A Married Priesthood? A Meditation on Mandatory Celibacy: The Witness of Damien Alfonso Bergman

January 13, 2022
Best of Larry Chapp
A meditation on the discipline of mandatory celibacy for priests in the Catholic Church.

This blog post is very personal to me, for reasons that will become clear. It is also a post that might generate some controversy since it is on a hot topic and even I am not at all certain what my views on the matter are these days. I am open to any and all arguments and have great respect for both sides of the debate.  The topic to which I am referring is the current discipline in the Catholic Church that requires celibacy for all priests in the Latin rite.  As a theologian of the ressourcement school, I am well aware of all of the theological arguments in favor of mandatory celibacy and I am further aware of the great value of celibacy as an eschatological sign. The theological arguments in its favor are compelling and the men who truly embrace celibacy as a vocational calling are an enormous gift to the Church. And for most of my adult life I have been a strong supporter of mandatory celibacy if for no other reason than the need for the Church to stop acting as if every one of its sacred traditions is up for grabs.  I mean, must everything change? Is nothing of traditional Catholicism to be left to us?  Must the theological heirs to Heraclitus win every battle? Have we not had enough innovation in the Church over the past fifty years? And wouldn’t any move to allow priests to marry most likely be viewed by most folks as yet one more nod in the direction of the Protestantizing of Catholicism?  And if we allowed priests to marry would we not soon see the end of celibacy in any effective way as a presence in the Church?

Nevertheless, lately I have begun to wonder if the discipline of mandatory celibacy isn’t in need of a change.  What follows is not so much an argument in favor of a change as it is a meditation on the topic, based on some personal experiences of my own, in order to view the issue with fresh eyes and an open mind. In other words, my former certitude that the Church must maintain mandatory celibacy no matter the cost has weakened of late, which has caused me to step back a bit, take a deep breath, and to ask the question anew.  After all, is not the Church semper reformanda? And by that I do not mean to condone in the slightest the notion, mentioned above, that the Church should be in a constant state of flux.  But it does mean, especially with regard to her various disciplines, that the Church must be on guard against a stale conservatism that masquerades as “traditionalism” and which stubbornly clings to certain modes of thought and certain practices which actually end up harming the very tradition it claims to be protecting and promoting. I do not know if mandatory celibacy falls under that indictment. I suspect that it doesn’t.  And yet I suspect that it does. Still, it is a question that is worth asking in the era of Uncle Ted McCarrick, priest shortages, and the degradation of celibacy into a kind of professional bachelorhood (not by all priests mind you, or even most,) with all of the attendant vices that accrue to a discipline that is never really embraced vocationally by such bachelors and which is instead “endured” as a white-knuckled obedience to a “rule” - - a rule which is itself viewed as nothing more than a flaming hoop the Church makes you jump through if you want to be a priest.

Indeed, do not the supporters of mandatory celibacy fear precisely this reality and therefore understand that if the discipline is lifted that most priests would marry? Are they not precisely afraid that unless the Church imposed it from above that the vast majority of priests would not choose it? But if that is true then it means that most priests are only celibate by default and not by vocational commitment.  It is just something they “have to do” according to some “rule” of the Church, and their desire to be a priest is greater than their desire for wife and family.  But that, no matter its merits as a true sacrifice, is something different from a true vocational calling to celibacy.  And that is a problem, because you cannot forge a charism from God out of whole ecclesiastical cloth and then impose it in a manner that implies that the Church can command the Holy Spirit to obey canon law. Both Jesus and St. Paul mention the value of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom and for the sake of an unencumbered ability to attend to the needs of the Church.  But neither Our Lord nor St. Paul imposed it as a mandatory requirement of the via apostolica.  So why does the Church? And please don’t tell me about how the “so-called” married priests in the patristic era were all leading sexually abstinent marriages, because the historical evidence to the contrary explodes that mythology. Yes, one can find references in the early Church attesting to how sexual continence for priests is a tradition that goes back to the apostles, and how priests of that time were indeed expected to be abstinent.  But methinks they doth protest too much and that the reason for such “reassurances” of the apostolic origins for mandatory celibacy is that many priests were in fact not abstinent.   The presence of so many clerical children running about the Empire is all we need to know about how normative clerical celibacy was in the early Church.

