Clerical celibacy, or the mandatory prohibition among the Catholic clergy to marry, is a church tradition that dates back to the fourth century. The Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law explains that clerical celibacy is “a gift from God” that grants priests “an undivided heart…to the service of God and humanity.” Recently, the priestly requirement to be celibate has come under heated discussion and considerable scrutiny by Catholics and priests alike, particularly in America. Given a concerning priest shortage, it’s high time to axe mandatory celibacy for priests.
The acute problem of priest shortage in the United States can be attributed to the celibacy rule. The Church’s membership in America over the last two decades has been faring decently; in fact, the number of people who identify as Catholics in America has grown 21 percent since 1985. On the contrary, the number of priests in America has been in freefall, dropping from 60,000 in 1965 to 39,000 in 2013. One reason for this is that prospective priests and seminarians are discouraged by the celibacy requirement. Another reason is that many priests have walked off the job to marry, with approximately 25,000 priests in America having resigned for this very reason.
This rule excludes a great number of otherwise qualified Catholics from the priesthood. It also disincentivizes priests who have spent many years of their lives in the ministry only to step-down out of a strong desire to marry. For ordinary Catholics, this could mean many more parishes closing and thus lowered access to church masses and services that only priests can lead. During the last 5 years, more than 400 parishes have closed in the United States.
Professor Dean Hoge of the Catholic University of America affirms that the mandatory celibacy requirement is “the single biggest deterrent keeping men from entering the priesthood.” In his book Future of Catholic Leadership, he supports this view with a 1985 empirical survey which demonstrated that 63% of American Catholics and 63% of American priests believed that it would be a good thing to make celibacy optional. Such are profound figures that the Vatican should seriously consider as they hint at celibacy’s growing unpopularity and outmodedness.
Catholics needn’t worry that a revamping of the celibacy rule would have serious traditional implications. In fact, optional celibacy would be a return to the early Christian tradition, not a break from it. As Pope Francis accurately affirms, “celibacy is a matter of discipline, not of faith. It can change.”
Clerical celibacy was relaxed for more than a thousand years until the First Lateran Council of 1139 AD explicitly forbade it. Take note also that Apostle Peter, which the Catholic Church claims as their first pope, has a wife (Matthew 8:14-15). Furthermore, Apostle Paul clearly taught that staying unmarried to give one’s life to the ministry is optional (1 Cor. 7:8-9) because forbidding marriage is a demonic teaching (1 Tim. 4:1-3). Mandatory celibacy hasn’t only contributed to the priesthood’s implosion in recent decades — its existence has exposed the prevalence of man-made and unbiblical teachings in the Catholic Church.
The problems that may arise when we change the celibacy rule don’t seem to outweigh the gravity of even more institutional problems the Church could face in the long-run if we don’t. The Vatican’s silent treatment isn’t going to cut it. It’s time. Make celibacy optional!