commentary

Celibacy is not the villain in the clerical sex abuse scandal

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The sacerdotal sex-abuse scandal had many causes. But the secular press, the entertainment media, television and talk shows, liberal writers, and leftist-leaning periodicals have targeted the rule of celibacy as the chief villain.

The unrelenting media barrage aimed at the church law disallowing married priests has taken its toll within the Church.

Priests from diverse dioceses have signed petitions calling upon the pope to rescind the celibacy requirement. They ask: “Is this ecclesiastical law reasonable? Is it proper to impose it on all? Is it just?”

Since the fourth century, celibacy has been the general law of the Church. The Gospels make it clear, however, that celibacy is a charisma, a gift of God, to be freely chosen. Christ himself did not recommend it to all: “Let those accept it who can.” (Matt. 19:21)

Does not the church legislation, making celibacy a sine qua non of the priesthood, place celibacy above the priesthood? Is it not possible, indeed, quite probable, that God calls married men to the priesthood — even in the Latin rite — as Christ called Peter?

The arguments buttressing the anti-celibacy thesis are strong, if not persuasive: The concubinage and uncelibate behavior of priests; the defection and subsequent marriage of the clergy; the scandal to the laity; the world-wide shortage of priests; the discouragement of vocations; the lack of humanity and emotional warmth stemming from deprivation of feminine influence; clerical naiveté about women and their problems; emotional involvement when counseling females about sexual problems; estrangement from people in the world; selfishness, hardness of heart, and childishness of thought, sentiment and action.

Other occupational hazards plague celibate clerical living: endency to hypochondria; a temptation to place ecclesiastical politics above the needs of the apostolate; the attraction to this all-male society of latent homosexuals and men with effeminate characteristics; a morbid fear of friendship with women; an exaggerated regard for gracious living, sumptuous food, costly clothes, ornate and arty quarters, high-priced automobiles; a preoccupation with status and ecclesiastical preferment; an inability to cope with a macho culture which defines a man in terms of sexual potency.

For Latin Americans, the soutane wearer is often thought of as half-man, belonging to a third gender: macho, hembra, and cura-male, female and priest.

But to call a priest half-man is to miss what celibacy is all about. If celibacy emasculates a man, was Jesus Christ only half-man? Was Paul, the heroic apostle of the Gentiles, only half-man? Were thousands of saints and loyal priests who lived celibate lives only half-men? Yet, aren’t these the very men who project the true image of the Catholic priest?

Anti-celibacy proponents fail to take into account the sinfulness of human nature. After all, there are abuses in every walk of life. Defections and scandals among the married have not been interpreted as grounds for abolishing the institution of marriage.

Moreover, no matter how endemic to bachelorhood are selfishness and psychological infantilism, these unlovely qualities are more the illicit offspring rather than natural concomitants of a religious celibate life. From the apostle Paul to Pope Benedict XVI, the experience of the Church testifies to the uplifting and liberating effects of a single life dedicated to God.

Indeed, the fund of psychic energy with which the sex urge is invested is the very force God uses to make a priest a fruitful and beloved spiritual father to many, rather than a natural father to a few.

Biological drives and glandular secretions take no notice of the vow of chastity, but it is possible to transform them into a power for personal growth, creative productivity, and pastoral effectiveness. Sublimation is a psychological fact. Far from limiting one's ability and need to love, celibacy is the very means through which the priest can realize that ability and fulfill that need.

Most men satisfy the need for love in marriage. The priest goes further, he loves God freely in all people, for only the totality of creation is sufficient to quench his thirst for love.

Celibacy is blamed for the sexual lapses of priests. Actually, sexual misconduct may be symptomatic of a more basic character anomaly. Many ‘fallen’ priests succumb to the blandishments of ‘Punch and’ Judy,' not because of instinctual urges, but because they are victims of a kind of seminary formation that begets ineffective, dependent personalities, unable to act with freedom and self-reliance.

For priests, says psychiatrist, Dr. John R. Cavanaugh, “the most dangerous problem after ordination is an “inability to handle hostility which rises out of the required obedience.”

The saints, themselves, found obedience difficult. But an undue resentment of authority indicates an arrested development, psychologically and spiritually. Imitating Christ, the Church will always have celibates. The question is: Must all priests in the Latin Rite be bachelors?

Look to the Church for the answer: The Church is Christ among men. The mission of the Church is the mission of Christ: a mission of love. This the Church must do: she must love all human beings and because she loves them, she must make them holy. Anytime the Church acts in such a way to limit her ability to love all people, then to the extent of those limitations, she has been unfaithful to her divine lover.

It is chiefly on these grounds that the rule of celibacy can be questioned. Does today’s mutual exclusiveness of matrimony and holy orders cripple the Church in her ability to love?

Father Lennon is a resident of St. Thomas Aquinas Priory, Providence College.