Why Does the Concept of Celibacy Scare Our Sex Obsessed Society; A Married Minister Who Converted to Catholicism Argues Priests Must Continue to Defy the Fashions of Modern Age

Daily Mail (London), September 18, 1996 | Go to article overview

Why Does the Concept of Celibacy Scare Our Sex Obsessed Society; A Married Minister Who Converted to Catholicism Argues Priests Must Continue to Defy the Fashions of Modern Age


Byline: WILLIAM ODDIE

THERE is one extraordinary feature of the disappearance (with a divorced woman 16 years his junior) of Bishop Roderick Wright of Argyll and the Isles - archly described by one broadsheet newspaper as the `Bishop of Muck'.

That has been the media fascination, not so much with the juicy details, but with the question of whether celibacy can still be defended as a requirement for ordination to the Catholic priesthood.

The incomprehensible demands made by Catholicism remain a subject of mystery, even glamour, for many non-Catholics.

Even in these days, when so much of what has seemed to the British psyche as foreign and exotic in that religion has been demystified and `reformed' out of existence, there is still something about what G.K. Chesterton called the Catholic `Thing' which is, for non-Catholics, utterly inexplicable.

This is especially true of clerical celibacy.

In an age which is in the grip of what C.S. Lewis (writing, incredibly, in the pre-sexual liberation Forties) called even then `the erotic obsession of the 20th century', the Catholic Church's denial of sexual relations to its clergy is bound to seem peculiar, even perverse.

But of course, it always was something of an outrage to the Protestant British. Father James Maconochie, one of the Victorian Anglo-Catholic clergy who caused scandal by performing such Roman enormities as hearing Confessions, celebrating `the Mass' in Romish vestments and the like, was once accused in The Times of `openly practising celibacy in the public streets.'

Today, such an outrageous challenge to the Spirit of the Age is bound to be even more provocative than it was then. In an age like our own, which equates personal fulfilment with sexual satisfaction, the joys to be attained by channelling one's sexuality towards God rather than another human being are bound to seem wholly incomprehensible.

BUT that is no reason in itself for change. It is vital that the Catholic Church should continue to do what it has always done - the proud boast of Catholics has always been that their Church thinks in centuries, not in decades. This often means that Catholics seem out of touch with secular wisdom. But wait a half-century or so for fashions to crumble; it so often turns out that they were right after all.

Thus, the case for abandoning celibacy has not been made - the arguments are simply inadequate compared with the far more compelling reasons for defending the status quo. Before I became a Catholic, I was a married Anglican clergyman, and it is because I am aware of the limitations that marriage imposes that I want Catholics to appreciate what they have.

There is in the Catholic clergy a particular kind of dedication to the purposes of God, and the Catholic laity has come to take it for granted.

This dedication is total and uncompromising, and its special character derives from the renunciation of much that, in our society and at this juncture in our cultural history, we take for granted as being essential for human happiness.

It seems to me it is the renunciation of self, which sacrifice represents, which makes celibacy such a precious possession of the Catholic Church. It is one of the jewels in our crown; we would be fools to lightly throw it away.

Of course, there are those for whom the sacrifice is too great, who - like the unhappy Bishop Wright - crumble beneath the strain. …

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