How many priests stay celibate?

Celibacy is the practice of abstaining from marriage and sexual relations, typically for religious reasons. It is most commonly associated with Catholic priests, who take a vow of celibacy upon entering the priesthood. However, there has been much debate over the centuries about whether requiring celibacy for priests is necessary or wise.

Some key questions around priestly celibacy include:

  • What percentage of Catholic priests remain celibate throughout their career?
  • How many priests break their vows and engage in sexual relationships or leave the priesthood to get married?
  • Does celibacy contribute to the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church?
  • Would allowing priests to marry help address the priest shortage in the Catholic Church?

This article will examine the available data and research around how many priests actually remain celibate, whether celibacy requirements should be changed, and the implications for the Catholic Church.

What Percentage of Priests Remain Celibate?

It is impossible to know definitively what percentage of Catholic priests at any given time are remaining faithful to their vow of celibacy. Self-reporting studies suggest that most priests endeavor to adhere to church rules around chastity. However, there is also evidence that a substantial number of priests may fail to remain celibate over the course of their career. Here is a look at the limited data available:

  • A 1990 survey of several hundred priests in the United States found that nearly 50% admitted to struggling with celibacy at some point. Only 5% said they always remained faithful to their vows of chastity. However, this was based on self-reporting and the definition of “celibate” was somewhat vague. The majority indicated they had not had sex with women during their priesthood.
  • A similar survey of several thousand priests in the 1990s found the majority said they were currently practicing celibacy. Less than 15% said they were in intimate relationships. Around 30% admitted to having occasional sex.
  • Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former priest who spent decades researching celibacy practices, estimated that only 50% of priests at any one time were practicing celibacy. He claimed his research found that many priests had ongoing sexual relationships lasting years or decades.
  • There are no comprehensive statistics available on what percentage of priests who take the vow of celibacy go on to get married after leaving the priesthood. Anecdotal evidence suggests many do get married, indicating they broke their vows either before or after leaving the church.

The limited available data indicates that celibacy is a challenge for priests, though many do their best to honor their vows. Given the lack of rigorous studies, it is difficult to pin down how many successfully remain celibate throughout decades of priesthood. Estimates range from 50% being celibate at any one time to the great majority struggling with chastity to some degree.

How Many Priests Engage in Sexual Relationships?

Part of the difficulty in assessing faithfulness to celibacy vows is that sexual transgressions often happen in secret and go unreported. There is ample evidence that a substantial minority of priests have engaged in sexual relationships illicit under church law. Here are some indicators:

  • A study of several thousand American priests found that 15% admitted to having an ongoing sexual relationship at some point during their time as a priest. Just under a third said they had occasional sexual encounters.
  • Letters written by priests to Helen O’Regan, an Irish woman in an intimate relationship with a priest for over 20 years, indicated many priests had long-term secret sexual relationships. The letters complained of loneliness and dishonesty forced by celibacy requirements.
  • A 1990 survey of priests in Ireland found that 14% admitted to fathering a child at some point. 7% also said they currently had a mistress.
  • Researchers estimate that thousands of priests worldwide have heterosexual relationships that the church leadership is aware of but does not act on. Double lives are often tolerated if the affairs are private and discreet.

There are also many reported cases of priests sexually abusing children or engaging in secret gay relations, which will be addressed later in this article. Overall, a small but significant minority of priests at any given time are likely engaging in some form of clandestine sexual behavior that violates their vows.

How Many Priests Leave to Get Married?

When priests decide they can no longer abide by celibacy requirements, some choose to leave the church in order to pursue marriage and intimate relationships openly. However, there are no global statistics tracking how many priests leave for this reason. Some data points on priests leaving to marry:

  • A Los Angeles Times survey of U.S. priests who had left their vocation found that 28% did so to get married. This was the third most common reason cited after disagreeing with the church hierarchy and falling in love.
  • A support organization for priests leaving to get married estimated that 100,000 American priests have left to pursue married life over several decades.
  • Over 200 former priests sent letters to a 2012 Vatican Synod arguing that enforcing celibacy was pushing many away from the church. They urged allowing married priests to help solve shortages.
  • One study in Austria found that in recent decades nearly 1 out of 10 priests quit, often to marry. Married priests were allowed before the modern celibacy rules.

The limited data indicates that a significant number of priests likely make the difficult choice to leave in order to reconcile their faith with desires for marriage, sex and family. This contributes to the severe shortage of clergy that plagues the Catholic Church in many areas.

Does Celibacy Contribute to Abuse?

For many critics, one of the chief concerns around mandated celibacy is whether it helps fuel sexual abuse committed by a minority of priests. There are competing viewpoints among researchers on this issue:

  • Richard Sipe and other advocates argued that forced celibacy created unnatural repression and a culture of secrecy that enables predators. They believe allowing married priests could reduce abuse.
  • A report commissioned by U.S. bishops rejected the idea that celibacy causes abuse, pointing out that 96% of priests were not abusers. It argued married clergy in other denominations also commit abuse.
  • However, some researchers counter that Catholic priests abuse at a higher rate than clerics in married-clergy faiths. And the church hierarchy’s focus on protecting celibacy too often came before preventing abuse.

There are convincing cases to be made on both sides. It remains a very charged debate. Ultimately, there are too many complex factors behind abuse scandals to definitively prove or disprove celibacy as the primary cause.

Would Married Priests Reduce Shortages?

Another key consideration around priestly celibacy is whether the decline in Catholic vocations is linked to requiring abstinence from marriage and family. Advocates for reform argue that allowing married priests could help alleviate the severe clergy shortage:

  • Drops in seminary applicants have left over 3,500 parishes worldwide without a resident priest.
  • Over the past 50 years, the number of priests declined over 30% in Europe and the U.S., correlated with relaxing of rules on celibacy.
  • One Vatican researcher concluded that most men no longer desire celibacy, pointing to the priest shortfall.
  • Surveys find broad support among American Catholics for allowing married priests, though church leaders remain opposed.

Critics counter that clergy shortages are more linked to secularization and weakening of faith in the modern age. They argue that scrapping celibacy risks protestantizing the Catholic priesthood. However, multiple Popes have allowed married priests under limited circumstances, signaling some flexibility on tradition.


The available data on priests and celibacy is limited and often based on self-reporting. However, it does indicate that a substantial number of clergy likely struggle with chastity vows, whether engaging in secret relationships, abusing minors, or eventually leaving to marry. The true percentage successfully remaining celibate throughout decades of priesthood is difficult to quantify but appears to be low.

Research is split on whether celibacy directly causes sexual dysfunction or abuse. There are systemic reasons abuse was able to proliferate in the church aside from celibacy rules. However, enforced celibacy likely deters many potential priests and contributes to staffing shortages. There are good faith arguments on all sides of this issue. Ultimately, whether to relax celibacy mandates involves prudential decisions balancing tradition against pragmatic reforms. More rigorous data may help better understand this complex issue.

Survey of Priests Celibate Struggling with Celibacy Admitting Sexual Activity
1990s, USA Majority 50% 15% relationships, 30% occasional sex
1990, Ireland No data No data 14% fathered children, 7% had mistress

Priests Leaving to Marry

Group Number Left to Marry
USA Priests Survey 28% of those who left
Support Organization Estimate 100,000 in USA over decades
Letters to 2012 Vatican Synod 200 former priests petitioned
Study in Austria Nearly 1 in 10 in recent decades

Priest Shortages

Region Drop in Priests, 50 Years
Europe -32%
USA -37%
Worldwide 3,500 parishes without resident priest

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