Bill Keller's recent New York Times opinion piece—“Sex and the Single Priest”—gathers together nicely in one place all of the typical stereotypes and shallow reflections (which Fr. James Martin aptly identifies and briefly rebuts here) on why celibacy is asked of Catholic priests.
Keller's piece is a reminder that Catholic priestly celibacy—which although not of doctrinal status, nevertheless is and always has been deeply rooted in much more than a "tradition" the geneses of which were historical/financial accidents of the 12th century—deserves a closer look from the culture. (In point of fact, Joseph Ratzinger has noted that the practice of celibacy goes back further than pop sources suggest: into the 2nd century AD, drawing from Old Testament sources as well as New.)
If one were to venture an investigation into why the Church operates as it does in this respect, one may be surprised to find some data that dash the popular narrative about "repressive" clerical customs to pieces.
For example, there is Monsignor Stephen Rossetti's 2011 landmark study, Why Priests are Happy: A Study of the Psychological and Spiritual Health of Priests, in which Msgr. Rossetti concludes,
The mean scores of the sample of priests are modestly lower than the norm sample of males. Thus the results suggest that priests, as a group, are slightly healthier and a bit less psychologically distressed than the general population of males.
That conclusion is noteworthy, given the tired claim that if priests could have wives and children and families (like most of the rest of society), then priests wouldn't be so unhappy.
There is also the 2004 publication, Priests: A Calling in Crisis, written by sociologist Fr. Andrew Greeley. Fr. Greeley finds that Catholic American priests are happier, more satisfied with their work, and more resolute in their decisions to become clergy than are their (non-celibate) protestant clerical counterparts.
There is, too, the work of sociologist of American religion Dean Hoge. Hoge's 2005 presentation of findings, titled Current State of the Priesthood: Sociological Research, aggregated data (up until 2001) on the American Catholic priesthood. His research finds that the number of priests who report that they would choose the priesthood again, knowing experientially the challenges of celibacy, has been increasing steadily for decades, standing roughly now (according to a separate study) at 95%.
These studies are by no means wholly optimistic; they indicate that on average, American Catholic priests are doing a poor job of reaching out to youth interested in the religious life, are struggling to deliver satisfying homilies, and are guilty of fostering a culture of clericalism that alienates the laity. The list of negatives goes on.
Most salient to Keller's op-ed is this paragraph, concerning optional celibacy at the point of ordination, from Hoge's presentation:
This is favored today by 71 percent of the Catholic laity and 56 percent of the priests. Yet nobody in the hierarchy talks about it. In 1985 I was given a foundation grant to estimate if the celibacy requirement is a large or a small deterrent to keeping men from entering the priesthood, and on basis of a survey of Catholic college students, I found that it was the single biggest deterrent. If celibacy were optional for diocesan priests, there would be an estimated fourfold increase in seminarians, and the priest shortage would be over.
It goes without saying that the abuse scandal of the early 2000s has irrevocably impacted America's opinion of how well priestly celibacy serves those who commit to it, even if those opinions are not representative of the whole in any way. Yet Hoge also reports that in 2001, the number of priests who reported wishing they could marry was only 12%, down from the 1970s, and Greeley reports that the majority of American Catholic priests reported valuing their celibacy and living it out successfully.
The moral of the available representative studies is that priestly celibacy is a complex issue. This shouldn't surprise us, since the Church's estimation of celibacy as a beautiful and noble vocation long preceded its adoption of the custom of priestly celibacy. Presently, though, the meaning of that vocation for priests is lost on a culture to which the thought that anybody is called to be celibate is unintelligible.
So the issue here is as theological as it is pragmatic, if not more so; one can't treat data as normative in the determination of moral questions in any case. Ratzinger points out in the same aforementioned interview that,
I bear witness to Jesus Christ ... with this specific mode of existence, and I place my life in this form at his disposal. In this sense, celibacy has a christological and an apostolic meaning at the same time. The point is not simply to save time—so then I have a little bit more time at my disposal because I am not the father of a family. That would be too primitive and pragmatic a way to see things. The point is really an existence that stakes everything on God ... (Salt of the Earth, 195).
Serious participants in this discussion must undertake a more robust examination of the meaning of priestly celibacy. To that end I recommend an excellent recent book edited and compiled by John Cavadini, called The Charism of Priestly Celibacy: Biblical, Theological and Pastoral Reflections.
Priestly celibacy is infinitely richer than Bill Keller's caricature suggests, and merits a higher level of discussion and discourse. It is, in the words of one of the priest-essayists in Cavadini's book,
A charism, a gift, a grace, and ... a sign. The renunciation of sexual activity inherent in celibacy is never an end in itself, never an ultimate accomplishment in which one can rest or be satisfied, a commodity or possession over which one preens; but rather a gift, charism, and grace of God which enables the priest more deeply to give of himself.
For the priest, the grace and gift of celibacy as a sign and motive of pastoral charity will be muted if it remains merely the product of personal restraint and self-discipline, if he does not understand his priesthood, including his celibacy, in terms of configuration to Christ.
Configuration to Christ. How I'd like to see a Times op-ed about that.