Father Alberto Cutié's scandal doesn't change the debate about clerical celibacy.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
May 15 2009 7:01 AM

The Kissing Priest

Father Alberto Cutié's scandal doesn't change the debate about clerical celibacy.

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Curiously, Father Cutié has not joined the "end priestly celibacy" brigade. In fact, just the opposite. What was impressive about Cutié is that he actually defended celibacy when caught violating it. "I don't want to be the anti-celibacy priest," he told CBS News. "I believe that celibacy is good, that it's a good commitment to God." He acknowledged the pain the incident caused his fans and parishioners, discussed how he had struggled with celibacy, and spoke movingly about human weakness and the need to live one's life authentically. "We want to do things right, but the truth is sometimes we fall short. I fell short."

In fact, ending celibacy would bring on a different set of problems and issues. Priests earn very little money, making supporting a family, let alone sending a child to college, seem impossible. Would salaries go up, and are the people in the pews willing to pay for that? The first time a priest abandons his wife and children, people would be clamoring for the good old days when priests did not marry.

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The best rationale for maintaining clerical celibacy is not so pedestrian. In our culture, sex is used to sell everything from hair-care products to movies. The idea that some people willingly choose not to follow that culture is a powerful Christian witness. Maintaining celibacy—even when priests fall short—nonetheless serves as a counter-cultural sign that reads in big letters, "Sex isn't everything." Even when no one is listening, the church has the obligation to speak this truth.

Sadly, too many Christian pastors preach as if the culture is right, as if sex were the only thing. They rant against sexual sins as if they were the most dangerous transgressions, when all the great spiritual writers will attest to the fact that it is not the sins of the flesh but the sins of the spirit that cause the greatest damage to the soul. But the fascination with sin, in the hands of a moviemaker or a sexually immature cleric, will always serve to distort the proper role of sex within Christian theology.

Even for pastors, there are more grievous sins. A priest who skims money from the offertory takes money that would otherwise help the poor, educate the young, or beautify the sanctuary. A priest who teaches bad theology communicates falsehood. Both of these acts are wrong in and of themselves, not only because a priest is doing them. Father Cutié fell in love—nothing wrong with that. The problem was that his new love conflicted with his commitment to his prior love. He was wrong not to clarify the situation, and the person most likely to be hurt in such situations is the woman, but falling in love is not, in itself, a bad thing.

Father Cutié says he is in discussions with his bishop about what to do next. It is difficult to see how he could return to active ministry in a parish, still less with his television show. But I hope his bishop will embrace him if he decides to leave the ministry, will echo Cutié's praise for celibacy even when it can't be lived out faithfully, and will commend him for his integrity in facing the crisis his behavior has caused. Just because we sometimes need to look down to make sure we don't stumble on a rock is no reason to damn the stars and cease to follow them.

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