Keller’s piece is a reminder that Catholic priestly celibacy—which although not of doctrinal status, nevertheless is and always has been deeply rooted in much more than a “tradition” the geneses of which were historical/financial accidents of the 12th century—deserves a closer look from the culture. (In point of fact, Joseph Ratzinger has noted that the practice of celibacy goes back further than pop sources suggest: into the 2nd century AD, drawing from Old Testament sources as well as New.)
If one were to venture an investigation into why the Church operates as it does in this respect, one may be surprised to find some data that dash the popular narrative about “repressive” clerical customs to pieces.
For example, there is Monsignor Stephen Rossetti’s 2011 landmark study, Why Priests are Happy: A Study of the Psychological and Spiritual Health of Priests, in which Msgr. Rossetti concludes,
"The mean scores of the sample of priests are modestly lower than the norm sample of males. Thus the results suggest that priests, as a group, are slightly healthier and a bit less psychologically distressed than the general population of males."
That conclusion is noteworthy, given the tired claim that if priests could have wives and children and families (like most of the rest of society), then priests wouldn’t be so unhappy.
There is also the 2004 publication, Priests: A Calling in Crisis, written by sociologist Fr. Andrew Greeley. Fr. Greeley finds that Catholic American priests are happier, more satisfied with their work, and more resolute in their decisions to become clergy than are their (non-celibate) protestant clerical counterparts.
There is, too, the work of sociologist of American religion Dean Hoge. Hoge’s 2005 presentation of findings, titled Current State of the Priesthood: Sociological Research, aggregated data (up until 2001) on the American Catholic priesthood. His research finds that the number of priests who report that they would choose the priesthood again, knowing experientially the challenges of celibacy, has been increasing steadily for decades, standing roughly now (according to a separate study) at 95%.
These studies are by no means wholly optimistic; they indicate that on average, American Catholic priests are doing a poor job of reaching out to youth interested in the religious life, are struggling to deliver satisfying homilies, and are guilty of fostering a culture of clericalism that alienates the laity. The list of negatives goes on.
Most salient to Keller’s op-ed is this paragraph, concerning optional celibacy at the point of ordination, from Hoge’s presentation:
"This is favored today by 71 percent of the Catholic laity and 56 percent of the priests. Yet nobody in the hierarchy talks about it. In 1985 I was given a foundation grant to estimate if the celibacy requirement is a large or a small deterrent to keeping men from entering the priesthood, and on basis of a survey of Catholic college students, I found that it was the single biggest deterrent. If celibacy were optional for diocesan priests, there would be an estimated fourfold increase in seminarians, and the priest shortage would be over."
It goes without saying that the abuse scandal of the early 2000s has irrevocably impacted America’s opinion of how well priestly celibacy serves those who commit to it, even if those opinions are not representative of the whole in any way. Yet Hoge also reports that in 2001, the number of priests who reported wishing they could marry was only 12%, down from the 1970s, and Greeley reports that the majority of American Catholic priests reported valuing their celibacy and living it out successfully.
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