CORPUS Annual Meeting,  Dallas, TX,  June 27-29, 2003
Marriage & Celibacy in the Third Millennium
Sexual and Sacramental Healing: Redefining the Future
by A.W. Richard Sipe

It is a distinct pleasure for me to be with you. Your group more than any other have consistently given me encouragement and emotional support as I have studied the celibate/sexual behavior and culture of the church. I have not made it easy for my supporters. I am grateful that you give me a hearing.

Celibacy and sexuality traditionally are considered areas reserved to Vatican spokesmen who are commissioned to restate the accepted magisterial (official) teaching. I am well aware that I tread "off limits" in dangerous territory. I have often swam upstream in sacred waters. But I have always thought that open dialogue is necessary and beneficial even about subjects that some people deem closed. You know the old saw; "It's what we learn after we know it all that counts." I pose questions that I find basic for the understanding of human sexuality and religious celibacy. Others may consider these queries bold, dangerous, impertinent or irrelevant.


I invite you to struggle with me around four questions that have to do with sex and sacraments. I hold that the answers to these questions will determine the future of the Church in the next century and beyond:

  • Does the Church really care about clerical celibacy?

  • Does the Church care about a theology of marriage?

  • Can the Church tolerate a married priesthood?

  • Can a married priesthood tolerate the Church?

I am well aware that these are "prophetic" questions, but like much of prophecy there are tremendous practical implications to the genre.

The American Church can never be the same as it was before January 6, 2002.

The investigative reporting of the Boston Globe that began on that date will continue to have monumental effects on the future of the Catholic Church in America.

I equate that date with October 31, 1517 when Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg cathedral. In the 16th century Luther's act was an acceptable mode of inviting dialogue. It was a way to bring issues to public attention. In its time it was not an act of blind defiance; it was not anti-church, anti-priest, or anti-Catholic. Neither are the revelations communicated by the American press. Both publications were attempts to determine facts and truth about Church function--ecclesiastical behavior. Dialogue is invited and necessary; as inevitable now as it was then.

The Catholic-Lutheran dialogue of recent decades has clarified or resolved most of the theological disputes raised in the 16th century--to the point where some Catholic scholars have pushed for the canonization of Luther. The corruption among bishops and clergy was and is another question. Only a church council (Trent, 1545-63) could effect a reform and reestablish moral credibility to the 16th century Roman Church.

The Catholic Church is equally corrupt sexually and financially now as it was at the time of the Protestant Reformation. This is the fact that the Church is struggling so hard to cover up and deny. It persists in doing so at its own peril. Transparency and accountability are the healing words of the crisis.

Neither has been implemented or effected in any degree that merits restoration of moral credibility.


You have every reason to ask, "How dare you make such bold assertions?" "What right do you have to indict the Church to such a degree?"

First, understand the definition and model of "Church" that I am using. We all know some bishops and priests who are clearly not corrupt. We all acknowledge the tremendous good that some nuns, priests, and bishops have done and are doing. Their sanctity, service or intentions are not being assailed. I am speaking of broader categories, beyond the personal.

Cardinal Avery Dulles in his classic Models of the Church (1974)--a treatise judged to be a "critical assessment of the church in all its aspects"--outlines five models of the Church: the Church as Institution, Mystical Communion, Sacrament, Herald, and Servant. Dulles summarizes his understanding: The first four models

…give a primary or privileged position to the Church with respect to the world. In the institutional models, the official Church teaches, sanctifies, and rules with the authority of Christ. In the communion models, the Church is viewed as God's People or Christ's Body, growing into the final perfection of the Kingdom. In the sacramental ecclesiologies, the Church is understood as the visible manifestation of the grace of Christ in human community…In the herald models, the Church takes on an authoritarian role, proclaiming the gospel as a divine message to which the world must humbly listen. (p. 83)

Dulles turns to Boston's Cardinal Richard Cushing's 1966 pastoral The Servant Church to make his point about his fifth model. "The Church announces the coming of the kingdom not only in word, through preaching and proclamation, but more particularly in work, in her ministry of reconciliation, of binding up wounds, of suffering service, of healing….And the Lord was the 'man for others,'

so must the Church be 'the community for others.'"(p. 86) These are not the models of the Church under scrutiny. They remain valid.

