“The priest was amazed by the rush of his heart, by the fear that swept through his legs and made them weak. It was not fear of being shot, of course, he did not believe they would shoot him, and if they did, well, that would be that. The fear came from the little bell-shaped lilies and the warm yellow light of her hair. Not since he was fourteen, the year he gave his heart to Christ and put all of those worries behind him, had such things moved him.”
When I read this passage, I was immediately struck by the power of Father Arguedas’s fear of violating his faith, so strong that he has less anxiety about being shot by terrorists. What must it be like to feel that you are violating your pact with God by experiencing natural human instincts? What is the psychological effect of knowing you will never be able to find romantic companionship with another human being? In my research this week, I wanted to explore the experience of celibacy among Catholic priests so as to better understand Father Arguedas’s fear.
I started my investigation by exploring the history of celibacy in the Church and the reasoning behind the practice. The tradition of celibacy for religious leaders goes back far beyond the birth of Christianity; evidence supports that Ancient Druid and Aztec priests were required to remain celibate as part of their professions (Heid). However, the tradition of celibacy within the Catholic Church did not develop until around 1100 CE when the Second Laternean Council invalidated all priests’ marriages and made celibacy a requirement for the priesthood (Swenson). According to theological sociologist Dr. Don Swenson, the need for celibate clergy has historically been necessary as a demonstration of one’s exclusive devotion to a god, purity for the purpose of performing religious rituals, and dedication to religious followers. Additionally, Catholics believe there will be no marriage in the afterlife, so celibacy is a way to prepare priests for the next life and further connect them to the divine.
Dr. Gerdenio Manuel, a professor who studies relationships between faith and psychology, conducted a survey of priests to examine how celibacy has affected their psychological wellbeing. Many respondents in his survey said they often experienced feelings of shame in regard to their sexuality. Sixty-six percent of priests interviewed in Manuel’s survey viewed punitive factors as significant deterrents from breaking celibacy, meaning they feared either judgment by others or by God. When one priest was asked what kept him from violating his pact with God, he responded, “A combination of love of God and fear of hell, and I hope the first is the strongest motivation; but in terms of my own weakness, the second one is important also.” Reading this, I though that perhaps Father Arguedas is more afraid of his attraction to Roxanne than he is of getting shot because he fears damnation.
While the majority of priests in the study said celibacy had enhanced their ability to build interpersonal relationships with others, many also reported feelings of isolation as a result of their lack of intimate partners. This isolation is reflected well in one man’s statement: “There is no day-to-day sharing; there’s no one whose prime purpose in life is to console me or comfort me or for me to console and comfort.” Many scholars have argued that priests suffer developmentally as a result of their abstinence. In Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, sexual intimacy is found in the love and belonging section that is located midway up the pyramid. Maslow concluded through his research that while sexuality is not a physiological human need, deprivation of the feeling of intimacy gained through sexual acts can be harmful to one’s self esteem and overall psychological state. While I wasn’t able to find a study that directly links celibacy and mental health problems in the priesthood, there is some research to support Maslow’s hypothesis. A study conducted by the Center for Human Development in the 1990s found that 42 percent of celibate priests had low self esteem and 47 felt negatively about their personal attributes. In another study, 75 percent of priests were found to be mentally underdeveloped or maldeveloped, and many participants in the study cited celibacy as a point of stress in their lives (Kennedy and Heckler).
As Father Arguedas looks at the large ring Roxanne Coss wears, he finds himself “imagining the pleasure of gently sliding such a ring onto her finger.” He immediately recognizes that the thought is inappropriate and feels “a nervous dampness creep across his forehead.” It is interesting that Arguedas has not felt attraction since he made the decision to become celibate, and only now that he is in a life-or-death situation does he begin to feel temptation. This sudden desire for physical contact likely relates to the need for connection that seems to be emerging as a major them of the novel.
Center for Human Development. Formation of priests: The challenge of the 1990s. Washington, DC: The Center for Human Development, 1990.
Heid, Stefan, Celibacy in the Early Church San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1997.
Kennedy, E., and Heckler, V., The Catholic Priest in the United States: Psychological Investigations. Washington, U.S. Catholic Conference, 1972.
Manuel, Gerdenio M. “Religious Celibacy from the Celibate’s Point of View.” Journal of Religion and Health 28.4 (1989): 279–297. Print.
Swenson, Don. “Religious Differences between Married and Celibate Clergy: Does Celibacy Make a Difference?” Sociology of Religion 59.1 (1998): 37–43. JSTOR. Web. 13 Sept. 2015.