I found myself aghast that, after more or less favorably reviewing Calvary (“Vocation,” In the Dark, November), which sounds like a disgusting and anti-Catholic movie, George McCartney takes the opportunity to declare that “mandatory celibacy in the Roman Catholic clergy is a benighted institution that’s done much harm to the Church.”  He credits the recent homosexual/pedophile disaster in the Church to the fact that priests are not allowed to marry.  On what does he base this?  He claims that “allowing for a married clergy would have given Church leaders a far larger number of candidates from which to winnow the questionable from the ranks.”  In other words, he believes that Church leaders are on the lookout for homosexual individuals and would, in fact, “winnow” them.  If this is true, why has it not happened?  Does Professor McCartney think that fewer numbers of candidates have encouraged those Church leaders who would have rejected a candidate on the basis of homosexuality to overlook that tendency?

I can just imagine how an interview with a candidate would go: “Do you have any homosexual or pedophilic tendencies?”

“Well, yes, I do.” 

“OK, well, we’re really short-handed here, so we won’t worry about that.”

And this, of course, presupposes that every vile pedophile came to the seminary at 20 or so years of age with already solid homosexual or pedophilic tendencies.  If not, then those tendencies must have been encouraged during the years of seminary training.  Not possible?  I ask you to consider the case of Timothy Cardinal Dolan of New York City who has recently agreed to preside over the first Saint Patrick’s Day Parade ever to include an openly gay group.  Not soft on homosexuality?

Finally, on the subject of married priests, what makes Professor McCartney assume that those who are not willing to die to the world and give their whole lives to the service of Christ—i.e., those who wish to be priests while simultaneously carving out their own niche of worldly happiness with a wife and family—will make better priests?  And what would make them remain “faithfully married” and thereby “exert social pressure” on other priests to remain chaste?  The overhyped sexual pressures of the modern world clearly do not stop at the doors of the rectory.

The present Pope may have given signs that he agrees with married clergy, but he has also given signs that he is soft on homosexuality.  (“Who am I to judge?”)  I suggest that we hold fast to the time-honored disciplines of the Church and fight against weakening the faith by any accommodation with the ways of the world.

        —Lucy Simmerer
via email

Dr. McCartney Replies:

I’m reminded of my uncle’s words on the matter of celibacy.  A father of eight children, he wanted to know why it was that priests shouldn’t suffer also.  As a devoted Catholic born in 1931, he was joking, of course.  Looked at soberly, however, his jibe has weight.  If priests were married, they would share with the similarly situated members of the laity both the joys and challenges of family life.  They would, as Miss Simmerer puts it, pursue “the ways of the world,” which include the anxieties occasioned by troubled pregnancies and sick children, the travails endured in the course of educating their sons and daughters, the frustrations visited on them by refractory adolescents, the belt-tightening necessary to meet mortgage payments and food bills.  They might also have some hurried opportunities to enjoy connubial bliss.  And, along the way, they’d develop a fuller understanding of the men and women they chose to serve than celibates usually can.

As for homosexual priests, I know some who I’m sure honorably fulfill their vocations.  All I’m saying is this: If married men had the option to become priests, there would be far more candidates to take Holy Orders.  It would follow that the Church would be able to choose from the best from among their number and begin making up for the critical shortfall in vocations.  As for questioning candidates on their sexual orientation, that is current and past practice.  As reported in the New York Times, all seminary candidates are now tested for HIV and commonly asked, “When was the last time you had sex?”  If not never, the preferred answer is three or more years ago.  Other common questions are “What kind of sexual experiences have you had?” and “Do you like pornography?”  According to Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, a psychologist at The Catholic University of America, the screening applied to seminary candidates can be “very intrusive.”  Still, a candidate who admits to homosexual inclinations is not necessarily ruled out.  Vatican guidelines do, however, demand that seminary rectors reject men who “show profoundly deep-rooted homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called gay culture.”  As Rossetti explained, “We are looking for two basic qualities, the absence of pathology and the presence of health.”

If a priest chooses to sacrifice his sexual life in the service of Christ, well and good, I say.  I would only add that I think it would be wise to make his commitment to celibacy a contract, renewable every five years or so.  Catholics who have been at all attentive usually know several priests and nuns whose souls have shriveled with embitterment trying to keep their vows.  As a consequence, they are miserable and frequently stir moral confusion in those they would serve.  One can be utterly faithful to the rules of one’s vocation but fail its spirit profoundly.

Miss Simmerer speaks of the way the Church used to be with Her seemingly inflexible discipline generally accepted both by clergy and laity.  I’m nostalgic for this Church also.  What seems increasingly clear, however, is that She was as much fiction as reality.  This shouldn’t surprise or scandalize us.  Think of the sinning clergy in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Thomas More’s Utopia, Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, and J.F. Powers’ stories.  The Church is as much human as divine.

As for sex, I agree with Saint Paul.  He famously told the Corinthians that it’s better to marry than to burn with lust.  Why shouldn’t this reasonable advice be as pertinent to clergy as to laity?

By the way, Calvary, while not a great film, is at times a very good one.  In its clumsy way, it raises questions every Catholic needs to answer.