They express an eternal ideal. What the revelations of the Boston Globe have exposed is another set of operational models of the Church.

A set of doppelganger models emerges from ghostly haunts to become visible to the world from time to time. In these ghost models the 'perfect society' of the Institutional model operates in a significantly imperfect manor using domination and force to build and unify community. The Mystical Communion reveals a distinct disunion from the mind and heart of Christ. The Sacrament Church abandons its role of grace-giver for a part in the role of life-taker. The Herald Church effectively ceases to proclaim the unity in faith and uses its power as a cover for deceit and duplicity. The Servant Church abandons its service of others and serves it self. Here, what is God's is rendered to Cesar and what is Cesar's is offered to God. (Demonstrated specifically in the legal and monetary fury exhibited in dealing with the sex abuse crisis.) Dulles makes it clear that his models of the Church are not mutually exclusive, nor do they fit together like pieces of a puzzle. Similarly, the Shadow models of the Church are not exclusive; they can and do co-exist with their ideal counterparts.

I think that I am addressing a parallel reality that Michael Crosby addressed in writing about The Dysfunctional Church.

I address these Shadow models of the Church in the spirit of Dorothy Day who said, "The Church is my mother. Sometimes she acts like a whore, but she is still my mother."

Certain realities in Church history make sense only if we put them in the context of these less-than-perfect models. We cannot attribute the undeniable negatives of Church history merely to misguided or even miscreant clerics. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the persecution of the Jews and heretics, the killing of Joan Of Arc, the English martyrs, Savonarola, Giordano Bruno, etc. were all part of a systemic--Church--reaction. Pope John Paul II has apologized for some of these events. But these events and other movements are not simply aberrations. We must invoke some model of the Church to understand this behavior, past as well as present.

Many people miss the profound and lasting significance of the Boston Globe's work. Far exceeding journalistic excellence, interest, accuracy or timely community service the Globe exposed the systemic operation of the Church beyond individual victims, perpetrators, and churchmen. To use a theological metaphor:

Christ was revealed crucified by a Church embroiled in denial, deceit, and self-serving political and public relation ploys in which truth was blithely and repeatedly sacrificed at the expense of suffering lay people and priests. (We are living out the reincarnation of 15th century Catholicism.)



This Church of whom I speak lacks moral credibility to a monumental degree.

(This is the Church that has repeatedly needed reformation.) The Institutional Church certainly speaks as if it treasures celibacy. Pope John Paul II has consistently praised the charism and custom of clerical celibacy. He said in no uncertain terms that even he does not have the power to alter the prerequisite of celibacy for ordination to the priesthood.

My research on celibacy since 1960 has painfully been reinforced by the opportunity to act as a consultant or expert witness in over 150 cases of sexual abuse of minors by Roman Catholic Priests. In the process I have read innumerable depositions of priests and bishops. I have reviewed over 30 feet of documentation.

The Spotlight Team of Boston Globe reviewed thousands of pages of Church documents. They recorded 150 area priests who allegedly abused minors. Those pages from Church files told the stories of victims abused and ignored (245 abusers; 750 victims). They traced Church efforts to keep sexual behavior secret.

Nationwide, 432 (500) priests were restricted from ministry because of sexual impropriety in the year following the Globe's first article. A directory of offending priests is in the process of compilation; already it contains the names of 2100 priests.

Just as importantly, the press investigation of sexual abuse of minors opened the door for a logical follow up. What are the broader implications of celibate culture and behavior? Are there Cardinals and bishops who have had or are having sexual affairs with women? Yes. Are there Cardinals and bishops who have had or are having sexual friendships with men? Yes. Are there Cardinals and bishops who have abused minors? Yes. This is no revelation. Some reports are already a matter of public record. Since 1990, 22 Roman Catholic bishops have resigned due to some sex scandal or other.

