The National Catholic Review

Priests who like being priests are among the happiest men in the world. This sentence in Fr. Andrew Greeley’s review of The First Five Years of Priesthood by Dean R. Hoge lifted me out of my chair when I read it in these pages (Am., 9/30/02). I sent him an e-mail message: You’re right! I can confirm that from my own experience. In this short but important book, Greeley lays out the evidence for his statement: surveys of priests from 1972 to 2002. Greeley concedes that such polls are less than perfect but, when carefully carried out, more precise most of the time than most other ways of knowingin short, the best evidence we have.

As a polemicist Greeley has no peer, save possibly Richard John Neuhaus, who learned his craft from a Weltmeister, Martin Luther. Greeley demolishes the claims of other self-styled experts, most of them resigned priests with personal axes to grind, that the crisis of sexual abuse by members of the clergy, which inevitably looms large in these pages, is a result of compulsory celibacy and/or a disproportionate number of homosexuals in the priesthood.

In fact, there is no evidence that celibacy renders priests incapable of healthy relationships with others. Indeed, priests are more likely to enter into close relationships than their male peers [and] experience significantly higher levels of intimacy in their relationships than other men. Unfortunately, the fury of the homophobia in the Church will not yield to data. This shows that most priests are celibate heterosexuals. Approximately one out of six priests is homosexual, and most homosexual priests are celibate. There is no support in the data for plans to exclude homosexuals from the seminary or to bar them from the priesthood.... There is nothing in this book that justifies the hysteria among some Catholics on the subject of homosexual priests.

Nor is it true that celibacy is the primary reason for departures from the priesthood. Only about a sixth of the men who leave do so primarily because of celibacy. For four out of five the primary reason is dislike of the work they are doing. Confirming the relative insignificance of celibacy is the fact that present defection rates for married Protestant clergy are higher than the present defection rates for priests. Though Greeley reports that 72 percent of priests in the United States now favor a married clergy, he does not advocate the abolition of celibacy himself and criticizes those who do.

He does contend, however, that men should be able to leave the priesthood with the Church’s gratitude and honor when they feel they can no longer stand it and calls the present treatment of such men disgraceful. Even those who accept this characterization (and it is difficult not to) may question Greeley’s reiteration of the proposal he has been making for years: that the church ordain men who would make a commitment to priesthood for a limited number of years, with the option to stay on if they wished. Can we be confident that the church is wrong to require that priestly ordination, like marriage, involve a lifelong commitment?

If neither enforced celibacy nor homosexuality causes pedophilia, what does? Greeley’s answer: Sexual abuse is a syndrome acquired early in life and has nothing to do with celibacy. Most pedophiles are married men. Moreover, the problem...affects all professions that have access to children.... Attempts to blame abuse on either celibacy or homosexuality are defamatory. The logic of such accusations is to be found not in rationality but in angry ideology and anti-Catholic bigotry. Who can disagree?

If priests are really as happy as Greeley claims, why are young men not flocking to join them in greater numbers? Most priests as individuals are happy as priests, Greeley writes, but they do not think others are happy.... The reason is that at most gatherings of priests the lowest common denominator of envy, misery, and mediocrity tends to dominate the conversation.... The real cause of the vocation shortage is the reticence of those who are happy in the priesthood and not excessively burdened by celibacy.... They are not ready yet to do battle with the anticelibacy ideologues, to recruit young men to what is a happy and satisfying life. Nor are they ready to speak, individually or collectively, about the joys of being a priest.

A priest born and ordained in the same years as Greeley says, once again, he is right on!

John Jay Hughes is a retired priest of the St. Louis Archdiocese and a church historian.