02/28/2013 03:13 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

Why Are Priests Really Celibate? (And Will It Change?)

There's all matter of speculation about why Pope Benedict is stepping down, especially since he's the first to do so in 600 years. One theory is that he's grown weary of the scrutiny around the priest sex scandal cases, particularly with HBO's recent release of their movie, "Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God." The film digs deep into the layers of obfuscation, obstruction and denial, in part to see just how far up the patriarchal chain this stonewalling goes. Suffice it to say that Ratzinger/Benedict is implicated as one of the key players who did little or nothing to expose and stop the pervasive patterns of abuse.

This got me thinking about the Church's relationship to sex and sexuality, and a number of questions arose for me. But the main question revolved around why priests are celibate in the first place.

There is some biblical basis for those entering the priesthood to deny all physical relationships in order to focus more fully on their relationship with God. In Matthew 19:11-12 Jesus says:

All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.

Some understand the term "eunuch" to be referring to those who commit to celibacy. Later in the New Testament, Paul recognizes that even a consensual sexual relationship with one's spouse can serve as a distraction from one's divinely ordained mission. And though Paul himself doesn't marry, he recognizes it's not for everyone.

But there is more to the story when it comes to priests. There have been times in Church history when certain clerics or priests were openly married. There are accounts of the Catholic Church denouncing this practice as far back as the third century A.D., but it didn't become official canon law until 1123. Still, some priests kept families, either in secret or even publicly, but there is evidence that the church issued decrees as early as 1018 approving the enslavement of priests' wives and children.

So was this all a matter of sexual purity? Was it meant to keep priests focused on God rather than on earthly things? It depends on whom you ask. In March 2009, just before he retired, Cardinal Edward Egan suggested that the matter of celibacy in the priesthood was not a closed issue. In fact, he said that it was something that should be explored, and noted that, though celibacy was a widely held church rule, it wasn't hard-and-fast Catholic doctrine.

But perhaps more fascinating was a comment in the same March 21, 2009 New York Times article from University of Notre Dame theology professor Lawrence Cunningham about why the Church really wanted priests to remain single and childless in the first place. He claims that, though there is some theological grounding to the rule, the Church's motivation also is practical. Specifically, Cunningham suggests that the chastity rule is meant to keep the wives and children of priests to trying to lay claim to any church property.

So was the Catholic Church motivated more by finances than by moral strictures? And why does there seem to be so much fuzziness around this rule? After all, there are Catholic priests in Eastern Bloc countries who marry today. And there are a number of instances where an Episcopal priest has converted to Catholicism after already having a family. Is there a double standard? Is it possible, as Egan had hoped, that the next pope might revisit this and change centuries of Catholic tradition?

One argument for allowing priests to marry is directly related to the sex abuse scandals. While many outside the church (and some on occasion within the patriarchy) have suggested that sexual denial contributes to later sexual deviance, as manifest in these abuse cases, the official stance of the Church on this is denial of any correlation. And truly, it's hard to draw a straight line between the two. After all, what if people already wrestling with sexual addiction and abuse issues are drawn to the priesthood in an effort to squash their unsavory impulses? And even if priests are married, there's the matter that they do have access to children in unsupervised situations that would be considered unnecessarily risky in other circles.

But there are more than a handful of critics who continue to assert that imposing a life of chastity on men given unusual levels of power and secrecy is like adding fuel to already glowing embers.

Regardless of the reasons why the Church maintains the rule of celibacy in most cases for the priesthood, evidence revealed through sources like "Mea Maxima Culpa" point to a culture of secrecy and insularity that endeavor to maintain institutional integrity, sometimes at the expense of those victimized by elements of the institution itself. There's enough evidence offered by the movie and other sources to lend plausibility to the idea that Pope Benedict was aware of many of these abuses while serving as Cardinal. The Church hierarchy is such that Benedict would continue to serve as pope indefinitely, largely protected by the religious institution, which is recognized by many countries as having sovereign statehood.

The weight of such criticism bears down on any man over time -- even His Holiness. It's my hope that he recognizes the need for greater reform within the church, well beyond the matter of celibacy in the priesthood, but that perhaps he is too weary to take it on. We can hope that the next pope will take his on in bold new ways. However, given the fact that all of the current College of Cardinals have been appointed by Popes Benedict and John Paul II, and considering that it seems both popes knew of these scandals and failed to act unilaterally for serious reform, it's hard to hold out too much optimism as Benedict steps down from his place at the helm of the Holy See.