Spiritual Life
Jesuit, Swami Voice Views of Celibacy

By Rich Barlow
Boston Globe
April 5, 2003

Some years ago, a book of interviews with Roman Catholic priests offered two takes on the topic of celibacy.

One priest who was interviewed endorsed the church's reasoning on prohibiting priests from marriage and sex, saying that it allowed him to give undivided, unfettered attention to God and His people. Another disagreed, saying that if he had a family, he'd be a better man, "and if I'm a better man, I'm a better priest."

Catholics have debated the wisdom of a celibate priesthood ever since the church shed its tolerance of married clergy in the fourth century. In the midst of the sex abuse scandal last year, when critics called celibacy the kindling fueling the abuse, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston urged study of the question. Catholic priests aren't the only celibates in the religious world. Might other traditions that embrace celibacy offer instructive insights to Catholics?

A panel at Boston College last week compared different faiths' views of the celibate life. The two panelists were the Rev. Howard Gray, a former BC administrator now with John Carroll University in Ohio, and Swami Tyagananda, director of Boston's Ramakrishna Vedanta Society (vedanta is a school of Hindu philosophy).

Gray, who favors easing his church's celibacy rule while acknowledging the practical problems that would have to be resolved, referred the audience to a recent article in America magazine about the history of Catholic celibacy. Proscriptions on marriage and sex took form at the Council of Elvira around the year 305.

The Rev. John W. O'Malley suggested in his article that Roman Emperor Constantine's recognition of the young faith, and the ensuing dropoff in persecution of Christians, posed a challenge to fervent believers: If you no longer had to sacrifice your life for Christ, what could you sacrifice for him?

The council answered, in part, by forbidding priests - including married ones, which it still permitted - from having sexual relations as well as from having children.

There were pastoral concerns behind the rule - sex detracted from the dedication needed for ministry. There were also power issues, including some concern that bishops would divert resources to their wives and children that were intended for the church or the poor, according to O'Malley.

In ensuing centuries, the church followed the logic of its sex ban and outlawed marriage for priests. O'Malley also distinguishes between mandatory celibacy for diocesan priests and the vow of chastity taken by priests who voluntarily join religious orders. As part of a "triad" of vows including poverty and obedience - and as a practical requirement for orders of men living in close community, precluding a family - celibacy would remain in effect for orders even if diocesan priests could marry, O'Malley writes.

Hinduism takes a more nuanced view. To Hindus, Tyagananda said, the human body and mind are husks covering our spiritual, divine selves. Physical needs, from hunger to fatigue to sexual desire, distract us from experiencing our divine side, and the sexual craving "is often more powerful and more persistent" than others, he said. Hindu yoga traditions argue that checked sexual energy can become a refined power, stored in the brain.

"It may not make one a prodigy or a wrestler, but it makes him or her healthy, both physically and mentally," Tyagananda said.

Yet Hinduism acknowledges that not all people feel called to celibacy, he added. In marriage, chastity and fidelity are what matter; yoga traditions say chastity in marriage also adds to the brain's storehouse of power.

Not only are Hindu priests permitted to marry, but only married priests may perform certain rituals. That attitude resonates with many Catholics, Gray said in an interview after the panel discussion. When it comes to marriage, for example, many lay Catholics would feel that "a married clergy is a better bridge toward bringing a young couple into the whole social context of marriage. ... That's why Marriage Encounter is so popular. It gives Catholic couples a chance to talk to other Catholic couples about the interior experience of marriage with people who understand it."

Of course, said Gray, a celibate priest who is wise and a good listener makes as valuable a marriage counselor. Celibate or not, it's the human qualities a person brings to ministry that matter, and only those can make celibacy what Catholic canon law calls it, a "special gift from God," said Gray. "The gift has to be wrapped in a package that is amiable and mature and understanding and wise."

Rich Barlow can be reached at

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