Defending Celibacy

Anyone remember the Providence Journal’s ‘Face of Religion’ page? A frequent contributor was Dale O’ Leary, who liked to rant against feminists. Just before the Catholic church sex-abuse scandals broke, she began writing columns about forgiveness. After the first pedophilia stories came out, she claimed that enemies of the Church were gloating.

Well, I’m not an enemy of any church, except maybe Fred Phelps’ band of lunatics. I can’t work up a snark about the pedophilia stories either. It’s sickening, and it’s frightening. As a parent, it worries me that trust can be betrayed like that. As a parent, you have to be able to send your children into the world and trust that adults in authority will act honorably. When they don’t, it’s not only an occasion for outrage, but for grief.

I can’t really get into it now, too heavy and sad.

But there is a Catholic scandal I can enjoy. I wish more priests had followed the example of Father Cutie. The popular priest made headlines when he was photographed kissing a pretty woman. Soon after he was outed, he married his girlfriend, who was 35 years old and single. Gloat, gloat.

Father Cutie said that he still defends priestly celibacy, but he thinks it should be optional.

This is a very humane and realistic view. Opinion writers are suggesting that celibacy is the reason for the troubles in the Catholic church.

I think that’s simple-minded.

Celibacy is a valid life choice, and the Catholic church has institutions and traditions that allow celibate people to live in community. The Church is one of the few organizations that celebrates and honors the celibate life. Blaming celibacy wrongs the nuns, brothers and priest who serve their communities with dedication.

Most people, if they are honest, will have to admit that there were times in their lives when they were celibate. It’s not something we like to talk about, it’s worse to be on the shelf than in the closet.

It’s this ex-Catholic’s opinion that the sex-abuse scandals in the Church are an extreme manifestation of a culture of child-abuse. The Pope’s brother, while denying knowledge of sex-offenders in his organization, apologized for slapping choir boys. A couple of years ago three denominations in Canada were implicated for decades of systematic child abuse– the Catholic church was the only one of them that refused to acknowledge wrongdoing. Physical punishment and humiliation of children was accepted in Catholic schools for decades after society had renounced these harsh methods. The indifference to children’s vulnerability and fear allowed predators to hide in plain sight. They knew that no one was listening to the children. The Church today is paying for denial and cover-up long past any excuse. Victims of abuse pay a higher price than money.

Is celibacy the cause? Don’t make me laugh. Abuse of power, a secretive hierarchy and a lack of honesty about human sexual feelings is where I would look first. The Church will scapegoat its homosexual priests and the World will blame celibacy.

I like the Unitarian church, where homosexual members and clergy are respected. Where celibacy is not disparaged and single people are not ignored in the rush to ‘family values’.

The Catholic church could certainly ease its priest shortage by making celibacy optional and ordaining women. Or it could pay more attention to the ethics and mental health of its clergy and identify and remove abusers of all kinds. Or it can cling to its power and blame the world for being worldly.

I just want to defend the good people I know who really do practice a celibate life, with a love that extends to the community, and with passion. Celibacy is a valid choice, and celibate people should not be stained with a scandal that is rooted in abuse of power and fear of change.

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3 responses

  1. I happened to catch a few minutes of a program on WGBH yesterday. It was a panel discussion, and included a spokesman for the Roman Church. He pooh-poohed the whole celibacy-as-cause, saying that these abuses happened in the Episcopalian and Orthodox Churches, too, so celibacy couldn’t be the cause.

    Another panel member granted the point, but had a different one. The celibacy-thing, Speaker #2 said, helped turn the Roman hierarchy into sort of a club. It creates an us-vs-them mentality, which makes it harder for the hierarchy to turn members over to secular authorities, because they’re part of the “them.”

    I’ve always felt that celibacy played a contributing role, but I have no proof of that. Nor can I assess the validity of the comparison to the Episcopalian or Orthodox churches. No doubt such things occurred there, but I suspect not on the scale of what happened w/in the Roman Rite.

    A bigger issue is the whole hierarchy thing. That made it possible for the bishops to shuffle the offenders around. In most other faiths, the priest/reverand/rabbi is, essentially, and employee of the congregation. There is no shuffling of clergy by an entrenched power structure. Rather, the individual clergy members move about at their own discretion, as they are called to serve different congregations. That makes it harder for an offender to get a fresh start.

    But, horrific as the abuse itself was, even more horrific was the cover-up. Non-offenders knowingly protected the guilty. I’m not going to get all pop-psychological and say that the perp maybe couldn’t help himself, but the bishops have no such excuses. In some ways, they are the bigger criminals, because they did what they did in cold blood.

  2. Interesting perspective– that the priests were an exclusive boys club undistracted by relationships and families of their own. The laity in the Catholic church have not traditionally had much respect, but they’ve organized. They should have more authority.
    I’m not a Catholic any more, but I know some ex-priests, and I think the Church lost some of its best clergy when they left to get married. I’d like to see celibacy become optional.
    I also know some people who live celibate lives who are really admirable, and I hate to see them pulled into a scandal they had nothing to do with.

  3. Good post. I agree that blaming celibacy for the abusive behavior of certain members of the clergy is simplistic. In my mind, the question is not whether a culture of celibacy attracts or encourages people with sexually abusive impulses but rather why some with sexually abusive impulses are attracted to a culture of celibacy. If an individual is at conflict with himself and wrestling with inappropriate sexual urges, he may look outside himself for some mechanism of control. The rigid dictates of the priesthood would perhaps seem appealing to such a person, as it would ostensibly contain their untoward impulses. Unfortunately, having faith in external mechanisms of control is generally misguided. Internal drives are typically more powerful than external prohibitions.

    Anyway, that’s this clinician’s 2 cents on the topic.

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