A friend of mine who is a Catholic journalist has rightly pointed out to me that there can be holiness in accepting in holy obedience the Church's discipline even if one does not feel particularly "called" to it. Indeed, with such men the sacrifice might be even more meritorious since they are giving up something they deeply desire (marriage) for the sake of the Kingdom. And this is probably the case for most men who choose the priesthood. And it is further true that one should not adopt the "fatherhood" of being a priest unless one is capable of the fatherhood of marriage in the first place. My remarks are not directed at such heroic men. They are rather directed at those priests, the numbers of which I can only guess at, who are simply immature men who seek the priesthood for its "lifestyle" of unencumbered bachelorhood who are not engaging in a holy obedience but are merely being "compliant" to a rule, all the while indulging various carnal dispositions.

But all of this is a mere justificatory preamble as to why I think the topic is ripe for reconsideration and a renewed discussion.  In what follows I will proceed anecdotally by relating two personal stories.  As I said, this is not an argument so much as it is a meditation. And there are good arguments on both sides of the debate. The first story involves my pastor’s family.

Although I am a cradle Latin rite Catholic I attend an Anglican Ordinariate Catholic parish.  How did I get here you might ask? Well, that is a story for a different day.  My pastor, Father Eric Bergman, is a former Episcopalian priest and he is married and has ten surviving children.  But it is child number eleven, the one that did not survive, that I want to talk about. His name is Damien Alfonso Bergman and he was diagnosed while in utero as suffering from a Trisomy genetic disorder that would almost certainly eventuate in him not surviving long after his birth.  Unfortunately, he did not make it even that far and he died two months or so before his due date (my apologies to the Bergman family if that is off by a month or so). Father Bergman’s wife, Kristina, had to endure a very complicated and painful birthing process all the while knowing that the beloved child she had nurtured within her body had passed on to the Lord.  The Bergmans are a most loving and amazing family and so it was heart-wrenching in the extreme to watch their grief unfold in full public view of the parish.

The funeral was somber, with the visual image of a very tiny casket reminding us all of the fragility and innocence of he who had been lost to us.  Damien. Damien Alfonso Bergman, who never drew a breath and never witnessed the world beyond his mother’s womb and who never got the chance to “contribute” to the world as an adult, was contributing now, silently, and in the stillness of death, as an entire parish became a single soul in Christ, a single heart in the Lord, as we mingled and conjoined our prayers to those of the Bergman’s and to the prayer of Christ to his Father in the Divine Liturgy.  And all of this was the culmination as well of the months of care and support for the Bergmans that the parish had offered, in love and gratitude, in the period before Damien’s passing.  Meal trains were set up for the Bergman family so that Father Bergman could focus on trying to negotiate both his pastoral duties and his devotion to his suffering wife, and so that Kristina was freed from the task of cooking for her large family.  I myself cooked three meals for them as did almost every other family in the parish.  Parishioners came forward to help clean the Bergman home, and to help out in many other ways, as the entire parish rallied around our much loved pastor and his family - - a family  which had also become our family long before Damien’s arrival.  

On one of the Sunday’s that followed the funeral, Father Bergman, with visible emotion and with halting and choked words, thanked the parish from the pulpit. And then he said something that is really very simple and obvious, but which nevertheless came to me as something altogether new for some reason.  He said that he had always assumed that his married priesthood was largely a matter of him trying to figure out how to juggle two worlds. (And because he is an orthodox Catholic of deep conservative leanings, he supports the Church’s discipline of mandatory celibacy for priests. Indeed, all new Ordinariate priests must now conform to that rule and he supports that.  And so I want to be clear that I am not speaking for him here.) But he then went on to say that what he now understands is that his married priesthood was more than just a gracious “concession” from the Church in order to facilitate his conversion, and was more than just a task focused solely on him as something that he alone had to negotiate.  He now understood that his family was an opportunity for the parish to exercise the gift of charity and that it took the passing of his son Damien Alfonso to realize just how deeply the entire parish desires, with deep theological charity, to love him, to love his family, and to embrace them as Christ would, and does.  In other words, (and this is my spin on this and not his) there is a pneumatological and christological element to his married priesthood with regard to what it means for the parish, and that the presence of his family was not a problem to be overcome but a gift, a charism, all its own.

