Catholic celibacy

Editorial
January 29,2012

Plato and Catholic Priest Celibacy

Roy Lisker

Imagine the son (substitute 'daughter', and 'mother' for 'father' when appropriate ) of a father who has been successful in some highly skilled profession: doctor, professor, politician, priest, lawyer. From his family and schooling he receives the same training, cultivation and education that his father did. As a child it has been taken for granted that he will follow in his father's footsteps and enter the same, or some closely related, calling.

Yet as the son advances through adolescence, he discovers that he is unwilling, unable, and actually repelled by the possibility that he must spend the rest of his days in the same home and work environments in which he has been brought up. He has seen at close hand all the miseries, abuses, injustices, hypocrisies and lies that are endemic to this profession and its way of life. He eventually realizes that to embark on the same lifestyle himself would require him to live a lie for the rest of his days. Such compromises are natural for adults, perhaps, but unacceptable to an idealistic youth who still sees the world in absolute terms of right and wrong.

Thus, early on, he seeks to enter some other profession or totally different way of life. Yet, if that profession is too specialized or demanding, if the training has been too arduous, he's already become too over-trained to do anything else. Not yet embarked on the adventure of living, he is already caught in a double-bind, and must figure out what to do. What are the alternatives?

(1) He can put a clothes-pin on his nose and follow in his father's footsteps. It is more than likely that he will rebel. This means that either:

(2) He will eventually fall into some unskilled or low-skilled drudgery, department store clerk or factory worker, itinerant farm laborer or street musician. He imagines that this will, at the least, leave him free to live and think as he likes. In almost all cases his high state of education will guarantee him failure. Or,

(3) He can become a gad-fly, attacking his father's profession, devoting his days to throwing stones at the walls of the glass house sheltering his family's world. Or,

(4) He can set up his own version of the traditional profession, a new religion for example, or some sort of alternative medicine, or a radical direction in politics.

(5) Finally, he can become a writer! This allows him to pursue all 4 of the above directions together.

The hypothetical situation depicted above becomes of particular interest when the father happens to be the priest or minister of a church. Indeed, the whole history of Protestantism is that of a religion that :

(a) Encourages ministers to marry and have families;

(b) has never stopped splintering into factions and sub-factions. This tradition goes right back to its founder, Martin Luther who, in 1517, threw off the yoke of the Catholic church.

Many of these potential apostates have been the children of ministers. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was the son of Samuel Wesley, an Anglican minister. There is, of course, Friedrich Nietzsche, thundering from the slopes of Mount Olympus that "God is dead". And Vincent van Gogh, terrifying his genteel Dutch-reformed father by his wild spiritual excesses.

That fount of universal knowledge, Wikipedia, devotes an entire file, "Children of Clergy" to examples (and counter-examples) of this phenomenon. Among the children who, in one way or another, follow the routes detailed above, one counts T.S. Eliot , Ingmar Bergman, the Bronte sisters, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Antony Flew ( prominent atheist philosopher, son of a Methodist minister,) Nietzsche, van Gogh, and Swedenborg.

By virtue of the strategy of enforced celibacy on priests, the Catholic church has neatly circumvented this irreversible historical process. It was in the 12th century that the Vatican took the bold and drastic of denying its priesthood the possibility of having families. It's intention, it is claimed here, was that of setting up a bulwark against the withering away of a monolithic faith by the mechanisms of rebellion normal to the advance of humanity from one generation to the next.

The best description in all literature of this mechanism must certainly be that given by Plato in "The Republic". In depicting, in great detail, the successive degeneration of political health through aristocracy, timocracy (rule by honor, as in Sparta) , oligarchy, democracy and tyranny , he repeatedly invokes the metaphor of the son of a prominent professional ( politician, businessman or general) being trained to follow in his father's footsteps, yet coming (for a variety of reasons, including the influence of bad friends, and indulgence in idle hobbies like music and gymnastics!) to despise his father's ways.

Plato discusses several of the issues I've introduced, such as the indoctrination and education the son receives in the family of his father, and how that may make him unfit to enter into any other role than he one he's rejected. What follows is a brief collection of quotes from The Republic ( Paul Storey translation):

"These men you have bred to be your rulers will not for all their wisdom ascertain by reasoning... but there will be a time when they beget children out of season"

"..of such offspring having entered in turn into the powers of their fathers ..will deteriorate in their culture .."

"Such men, said I, will be avid of wealth because of their appetites ..running away from the law as boys from a father..

"That is the origin of the timocratic youth.. sometimes he is the young son of a good father who lives in a badly governed state."

"Because of all this [his mother] laments and tells the boy that his father is too slack and no kind of a man.."

"The very house slaves ..privately say the same sort of things to the sons ..and..they urge the boy to ..prove himself more of a man than the father.."

"The next polity, I believe, would be oligarchy.."

And so on. The inevitable descent proceeds with the iron logic of Hogarth's "Rake's Progress", until the state, like the young man in the final stages, resembles the soul of a tyrant , lunatic, willful, unprincipled, drunken, and licentious:

" And sometimes, again, another brood of desires .. are stealthily nurture ..owing to the father's ignorance of true education .."

"And in the end they seize the citadel of the young man's soul."

"We definitely assert, then, that such a man is to be ranged with democracy."

"Now recall the characterization of the democratic man. His development was determined by his education.."

"Such a man, when he is older has as son bred in turn in his ways of life.."

"Suppose the experience of his father to be repeated in his case. He is drawn by utter lawlessness, which is called by his seducers complete freedom.."

"Then a man becomes tyrannical in the full sense of the word ..when either by nature or by habits or by both he has become ..drunken, erotic, maniacal...."

One must commend the Catholic church for its great wisdom in doing the utmost to prevent this calamitous process of degeneration from infecting the priesthood. Celibacy, as we know, has its own problems, but it appears that the church has considered these the lesser of two evils.


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