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Is celibacy relevant in the Catholic church today?

Pope Benedict XVI delivers his speech to the faithful gathered in Aula Paolo VI at the Vatican during his weekly general audience on January 4, 2012.
Pope Benedict XVI delivers his speech to the faithful gathered in Aula Paolo VI at the Vatican during his weekly general audience on January 4, 2012.

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Celibacy is a discipline, not a doctrine, and some think it's time it was abolished. Critics of the practice point to scandals of long-time sexual abuse by priests that have emerged in recent years, and suggest that enforced celibacy is a contributing factor.

Most recently, the Vatican has accepted the resignation of a Los Angeles area bishop who disclosed that he had fathered two children. Bishop Gabino Zavala, who was auxiliary bishop for the San Gabriel Pastoral Region, had kept his children a secret until confessing the transgression to his superiors in early December.

Catholic priests are expected to be celibate as a condition of the priesthood in order to fully dedicate themselves to the service of God, the church and their parishioners. Priests are expected to follow the example of Jesus Christ and to be "married" to the church. Historically, the practice goes back as far as the Middle Ages, by some accounts as early as the fourth century.

Senior Research Associate in Religion at Hofstra University Phyllis Zagano said the fourth century is when a connection between holiness and celibacy was established. "You have writers arguing that marriage is not a good thing," she said. "That marriage brings with it such terrible problems that it’s almost impossible to be a good Christian." But according to Zagano, the early church had many married bishops. "They figured out that if no one got married, you wouldn’t have much of a church after awhile," she continued.

Still, support for celibacy eventually grew. "It's not until the 11th century that there is really an argument that anyone who celebrates the sacred mysteries, anyone who is a priest who touches the holy should not touch women,” she added.

Bishop Zavala is certainly not the first to flout the rules when it comes to sexual relationships – or secret children. Which begs the question: how relevant is celibacy to the modern Catholic church? A.W. Richard Sipe, writer on celibacy and former Catholic priest, did a 25-year ethnological study on the celibacy practice between 1960 and 1985. He concluded that at any one time, no more than 50 percent of Roman Catholic priests bound by this vow are faithful to the practice. "It's not surprising that priests and bishops have sex," he said. "If all the bishops who had sex, are having sex, are having sexual relationships with women or men resigned, then the hierarchy of the church would be decimated."

According to Sipe, reasons for maintaining the discipline are for economic gain and maintaining authority. "It doesn't take as much money to supply the life care of a priest or a nun as it would with a man with a family," he said. "And control. If you can control a person's sexual life, you can control them."


Phyllis Zagano, Ph.D., Senior Research Associate-in-Residence, Department of Religion, Hofstra University, and author of "Women & Catholicism: Gender, Communion, and Authority," which investigates questions regarding women in the Catholic Church.

A.W. Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk and Catholic priest and retired psychotherapist who has extensively researched the sexual and celibate practices of Roman Catholic bishops and priests. His many books on the subject include "A Secret World" and "Celibacy in Crisis."