Outgoing Archbishop’s Comments Ignite Debate Over Clergy Celibacy
By Casey Feldman
Published: Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Updated: Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Edward M. Egan, (right) sparked debate with his comments regarding priestly celibacy.
Edward M. Egan, New York Archbishop, reignited the debate over clergy celibacy in the Catholic Church during a March 10 interview in which he called the discussion of whether to make clergy celibacy voluntary “perfectly legitimate.” Experts at Fordham said they see the benefits of celibacy—but not for everyone. Many stated that they feel that making celibacy optional would increase the quality and quantity of men and women interested in pursuing religious life.
According to the New York Times, when asked whether he thinks the Catholic Church would have to reconsider allowing clergy to marry, Egan said he thinks the issue “is going to be discussed.” He said the matter “has to be looked at” and suggested that he did not think an “across-the-board determination” should be made either way.
Peter Steinfels, co-director of Fordham’s Center on Religion and Culture, said he feels Egan’s statement is particularly significant because, in the past, Egan has always advocated a “pray-and-try-harder” approach to the shortage of priests in America.
“Coming from him, this statement is an admission that some other approach is probably needed,” he said.
Rev. Michael Tueth, S.J., professor of communication and media studies and chair of the department, pointed out the fact that men who feel a call to the priesthood may not “automatically” also feel a call to celibacy, which he called a “grace” and a gift.
“I think [not requiring clergy to be celibate] could definitely work,” he said. “It’s like we have our head in the sand. It works in every other religion.”
Aristotle Papanikolau, associate professor of theology and co-founding director of the Orthodox Christian studies program at Fordham, agreed.
“I’m not Catholic; I’m an Orthodox Christian of Greek descent. In our church, priests can marry,” he said. “…Allowing [clergy] to marry would help ecumenical relations between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.”
Tueth explained that clergy celibacy did not become very common until around the 16th century and the Council of Trent. He said that celibacy was instituted in an effort to improve the church because the quality of priests had dropped, and that monks—who were celibate—were thought to be holier and more moral. In addition, he pointed out the fact that the existence of heirs would make it difficult for land to remain in the church’s possession after a priest’s death.
Steinfels said, “On a very practical basis, the Catholic parish system is not set up to support a married clergy with families.” He also noted that active sexuality would be a “practical problem” in monasteries.
Nevertheless, Steinfels said, “I’m for changing the celibacy requirement, perhaps in the limited, step-by-step ways that Cardinal Egan reminded us were possible… I don’t think celibacy will disappear from the Catholic tradition,” but “a pledge of celibacy as a requirement for ordination to the priesthood is another matter.” Steinfels stressed that if the rule was changed, “those people who felt called to celibacy could still, of course, make that choice.”
Both Tueth and Steinfels pointed out the fact that eliminating the celibacy requirement might solve the current dearth of men interested in the priesthood.
Steinfels said, “There is little question that the pool of candidates for the Roman Catholic priesthood would be greater if celibacy were not required. That would probably allow an increase in both the quantity and quality of priests.”
Tueth said, “I think we’ve reached the stage now with a shortage of priests that I think we’re willing to lower the standards just as long as someone will remain celibate.”
He said, “I can think of a lot of guys who are smart, who are very generous, spiritual…They would be wonderful priests, and they would raise the standards [of priesthood]… except they want to get married.”
“I am in favor of optional celibacy for priests,” said Joan Cavanagh, associate director of Campus Ministry. “It sure seems like [Egan] is inviting conversations about this, and I am happy to see it!”
Tueth called celibacy “a calling” and said, “For me, the biggest advantage has been the availability. [If] somebody wants me to do an assignment, they want to move me to another part of the country, I don’t say, ‘Well, what are we going to do with the wife and kids?’ So, practically, it’s a big consideration. Psychologically, I have found over the years that when I’m with somebody and we’re really talking seriously…I’m totally emotionally available.”
Nonetheless, Tueth said he feels that the Church should be more flexible. He pointed out the fact that Episcopalian priests who convert to Catholicism and are already married “bring their families with them.”
Tueth said, “[The celibacy requirement] would be easy to change because it’s a discipline, not a law. So it’s no problem changing it. I think it will happen before the church considers ordaining women because there is no history of women being priests, unfortunately. But there is a history of 1,000 years of male, married clergy.”
When asked to comment, Joseph Zwilling, director of communications for the New York Archdiocese, referred to a statement Egan made to Catholic New York in response to the media attention generated by his comments.
In the statement, Egan said, “Celibacy is one of the Church’s greatest blessings… I will have to be more careful about trying to explain a somewhat complicated matter in 90 seconds.”