But the true story of celibate violation has not yet begun to be told. In the US it will continue to slip out into public view via court documents and Grand jury reports. Only one of the nine Grand juries empanelled has so far published its report. It said that the diocese in question was "incapable of monitoring itself" with regard to sexual abuse by priests. Studies of celibate practice by concerned Catholics continue to build a data base. For instance a survey from Switzerland:

More than 300 women were found to have had clandestine relationships with Catholic priests resulting in 146 children…Further results from the poll showed that more than 50 per cent of Swiss priests did not observe the celibacy rule;

91 of the priests investigated were still in office; 35 had had more than one affair; 207 were diocesan priests and 92 of the priests were members of religious orders; 11 had not told the women concerned where they worked; and only 75 of these affairs had ended in marriage.(Tablet, 24 May, 2003. p. 28)

Jesuit sociologist Joseph Ficther reported more than a decade ago that 30 per cent of German priests had companions (mistresses). Currently this estimate remains the same. In the 1990s the Claretian priests published survey of clergy sexual activity in Spain. They reported sexual activity with minors higher than any estimates made of violations in the US, and non-celibate behavior in 65 per cent of clergy. Australian studies estimate that between 7 and 15 percent of Catholic religious were involved in the sexual abuse of minors in their country. I stand by my 25-year ethnographic study of priests in the US: 50% of priests practice celibacy; 6% involve themselves in sex with minors. Repeatedly independent secular surveys are validating that base line. (Laurie Goodstein, NYT, DD&S survey) The Vatican's International Conference on Celibacy held in Rome in May 1994 had slated an African Cardinal and a South American Cardinal each to address the topic of celibacy on his own continent. Neither uttered a word about celibacy. Each changed the topic to "Evangelization."

What do I make of the hodge podge of data accumulating in the public arena?

The Church does know the truth and the extent of sexual activity by its clergy.

The shadow Church tolerates sexual activity by clergy. It may register it as sin (but not always). When behaviors come to public attention that Church engages denial or feigns surprise.

The Shadow Church I see does not really care about celibacy in practice. It is immune to any and all studies of its celibate behaviors no matter how scientifically acceptable. (One example is the study of priests who died of AIDS conducted by Judy Thomas of the Kansas City Star, 1/31-2/3/00. Assailed by Church spokespeople, validated by independent agencies.) Under severe public pressure in 2002 the institutional Church in the US has set up its own National Review Board to investigate sexual abuse by clergy, but it remains questionable if self reporting will be reliable or that any substantive conclusions will be accepted. The shadow Church prefers image to integrity; prefers conformity and control to community. It is not a Church of truth, but deception.

"Peter Damian fears a church of Sodom within the church of God. He suspects or infers the operation of a shadow hierarchy with its own means of governance and of recruitment. Sodomitic bishops protect sodomitic priests. The priests in turn corrupt those whom they have baptized or heard in confession..The threat posed by Sodomy to the church is a lethal one. Sodomy attacks the church by attacking the clergy, who seem particularly susceptible to it. Once inside the clergy, the vice conceals itself behind the bland face of piety or the hypocritical face of condemnation."

(Mark Jordan, writing on Peter Damian's work The Book of Gomorrah in The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology, p. 50)



Many people are loath to say that the Church does not care about marriage. All of us have benefited from pastoral care during family weddings, baptisms, hospital visitations, and funerals. And we are grateful. The Sacrament Church and the Servant Church do exist and operate. But beyond that, the Institutional Church puts forward its strong stand against contraception, premarital intercourse, masturbation, homosexuality, and abortion as if it maintains a clear commitment to marriage and the family. I view those stands as quite the opposite. I perceive those absolutist stands as mechanisms of control.

Theologians are quick and accurate when they point to pastoral care that disregards the iron clad Church teaching on sex in favor of reason, gentle understanding, and compassion. Others note the hypocrisy in this bifurcation in the absence of honest, respectful discourse.

Theologian Michael Marx said, "If the Church wants a theology of marriage it should let married people write it." The Mystical Church and the Herald Church may some day achieve enough power over the Shadow Church to fulfil that goal.

