Chapter 3: Celibacy and the Priesthood – Diane Gromelski

“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.

Works Cited

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.


4 thoughts on “Chapter 3: Celibacy and the Priesthood – Diane Gromelski

  1. sariegel says:

    The psychological effects of celibacy on priests is really a very interesting avenue of research. These effects do seem to demonstrate that intimacy with other humans is a basic human need. My question would be whether this corresponds only to sexual intimacy as Maslow identifies in his hierarchy of human needs, or rather could just be a need for intimacy in general. For instance, could this intimacy be found in living in community with others? I recognize that Maslow admitted sexuality was not a physiological human need, but it seems that he continues to promote it as the best way to achieve this feeling of intimacy. I would like to see studies on priests who live in varying degrees of isolation for comparison to the study you found.

    The motivations behind this tradition of celibacy in the Catholic Church are perhaps even more interesting to me. You said that the tradition didn’t start until 1100 with the invalidation of all priests’ marriages. I can understand the idea that celibacy can help prevent impurity from sins listed in the Bible, such as lust or adultery, and perhaps foster a better reliance on and intimacy with God. However, the history behind it interests me. I might would look into that. From a biblical standpoint, the first high priest of Israel, Aaron, married and had children, though perhaps that would be considered only applicable to Jewish priests. It would also be interesting to look into the differences in celibacy practice in Catholic and Jewish priests. The only other thought I had was that perhaps since the apostle Paul advised staying unmarried, perhaps that is where the tradition finds its root.


  2. katelynzander says:

    This topic of the intimacy priests lack is a very fascinating topic. Learning the life of a character in the book really helps us to understand his viewpoint as well as, his emotions. The priest begins to show these signs of affection toward Roxane which makes him really uneasy. I believe you are correct that this alarm is connected to his fear of damnation. Celibacy seems like such a difficult position to put someone into. I also find it very interesting that many people in today’s world face marriage problems and divorce. When people are going through such issues they turn to the church. The priest is there to help and serve the people, but I argue, how someone can help when they are so distant from these emotions his people are feeling.
    I understand that they declare celibacy to stay pure for God and to make the transition to heaven since it is believed that there is no marriage there. However, all humans have needs and intimacy is one of them. The feeling of needing to be needed and wanting to be wanted is a common emotion and only grows stronger the longer people are without it. I don’t believe how celibacy really benefits the people of the church though. It would seem to make the priest seem unfulfilled and unhappy with their life. I am interested to see where Patchett takes Father Argudas in this book. Will his feelings progress for Roxane? Will he tell her? Is he just going to fight his feelings?


  3. bsejdiu942 says:

    Hi Diane,

    I felt so sad for these priests when I read the effects of celibacy and lack of intimacy. Personally, I think it’s quite selfish of a religion to require that much devotion that its followers have become ‘mentally underdeveloped’ from the lack of human connection. I wonder if you can take this research further by comparing, as Sarah said, with religions that are relatively similar. But take it a step further and research any other examples outside of the base monotheistic religions. For example, Buddhist monks happen to be celibate and views sex as an extreme breech of monastic orders. Yet they don’t have a deity which they worship per say, from what I’ve gathered through study of their architectural history. It’s more of a belief filled with cultural traditions with a journey towards awakening, a perspective of the universe that transcends current human perspectives. You stated that some of the priest’s motivations for celibacy include judgement and fear of god and damnation, I wonder what research can be gleamed from why Buddhists do this as well if they do not believe in those ideas? You can also definitely expand this to Hinduism as well, which developed in the same area as Buddhism originated so there could be some overlap. They also believe in celibacy for higher religious officials, in order to focus on the study of the Vedas (Ancient Hindu scripture).

    Another thought arose while looking up some particular reasons for this mass celibacy, and it reminded me of almost an obsession. Most ranking religious individuals are to remain ‘focused’, concentrating on gleaming information from a deity, or the universe, or some other entity. With the exclusion of everything else, especially ‘primitive’ human instincts for mating and bonding. Perhaps an obsessive disorder for searching for greater answers or preventing damnation could be a contributing factor towards the mental health of these underdeveloped religious individuals? You could even extend that research to how the fear of judgement and damnation affect the human brain over a lifetime?

    – Bekim Sejdiu


  4. hcelemen says:

    Celibacy is an interesting tradition long-held by Catholic Church priests. It surprised me to learn that celibacy leads to mental maldevelopment and the subjective reports of low self-esteem in those who choose the path of priesthood. Considered as holy men, they are tasked with such great responsibilities to care and nourish those with spiritual faith that sometimes we may forget that they once had a life before priesthood. I can’t help but wonder that by entering priesthood and vowing celibacy that these men are sacrificing a part of themselves and their identity so they end up “lacking” something. In withholding from and resisting against romantic love, they are also emotionally stunting themselves by denying themselves that human need for intimacy. For instance, a priest comments during an interview, “If a priest falls deeply in love with a woman in a romantic way, he must abandon her friendship and any affiliation with her. He must not play games that will lead both of them into disaster.” [1] However, in doing so would this be considered as grounds for negligence to one’s flock? I think a priest would be unable to blatantly ignore that member of his church, unless he gets himself transferred to a different church all together. How do priests continue to do the their work as a confidant and fatherly figure, yet keep themselves emotionally distant to keep themselves from temptations?

    I also learned that celibacy is not part of the church doctrine but is considered more as a tradition that they practice, wherein some but not all would willingly take the vow of celibacy. Under the following terms, I found that a priest may be married if they are a Protestant pastor first or someone who is already married but plans on abstaining from any sexual activity with their wife. [2] This better explained to me how my uncle, who happens to be a pastor, is married and have 3 children. As a pastor for a Protestant church, he holds the same responsibilities for running a church but celibacy was not required of him. He didn’t have to give up having a family in order to serve his church. The issues between celibacy and priesthood may be something I will have to do more in-depth research in as we go through the book to find answers to my questions.



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