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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Contracepting the Priesthood

Brian Killian

Now that the Vatican has reiterated its ban on the ordination of men who identify themselves with or are mired deeply in homosexual tendencies, the opponents of the ban have been bringing out their well-worn arguments defending the status quo.

Relating Correctly

There seems to be one point that many of these arguments hold in common: what really matters is sexual maturity, not orientation. Regarding maturity, the new document on the ordination of men to the priesthood says:

  • The candidate...must reach affective maturity. Such maturity will allow him to relate correctly to both men and women, developing in him a true sense of spiritual fatherhood towards the Church community that will be entrusted to him.

This maturity is “interpreted” by some as meaning simply the ability to get along with men and women and being able to live a celibate life. But does this relating to men and women really have nothing to do with sexual differences? And do celibacy and the priesthood really have little to do with sexual orientation?

Incidentally, Pope Benedict in his former job oversaw a letter to the bishops on the collaboration of men and women which could be seen as an extended meditation on what “relating correctly to men and women” really means. In this letter we find that celibacy has a theological meaning, one that complements the meaning of marriage.

  • For those in married life, celibacy becomes the reminder and prophecy of the completion which their own relationship will find in the face-to-face encounter with God.
Celibacy points forward to the clear vision of that reality which marriage now sees through a glass darkly. Thus celibacy makes sense only in relationship to marriage; and marriage is based on those sexual values God has inscribed into male and female, which make men and women icons for each other. Thus the meaning of celibacy presupposes a specific sexual orientation; the orientation of man to woman and woman to man.

Analogous and Inseparable

Still less is the priesthood separable from sexual orientation. The letter on the collaboration of men and women sets the foundational principle: “The human dimension of sexuality is inseparable from the theological dimension.” It was the Lord Who associated His priesthood with fertility when He said that a grain of wheat must fall to the earth and die before it bears any fruit. Seed and sacrifice; masculinity and priesthood; bed and altar are analogous and inseparable. The priesthood has a spousal character, and marriage has a Eucharistic character. Hence St. Paul associates marriage with the mystery of Christ and His Church, the husband gives himself up for his wife as Christ does for the Church. The kenotic nature of “giving himself up,” besides characterizing the self-emptying of God in the Incarnation of the Word, is written into the very structure of the husband’s embrace of his wife, when he knows her “in the manner of all the earth.”

The man who presides at the altar and the man who presides at the marriage bed are both called Father, for they both in their own way beget the Church. Like celibacy and marriage, spiritual fatherhood and biological fatherhood are inseparable.

In Awe of the Power

Dismissing sexual orientation as something unrelated to the priesthood is the same trivialization of sex that lurks in the demand for women priests, the acceptance of contraception, and the “polymorphous sexuality” of our culture. Sexuality — especially fertility — has always been perceived in man’s religious history as an epiphany, and therefore something sacred. It is only in our secular culture that sexuality is seen as a mere biological fact and fertility is treated like a disease. In the image of the grain of wheat we find a series of meanings inseparably united: seed (masculinity); death (love, sacrifice, priesthood); fruit (fertility, fecundity).

Many of the evils of our times result from trying to separate one or more of these. Contraception and homosexuality separate love from fertility, and the logic of “gay” ordination separates masculinity from both priesthood and fertility.

Whatever the causes of homosexual tendencies, same-sex attraction distorts the nuptial values that are part of being male and female. God made us male and female to give us knowledge of His nature. Sexual values exert an awe-full power over us because the mystery of heaven is inscribed within them — and so, too, the mystery of marriage, celibacy and priesthood.

If it’s true that the human dimension of sexuality is inseparable from the theological dimension, then sexual distortions must be theological distortions as well. A man who is confused about his masculinity will also be confused about what it means to be a spiritual father and a priest. This is why those who believe that sexual orientation has nothing to do with it always seem to regard the priest as a social worker, rather than someone who is ontologically connected with the priesthood of Christ, the Seed of the new Edenic garden.

  • Brian Killian is a freelance writer and a columnist for the Atlantic Catholic. He writes from Nova Scotia and enjoys receiving feedback at

  • This article previously appeared in the Atlantic Catholic and is used by permission of the author.

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