Priestly Celibacy and the Demise of Marriage

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus used to call it “the parish paper,” a gentle barb at the pretensions of the self-described “paper of record,” but also, I think, a subtle pastoral hand extended to those who think they get all the advice they need when they look in the mirror.

Yes, I’m talking about the New York Times, which just ran a discussion group on dropping the celibacy requirement for Catholic clergy. It was a “usual suspects” sort of panel, with the balance one would expect. Of 7 panelists 4 were in favor of married priests, one argued both for and against married priests, one halfheartedly defended the tradition of a celibate priesthood because Catholics would find it difficult to support a married priest with a wife and children. Only one priest actually defended the celibate priesthood as good and worthy and Godly.

The panel included Fr. Cutie, formerly of EWTN, who left the priesthood and the Church because he was unfaithful to his vows. Of the Church Fr. Cutie wrote: “I experienced how so many Roman Catholic priests—both homosexuals and a significantly smaller number of heterosexuals—often spend a great deal of time and energy dealing with the negative psychological effects of not having true intimacy in their lives.” Daniel Maguire, also a former Catholic priest is a professor of moral theology at Marquette University. His most recent book is Christianity Without God: Moving Beyond the Dogmas and Retrieving the Epic Moral Narrative. Maguire writes: “Married gay, lesbian and heterosexual bishops and priests would have an impact on the church and on sexism and homophobia.” Therese DeLisio is the associate dean for academic leadership at Union Theological Seminary. She began with a joke. “Have you heard about Vatican III? The bishops are bringing their wives. Have you heard about Vatican IV? The bishops are bringing their husbands.”

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The boring predictability of all of this does not speak well for the future of the New York Times when the last week has served up such interesting context and contrast.

The Context: The Mail Online carried a fascinating but chilling piece by Michael Fitzpatrick titled “The hyper-real robots that will replace receptionists, pop stars … and even sex dolls: Unnervingly human androids coming to a future near you.” It is a report from the Tokyo Designers’ Week and the feature attraction was “geminoids.” Asuna is a 14-year-old geminoid girl.

Everything about Asuna’s appearance has been painstakingly honed to make her more life-like. From the superior quality of her silicon skin to the secret animatronic muscles that move her eyes and drive her facial expressions.

Previous attempts by Ishiguro’s team had been dismissed as unconvincing and prone to what is known as “Uncanny Valley Syndrome.”

This is a term coined by another Japanese professor of robotics, Masahiro Mori. It describes the response of revulsion and creepiness when faced with something that looks almost, but somehow not quite, human.

As robots become as dextrous as Asuna at mimicking humanity, so the theory goes, the syndrome will erase itself.

Interspersed throughout the article are Youtube clips of Asuna and other lifelike fembots and sexbots. Also included was a link to a short video showing the manufacture of life-size Lady Gaga dolls.

The Demise of Marriage and Sex
A September 2010 survey found that 36 percent of Japanese men between the ages of 16 and 19 describe themselves as “herbivore,” which is a cultural term meaning not interested in flesh, or indifferent to sex. According to Wikipedia two surveys of single men in their 20’s and 30’s found that 61 percent and 70 percent, respectively, consider themselves herbivore. Further, a poll of Japanese women, 16-19 years old, showed that 59 percent were uninterested in sex. Demographers predict that by 2060 the Japanese population will have declined by 30 percent.

But why is Japan so sexually dysfunctional? Japan is second only to the United States in the sheer volume of pornography produced, and Japan has a fraction of the population. Japan is also about 10 years ahead of the U.S. in terms of mainstreaming massive consumption of pornography. Norman Doidge, in his excellent book The Brain that Changes Itself, explores the long-term physiological changes that occur in the brain of a person who regularly increases his dopamine and seratonine when viewing pornography. Over time, this becomes the routinized neural pathway, and habitual users of porn become addicted and ultimately disinterested in achieving climax through actual sexual relations with the opposite sex.

The realism breakthrough of fembot technology, as robotics has overcome the uncanny valley syndrome, offers a vast new horizon in the land of the rising sun. And of course, they are us, or we are becoming them. Asexual is the new kid on the ever-growing gender identity block. Vast numbers of marriage-aged men and women in Canada and the United States have dropped out of the relationship market.  Families and Living Arrangements: 2012 is a summary and explanation of statistical trends published by the United States Census Bureau. Highlights of the report include:

  • Sixty-six percent of households in 2012 were family households, down from 81 percent in 1970.
  • Between 1970 and 2012, the share of households that were married couples with children under 18 halved from 40 percent to 20 percent.
  • The proportion of one-person households increased by 10 percentage points between 1970 and 2012, from 17 percent to 27 percent.

Note that in 1970 and throughout history, the most common household type was “married couples with children under 18.” In 2012 only 20 percent of American households fit this description, while for the first time in history, the most common type of household in America as of 2012, is the “one-person household,” at 27 percent.

Priestly Celibacy: An Absolute Necessity
This is the context within which yesterday’s radicals continue to rail against the unnatural, oppressive and out-of-touch nature of the celibate Catholic priesthood. They want priests to be natural, not supernatural. They want priests to be having sex just like the rest of us. What’s interesting is their critique has zero purchase among those living in the current chapter of the sexual revolution. Like so many online seductions, sex has become breathtakingly banal. We are a deeply lonely people. Sexual desire is hardwired deep within us and so we are reflexively drawn back to sex, or back to pornography which is a sad replica of sex, but we are inevitably disappointed, lonely and depressed. Coincident with the dramatic increase in the availability and the consumption of pornography, the destruction of the family and the tragic isolation of more and more of us, has been a huge increase in the incidence of depression and psychopharmacology.

But we are not abandoned.

The Contrast: you must watch CNN’s This Is Life with Lisa Ling, “Called to the Collar.”  It is a 43-minute portrait of a town, a parish, a family and vocations which flow from that family.

I won’t say too much about it other than earlier this week I showed my philosophy class the Mail article and related Youtube clips on breakthroughs in sexbot technology, along with excerpts from The Brain that Changes Itself on neuroplasticity and how the brain is rewired through long-term consumption of pornography. I wove this together with what is abundantly evident in my class and everywhere in Canada and the U.S. Two-thirds of students entering university next year will be female. Men have dropped off of the radar. Two generations ago the vast majority of university students were men, because there was an obvious correlation between education and income, and men wanted to support a wife and family. A generation ago, when I was in university, there was numeric parity between men and women, as women fully integrated into the workforce and the birthrate plummeted. Now, men in Canada and the United States are not interested in getting married and having children, and so they don’t bother going to university so that they might make more money to support families. The rate of marriage has dropped dramatically, but of those who are getting married, chances are the wife will have more education and therefore a higher income than the husband. This will make it especially difficult for the wife to take time off of work to have children.

Needless to say it was a rather depressing class. The next day we watched “Called to the Collar.” It’s not perfect—at times it’s cloyingly sweet and it’s very much the new journalism with emphatic solilloques to reinforce the emotional power of the story. But my students were transfixed. Fr. Gary, the young, newly ordained priest whose story drives the narrative, quotes a wise priest who told him: “when you feel loneliness don’t run away from it. Go over to Jesus and see what he does with it.”

The celibate priesthood is absolutely essential, no matter what the dinosaurs at the New York Times say.


  • Joe Bissonnette

    Joe Bissonnette teaches religion and philosophy at Assumption College School in Brantford, Ontario where he lives with his wife and their seven children. He has written for Catholic Insight, The Human Life Review, The Interim, The Catholic Register and The Toronto Star.

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