Father Bergman is the greatest pastor I have ever had.  And I have had some good ones.  And he is married. And therefore I have to admit that I do now wonder if his status as the greatest pastor I have ever had, and his status as a married priest, are not related.  Perhaps they aren’t. I have no doubt that he would still be a phenomenal priest even if he were celibate. And I have known many fine celibate priests and nothing I am writing here is meant to disparage in any way their sacrifice for the sake of the Kingdom. Still … I have to acknowledge, as a father myself, that the sight of some of his younger ones clinging shyly to his chasuble after Mass as he greets parishioners tugs profoundly at my soul.  It is tender and altogether wonderful and speaks loudly to the lofty status accorded to the sacrament of marriage.  But it took Damien Alfonso, I think, to make all of us realize just how existentially bracing for the entire parish a pastor’s family can be. Of course, as any Protestant can tell you, there are negative examples as well. Divorced clergy. Adulterous clergy. Spouse abusing clergy.  And clergy with severely dysfunctional children in constant stages of troubled delinquency.  Therefore, as I said at the beginning, this is merely a meditation from my heart on the topic and not a prescriptive call for change.  Although I guess my point is, that if change came, it would not be something I would be sad about and that there are positives to a married clergy that we Catholics are too quick to dismiss.

I am hesitant to offer these reflections precisely because some married priests have met with resistance from the standard celibate clergy in their dioceses who feel as if their sacrifice is being undermined and called into question by the presence of married clergy. And they worry as well  that it will cause many Catholics, such as myself, to wonder if the discipline should be changed.  I sympathize with those concerns since I know that the sacrifice entailed in celibacy is a true gift to the Church and I greatly admire the priests who embrace it and live it well.  Priests have had to put up with a lot lately and I do not want to add to their sense of isolation and rejection.  We need to love such men and to embrace and support them. But I started this blog to speak my mind and speak it I will. And if my words of support for the possibility of a married priesthood causes consternation in some quarters then so be it.  Quod scripsi scripsi.  Furthermore, any priest who would begrudge marriage to another priest who is a convert from Protestantism on the grounds that “it isn’t fair” is simply admitting, once again, that they do not feel vocationally called to celibacy themselves and would marry if given the chance. I repeat … there is a difference between a true charism of vocational celibacy and celibacy chosen as a mere “requirement of obedience to a rule.”  The former creates the fertile soil needed in order to create saints.  The latter often creates resentments and sublimated forms of carnal substitution.

But there is yet another facet of this debate that also bears mentioning.  There are those who think that because it is true that consecrated celibacy is a higher state of vocational life than the married state, that the admittance of married men to the priesthood would be a diminishment of its lofty status.  And in theory and on paper this is true in some sense, but in practice I am not certain that it is, and I am most certain that such notions of “higher” and “lower” states of life have often generated, not a proper sense of eschatological “inbreaking,” but a Manichean distortion in the Church that has harmed both the priesthood and the married state.  Because the notion of the superior eschatological status of celibacy is for many folks a theological abstraction and is often misconstrued and misunderstood, leading on a practical level, down in the trenches, to a denigration of the married state as a “lesser sacrifice” filled with quotidian distractions that rob the married person of the ability to focus on “holy things” the way a priest can. But Lumen Gentium Chapter five, with its universal call to holiness, makes it clear that the married person is every bit as capable of finding holiness precisely in and through the sacrifices made in the run of charity that every married person must engage.  In my opinion therefore, marriage is a lesser eschatological state of life in terms of its eschatological “sign value,” but it is not a “lesser sacrifice.” And if that makes me a heretic then bring on the Inquisition and burn me at the stake because I will not recant that view.

I think of the example of my own parents.  They had five children, the youngest of which - - my beloved sister Frances - - was born with a severe set of heart defects.  She was weak and constantly ill and required my loving and holy mother to care for her constantly.  I still have seared into my soul the white-hot memory of my mother staying up all night with Frances holding her in her lap as Frances cried in pain as she vomited up blood and the medicines that had ripped her stomach apart. I remember my mother singing to her and rocking her as she too cried with the tears of parental empathy and who would have gladly exchanged places with her suffering little one in a Christ-like act of vicarious substitution.  And then the next day, devoid of sleep, my mother had to attend to the needs of the rest of us and did so with devotion and the constancy born of love.  And when Frances died at the age of five following unsuccessful surgery - - a surgery after which she lingered in great agony and suffering for four days before passing, with my parents at her side in agonistic torture - - their grief was immense.  My father was a man’s man. A Korean war air force veteran and a fireman. He was (and still is thankfully) a good man of salt of the earth virtues, filled with the kind of stoic masculinity so common among American men of the post war era. I never once saw him cry.  That is until Frances died. And then I witnessed my strong and self-composed father cry for the first time in my life.  Great, heaving, sobs of grief poured out of him over my sister’s casket and I witnessed my stoic father come apart in the following days, sullen, depressed, and with eyes constantly red, as our entire family mourned the loss of one we loved so very dearly. And in the midst of all that my parents had to soldier on and care for their other children with the needs of school and new clothes and trips to the emergency room (That was me. I was a Klutz). And my father had to return to duty at the firehouse as if a few days passing-by could heal such a deep offense.  

