Michael H. Crosby, OFMCap.

Human Development 32.2 (Summer, 2011), 30-33

MichaelCrosbyI believe one simple reason explains why fewer candidates now are joining the mainline non-clerical groups of men’s and women’s congregations in countries like ours. My conviction has little or nothing to do with the assumptions that seem to underlie the kind of questions being asked by the Vatican investigators of women religious in the United States and Ireland. On the contrary. When one looks at demographics from places like the U.S. and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and the U.K., Ireland and Western Europe, the lack of vocations to such groups ultimately involves one thing and one thing only: celibacy. Simply stated: the average person desiring to prayerfully serve God in some kind of permanent ministry can do so without being celibate.

This represents a relatively new phenomenon in the Roman Catholic Church; as a result its influence on young peoples’ conscious and unconscious decision-making involving celibacy is not being considered to the degree it should.

My experience of +50 years as a Capuchin Franciscan reveals that celibacy was the stated reason why we lost such large numbers in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. Furthermore, at least in economically developed countries like the U.S.A., I believe it will remain the main reason why the congregations of women and men founded since the French Revolution will continue aging with lesser and lesser vocations. As I noted in my opening paragraph, those who would have been likely candidates in the past now are finding groups with whom they can pray and minister without having to be expected to remain celibate for the rest of their lives. As the saying goes vis-à-vis ministry in the church and celibacy, they now can have their cake and eat it too.

In the past I have written on mandated celibacy, especially among men. In this article I want to discuss the celibacy-based reasons why non-clerical groups of wo/men in the economically developed nations will not witness any upswing in vocations for the foreseeable future, if ever. I base my conclusions on various factors: scriptural, theological, cultural and practical

1. There is no clear scriptural foundation for any “call” to celibacy.

No less a scriptural authority than Paul himself declared that, when it came to any follower of Christ remaining a virgin, he had “no command of the Lord” (1 Cor 7:25). Furthermore, in giving his “opinion” on the matter, his conclusion was based on a faulty assumption: that the parousia was inevitable. For this reason, he argued, people should be intent on preparing for Christ’s imminent return rather than being preoccupied with relational dynamics around marriage.

The other key scriptural passage traditionally used as a rationale for celibacy in the church comes from Matthew 19. The context is Jesus’ stance on the only option available to the aggrieved party in a divorce. Assuming the marriage was valid, we have come to interpret that “difficult” passage to say that such people cannot remarry. Indeed this passage remains the key scriptural argument as to why the Roman Church insists that only if a marriage is determined to be invalid can either party be free to remarry.

Without a clear evangelical “call” to religious life in its present celibate expression, some have stressed the notion of celibacy as a “charism” in the church. But, again, there is no such place in the scriptures where charisms are discussed (such as the key texts in Romans 12 or 1 Corinthians 12) that we find any mention of celibacy.

In a wider or extended sense of such scripture passages one can (and should, I believe) apply to celibacy both the rationale for 1 Cor 7 (i.e., “waiting on the coming of the Lord”) and Matt 19 (“making oneself an eunuch for the kingdom”). However, this must be done aware of the fact that any study of the purpose of celibacy at the time of Jesus makes it clear that it had no value in itself except when practiced temporarily. And then it was discussed as something done by men. Thus soldiers and priests were to refrain from sexual activity before battle and before offering the sacrifice.

Other efforts to point to the scriptures in support of permanent celibacy cannot be sustained by deeper unbiased arguments, including the argument from silence that Jesus was a celibate, although I believe this to be the case. What he may have accepted or even embraced for himself was not something he considered important enough to be promoted in any way. Furthermore, the “leaving” father and mother and livelihood passages that are applied to discipleship refer to discipleship, not sexual/genital relationships. In this case Peter himself, who “left all” to follow Jesus, never left his wife.

Simply put, celibacy in the permanent form it has taken in religious congregations has no clear scriptural basis. Indeed to be celibate was not normal; thus it never was normative, much less made a norm.

