Two Popes and a Cardinal, on the Problems With Celibacy.

At the heart of Catholic teaching on sexuality, is the principle that every sexual act must be open to procreation. This simple premise, so deeply embedded in all church documents on the subject, is fraught with difficulties for all Catholics, married or unmarried, straight or gay, I’ve dealt with several of these before, but here I want to discuss only the core problem for gay men and lesbians – it leaves them with no approved option except lifelong sexual abstinence – and how Popes John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Cardinal Walter Kasper have all written about the major problems associated with compulsory celibacy.

John Paul II: Celibacy Should be Voluntary

John Paul’s “Theology of the Body”, with its strong emphasis on the gender binary and complementarity as the basis of marriage, is frequently cited by opponents of gay marriage. However, directly stated in the text, is an admission that celibacy (that is, complete sexual abstinence) is difficult and can only be voluntary, not imposed.

The entire Theology of the Body was originally presented as a series of weekly general audiences. Beginning with number 73,through to 87, John Paul dealt extensively with the relative values of marriage and “celibacy” (a word he uses interchangeably with “continence”).

He bases his discussion on Christ’s words in Matthew replying to the disciples who said, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry” (Mt 19:10). Jesus’ familiar response is:

“Not all men can receive the precept, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it” (Mt 19:11-12).

Elaborating on this, John Paul specifically refers to “voluntary” continence, and goes on to state that the precise words in Christ’s response

“clearly indicate the importance of personal choice and also the importance of the particular grace, that is, of the gift which man makes to make such a choice”

 – (my emphasis) Read the original text at EWTN

John Paul is writing specifically in a context where celibacy is contrasted with marriage. Elsewhere, he waxes lyrical about the value of celibacy – for those who capable of it. But, like St Paul before him, he acknowledges that it is not possible for all, and agrees in effect, that for those, “it is better to marry than to burn”.

Benedict XVI admitted, celibacy is difficult, even for priests

If John Paul is correct, that celibacy is only viable when voluntary and accompanied by a particular grace, then one would expect that priests above all, who have deliberately chosen the life and received special graces at ordination, would be best able to cope with it. But Pope Benedict acknowledged, in his book – length interview “Light of the World”, that celibacy is difficult even for priests, but made easier when they live in community, able to support each other.

I believe that celibacy becomes a very meaningful sign, and above all becomes possible to live, when priests form communities. It is important for priests not to live off on their own somewhere, in isolation, but to accompany one another in small communities, to support one another, and so to experience, and constantly realize afresh, their communion in service to Christ, and in renunciation for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven.

- “Light of the World”, interview

For John Paul, his context was that of celibacy as opposed to marriage. For Benedict, it’s priests, who have taken a deliberate and voluntary vow promise of celibacy, when they accepted ordination. Yet even for them, Benedict admits that celibacy is difficult, unless they live in community. This is bad enough for parish priests living alone in a parish presbytery, without the recommended community to support them. How much more difficult is it for lay Catholics, who have not been given that grace at ordination, who have not made a deliberate and voluntary choice of celibacy, who are unable to live in a suitable community – and who are viewed with suspicion or even hostility, if they choose to live with one other, in a committed and supportive relationship?

Cardinal Kasper: (Celibacy) as an “Heroic Act”

If, as Benedict admits, celibacy is difficult when attempt alone, then one theoretically viable choice for lesbian or gay Catholics would be to live in a loving and committed partnership with another of like mind. But even for those couples, without the special grace described by John Paul, celibacy is difficult.

In an interview with Commonweal, Cardinal Walter Kasper discussed precisely this difficulty in a different context – that of those who have divorced, and remarried. This will be a major them for the forthcoming Extraordinary Synod on Marriage and the Family, in which Kasper will play a leading role, and which took up the bulk of his keynote  speech to the cardinals at the recent consistory in Rome.

The real problem with divorce, in the eyes of the Church, is not simply the breakdown of a marriage, or even a new relationship, but the sexual relationship that goes with it, which is seen as adultery. That problem disappears if the couple in the second marriage avoid such physical intimacy, living together in celibacy, as brother and sister. Is such restraint possible? Not usually, says Kasper..

To live together as brother and sister? Of course I have high respect for those who are doing this. But it’s a heroic act, and heroism is not for the average Christian. That could also create new tensions. Adultery is not only wrong sexual behavior. It’s to leave a familiaris consortio, a communion, and to establish a new one. But normally it’s also the sexual relations in such a communion, so I can’t say whether it’s ongoing adultery. Therefore I would say, yes, absolution is possible. Mercy means God gives to everybody who converts and repents a new chance.