That my friends is holiness.  A “lesser sacrifice?”  I think not. Marriage is not only a “remedy for concupiscence”, but is also much more than that. No less a light than Saint Augustine held that marriage is indeed a remedy for concupiscence, but on a very basic level, and that its true dignity resides in something much more lofty. The gravamen of my accusation is that marriage as a specifically Christian state of life is not something that we “settle for” if we cannot hack the true "rigors" of celibate religious life.  Marriage is a school of holiness all its own and I do not really care that in Heaven marriage will no longer exist, since I would not be going to Heaven at any rate were it not for the school of holiness that is marriage.  And I further call “BS” to the notion that in the next life my relationship with my wife will be no different than my relationship with anyone else that is there.  What risible anthropological nonsense.  If I am in Heaven but without a constitutive inner relational bond to everyone I have loved in this life then I am not in Heaven as myself.  It matters not one wit that my wife will no longer be my wife in Heaven.  She will still be the woman who got me there. And Heaven without her, would be Hell.  

Shifting gears now to a different set of memories, as a young man I wanted to be a priest.  I still do even now as an old man.  I was in the seminary for seven years - - three years in minor seminary and four years in a major seminary.  I was ordained a deacon for the Diocese of Arlington Virginia in 1985.  But as my diaconal year progressed my long-standing doubts about wanting to give up marriage and family only increased until I reached the fateful decision, two months before priestly ordination, to walk away and seek laicization, which I was granted. I am telling this in a very matter of fact way, as if this was just “something that happened to me once.” But in reality, as you might imagine, it involved a level of psychological and emotional turmoil that I can only, weakly, describe as horrific.  Nevertheless, I continued to support mandatory celibacy and took my tortured soul and pursued an academic career instead.  I did marry, had one child, and had a great career as a theologian. And a great life. So far, anyway. Something horrible could still happen to me and probably will. (I might have to attend parish meetings on what synodal “inclusivity” means to me, for example.)

However, looking at this now with “fresh eyes,” I realize that my torture was caused by the fact that I truly felt called to both the priestly and married states and was only willing to entertain the notion of celibacy out of a sense of, “this is what I have to do to be a priest,” and not because it was something I really felt called to. But the Church forced me to choose and choose I did.  And I hope it does not come across as arrogant when I say that I think the Church lost out on someone (me) who would have been a darn fine priest, married and all. I also now look back on the many, many other wonderful men I knew in seminary who made the same choice I did, and for the same reasons, and with the same torture.  And I am convinced that most of them would have been fine priests as well, complete with family in tow.  

This is one of the reasons why the priest sex scandals have hit me hard. Because I saw good, psychosexually healthy men leave the seminary to get married, even though they truly wanted to be priests and felt called to the priesthood, and yet I also saw men I knew to be deviants and miscreants of the worst sort, who were clearly not called to either celibacy or the priesthood, or even marriage for that matter, get ordained, and that they were allowed to do so because bishops were desperate for warm bodies - - bodies they would have had if the Church ordained married men - - and those miscreant warm bodies were more than happy to fake a life of celibacy in order to live the lifestyle of a priest.  And we now all know the results of that.  And so a pious exasperation filled my soul because, damn it, I wanted to be a priest, but couldn’t, because I wanted to get married, while these miserable perverts could.  My conclusion from this sad state of affairs is a simple one. Namely, that if the Church is going to have a celibate clergy then for crying out loud have a celibate clergy. Otherwise, let’s stop the charade shall we and just admit that all of the scandals and all of the episcopal coverups and all of the diocesan bankruptcies are a colossal admission that the whole enterprise of a celibate clergy needs to be either doubled and tripled down on with greater vigor, and with far greater support for those men who embrace it well, or chucked out the window as a monumental sham.  But this current system of a “wink and a nod” mandatory (sic) celibacy has to go. Because it is not only mendacious, but also demonic in the distorting gravity waves of spiritual decay it shoots through the Church with devastating and destructive force.