As it was “in the beginning,” so now, the basic reason as to why celibacy is not “normal” comes from a definite scriptural assumption: “it is not good . . . to be alone” in such a way. It is not without reason that, given this tradition stressing marriage for all women, that Jephthah’s daughter, knowing her impending death, went into the desert to “bewail” her virginity (Judges 11:37).

2. Given the weak scriptural foundation for celibacy, its theological basis is equally weak.

From the earliest days of the church evidence reveals individual women who were called “virgins” and “widows.” The data whether or why they may (not) have remained so permanently does not seem to be that undisputed. In addition, only with the rise of the third-century coenobitical groups do we find a communal dimension highlighted and, when it appears, most often, this communal expression involves men, although we do find some ammas along with the abbas.

As religious life evolved, especially in the non-cloistered, apostolic form that arose during the last 500 years, two main theological assumptions buttressed its appeal to potential candidates, especially women. Besides being free of the direct day-to-day demands of a man, such women could serve God apostolically, convinced that such apostolic service made them unique among other women. This assumption—again being resurrected by more traditionalist groups and ideologies–has little current theological currency.

Any theological basis distinguishing between the communally-celibate expression of baptism and that of any other baptized Catholic was dissipated by two key teachings of the Second Vatican Council. First, the previous assumption about “states of perfection” that represented a kind of hierarchy of holiness was undermined by Lumen Gentium’s “universal call to holiness.” (Given this, it is interested to listen to recent discussions in more conservative circles about various “states in life;” such talk seems to represent a hankering for the earlier ideology and practices connected to the “states of perfection”).        The second factor arising from Vatican II involved the theological understanding that, rather than having a “call” to some certain apostolate in the church, baptism itself became recognized as the one call to witness to the Gospel with many apostolic expressions (male and female, single and married, celibate and non-celibate). Now every baptized person is called to witness to the gospel in whatever they do.

3. The wider cultural underpinnings for celibacy are weakening, if not already gone.

In many countries, including the United States and Canada, until the “sexual revolution” of the mid-to-late 1960s, sex was seldom discussed opening; it was protected. Something only intimated. However, often with appeals to the First Amendment, “freedom of expression” became increasingly linked with freedom of sexual expression, without boundaries. In generations since the ‘60s, what once was not culturally tolerated except for late night television seems de rigueur even on “family hour” television. Now any sexual and genital innuendo has become quite explicit to the point of a kind of non-critical form of promiscuity whether it is in the soft-porn advertising for Abercrombie and Fitch or the easy availability of hard-core pornography itself. Just ask any priest hearing confessions as to the increase in those confessing addictive-type behaviors related to watching pornography. Or ask the real reason why many formators of postulants, novices and those in temporary vows (at least in men’s congregations) have found it necessary to put blockers on house computers.

Most religious women (or men) over 60 will tell you that they never really considered celibacy as a critical component when they made their decision to enter religious life or make perpetual commitment in it. It simply came with the package and the package, for them, was mainly about doing something apostolic. Their goal was to “do something” apostolic; only later did they realize celibacy was about “being something” quite different. And, oftentimes, through many mistakes and sins, they were able to begin to “make themselves so” for the sake of the kingdom noted in Matthew 19.

Proponents of a more culturally conservative form of Catholicism will point to the the relatively large numbers in some of the very traditional forms of religious life that are identified with specific apostolic activities (often episcopally sanctioned and supported), unquestioning acceptance of Vatican decrees, with members who live communally strict hour plans, including daily Mass and prayer. They do not recognized that now, as in the past, celibacy is still too often “part of the package” that can be handled because one’s identity disassociates (at least for a while) one’s sexual drives from other drives such as power and prestige for being part of such groups—at least among those who identify with a patriarchal, clerical form of Catholicism. Furthermore, some of these groups, notably in my case as a Capuchin, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, have had great success in appealing to the youth-market with their various rallies and seminars and have very savvy expertise in the internet and other forms of mass media communication not enjoyed by many other groups.

