‘The rule of celibacy of Catholic priests and nuns must be abolished’


Justice Markandey Katju
Justice Markandey Katju


The matter relating to the Kerala nun who was allegedly raped by her bishop several times in two years has caused huge controversy in India. Charges and counter-charges have been exchanged, which have been highlighted by the media. But apart from the nun concerned and Bishop Franco probably no one knows the truth, and possibly no one may ever know it.


I am not going into the veracity and nitty-gritty of these charges and counter-charges, but would like to instead go into a much deeper issue: can the Roman Catholic Church survive for long with its archaic rule of celibacy for its priests and nuns? Can it avoid repeated scandals that may irreparably tarnish its reputation?


The sexual urge is a powerful natural craving in most humans. It is a biological impulse, which nature has made to ensure that the species continue. Hence to be celibate ordinarily means going against nature. There are no doubt some exceptional humans who have no sexual desire or little of it, but for most humans, it is often said that after food their next most important requirement is sex.


The Roman Catholic Church has for centuries had a rule that while for lay persons marriage is permitted, it is prohibited for priests and nuns who must remain celibate. However, despite this strict rule, there were often reports of clandestine sexual acts by some priests and nuns, including voluntary sex, forcible sex, sex by some inducements, homosexuality and pedophile acts, etc but these were usually quickly hushed up and buried under the carpet by the church superiors. Males in the religious order of the Catholic Church are in higher positions than females. Only males can be priests and hence only males can be Bishops and above. A woman can only be a nun, but nuns are not ordained as priests. There are reports that males being in a superior position take advantage of this to obtain sex, such as alleged in the incident in Kerala.


There have been complaints by nuns in Chile, Africa etc that priests have raped or molested them, but every time the Vatican and senior churchmen manage to hush up the matter.


But new developments in technology have made such cover-ups impossible. With the advance of technology, CT scans etc make secrecy difficult, if not impossible.

Moreover, sexual mores in society, in general, have become much more liberalized, and the recent judgment of the Indian Supreme Court in Navtej Singh Johar and Ors vs Union of India (https://www.sci.gov.in/supremecourt/2016/14961/14961_2016_Judgement_06-Sep-2018.pdf) points to that effect. This inevitably has an impact on the Catholic Church too, for the Church is part of society.

This being the situation, the Catholic Church will now have to seriously consider drastically changing its rule and permitting marriages or even sex without marriage to its priests and nuns. After all, this is permitted to Protestant priests, most of whom are married or have live in relationship, and no one can deny that Protestants are also Christians, and are as good Christians as Catholics.


Efforts to liberalize the rule of celibacy have been proposed earlier, but unsuccessfully. Now, however, an important advance to this effect has emerged. There was a shortage of Catholic priests in the Amazon region in South America, and a proposal was made by some priests, for example retired Cardinal Hummes and retired Bishop Krautler, to permit married priests in areas where there was a shortage of priests such as in the Amazon region.


Consequently, in October 2017 Pope Francis appointed a Pan Amazonian Synod to meet in Rome in October 2019 to consider this and other proposals, and he named an 18 member preparatory council, which submitted a preparatory document in June 2018. If this move succeeds, we may see married priests in nine countries of the Amazon region, Brazil, Bolivia, Columbia, Equador, Peru, Venezuela, etc but as Cardinal Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops said while releasing the document that this was only the first step, and it may later be applied to other regions of the world where there was a shortage of priests.


Thus from the end of 2019, we may start seeing married Catholic priests, initially only in areas where there is a shortage of priests, but later generally everywhere. This should solve the problems like those that arose in Kerala, and thus save the Catholic Church from sex scandals.


[Markandey Katju is a former judge in the Supreme Court of India. The views expressed in the column are his own]

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