No Wedding Bells for Catholic Priests

G. Philip Hughes (Ambassador to Barbados and Eastern Caribbean, 1990-1993)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Hughes’ March 26, 2013 opinion piece as published in U.S. News & World Report.


The Catholic Church has received ample focus in the last two months, between Pope Benedict’s surprise resignation and the election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis, the first pope from Latin America.

These dramatic events have evoked torrents of commentary about the Church, ranging across issues far beyond the papal succession. And, predictably, a good many of those commentaries have revealed Catholicism’s remarkable capacity to drive some otherwise sane men (and women) absolutely nuts.

Take Bret Stephens’ March 14 Wall Street Journal column, “A Church, If You Can Keep It.” Stephens, to my mind, is an almost unfailingly insightful columnist whose arguments are generally penetrating and trenchant. More often than not, I agree with his analysis, and I almost never fail to learn from his columns.

To be fair, Stephens opened his pre-papal-election commentary with the admonition that non-members of a religion should comment on it in much the way that porcupines make love: very carefully. So, while carefully tripping through Catholicism’s recent years of sex abuse scandals and revelations—as heart-breaking and dispiriting for the faithful as they’ve been lucrative for trial lawyers and glee-filled for those who glory in sneering at others struggling to live righteously—Stephens came to this startling curative: “The obvious and needful solution is to abolish the celibacy of the priesthood, a stricture that all but guarantees the sorts of sordid outcomes” that he had just chronicled.

But wait a minute! The John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s exhaustive study of sexual misconduct by Catholic priests, commissioned in 2002 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (and accurately cited by Stephens) makes clear that just over 80 percent of the victims in these abuse cases are males, mostly between the ages of 11 and 17. In the 52 years between 1950 and 2002 (with most cases having occurred between 1960 and 1984), the 4392 priests against whom at least one abuse allegation had been made represented four percent of the total number of priests serving in the U.S. during those years. This is roughly the same rate at which sexual misconduct charges against men occur in society at large and is comparable to the experience of clergy of other faiths.

The priestly abuse problem has clearly and preponderantly been a homosexual one. So, the solution is … married priests? Or at least permitting priests to marry? Certainly,  nobody thinks that homosexually inclined men are going to be ‘converted’ by marriage. Apart from being contradicted by all experience, such a notion would be laughable to adherents of the contemporary cannon of homosexual ideology. What a quaint and condescending notion!

Enlarging the pool of ‘eligibles’ to those who want to marry might make it easier for the Catholic Church to say ‘no’ to homosexual candidates for the priesthood. But, ironically, the Church—thanks to lawsuit settlements and moral imperatives—is being impelled to exclude homosexuals from ministry at a time when, in every other walk of life, the impetus is to include homosexuals in everything and to prevent discrimination against them.

And what of the implication that homosexual priests manifestly prey on and victimize underage young men? How is it that this is such an acute problem only when homosexual men train in seminaries and are ordained? Because it’s a cardinal tenet of contemporary social policy and jurisprudence that homosexuals pose no danger, moral or otherwise, to the welfare of children. To suggest the contrary—something that only the bravest or most foolhardy would do—would imply that today’s widespread homosexual adoption and child-rearing would be tantamount to state-sanctioned child endangerment, another anathema within homosexual ideology. This ‘sleeping dog’ implication of the priestly sex abuse scandals will, predictably, remain undisturbed.

Of course, marriage would completely change both the economics and the priorities of Catholic priesthood. Every married man’s family must be his first priority. This means satisfying the economic needs and demands of wife and children—a fundamental challenge to the cost-structure of ministering to the Catholic faithful. Priesthood would become much like any other job, with motivations for higher paying positions and ways to eke more money out of the role taking precedence. Pondering this possibility reminds us of one of the chief reasons—besides sacrifice, mortification, discipline and tradition—that Catholic priests are unmarried in the first place: their first and over-riding priority is ministering to the faithful. Changing priests’ civil status will change their priorities, inevitably.

Naturally, those who suggest abolishing the stricture of priestly celibacy claim to have only the best interests of the Catholic Church in mind, helping it save itself from a tradition-bound cul-de-sac freighted with recurrent, tragic implications. But in light of the paradoxes and contradictions between the nature of the problem and the proposed remedy, and the implications of that remedy for the Church’s future operation, it makes one wonder.