However, those touting the “success” of such groups that fit into a more conservative form of patriarchal and clerical Catholicism do not note that these tend to be, with some notable exceptions like the Nashville Dominicans, newer expressions of the older forms of apostolic religious life. If this were not so, then one must ask why some of the equally traditional groups, like the Little Sisters of the Poor or Hawthorne Dominicans, are diminishing as rapidly as are their mainline equivalents. This data raises the question about the “pool” of potential candidates for religious life and my final point.

4. The practical reasons for celibacy are less and less convincing.

Recently I had conversations with several people working with young Catholic adults aware of “trends” among them. Consistently they pointed to polls showing that  Indeed only 15% of this cohort are attracted to such forms. If this be so, it follows that the existing groups that are more traditional (such as those noted above) will continue to attract such people, but they will not be the norm; they will appeal merely to the 15% of Catholics who are seeking such a patriarchal, clerical form of religious life—including women willing to submit to it for all sorts of reasons too complex to address here.

So, then, what is the “norm” for the wider cohort of younger Catholics who previously might have felt “called” to those forms of religious life that were reinforced by once never-challenged assumptions that made candidates then think that they were scripturally, theologically and culturally unique?

Simple stated, these young people are finding prayer groups and other such faith-based supports to help them sustain their various ministries. For many, seeking temporary expressions, they find such in Teach for America, JVC and my own Province’s CapCorps, and other volunteer programs like the Catholic Workers. And for those of them that want to spend their foreseeable futures in full-time apostolic activity, they have found outlets that allow them to fulfill their dreams without having to commit to life-long celibacy. Some of these are found among movemental groups like the Focolari and Communion and Liberation (to say nothing of the more patriarchally conservative groups like Opus Dei).

A good example of this shift comes from the demographics revealing the largest source of lay ministers in the United States: the religious studies programs in college after college. The Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola University in Chicago is one such example. Founded almost 50 years ago, it once served mainly women religious. Now its student base is mainly lay, with the number of young adults increasing each year. Just this summer, teaching there, among my class of 20, I had at least 5 young IPS students. These were the “candidates” of yesterday who would have been open to consider progressive forms of religious life today but now they know they pray and minister with others without needing to remain celibate.

Given the above, I think it is safe to conclude that the days of huge numbers of people in non-clerical forms of religious life have ended. I don’t think that this change has occurred because religious congregations are too liberal or too questioning of the Vatican. They have done nothing wrong (as many believe to be the case in the Vatican Inquiry); they are simply the faithful remnant of an era that honored celibacy in a way that will not likely come again. While I believe some life-long communal forms of celibacy will remain, I think that among men, most candidates will go to the clerical groups and not the communities of brothers. For the women, especially the mainline groups, candidates will be fewer and far between.


Michael Crosby, OFMCap. is celebrating his Golden Jubilee as a Capuchin Franciscan this year. He has authored many books, including Rethinking Celibacy: Reclaiming the Church. His website is www.michaelcrosby.net.

More  Resources:

Priests talking about celibacy
The Tradition of Abusive Dishonesty
The Trouble with Celibacy in Africa
When a Priest Falls in Love
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4 Comment
Dr. Aaron Milavec 6 September 2014
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The courage and transparency of Friar Michael on this sensitive issue is noteworthy. He has contributed to overcoming the climate of shame and repression that surrounds all discussions on celibacy. Without such voices, the Church will continue to flounder and the deeply flawed analysis put forward by Paul VI in his encyclical on priestly celibacy known as Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (1967) will continue to subvert public discussions. Hence, I say, "Thank you for your public courage, Friar Michael! I want to take my stand with you." Aaron For a snapshot of the pain and betrayal that marked the imposition of celibacy upon a married clergy from the 11th to the 16th century, click here.
Tyrone 6 December 2018
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