By Joey Royal
I was recently riding in an airport shuttle with a few strangers, in a city I had never been to before. As usual, small talk led us to ask about one another’s professions. After learning that I am a priest, one of my fellow travelers brought up the clergy sexual abuse scandal plaguing the Roman Catholic Church. We agreed, of course, that it was awful and was especially scandalous in the context of the Christian Church. He then said something that I’ve heard many times before: “You know, the Catholic Church should let their priests marry. Then this wouldn’t be as big of a problem anymore.”
I am a married priest and have never been convinced — either historically or theologically — by the arguments for mandatory clergy celibacy. But I’ve thought a lot about what this man said, and I want to question his underlying assumption that marriage is a kind of fix for clerical sin, particularly sexual sin.
This way of thinking is common enough, at least at the street level. Underneath it is an assumption that restraining sexual desire is the source of all kinds of pathologies, and that expressing sexual desire is fundamentally healthy, so long as no one is hurt. This line of reasoning is used to argue for the goodness of masturbation, pornography, homosexual sex, extramarital affairs, and experimental sexual adventures of almost endless variety. (I am not suggesting these things are morally equivalent).
The great enemy of this sexual liberation narrative is traditional religious belief, with the Roman Catholic Church bearing the brunt of the vilification. Granted, some of this criticism is warranted (the abuse crisis is truly horrific), but I contend that placing the blame on the mandatory celibacy of priests is wrongheaded for two main reasons: it leads to a misunderstanding of how sexual desire works and it leads to a distortion of the meaning of Christian marriage.
I have sketched out what I’ll call the popular, secular view of sexual desire: many people have strong carnal urges (true) that are more or less fixed (mostly false) and need to be expressed for our health (completely false). If you think this sketch is a strawman, then you need only watch 10 minutes of a modern sitcom to see the truth of it. The sexual revolution is, after all, a media-driven phenomenon.
In his book The Brain that Changes Itself, Canadian psychoanalyst Norman Doidge counters this narrative by highlighting the “extraordinary degree of sexual plasticity [human beings have] compared with other creatures.” Doidge argues that our history is as much an influence on sexual desire as our biology. This means we are always learning how and what to desire and, far from being fixed, our desires are acquired and vary based on our experiences.
Doidge makes this case by recounting his study of men who were heavy users of pornography and who were troubled or disgusted by their pornography use. These men were less aroused by their sexual partners and less able to perform sexually with real people. He argues that this is because pornography “satisfies every one of the prerequisites for neuroplastic change.” He elaborates:
Pornography seems, at first glance, to be a purely instinctual matter: sexually explicit pictures trigger instinctual responses, which are the product of millions of years of evolution. But if that were true, pornography would be unchanging. The same triggers, bodily parts and their proportions, that appealed to our ancestors would excite us. This is what pornographers would have us believe, for they claim they are battling sexual repression, taboo, and fear and that their goal is to liberate the natural, pent-up sexual instincts. But in fact the content of pornography is a dynamic phenomenon that perfectly illustrates the progress of an acquired taste. … Pornographers promise healthy pleasure and relief from sexual tension, but what they often deliver is an addiction, tolerance, and an eventual decrease in pleasure. Paradoxically, the male patients I worked with often craved pornography but didn’t like it.
In helping these patients quit pornography cold turkey, Doidge observed their sexual tastes changing. Their attraction to their partners increased, their ability to perform returned, and “their appetite for porn withered away.” Doidge concluded that, with therapy, we are able to change the physiology of our brains such that some of our sexual desires can change as well.
This runs counter to the secular narrative. To add a Christian gloss to the argument: we do not achieve spiritual and sexual health by simply expressing our desires as we find them; rather, we find health by learning to desire the right things. Christianity is fundamentally about the education of desire; it is a long process of learning to love and long for the God who made us for himself. “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” St. Augustine said 1,600 years ago. Earlier still, the Psalmist prayed in hope: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God” (Ps. 42:1).
In the case of unhealthy or destructive sexual desire, the answer is not marriage but repentance. I don’t mean repentance as feeling bad or making unrealistic resolutions. I mean, rather, repentance that begins in confession and results in a long habit of accountability, pastoral counsel, and therapy. In the case of sexual abuse, it means abusers facing the full legal repercussions of their actions. The clergy sexual abuse crisis is not born from a lack of sexual partners. It is born from disordered sinful desires acted out in predatory ways. Marriage cannot fix something this complex and destructive. Our only hope as a church is to repent publicly, to be vigilant in protecting the vulnerable, and to be consistent in disciplining those who wound the body of Christ through exploitation or neglect.
The Meaning of Christian Marriage
Blaming celibacy for sexual sin also risks distorting the meaning and purpose of Christian marriage. At the outset it must be said that those who argue for Christian marriage as a fix for sexual sin seem to have the Bible on their side. After all, St. Paul argues that “because of the temptation to sexual immorality” (1 Cor. 7:2) people can — and sometimes should — marry. Within marriage, Paul counsels husbands and wives to give themselves sexually to one another, and to not refrain too often from these duties, “lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control” (7:5). He adds that if unmarried people: “cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (7:9).
Without a doubt Paul sees one of the benefits of marriage as providing a legitimate outlet for sexual desire. And yet his instruction focuses not on the satisfaction of one’s desire, but rather on the satisfaction of one’s spouse. This is of a piece with his descriptions of Christian love as involving both denial of one’s “natural” instincts and the flourishing of virtue for the good of others (1 Cor. 13:4-7). In other words, Christian marriage has little to do with satisfying our desires; it is, or it ought to be, the reeducating of our desire in order to find our satisfaction in the satisfaction of another. This isn’t easy, which is why being married involves suffering, in the same way that parenthood involves suffering. In both cases we are forgoing our right to be satisfied in order to seek the good of another. That is a joyful thing, to be sure, but joy, like patience, must be learned.
Would marriage help a celibate person avoid sexual sin? Perhaps. But that is not its purpose. Anyone who entered marriage with the expectation of satisfied sexual desires will likely be disappointed. After all, how can anyone satisfy ever-changing desires, which are often as mysterious to us as they are to our spouse?
No, the purpose of marriage is ultimately the same as the purpose of parenthood, which is also ultimately the purpose of the priesthood: to manifest the love of God in Christ by giving ourselves sacrificially to others. After all, we are all priests in a certain sense by virtue of our being God’s creatures, and our ultimate vocation as creatures is to give back to God what properly belongs to him. That process inevitably involves sacrifice — not sacrifice as destruction, but sacrifice as union with God through love, expressed in charity to our neighbor.
If our discussions about marriage, singleness, and sexuality started here, rather than with the flawed assumptions of secular modernity, we would have a better chance of constructing a more coherent — and more realistic — theology of singleness, marriage, and sexuality.