It will not be easy. The Shadow Church betrayed the lay commission Pope Paul VI set up to consult on the question of birth control. Doctor John Rock (Catholic daily communicant, Harvard professor, and inventor of the pill) experienced that betrayal as acutely as Galileo did his. Both judgements have proved unreasonable.

A majority of Catholic people--and many priests--do not accept the reasoning of the prohibition on birth control. Nor do they always condemn pre marital sex among committed couples, or abortion under all circumstances. They do, however, decry the sexual exploitation of children, with the sensitivity and fury of parental experience and instinct.

Pious and even profound treatises from a Vatican Office on marriage will never substitute for the knowledge garnered from the lived experience of Christian married love. But look at the roster of "saints" canonized by the Church. Is there a single sexually active married man or woman among them? What does that say about married love and service? What understanding of sexuality does that reveal?

The political causes some institutionally driven bishops pursue are petty and puzzling. The bishops of New York mobilized a strong lobby to resist legislation that would include insurance coverage for birth control pills. It registered no opposition to insurance coverage of Viagra. Great political pressure is frequently exerted to fight equal rights for gays, seemingly oblivious to the over representation of gays in the ministry. The condemnation of homosexuality is posed as a defense of the family. It is nothing of the sort. Committed same sex love and relationships have nothing to do with disrupting traditional married love and families.

In short, the Church imposes a "celibate" criterion for sexual morality. Non marriage, and perfect and perpetual chastity, defined as freedom from every sexual thought word, desire and action, is their idea of the ideal Christian state. Marriage is a concession to fallen human nature that is redeemed by the production of children. (The more the better, regardless of economic or even physical constraints: Pope John Paul has repeatedly preached about the evils of contraception to the impoverished masses of the Philippines and India. The Vatican holds that the use of contraceptives are unacceptable even between a married couple, one who is HIV infected.) Again I point out the consistent proof the Church provides by selecting models of sanctity who are exclusively celibate men and women.


There are 23 Rites in communion with Rome that have a married priesthood.

Rome also has made exceptions for married Lutheran and Anglican ministers to be ordained and function in dioceses. Those married priests, however, may not hold any administrative office. In that we get a clue to the degree of acceptance possible for a married priesthood in the Latin Rite. The threat posed to the established Church is clear. Although the traditional theological models of the Church could admit of a married priesthood without internal contradiction, the power system of the Church can not tolerate the intrusion of men with public commitments to a wife and children. Their basic rationale: Married love (sex) renders a man unworthy of celebrating the Eucharist.

In fact there is an emerging theology of the priesthood that I think will prove heretical. Namely the equation of priesthood with a "spousal commitment."

In this theory celebration of the Eucharist becomes a spousal--marital--exchange. That sexulization of the Sacrament is painfully obvious, odious, and outlandish. The distortion of the banquet table of Communion to the context of a bedroom exchange (between the priest and his spouse, Christ; and/or the altar) is abhorrent beyond belief. This theology is an attempt to bind priest and celibacy into an inextricable union never envisioned by any patristic theology of priesthood.

The vocation to the priesthood and the vocation to celibacy are separate and separable, no matter how interrelated, just as much as the vocation to medicine and marriage are distinct. The failure of the practice of celibacy is in large part due to the failure to practice it as a real and separate vocation.

Priesthood is not opposed to marriage any more than a vocation to law is opposed to marriage. Celibacy and marriage are the oppositional vocations.

No developed Christian theology restricts married men, or women for that matter, from the priesthood of Christ. What model of Church can one appeal to sustain a stance that sex or marriage is an essential impediment to priesthood?

The profound distrust and even hate of women and their influence that the Shadow Church harbors is not buried very far below the surface of clerical consciousness. Even though individual married priests, bishops, and even popes dot the history of the Church, the institution of a married priesthood has never prevailed or dominated in the structure of the Church. Some pre Reformation popes could brag about their bastard children and even promote them to Church offices, but they could not legitimize them or their mothers into the system. They remained part of the Shadow Church.

The words of the Church speak of reverence for celibacy and marriage, but in actions it tolerates priests who have mistresses and children--to an overwhelming degree in South America and Africa and to a significant degree in the rest of the Catholic world. It is clear now to that even sexual activity with minors could be tolerated among active priests to a remarkable degree. Only the outrage of public exposure and criminal and civil litigation--not moral leadership--has moved the Church to some action.

