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Catholic priests and celibacy: a flashpoint in sexual abuse crisis

The No. 2 at the Vatican, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, appeared Tuesday to ease the church's absolute position on celibacy for Catholic priests. The issue continues to roil the church as it confronts revelations of sexual abuse.

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The subject continues to roil. Last week, an auxiliary Catholic bishop in Australia, Pat Power, wrote in an opinion piece that the closed nature of sexual identity and rules in the church needed review in light of daily headlines on abuse and cover up: “The reform needed by the Church today will involve much more than just ‘tinkering around the edge,’ Mr. Power stated. “Issues such as the authoritarian nature of the Church, compulsory celibacy for the clergy, the participation of women in the Church, the teaching on sexuality in all aspects cannot be brushed aside.”

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At the epochal Second Vatican Council meeting in the early 1960s, the issue of celibacy caused such mountainous disagreements that it was not formally discussed.

Yet the subject remains so potent that one of the two remaining senior Catholic figures from Vatican 2, theologian Hans Kung (the other is Pope Benedict), stated this spring that “The rule that Catholic priests must be celibate is responsible for the crisis in the church,” in the first line of a statement titled, “Why Celibacy Should be Abolished.”

In the view of many ordinary priests, and backed by the church’s Holy See or leading bishops in Rome, “Celibacy involves a commitment to the church consistent with Jesus’ call to ‘leave all for Christ,’ to be entirely available for the church,” said a French priest at a chapel in Paris, who declined to give his name.

No distractions of family

Chastity, in the view of one lay German member, lets priests to devote themselves fully to their flock, without family distractions. The American priest James Martin, author of “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything,” explained in a thoughtful commentary last month that: “Chastity frees us to serve people more readily. We're not attached to one person exclusively, so it's easier for us to move to another assignment. As the Jesuit Constitutions say, chastity is ‘essentially apostolic.’ It is supposed to help us be better ‘apostles,’ to be freer to respond to the needs of those around us. So chastity is supposed to be about both love and freedom.”

Psychologist and social scientists are divided on the degree to which celibacy plays a role in the church’s sexual abuse crisis.

Many in the church who feel it does play a role say that while sexual problems including pedophilia are not a direct consequence of celibacy per se, the culture and education inside an enclosed male hierarchy that has complete authority can be distorting to younger males especially, and lead away from a normal or balanced attitude about sex and identity.

“Mandatory celibacy has an influence,” says Raquel Mallavibarrena of We Are Church in Madrid, a international grassroots reform movement that grew out of the 1995 pedophilia scandal of the late Vienna Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, who was forced to resign. “Celibacy contributes to a culture of mystery, difference, it gets used in this way. Ideally it may be fine. Celibacy does not equal pedophilia. But it can inculcate hostility to sexuality, a distorted sense, in the way it is communicated,” she says.

Celibacy dates to 11th century

Actually, in Catholic teaching, celibacy is not a dogma or doctrinal issue. It has the status of a rule dating to the 11th century. “It isn’t a theological issue, it is a disciplinary issue,” says Guillaume Goubert, editor of La Croix, the Catholic daily in Paris, “It has nothing to do with infallibility. It could simply be changed in the canon law. The church doesn’t even have to gather a council.”