With the resignation of Pope Benedict earlier this month, traditional media and social media have been a buzz with thoughts about a reformer Pope who will change the Church. Well, I don’t think the change people want will happen regardless of who is elected the next Pope of Rome. However, as with the media, they seem continually to grasp the idea of clerical celibacy wrong.
Let’s start with some definitions:
Celibacy is defined as the state of being unmarried and sexually abstinent.
Chastity has to do with our concept of sexual relations. All of humanity is called to chastity. If we live in an unmarried state, then we are to remain chaste, i.e. not having sexual relations, and if we are married we are to remain chaste i.e. only having sexual relationships with the one we are married to. Any deviation from this, the Church would say, is sinful behavior.
With that said I need to further clarify another misconception, the Orthodox Church does not allow priests to marry. Yes, the Orthodox Church has optional celibacy for her clergy, but a man needs to be married prior to his ordination to deacon. Once a man is ordained deacon he cannot marry. If a deacon or a priest who is married finds himself a widower, he cannot remarry.
It is critical of us to use the correct terms when speaking of this issue so as not to confuse people about the issue.
There also seems to be a misconception amongst the clergy, and those who want to change the way the Church operates, that celibacy is related to sexual abuse. From a clinical standpoint, sexual abuse has very little to do with sex and a lot to do with control. Let me state right up front that I believe any deacon, priest, or bishop who is found guilty by either civil or canonical court of any sexual misconduct, be it sexual relations or sexual harassment should never be allowed to serve in public ministry again. They should be stripped of their clerical state and returned to that of a layman. They have abused their trust placed on them at their ordination, and although we need to forgive them, they should never again serve or be allowed to call themselves, deacon, priest, or bishop.
Just a word about those who would try and cover up such actions. I believe that anyone who has knowledge of such behavior, unless heard in sacramental confession, has a duty to report such actions to appropriate authorities. If anyone in the clerical state, deacon, priest, or bishop tries to cover up such actions they too should be removed from the clerical state permanently! In my mind, the cover up victimizes people all over again and victimizes the whole church. They have lost their moral authority and therefore should never serve in public ministry again. This may sound harsh, but we clergy are held to a high standard.
There is very little evidence that a celibate man or woman is more likely to abuse. The majority of reported cases of sexual abuse usually involve a parent or another family member who may or may not be married. So let’s just stop talking about that.
Clerical celibacy is a sacred gift, given to the man or woman called to this type of ministry, and it is not easy. We have to rededicate ourselves to this calling each and every day. The problem is not with those of us who have chosen to live this way; the problem is with society’s overactive libido. Our society is obsessed with sex! You cannot turn on television and watch a program or a movie without some aspect of sex being thrown in your face. I wrote about this after the super bowl and the sexualization of America and the degrading of women who are reduced to objects by these actions. Although I did not watch the Academy Awards, I understand the same type of behavior was witnessed there on the part of the host. Society wants to put their lack of morality on to the church, and that is not the way it works.
When a man or a woman, chooses to live the celibate life they are not just vowing to give up sex they vow to give up the possibility of a family. We will grow old without having our own children and to see them grow. However, we freely do this so we can take on the Church as our family. I have children, I have wonderful children, they are my parishioners, and I get the joy of watching them grow into mature Christians. I celebrate their joys, and I celebrate their hardships. I baptize them, and I bury them. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been called to this ministry that I now serve in.
Is it difficult, sure it is, but so is the life of a Christian. Is it countercultural, sure it is, but so is being a Christian. We, all of us are called to live lives vastly different from what the world wants us to. We are all of us, called to a certain level of asceticism in our lives and to live lives that Christ wants us to live in conformity with His church and His Commandments.
In a 2007 interview, then Abbot Jonah of the St. John of Shanghai Monastery in California had this to say about our lives as Christians. He is speaking about how we are to be different and live our lives transformed as Christians:
It’s this renunciation of the world which is actually the fundamental key to being a Christian that every Christian has to embrace in one form or another. There’s no Christianity without asceticism. There is no Christianity without self-denial and taking up the cross. Otherwise, you have just a parody of Christianity.
We must rededicate ourselves daily to live lives that rise above the muck and mire of this world. We need to turn toward the Son and away from the darkness that inhabits this world we live in and make the promise to live as Christ wants us to live.