’t marry (whether they are priests or not) is money.

  7. Kirk says:

    In all seriousness, isn’t celibacy pretty much the default? I mean, you have to work at meeting someone to meet someone, right? Rather than giving up something, being celibate seems like a lazy and carefree lifestyle.

  8. web says:


    “work at meeting someone”, quite often, is a matter of getting oneself out of the house. Any priest who gets out of the monastery once in a while is going to do this. A priest who has their own parish is going to be constantly meeting with people – going to volunteer in the community, at weddings and other special occasions, before/after mass, when teaching adult bible study classes, when organizing singles’ retreats, etc. Priests, as a general rule, are as involved in the community as can be. The chance of a priest meeting someone, falling in love, is actually pretty high. That’s part of what makes the “a priest must remain celibate” bit so crazy/difficult as opposed to members of certain monastic orders (excepting the Franciscans, who also make a point of making their members get out into the community, work, and volunteer like mad), and why it is that a decently large number of priests eventually do “laicize” themselves (obtain permission to stop “actively” being a priest since the ordainment is considered permanent, formally obtain permission to “break” their vows of chastity and poverty, from both the Vatican and the head of their Order) and get married later in life.

    You might ask what work a priest could do outside the church? Remember, part of seminary school involves an incredible number of courses on counseling. There’s child counseling, teen counseling, marital counseling, interpersonal counseling – in any number of counseling fields a priest could fit in quite well. They also have to have developed a set of organizational skills that make them very suitable as directors for various volunteer/nonprofit agencies (not pulling in a “high” salary, but again, they’re not likely to be hung up on possessions and quite comfortable on less than many people would be).

  9. Barry says:

    In all seriousness, isn’t celibacy pretty much the default? I mean, you have to work at meeting someone to meet someone, right? Rather than giving up something, being celibate seems like a lazy and carefree lifestyle.

    Well, all humans are hard-wired with the instinct to procreate so it’s not the default. The problem lies in, for us, finding someone to procreate with that we’re attracted to and are attracted to us. In animals it’s not a problem since they don’t care – we lay upon ourselves morality and vanity and status and other emotional barriers that prevent us from doing what comes naturally.

    I’m not saying these barriers are bad, especially the moral ones, just that they separate us from our natural instincts. It’s the point of vowed celibacy to prove one’s dedication to God by vowing to permanently resist those instincts. Chosen celibacy is far from lazy and carefree, it requires dedication. I don’t think it’s a necessary requirement to be a devout leader in the church, as proved by the many other denominational leaders who have wives and husbands…

    Of course, as for those who are celibate simply because they can’t find anyone that wants them – that’s not celibacy, that’s just being unlucky…

  10. trumwill says:

    Finally, Will, I don’t think we should have a problem critiquing (not necessarily criticizing) practices in others’ beliefs of customs simply because we don’t belong.

    Fair enough. But it’s tricky. Baptists (presumably) think that Catholics should change their practices to become… well… Baptists. And vice-versa. And Republicans used to argue that Democrats should become… more like the GOP. And now the reverse is happening.

    Anyway, I think that there is a right and a wrong way to approach the subject. Before telling the Catholic Church how it should conduct its business, one should really become a lot more familiar with why they have the practices that they do. Instead, what ends up happening is that people make suggestions based on their own views and priorities without regard to how deeply incompatible they may be with the organization to whom they are doling out advice.

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