Celibacy has been the focus of much media debate in the wake of this month’s papal transition. Many Catholics have felt alienated by the Church’s conservative position on priestly celibacy for years, and some are openly calling for the newly appointed Pope Francis to repeal the celibacy rule as official doctrine.
The Catholic Church has required chastity for anyone entering the ministry for centuries, and is not alone in promoting sexual abstinence. Celibacy has a long history in the Buddhist monastic tradition, and many Hindu monks and nuns also take vows of abstinence. Chief among the many arguments for the priestly celibacy rule is the need to renounce the complications of worldly desires like sex in order to focus on spiritual development.
Celibacy is distinct from asexuality, an identity for people who feel little or no sexual attraction, in that it requires the active denial of sexual impulses.
Critics blame the monastic celibacy rule for enforcing an unrealistic purity, suggesting that priests and nuns inevitably suffer psychologically from trying to remain abstinent. After all, Sigmund Freud’s identification of sexual repression with all manner of psychological disturbances has cast a long shadow over popular understanding of psychology.
Frank Bruni of the New York Times called the celibacy rule “a bad idea with painful consequences,” which contributes to a priest shortage by excluding many potential candidates, and “falsely [promises] some men a refuge from sexual desires that worry them.”
Bruni also voices the widespread opinion that the institutional celibacy rule also provides safe haven for men with pedophilic urges, though a John Jay study from 2010 found no evidence that priests abuse children at a higher rate than the general population.
But what are the effects of prolonged celibacy on one’s health?
Obviously, abstinence eliminates the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
It also removes the many positive health benefits of having sex. Many studies have shown that engaging in regular sexual activity can increase longevity and promote weight loss, in addition to improving overall fitness, immunity, prostate function, heart health, blood pressure, mood, prostate function, pain sensitivity, and sleep quality. Recent studies have even suggested that sex can fight headaches.
Studies have linked sexual repression to greater aggression, though they do not distinguish between involuntary repression and voluntary abstinence. A person on whom celibacy is imposed, like a frustrated guy who can’t get a date, is likely to react very differently than someone who chooses it, like a seminarian who voluntarily decides to follow a celibacy rule.
Most studies on how priests and nuns deal with the celibacy rule are affiliated with the Vatican itself, so one might detect a bias. In a 2011 survey of 2,500 priests, Monsignor Stephen Rossetti found that priests are among the happiest members of American society- most of the priests attributed their contentment to their strong inner peace and spiritual relationship with God.
Despite the official stance on the celibacy rule, some current and former priests have been outspoken about the challenges of living a chaste life.
In an essay from 2010, psychotherapist and former Benedictine priest A.W. Richard Sipe noted the great loneliness, depression, and emotional distress that can come from struggling with prolonged celibacy.
Another former priest notes that taking an explicit oath of celibacy might increase the likelihood of someone acting on preexisting sexual inclinations, or at least intensify the urge- the forbidden becomes more tempting.
As the New York Times reported, some priests find support for following the celibacy rule in therapy groups that allow them to discuss the spiritual and emotional struggles about their vows.
“Sexual thoughts, temptations, attractions, are part of being human,” said the Rev. Shawn McKnight. “But it’s how you respond to them. We don’t do things or engage ourselves in things where sexual gratification will be the end.”
That’s easier said than done. Sipe conducted an ethnological study of celibate and sexual behavior among Catholic clerics in the United States from 1960 to 1985, and found that half of all priests and Catholic brothers were sexually active at any particular time. Masturbation was the most frequent sexual activity, followed by affairs with women, sex with male companions, and Internet pornography. He also said those numbers have not changed much today.
“Sex is really very close to an addiction. It’s a drive that doesn’t go away,” said Sipe to the New York Times. “If you’re going to live without it, you can’t live like a normal person. You can’t just say one day, ‘I’m celibate.’ Celibacy is a process. The lack of training is a huge piece of the problem.”
In a digression about the Dalai Lama’s celibacy in Psychology Today, Dr. Stephen A. Diamond notes that sexual relationships do not necessarily preclude spirituality and peace of mind. Indeed, most religions find healthy sexual expression to aid one’s well-being, albeit within certain constraints like marriage.
It’s clear that many priests struggle greatly to maintain their vows and stick to the celibacy rule. Some fail spectacularly, like Msgr. Kevin Wallin, a popular Connecticut priest who succumbed to crystal meth and sex addiction. Others openly violate them, as do many married priests in Africa.
Catholic celibacy advocates offer principles that can help celibate priests remain psychologically healthy, but most of them are factors that any person, sexually active or not, needs to be happy- strong community, meaningful relationships, stress management, open communication.
“You need affection and human intimacy,” said Friar Stephen Wang to the BBC. “I’ve got some wonderful friends. I get home to see my family every couple of weeks. I escape to the cinema now and then. And I pray. Not to fill the gaps, because some of them can never be filled, but because the love of Christ is something very real and very consoling.”
On balance, it seems that an absolute requirement of monastic celibacy sets a psychological burden too difficult for many priests and nuns to practice in reality.
Catholics advocating for the repeal of the priestly celibacy rule may be heartened to note that Pope Francis suggested in a 2012 interview that the Vatican’s stance might change:
“Some say, with a certain pragmatism, that we are losing manpower. If, hypothetically, Western Catholicism were to review the issue of celibacy, I think it would do so for cultural reasons (as in the East), not so much as a universal option.”
He clarified that for the time being, he favored maintaining the celibacy rule, though he added: “It is a matter of discipline, not of faith. It can change.”