The problem of celibacy, for lesbians and gay men

So. The two most recent popes, neither of them known for his progressive views on sexual issues, and a senior cardinal who will play a prominent role in guiding the synod on marriage and the family, all accept that there are serious difficulties in attempting to impose compulsory celibacy. None of these are thinking of same – sex relationships. In their own specific contexts each has a solution. For John Paul, the solution is simple – marriage. For Benedict, it’s to live in a supportive community. For Kasper, it’s for the Church to show a quality of mercy, accepting that a sexual relationship in second marriage should not necessarily be seen as adulterous.

None of these possibilities are offered by the church to lesbian and gay Catholics. What then, are we to do?

That,  I leave to my next post.



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11 comments for “Two Popes and a Cardinal, on the Problems With Celibacy.

  1. Robert Bardin
    May 17, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    You mention the ”vow of celibacy”. No wuch vow exists. There is the ”vow of chastity” which monks and nuns make,and the ”promise of celibacy” which Roman-rite priests make. A promise is not a vow at all. Unfortunately for gay people, not only does the Church Hierarchy forbid us to have sexual relations and to marry, and ,since Benedict XVI, become ordained or enter religious life, but pastoral and moral writers have constantly written, that gay people may not even live together, for by living together they would be ”a near occasion of sin to each other”. Needless to say, i do not accept any such restrictions as ethically right. Furthermore, it seems to me that continence is hard for those who have received the ”grace” of continence, but for all other persons it is impossible.

    • May 17, 2014 at 12:56 pm

      Thanks Robert for the correction on the vow / promise of celibacu / continence. I’ll correct it, shortly.
      You’re also correct that not only do the rules exclude us from marriage, or any other form of committed, loving sexual relationship, but in practice, also from living together in a non- sexual relationship. I’ll have more on this later, but essentially, my conclusion is the same as yours. The only really viable third way is to do what most ordinary married couples do, on contraception: accept that on sexual matters, church teaching is simply plain wrong, and get on with their lives as best they can.

    • May 17, 2014 at 4:19 pm

      I read your comments with great interest. I have retired this year from decades of work as a practicing lawyer. We are trained to take miniscule errors of judgment , or lapses in gathering evidence, and presenting the mistake as being as wide and deep as the Grand Canyon. I believe that such an error has occurred here. Perhaps, I am thinking as a canon lawyer would rather than the thinking of a humble and ever obedient penitent.

      In years past, I was a founding member and chair of the Sexual Orientation & Gender Identification Issues Section of the State Bar of Texas. I have always publicly defended my 44-year relationship with my companion as being consistent with Church teachings on the issue. I wrote a long letter to Cardinal Ratzinger (sp ?) and other prelates expressing my views on the matter. I published a law review article on the subject as well.

      If I were to appear before a panel of Vatican inquisitors, I would cite the 1975 document published by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith entitled, “Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics”. It states in part : “In regards to this second category of subjects, some people conclude that their tendency is so natural that it justifies in their case homosexual relations within a sincere communion of life and love analogous to marriage, insofar as such homosexuals feel incapable of enduring a solitary life….. Their culpability will be judged with prudence.”

      When I was a student in grade school, the Franciscan nun explained to her class that it was a sin to lie. However, if the communists came to our classroom to find and arrest our priest, it would be correct for us to lie to them….. We could say we did not know where our priest might be. The Church’s rules are often written for a “perfect world” where complications do not exist. The lives of Catholic homosexuals are filled with “complications.” And so the arguments proceed !

      • May 17, 2014 at 5:18 pm

        Thanks I’m interested in a short sentence from passage of the 1975 declaration you quoted. The bit I’ve not picked up on before, but has great significance in the present climate, is “Their culpability will be judged with prudence”.

        This is also compatible with a passage from Thomas Aquinas, who is usually associated with the emphatic insistence that homosexual acts are contrary to natural law. That passage, which is described in John Boswell’s book CSTH and deserves to be far better known, in effect conceded that for some people, homosexuality is natural – and so committed relationships with same – sex partners are acceptable. Thomas is on your side.

      • May 19, 2014 at 11:31 pm

        Thanks, Richard, for bringing to light this passage from the CDF document. Really interesting. And to Terence for his reference to Thomas Aquinas’ passage. Though many of us do not depend on these texts to justify the presence of God in our same-sex loves, these words are important to our witness to everyday Catholics. Thank you! Jim Smith, DignityUSA

        • May 20, 2014 at 1:04 pm

          The crucial question, for divorced and remarried, or for gay men and lesbians, is not whether they should accept being barred from the sacraments – but whether they should accept being barred from a loving sexual relationship.

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