The Problems with Celibacy


Celibacy contributes to a culture of mendacity in the priesthood.

In the 2015 movie “Spotlight,” the voice of Richard Sipe (played by Richard Jenkins) says over the speaker phone, “If you really want to understand the crisis, you need to start with the celibacy requirement.” He continues, “That was my first major finding. Only 50% of the [Catholic] clergy are celibate. Now, most of them are having sex with other adults. But the fact remains that this creates a culture of secrecy that tolerates and even protects pedophiles.”

Sipe, the former priest and psychologist, who died in August 2018, devoted much of his life to the psychological treatment of priests. He wrote extensively on priestly celibacy. In 1990, he published A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy. He estimated then that at any given time only 50% of priests, monks and bishops are actually celibate. This contributes to a culture of mendacity (lying).

In a 2016 letter to San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, Sipe wrote:

Sooner or later it will become broadly obvious that there is a systemic connection between the sexual activity by, among and between clerics in positions of authority and control, and the abuse of children. … When men in authority — cardinals, bishops, rectors, abbots, confessors, professors — are having or have had an unacknowledged-secret-active-sex life under the guise of celibacy, an atmosphere of tolerance of behaviors within the system is made operative.

In other words, priests and bishops are not going to expose others because they may be guilty themselves. The recent cases of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick and Bishop Michael Bransfield of West Virginia prove this point. How could they rise so high and allegedly endure so long in their double lives? Perhaps because people who knew were also compromised by sexual activity.

In our 2016 novel Strange Gods: A Novel About Faith, Murder, Sin and Redemption, which I wrote with Msgr. Jack Myslinski, the character of Msgr. Matthew Ackerman says:

The problem is being celibate. Celibacy turns us all into liars. … The whole thing is built on mendacity. … 

Celibacy leaves a wound. Some people kid themselves into thinking it doesn’t, but it does. You try to compensate, but you are never really whole. Some priests drown their sorrows in alcohol or pills. A lot of them overeat and get obese. … Some guys travel all the time to escape. Others take secret lovers. Some redecorate the rectory over and over again. That’s a classic clerical tradition, decorating. Just look at all the frescoes in the Vatican. It’s a kind of retail therapy that has been going on for centuries.

Again, the cases of McCarrick and Bransfield illustrate this “celibacy wound” compensation. Both men decorated lavishly and traveled luxuriously. Both allegedly carried on secret sexual liaisons, evidently trying to heal their “celibacy” wound.

In 1994, I wrote an article about celibacy for The Washington Post following several priest sexual scandals in Washington. I said then:

In light of recent sexual scandals involving priests, I find some skepticism about priestly celibacy. Among skeptics, I get one of two reactions. Some people think priest are liars. Others think we are fools. Some of the time, of course, they are right.

Don’t think that this is just an American problem. It is a universal problem as scandals in Poland, Ireland, France, India, Philippines, Kenya, Congo, and Costa Rica, etc. have shown. In Africa, where some of the fiercest defenders of celibacy are to be found, it is widely reported that priests routinely live double lives, keeping “secret” families in homes far from their parishes.

On June 1, The Washington Post reported that Fr. Peter Njogu is publicly leading a breakaway Renewed Universal Catholic Church in Kenya over the issue of celibacy. He is married and has established himself as a bishop of a schismatic church. Twenty priests have followed him along with more than 2,000 Catholics in several congregations. He said in The Post, “They (his followers) are tired of the hypocrisy. Some of our people call us the ‘Church of the Future.’ ” Njogu says that other priests tell him, “The problem with you is that you went public. And I say, ‘I am not the problem: I am the solution. Join me.’ ”

In Latin America I have encountered the same phenomenon. People openly express skepticism about celibacy because they know or suspect that Padre has a secret family. Look at Legionaries of Christ founder Marcial Maciel Degollado, who had not one but two secret families in Mexico.

Celibacy is not essential to holiness. Many saints were married and had children. The Second Vatican Council said there is a universal call to holiness. If celibacy were essential to holiness, then most of the church could not be holy. Sex is an essential part of holiness in the sacrament of matrimony. We say that marriages are “consummated” by a sexual relationship.

Celibacy is not essential to Catholic priesthood. It is only mandated in two of the 24 “autonomous churches” in communion with Rome; the Latin Rite and the Ethiopian Rite. All of the others — the Ukrainian Rite, Syrian Rite, Maronite Rite, Coptic Rite, etc. — allow their priests to marry prior to ordination. Are 22 churches of the East not also holy?

St. Peter was not celibate. Much of the clergy for the first 1,000 years of Christianity were not celibate.

Celibacy was not mandated for diocesan clergy until the first Lateran Council (1123) and reaffirmed by the second Lateran Council (1139). Both of those decrees were brought on by the fact that many clergy, especially in rural areas, had wives or concubines. Often they gave church property to their families. Celibacy then was honored more in the breach than the observance.

At least seven popes were married. Several others had children either before or during their papacies. Pope Julius II, the pope who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, fathered three daughters. There was even a father and son pope combination, Pope Hormisdas (514-523) who was father to Pope Silverius, (536-537) who himself fathered an illegitimate daughter.

Paul presumed that bishops would be married, but he said they should be self-controlled (Titus 1:8). Still good advice. Paul himself favored celibacy for practical reasons because it allowed the unmarried man to be single minded in his work for the church (1 Corinthians 7:32-33).

Today we have many married priests in the Roman Rite who have come to us from the Anglican or Lutheran traditions. The Washington Archdiocese, like many American dioceses, has several married priests who were first ordained in the Episcopal church and then received into the Roman church. If they can be married, why not others?

