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How Richard McBrien Inadvertently Made the Case for Priestly Celibacy

Karl Keating

 “Out of the mouths of babes— and dissident priests.” Or something like that.

Rummaging around, I came across an old newspaper column that amused me when I first read it and amuses me still. I never thought I would find the late Fr. Richard P. McBrien (1936–2015), longtime head of the theology department at Notre Dame, giving a coherent argument in favor of priestly celibacy; but he did, right in the pages of the National Catholic Reporter.

In fairness I should note that his intention was quite the opposite, but his argument against celibacy in fact amounted to an argument in favor of it. Let me explain how I see it.

McBrien referred to a lay Catholic’s proposal that “celibacy for Catholic clergy is fundamentally incorrect from a genetic perspective.” After all, “Catholic clergy are and have been, on average, above-average individuals.” By not having children they have lowered “the quality of the Catholic gene pool.”

Think of the hundreds of thousands of smart people who never were born because priests couldn’t marry! Think of all the good these people could have done for the Church and for the world!

There have been so many smart priests over the centuries, even many brilliant ones. Customarily, the brightest boys in a family were sent off to the seminary. Imagine what good could have been done for the gene pool if these intelligent men had sired intelligent children!

This proposal, said McBrien, “lacks only examples to illustrate and strengthen the argument. I will supply some here.” This is where it got interesting.

“One thinks of the sons and daughters of successful politicians who have pursued productive political careers of their own.” He noted that former Vice President Al Gore is the son of Senator Albert Gore, Sr. Two younger Kennedys, Joseph and Patrick, served in Congress. President George H.W. Bush’s son George W. Bush became governor of Texas and then served two terms as president, while another son, Jeb, served as governor of Florida.

Edmund G. (Pat) Brown saw his son, Jerry, become, like him, governor of California, while his daughter, Kathleen, later ran unsuccessfully for the office. After some years away from the state house, Jerry Brown is serving as governor again.

Evan Bayh, governor of and senator from Indiana, is the son of Senator Birch Bayh. Former Senator Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas is the daughter of presidential candidate Alf Landon, who was governor of Kansas and who ran against Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936.

Likewise in the entertainment world. Kirk Douglas gave us Michael Douglas. Martin Sheen gave us Charlie Sheen, Emilio Estevez, and Ramon Estevez. Lloyd Bridges produced Beau and Jeff Bridges. Carl Reiner sired Rob Reiner. From Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh came Jamie Lee Curtis.

In religion, Russian Orthodox priest-theologian Alexander Schmemann gave us Serge Schmemann, a writer for The New York Times. Martin Marty, “the foremost Protestant scholar-minister in America” and a liberal scholar who has written dozens of books, has a son who served as state senator in Minnesota.

Richard McBrien thought these genealogies proved that priestly celibacy tends to be a negative thing in terms of overall societal intelligence, but I view the evidence differently.

I hope it is not impolitic to note that in each case we see a decline in political wisdom, artistic attainment, or scholarship.

Is “Governor Moonbeam” an advance on his father? Was pro-abortion Nancy Kassebaum a wiser politician than her gubernatorial father? Is the actor who got his start on The Streets of San Francisco a better man than Spartacus? Is writing for the Times a loftier calling than the ministry?

If it proves anything at all, McBrien’s argument against priestly celibacy reduces to an argument against the upward evolution of the species. The examples he cites suggest that, to improve the gene pool, more politicians, actors, and religious scholars should become celibate priests.

If such people tend to have duller offspring, maybe McBrien should have argued that it would be to society’s advantage if they didn’t, and one way to do that would be to have such folks (the men, anyway) become celibate priests.

We live in a society that is unable to see much value in forgoing sexual activity. I almost wrote “in forgoing marriage,” but that isn’t quite it. To our contemporaries, what is “unnatural” isn’t the unmarried state but the absence of any use of the “natural” function of sex. Marriage is no longer perceived as a positive good but as a mere social convention, neutral in itself but convenient in some of its effects on society.

Curiously, it is this downplaying of marriage that makes the unmarried state untenable for so many—including for priests such as McBrien. If marriage isn’t understood as awesome (that is, full of awe) and sacramental, as indelible and binding, then voluntarily giving it up seems pointless. What merit can there be in forgoing the unimportant? We do not consider as great ascetics those who do no more than give up bubblegum.

What makes priestly celibacy powerful is the giving up of something good and holy and desirable: matrimony. Priests do not forgo that sacrament because they spurn marriage but because they value it. They recognize its majestic status. For God’s sake they set aside the privilege of marriage. They set aside something immensely good. They set aside something they otherwise would like to call their own.

Their sacrifice concentrates their spiritual, mental, and physical powers, channeling them toward the perfection of their ministry, much as an athlete sets aside rich cuisine and late sleeping in order to devote himself to perfecting his physical powers.

Our society sees the benefit of the latter, as proved during each Olympic season, when contestants are praised for having set aside all else while pursuing the gold. But our society sees little value in priests going after a far worthier prize. So much the worse for our society!


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