The story of Alberto Cutié's fall from grace, after he was caught necking on a Miami beach with a woman, would not be so captivating if he did not fit the stereotype of the steamy, dark, Latin lover; or if he had not been a celebrity with a talk show; or if he had not penned a book on how to build strong relationships. But what gave the story its staying power, catapulting it into the national spotlight, was the fact that the Rev. Alberto Cutié is a priest.
In the Catholic tradition, sexual fecundity is a good thing. Such Catholic countries as Brazil, France, Italy, and Spain are hardly known for their puritanical sexual mores. Even in northern climes, the large Catholic family is proverbial. But the priests who stand in the person of Christ at Mass, who dispense God's mercy in the confessional, who baptize our children and bury our dead—we Catholics expect them to be sexually abstemious. They are supposed to be holy, and holiness has always and everywhere been associated with purity. For a variety of complicated historical reasons, the purity that matters most when discussing the Catholic clergy is sexual purity. And sexual deviation, more so than any other of the many forms of human sinfulness, brings out the tabloid editor in all of us.
Clerical celibacy, the promise never to marry, is often, but shouldn't be, confused with chastity, which is the vow taken by nuns and priests who belong to religious orders, such as the Dominicans or Jesuits. Religious vows—poverty, chastity, and obedience—are called the Evangelical Counsels because they conform to the radical way of life evidenced by Jesus in the New Testament. The regular Catholic parish clergy take a vow of obedience to their bishops, and they promise to be celibate, but they do not promise poverty or chastity. In the Eastern Orthodox churches, monks and nuns also take the evangelical vows, but the regular clergy have always been free to marry. The churches of the Reformation also allow their clergy to marry.
Periods of institutional distress within the Catholic Church have often been characterized by laxity regarding clerical celibacy, but those times of struggle only increased luster of and respect for the vow. The great Gregorian reforms of the 11th century focused on the need to rekindle the holiness of the clergy by insisting that they not take concubines. The 16th-century Council of Trent instituted seminaries for training the clergy not only in theology but in the way of life to which they were called. Greedy clerical families claiming the church's assets were part of the concern in medieval times, and nepotism worried the Council Fathers at Trent, but in both instances, the overriding belief was that sanctity and celibacy were closely intertwined.
It is fair to question whether celibacy makes theological sense when not accompanied by a commitment to poverty and obedience. All three point the cleric toward that radical self-emptying, the turning over of the will to God, that characterized the life of Jesus. If celibacy is seen merely as an imposed moral requirement, instead of one aspect of a total giving over of oneself, of course priests will fall short of their vow.
More recent years have seen a clamor, mostly coming from more progressive Catholic circles, for the clerical discipline to be changed. Some believe the decline in priestly vocations warrants permitting married priests. Others see the discipline as tied to archaic, unrealistic notions of human sexuality. The sexual abuse crisis that afflicted the Catholic Church in 2002 provided ample evidence that in many instances, the requirement of celibacy is used by some priests who are sexually immature or psychologically depraved to avoid facing their sexuality, resulting in horrific deformations of both human intimacy and the ideals of the Catholic Church.
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.
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.