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.

The No. 2 at the Vatican, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said Tuesday that the church's position on celibacy for Catholic priests is not 'untouchable.'

Vatican No. 2 Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone made headlines Tuesday when he appeared to ease the church’s absolute position on celibacy, telling Spanish radio the centuries-old rule is not an “untouchable” one. The prelate’s comment was part of a Vatican affirmation of celibacy and a strong view that there is “no direct link between celibacy and the deviant behavior of certain priests," as Cardinal Bertone put it.

But even opening the door slightly on such a deeply cherished practice is a concession to persistent questions tied to revelations of child sexual abuse in the United States, Germany, Ireland, Belgium, Kenya, and Austria that has put the church in crisis, analysts say.

From the start of the Catholic priest child abuse scandal, Vatican officials have pointedly sought to play down the role that mandatory celibacy may or may not play in the abuse and cover up surfacing this spring.

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Even Roman Catholic scholars and intellectuals favoring a reform idea of “optional celibacy” for priests worry about stereotypes and assumptions at a time of public anger that crudely equate vows of chastity with pedophilia. A strong orthodox core at the Vatican has treated the subject as closed – even as questioning celibacy has become a coin-of-the-realm topic among ordinary Catholics.

“In Catholic opinion, in terms of surveys and studies about what Catholics actually believe on the ground, ever greater numbers are talking about optional celibacy and the ordination of women – that toothpaste is not going back in the tube,” says theologian Tom Beaudoin of Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York, echoing numerous Catholic scholars and lay people interviewed for this article.

Mr. Bertone, known as a hard-liner who last month equated homosexuality with pedophilia (something he later retracted), nonetheless opened the celibacy question in a context that has been a vexing conundrum for bishops and priests for years: that while Catholic priests must be celibate, the church has slowly accepted married priests from orthodox and Anglican traditions. As Bertone put it, “There are married priests in the Catholic as well as oriental church."

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.”

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.”

Technicalities aside, however, actually to broach celibacy would raise internal political and authority issues practically on a par with heresy debates like Galileo’s claim that Earth revolves around the sun: If changed, analysts say, it would open up painful questions about why, for hundreds of years, millions of priests were required to forgo families. It would shake up an all-male hierarchy and tradition. It would also challenge an often unspoken sensibility in parts of the church that males willing to forgo sex and family in devotion to church puts them in a higher or more heavenly category than others.

Inside the current crisis, argues Andrew Brown in the Guardian, the culture of celibacy reinforces a lack of transparency: “Many people blame celibacy for Catholic sexual abuse. But it's much more likely to have played a role in the coverup.”

A senior church official in Munich who has dealt with abuse in Bavaria, and who did not want to be identified, agrees. He argues that celibacy contributes to a pattern of manipulation among abusers that know who each other are, and who “embed themselves” in the system and play off its weaknesses, especially in cover ups.

Celibacy discussions in Europe and the US differ somewhat. European Catholics are quicker to raise the origins of celibacy, rather than its spiritual virtues: They point out that celibacy rules were a practical measure in the 11th century to stop married priests from claiming the parish property and handing it down to their families.

In today’s world, where it does not take a year of savings to own a cow or livestock, where “possessions” are abundant and legally rendered, it's argued, the situation no longer applies. Europeans are also quick to note that prior to the early Middle Ages, and for the first 1,000 years of the church, marriage was accepted and normal. This point is part of the Vatican rationale to now allow exceptions: Anglican priests who are married and convert to Catholicism are recognized. The church accepts married priests from Armenian and Marionite confessions and other orthodox churches where celibacy is optional.

Polls in Germany suggest some 70 to 80 percent of lay Catholics would accept married priests. In the Dutch province of Limburg, a recent survey found a third of priests questioned openly told a reporter that celibacy rules should be changed.

Typical among young Germans considering the priesthood is a comment by a Munich student: “Lutherans have married priests, and it seems to work for them.”

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