In light of the continued publicity of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy over the last 50 years and some comments that I have heard from some very devout people, I have decided to write about my commitment to live a celibate life as a Catholic priest. In December 1976, I was ordained by Cardinal Terence Cooke to be a temporary deacon on my way to priestly ordination the following year. Just before Christmas in 1976, I had to take a solemn oath to give up my right to marry and live a chaste life as a celibate man. This means that I would be expected to refrain from all genital sexual activity. The Church in the West has made this a requirement of priests for the last 1,000 years. This is not the discipline in the Eastern Churches.
Over the last 2,000 years of history, countless thousands of men and women have made this commitment to live celibate lives. Many who have not been able to keep this commitment have left the active ministry to get married. Many have violated their commitment and engaged in sinful acts. Some participated in minor offenses and quite a few others in depraved acts of sexual abuse of minors or adults entrusted to their care. There are really no words to express the horror visited on abuse victims caused by the sinful and depraved acts of some clergy. Those who attempted to cover up such crimes are as guilty as the perpetrators of these actions.
Some people argue that celibacy is the underlying cause of the problem of clergy abuse. They feel that the suppression of sexual urges leads priests to abuse minors or adults. Sexual suppression of any sort can lead to serious mental illness. A healthy celibate does not suppress his or her sexuality but expresses their sexual energy in loving, joyful service to God. There is no place for sexual abuse of any kind in the life of a celibate priest, deacon or religious.
Of course, living a celibate life is far from easy. Chastity expressed in any form of life—married, single, clergy or religious—is a challenge. Sexual urges are easily given into. Controlling one’s sexual desires is the key to a happy life, not only for clergy but for anyone wishing to follow Christ.
As I age, I have a completely different view of celibacy than when I was 25 years old. I use to have a great desire for my own children. As I look back on my years of priesthood, I see more clearly how I have been greatly blessed with thousands of offspring born again in baptism, communion, marriage and ordination. Oddly I never felt lonely and alone when I was a young priest. Over the years, my life has been blessed with many close friends, both clergy and lay people. These friendships and the continued support of a loving family have sustained me in my priesthood and life as a celibate man. As a senior citizen, I feel the ravages of time, not so much physically but emotionally. Being alone has become the great challenge of my celibate life. With the continued loving response of God’s holy people, my caring family and fantastic friends, I am hopeful for the future. However, God’s grace and my absolute trust in His providence is the ultimate solace.
The debate about the value of celibacy will continue long after I am dead. It is a debate well worth having. But let us not sacrifice this noble discipline on the altar of looking for a quick fix to the clergy sexual abuse crisis. Pedophilia and out of control sexual desires are the causes of abuse, not celibacy.
Msgr. Nelan is the pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Manhattan and dean of South Manhattan. This column was first published in the parish bulletin at Immaculate Conception.