And yes, I am aware, as I said above, that even a married clergy has scandals.  A married clergy brings its own unique set of headaches and challenges.  Therefore, perhaps a purely negative appraisal of mandatory celibacy, rooted in the many scandals we have seen, is not sufficient enough reason to do away with it. Which is why I did not start this meditation with this aspect of the debate.  However, the global nature of the offenses, spread out over many decades, argues for the existence of a deep, systemic problem that transcends mere episcopal negligence and which points instead to a crisis in the lived practice of celibacy as such. The “it is just a few rotten apples” explanation wears thin after a while, even if that is true (and I think it is), since it often acts as a deflection from a serious examination of what is really going on. One could argue perhaps that it is simply a crisis in the poor screening of candidates, since celibacy as such most certainly does not “cause” sexual deviancy.  And this is true.  However, sexual deviants are very good at compartmentalization and are very adept at hiding their sexual vices, and therefore one cannot expect the Church to screen out most of them in advance.  Furthermore, in my view and based on my experiences, the presence of an institutionalized class of celibates actually acts as an attractant to deviant types who are in some sense Catholics, who feel mildly to greatly guilty with regard to their attractions, and who seek to beard their hidden life under the cover of pious respectability in the celibate priesthood. Some of them might even view their choice for the priesthood as an attempt at saving themselves from their own perversions.  And while that might be a noble attempt at redemption, it is still in most cases a disaster waiting to happen.

Nevertheless, as I said, this is largely a negative appraisal of celibacy based on the presence of scandals and is most likely a poor reason to do away with it.  But at the very least it is cause for us to pause and to ask, “what has gone wrong?” in a manner that transcends bureaucratic solutions such as the Dallas Charter which, good as such measures are, are not sufficient.  I do not know the solution. I have no answers and will not pretend that I do, but if we are going to keep mandatory celibacy, we better find some. The problem with purely bureaucratic solutions is that they ignore the deeper crisis of faith that afflicts the Church in the modern world and give the impression that the Church is “doing something” when in fact it isn’t.  Such solutions are like a doctor giving meds to a patient with a broken leg in order to “manage the pain,” without for all that actually resetting the broken bones.  The Church today lives in a broken and spiritually nullifying culture and that cultural nullification of the reality of God has infected the culture of the Church as well.  And until that issue is addressed we will continue to see such scandals.  And a married clergy, by itself, will not end such scandals since marriage too these days is afflicted with a deep malaise of the soul.  Therefore, I am not proposing a rethinking of celibacy as yet one more “strategy” for overcoming scandals since that too will remain superficial unless it is tied to a renewal in evangelical holiness throughout the Church’s broader culture.  Still, it is worth considering if for no other reason that it will increase the pool of available candidates allowing the Church to be far more selective in who she admits to the seminary.

We used to have chickens on our farm but no longer do.  They were killed by raccoons. And no matter how many raccoons I trapped and relocated far away, more raccoons showed up in their place.  Likewise, having a more draconian approach to laicizing offenders will solve some of the problem perhaps, but the rabid raccoons will keep coming, especially in light of our pornified culture’s deep saturation with sexual perfidy. Perhaps this is true as well even in a married clergy and therefore I am perhaps being alarmist and unnecessarily negative. Perhaps. I just do not know, and I doubt anyone does, and therefore I leave it to the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom in these matters. Because it involves deep mysteries of the human condition that elude final reduction to a set of neat analyses.  There is a true communion of saints. But there is, as Bernanos points out, also a mysterious simulacrum of that communion in a communion of sin and evil.  It is all really beyond me at this stage of my life.  I want chickens again, but I really don’t know what to do about those damn raccoons.  

And so I will end by returning to the example of my married pastor, Fr. Eric Bergman.  The positive rationale for questioning mandatory celibacy is more specifically theological and its face is Damien Alfonso Bergman.  It is the pneumatological presence of the charity of Christ in a parish’s love and support for its pastor’s family, which is not something superficial and sentimental, but rather deeply existential and life giving, since there is a concomitant and connatural reciprocity between our pastor’s family and our own.  My only point, such as it is and as jumbled as it is, is that there are virtues to a married clergy that I think we overlook in our rush to shore up our apologia for celibacy.  And those virtues might be precisely what are needed in the present moment.  But no matter what the Church decides, and as I have emphasized repeatedly in these blog pages, nothing positive will happen in terms of reforming the Church unless the call to holiness is not only proffered by the Church, but embraced enthusiastically by her members. Because marriage too is in crisis these days and so the counterargument to my meditation here is that the eschatological witness of celibacy is needed today now more than ever.  But I cannot get the image of Damien’s tiny casket out of my mind or the memory of our parish coming together as never before in the deep bonds of charity. It is the most palpable and tangible experience of true Christian community I have ever had and that experience was intrinsically related to the fact that my pastor has a family. A family we all love dearly.  It is at the very least something the Church needs to pray over and discern with a deep wisdom rooted in the Revelation of Christ’s love for his Church.

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

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