The practice and teaching of the church on priestly celibacy has been inconsistent and incoherent. But, most important of all, Jesus did not mandate celibacy.

The only time Jesus talked about celibacy was in the context of marriage and divorce. When the disciples pressed Jesus on his strict view regarding divorce, they said incredulously, “maybe it was better not to marry.”

Jesus answered: “Some are incapable of marriage because they are born so; some, because they are made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it” (Matthew 19:12).

He sees celibacy as something praiseworthy, but not necessary.

One other thing. If conservatives really think that gay priests are the problem with the priesthood, they should favor abolishing mandated celibacy. One sure way to get more heterosexuals into the priesthood is allow married men to be ordained. If priests had a wife and family, odds are they would not be gay.

Mandatory celibacy for the diocesan clergy of the Roman rite should be abandoned immediately. It is a necessary first step in the reforming of Catholic priesthood.

It will make us more mature, more honest and more virtuous.

It will also give the church the shepherds she needs for the flock.

[Fr. Peter Daly is a retired priest of the Washington Archdiocese and a lawyer. After 31 years of parish service, he now works with Catholic Charities.]


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  1. Brian Eyre says:

    If the numbers that Fr Peter Daly quotes in his article: “The Problems with Celibacy” are accurate then something needs to be done for the priesthood cannot live by “a culture of mendacity(lying)”.
    As a catholic married priest who received a dispensation from celibacy I am hurt with the publication of these figures. I am hurt because I was honest when I said to the world that I loved this woman and wanted to set up a home with her and have a family. I never said though that I was giving up being a priest or that I no longer wanted to serve the church.The answer I received from the hierarchy was a very cold one. I was told that from now on I could no longer act or minister in a public way, so I was fired, I was out, I was no longer a member of the clergy.
    I never gave up though serving the people, but now I did it with my wife. People accepted us and were happy when we gathered them in their homes to pray with the Bible and to do social humanitarian work in shanty towns with the very poor. I spent 36 years as a maarried priest in Brazil doing this kind of priestly work out of love for people and the church.
    I am no longer the young priest I was when I was ordained in 1966 but thank God my health is good and if tomorrow I was asked to help out in a parish I would willingly do so to the best of my physical condition. I believe that the People of God have a God-given right go the Mass and that the discipline of celibacy should not deprive them of this right.
    I have no idea how many married priests there are in Ireland or how many of them would be willing to help out in a parish but closing a parish because there is a shortage of priests is not a solution when these men could be called back to minisry.
    I was a celibate priest for 18 years then one day my wife came into my life and after much prayer and reflection we took the decision to carry on our life together. Our story is no different to any couple who wish to marry and all that this entails. So there have been the nights when our children were sick and sleep was out of the question for us; or there was the occasion when I lost my job and we had to live on unemployment money until I got another job; or the financial difficulties we experience every month with our house rent, but even with all these problems and others that most married couples go through I still found time to do pastoral work because I have the love and support of my wife and I want to be faithful to my vocation as a priest.
    I understand that recalling married priests back to ministry is not a solution to the priest shortage but maybe it can be a way to awaken in the hearts of “proven married men” to come forward for ordination.
    This year in October the church in Brazil will hold a Synod in the Amazon region to discuss the possibility of ordaining local married men for this vast area where people are left without Mass for months and months due to the shortage of priests. The day may come in Ireland when we may have to come to a similar decision, if not then Mass will become a museum piece.
    Brian Eyre, catholic married priest, Tralee, Co Kerry

  2. Edward Butler says:

    Thank you Brian for your honesty and integrity. Many of your brothers have found that a bridge too far. 18 years, before the mast, is a considerable achievement in itself. It has often occurred to me that a 10 year sunburst of sacerdotal zeal would be better, for our Church, than a dull and uninspiring lifetime of mediocrity. I agree with Daniel Cronin that to compel celibacy is a grave sin. I sincerely hope that you will receive an invitation to officially serve again.

  3. Joe O'Leary says:

    Judgment in Pell appeal is scheduled for next Wed at 9.30 a.m.

  4. Joe O'Leary says:

    Paddy, the most detailed and penetrating statement on the Pell case, which I see as an instant classic, is Justice Mark Weinberg’s dissenting judgment.

    It deserves a close reading.

    It should form the basis of a further appeal to the High Court, and of its success.

    Where is the money for the appeal going to come from?

    Well, I for one would be happy to contibute to the cause of justice, just as I would in the case of the Birmingham Six.

    Scroll down to find Weinberg’s 200 page text here: pell_v_the_queen_2019_vsca_186_-_web_2.pdf

  5. Paddy Ferry says:

    Joe, this is such a sad story for everyone involved and its a pity there ever had to be such a story in the first place. I share with you, above, a link to an article in the Guardian which mentions the views of Justice Mark Weinberg and it also mentions people like you, Joe, who will never accept that Pell is guilty. And, I just cannot fathom that.

    OK, I cannot be completely certain that he is guilty. But, by now, a jury and the Supreme of the state of Victoria have found him guilty. Add to that all the accusations of abuse levelled against him over the years, some of which actually led to charges being pressed, –multiple accusations of abuse in the swimming pool in Ballarat, abusing a young child while watching “Close Encounters of the third Kind”,
    accusations of abuse on a water skiing holiday, and at a summer camp. This man has form, I think you would have to say.

    So, on balance I think he probably is guilty but I am not completely certain. But,Joe, you are completely certain he is innocent. I find that really baffling.

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