With the Richter-scale crack in Roman Catholicism caused by Benedict XVI's dramatic resignation it seems an apt moment to take another look at priestly celibacy. If the retiring pope seeks to make way for a more energetic successor, one able to confront the "questions of deep concern to the life of faith", issues of sexuality, gender, and relationship in general must be front and center. The RCC's response in all these areas is existentially conditioned by its insistence on celibacy for ordained ministers
Jesus states clearly that celibacy is a gift and an option "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 19:10). In other words it's a possible choice to be made by some for whom the coming of God into the world is an overriding personal event and meaning. There is nothing about a "vow of celibacy" in his statement. Simply a decision for something--from one point of view quite brutal ("making oneself a eunuch," i.e. desexualized)--because another, transcending relationship has completely overwhelmed and replaced this vital aspect of human existence.
A living sense of the in-breaking of God in the world could do this, I am quite certain. But it seems evident that this is a deeply personal, individual choice, a solitary Kiekegaardian leap of faith, not a standard membership rule of an institution.
There are other, more human reasons for the rule of celibacy. The classic one is taking arms to fight for king and country. A war disrupts all normal domestic life. By and large a conscripted man or woman will be deprived of sexual relationship during the course of active service. The urgent necessity of confronting the threat of the enemy overrides this most basic of human situations.
But in the case of war enforced celibacy is temporary. It is contingent on the time of war and its extraordinary emotions and responses. Once the war and its supercharged mood are gone, ordinary sexual relationship will resume. The church instead requires that the extraordinary condition of celibacy determines the whole of the priest's life, and--again--does so as a matter of a rule.
As a point of historical reference one of the underlying causes for the progressive enforcement of celibacy in the eleventh and twelfth centuries (known as the Gregorian reform) was its part in a struggle to wrest control of ecclesiastical appointments from the German nobility. To be unable to marry was a critical way of signaling a "real" priest, different from the worldly men appointed by feudal lords for worldly reasons. There is, therefore, an enduring element of Roman Catholic "spiritual militancy" against the saeculum in its celibate tradition. This militancy does not use weapons of war but turns the suspension of sexuality into its own form of weapon against the world.
But it is Mimetic Theory which perhaps enables us to reflect most acutely on the question of celibacy. Mimesis and its cousin science of mirror neurons show us how profoundly the self is made up of and by "the other". Either we are governed by the other in a relationship of rivalry, or we experience identification with the other through what Girard calls a relationship of "vertical transcendence," where we look on the other in awe and refuse to enter into rivalry. But there is also the third possibility, one of identification through surrender in love, something Girard does not talk about but must certainly be the goal of marriage. The key question here is who or what is the other for a celibate?
In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, over the years I was a celibate, I experienced at first hand the collapse of the old-style vertical transcendence in respect to the church: the habit of looking at it with awe as a perfect institution. In its place there really was a tremendous sense of rivalry with established authority with its rules and regulations. The walls really did come tumbling down. I believe the Council intended to seek out and discover the third possibility in regard to "church": the surrender to each other in love of active Christian community. But that is spiritually very demanding and, against the background of continuing hierarchical structures and mass membership parishes, I think people hardly knew how or where to begin. When they tried the Vatican generally hated the results. In the meantime I believe priestly celibates fell into four broad groups and my guess is those groups still basically cover the territory.
1. First: in-group gays who were closeted but experienced a clear liberation in terms of self-affirmation and, to some degree, lifestyle. In my experience this group made up at least a third of priests and they were definitely the happiest group around.
2. Second: church militants. These were men who hung on to the medieval sense of an embattled church taking on the forces of a hostile world. The church was a noble cause to which they had given their lives, and for them "vertical transcendence" was still real.
3. Third: the rest. This was the amorphous group which included alcoholics, chronic malcontents, sex abusers, materialists, men having affairs with women, sports fanatics and pure intellectuals. Until I left I essentially belonged to the rest.
4. Genuine celibates. Having said "the rest" there doesn't seem to be room for another group, and there are so few of them they really should be included in number three. But because this handful of men (and personally I think I knew three or four) was so exceptional in every sense it really merits a group on its own.
Meanwhile the celibate who does not know a self-transcending relationship is up against himself as his sole horizon, and must inevitably, I think, fall into group three. The married person is up against an/other, they live the self-as-other relationship day by day. This may become boring and dull, but it is still a fact. It may become unbalanced and destructive, in which case it is in need of healing, and at limit of being dissolved. But in the age of the collapse of vertical transcendence--the thing that Girard regards as the character of modernity--celibates are at an enormous risk of at best shallow, at worst destructive lives. When the celibate looks in the mirror there is far too often an endless presence of the same, where there should be the transcending gaze of the other.
My guess is Benedict knows all this in his heart of hearts but has kicked the can down the road. He can only kick it so far. His abdication is the historical equivalent to John XXIII's calling the Second Vatican Council back in January 1959. It was an enormous shock then, because hardly anybody in the Roman church saw its ecclesial necessity. Benedict's decision is an inverted way of taking exactly the same revolutionary step. The cultural urgency comes from outside the church, just as it did back then, but Benedict cannot convoke a council. He is too compromised in the negative reaction he has led against the last. He now surrenders his papal voice in order, I believe, for someone else to have the courage to make the call.
Tony Bartlett, T&P TinR