A peculiar practice?
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Date: 13 April, 2006

'I recently heard a TV presenter describe Isaac Newton as ‘a lifelong virgin’ with the same kind of shocked incredulity with which she might have said that he swapped his children for a pair of navy socks.


With the number of Roman Catholic priests declining, Steve Tomkins debunks a few myths about celibacy and the Catholic Church.

In the sitcom Peep Show, about a couple of lads sharing a flat, Jeremy is delighted to find himself in a very physical relationship with a gorgeous American girl called Nancy.

He is even more delighted when it turns out that she is committed to breaking every taboo there is in their times together, and more delighted still when she suggests they move on to the greatest taboo of all. He’s less impressed to discover that the ultimate taboo is celibacy.

Nancy has a point though. The idea of sex has become such an obsession, such a core principle of the modern west that there is something scandalous about the idea that someone should choose to renounce it, something not unlike heresy.

I recently heard a TV presenter describe Isaac Newton as ‘a lifelong virgin’ with the same kind of shocked incredulity with which she might have said that he swapped his children for a pair of navy socks.

Couple this sexual taboo with religion, and their union is bound to beget lively controversy. And so we have the debate in the Roman Catholic Church and outside it on priestly celibacy. Why no ‘special cuddles’ for the clergy? Is it time for a change, and will that change happen?


There’s one thing to clear up right from the start, which often confuses non-Catholics, and some Catholics for that matter. That is the difference between what the Church calls ‘discipline’ - and not in the Opus Dei, daily whipping sense of the word - and ‘doctrine’.

Doctrine is - at least in theory - unchangeable truth that always has been and always will be the same. The rule that you have to be baptised to be in the church comes under that heading. Discipline, on the other hand, is the rules that the church sets in one time and place, and these can be changed.

Clerical celibacy is a matter of discipline, not doctrine. This means that Rome is quite free to change the rules, without getting ecclesiastical egg on its face.

And it is quite feasible that it might. Cardinal Cormac Murph-O’Connor, the Bishop of Westminster, said in 2000 'Is [marriage] incompatible with priesthood? The answer is obviously no. I would not rule it out. The matter will come up again.'

But this distinction also undermines many other popular arguments against clerical celibacy. One such argument goes: 'It’s clear from the New Testament that St Peter had a wife. If the Pope of Popes was married then isn’t demanding priestly celibacy a bit of a contradiction?'

Rome says, no, celibacy was then an individual calling but as time went by it became appropriate to make it a general rule.


Another argument is: 'Rome has allowed married Anglican priests to convert with wives in tow (or towed by them for that matter). Isn’t that a contradiction?' No again, comes the tip from the top, there have always been exceptions to the rule.

Married men can become priests in Eastern-Rite Catholicism, as in Eastern Orthodoxy. A similar exception for men converting from non-celibate priesthoods seems reasonable.

A more compelling reason why Rome is urged to give its consent to holiest matrimony is the scandal of priestly paedophilia. There is no overstating the enormity of this crime, but perhaps we should not overstate its link with celibacy - men do not only become paedophiles because they are forbidden to marry.

But all-male enclosures might obviously give it encouragement, and this has to be sufficient reason for a rethink.

But as a non-Catholic probably my greatest reservation about clerical celibacy is that historically it is rooted in such an unnecessarily and unhealthily negative view of sex. The church picked this up in the Roman Empire, and it found expression in St Augustine. He taught that it is impossible even for married couples to have sex without sinning and that babies are born damned because they are conceived in lust.

It is this kind of attitude that makes me hope the Catholic Church will change it teaching on celibacy. Then again as a non-Catholic, they’re likely to think it’s none of my business, and they wouldn’t be wrong.


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