The Church has regarded sexual activity of priests, bishops and Cardinals sometimes as sin, always forgivable, and most of the time understandable as part of the human condition. Everything can be justified as long as the cleric remains loyal and obedient to Church authority. When a priest's sexual activity threatens to become public, submission to power, not fairness or justice for women and children, provides the operational guideline for the Church.

After all, don't priests forgive the sexual sins of lay people who come to them? And does not the sexual teaching of the Church insure that every unmarried person and most married couples are sinners? Why should clergy not receive the same understanding, consideration, and easy forgiveness?

But in truth, religious hypocrisy is less understandable and more unforgivable than sexual violation. Hypocrisy is the fundamental religious transgression. The Shadow Church is the Church of hypocrisy. The Shadow Church is the Church of control--power--at all costs. Even truth is expendable in the service of control

Even though the Church may be able to welcome marginally the pastoral service of married men it cannot compromise its power system that is based on sexual control. That control is even more threatened by the prospect of ordained women.

The Shadow Models are strongly opposed to a married priesthood and women's ordination. That opposition is not based on the models of Mystical Unity, Service, Sacrament, or Prophetic proclamation of the Good News. A married priesthood would destabilize the political power base of the Shadow Church.


Pope John Paul II has given explicit and personal instructions to bishops that they my not discuss a host of sexual issues in any terms other than his official teaching. The pope's prohibition outlines what theologian William Shea long ago (1986) called the "tangle of issues…that clogs up our Catholic calendar." This list of issues that Catholic leadership has failed to deal with credibly has to do with sex:

…family life, divorce and remarriage, premarital and extramarital sex, birth control, abortion, homosexuality, masturbation, the role of women in ministry, their ordination to the priesthood, the celibacy of the clergy, and the male monopoly of leadership. (p. 589)

Shea also indicates that fear and hatred of women within the clerical system is an impediment to addressing this agenda. (Cf. Malleus Maleficarum. Kramer & Sprenger, O.P. 1971 ed.; Sin and Fear. Delumeau, 1990; Medieval Misogyny.

Bloch, 1991

How can a married priesthood enter and coexist in this system credibly?

Will not married love and parenthood severely disrupt the clerical system? A married priesthood would of necessity have to address this celibate/sexual agenda or else become co-conspirators with the Shadow Church. A married priest would have to be a prophet or a toady.

A missionary to South America, speaking about the indigenous clergy, once said to me, "Some day the Church is going to insist that these priests marry."

What Church will that be? Certainly not the Shadow Church that finds duplicity comfortable and reform an enemy to be avoided at all costs.

A married priesthood may very well be in the future of the Church. But not in the Church as it exists today. The Shadow Church is too broadly dominant at the present time to tolerate a deconstruction of its power. As in the past, reformation is the only logical outcome of the present crisis. But those of you who are active in pressuring the Church for a married priesthood are on the right side of history--on the side of eccelsia semper reformanda (the church always in need of reform) that the Fathers of the Church championed.

Sexual abuse of minors is a significant crisis, brought to public attention by law enforcement and the secular press, but it is only a symptom of the fundamental crisis facing religion. The complicity of authorities in hiding celibate transgressions and the failure of moral leadership in dealing with the problem only highlight the real urgency of the crisis.

The current crisis of the Church is the Shadow Church that distorts the mission and power of the Gospel for its own aggrandizement, for its own perpetuation and control. And the keys to the solution of the crisis are to be found in facing the issues of sex and celibacy from the vantage of Christian experience.

Sexual and sacramental healing will not take place without meeting the historical challenge as it presents itself to us. That challenge is daunting, since there is not yet a Christian theology of sex or marriage to draw on. One can have empathy for the caution and timidity of men in authority who shy away from such grand issues that have no crystal clear alternatives to established norms. But they do not merit credibility for their resistance to respectful discourse. It is our duty to foster discourse or run the risk of being part of the Shadow Church.