Dialogue 21

Celibacy 1  |  Celibacy 2  |  Celibacy 3

A. W. Richard Sipe
September 30, 2010

Clerical celibacy is THE CORE issue for the Roman Catholic Church of our time. All the other theological—moral—organizational questions hang on the honest deliberation and discussion of clerical integrity. [Note I do not say “solve”.] Every historic reform of the Church has wrestled with this reality—and to one degree or another coped with it.  Now human sexuality and celibate observance are more apparent than in some past times and undeniable since it involves lay-life with equal significance—it is about sexual ethic and honesty at every stage of human development. This recent insight has come to me slowly.

How could I possibly know before?

I grew up in a pre-television world. Radio was a magic box that brought me news of a World War that I was too young to understand. Fulton Sheen’s Catholic Hour on Sunday nights was required listening that made us proud. Radio also delivered the excitement of Joe Louis’ fights from 1938 to 1948. Minnesota, where my family lived, did not sponsor a professional football team during those years, but we could follow the Chicago Bears or the Green Bay Packers. Even during wartime my family was divided in zealous support; there were arguments.  Radio was The Media.

So we stretched out on the living room floor around the “radio console” to established contact with the wide world of values and reality beyond the confines of town and home. Every Saturday morning we could indulge in pre-adolescent fantasy by listening to Let’s Pretend 1 a series that fueled our imaginations with Disney-like perfect worlds and taught moral lessons such as the consequence of selfishness in Why The Sea is Salty or greed in King Midas and the Golden Touch or the power of human love from Beauty & Beast.

Of course, Mass on Sunday and daily attendance at the parish school bound all of our experiences and gave a context to life, death and love. Catholicism was our identity. That truly was our rock; we could count on it. It was the true and affective source of our consolation. If the pastor was harsh none of us questioned his sincerity or goodness. If an occasional rumor that he drank arose it was dismissed good naturedly in the spirit of “Going My Way.” 2. “Priest” and “sex” were two words never expressed, let alone thought of, in the same paragraph. Pope Pius XII was saintly and the status of the Church was clear.

This was my church of the 1940s: ideal and unquestionable. Vatican II had not yet disrupted the quietude and security of my certitude. Even now the investigations of clergy sexual abuse cover only 1950 to 2002 (arbitrarily) leaving the memories of an idealized time unsullied.

It only dawned slowly on me how brutal the bouts between clergy-sex-abusers/hierarchy-defenders and victims could become (the Louis—Conn contest had nothing on the fight going on in Catholicism today) 3; and it remains painful to comprehend how team support could shift so dramatically (31% of American Catholics have left the church). 4.

Humanae vitae, the 1968 contraception bombshell and the Stonewall Riot the next year blasted questions about married sex and homosexuality to the front pages of magazines, papers and the forefront of popular Catholic consciousness. When the Boston Globe printed its first articles of a “relentless, no-stone unturned investigation” into clergy sexual abuse on January 6, 2002 a seismic shift of unimaginable magnitude reverberated around the world. The radio era of life had been transcended. The Catholic Church will never be the same.

The focus now is on sex, Catholic clergy, and celibacy. It is a proven fact that despite promises of celibacy and the presumption of sexual abstinence some bishops and priests are sexually active—some even in criminal ways.

But let’s pretend that that mandated celibacy is not a recognizable problem. Pope Benedict XVI said recently, “For four centuries, almost all of the priests and bishops in the Catholic Church have been celibate,” 5 This simply is not true. In the U.S. no more than 50 percent of Catholic clergy at any one time are practicing celibacy. Can we pretend the figures are different in the Vatican? In truth the pope cannot mean “almost all priests” practice celibacy. He is pretending. He must mean the obligation attached to a promise required before ordination—mandated celibacy has involved priests for 400 years.  Two Cardinals who headed the Congregation for the Clergy, Franjo Seper (1970) and Jose Sanchez (1993), doubted on record about the universal or even commonness of the practice.

In 1985 Cardinal Basil Hume of London supported optional celibacy. 6 Sebastian Moore, like Hume a Benedictine priest said, “the celibate priesthood has clearly got to go.” He is not alone when he maintains that the Church’s view of sexuality is distorted by the enforced promise of celibacy from candidates for the priesthood. 7. In September 2010 the bishops of Bruges and Hasselt Belgium questioned mandatory celibacy for Roman Catholic priests, stating, “that married men should not automatically be excluded from priesthood.”

Let’s pretend for a moment that mandated celibacy is not related to the problem and prevalence of sexual abuse of minors by Roman Catholic bishops and priests—despite the fact that clerical culture chooses, educates, tolerates, and easily forgives clergy who violate celibacy.

Cardinal Christopher Schönborn of Vienna in 2010 when faced with the specter of priest sexual abusers in Austria suggested that the Vatican conduct an “unflinching study” of the causes of clergy sexual abuse including “mandatory celibacy, personality development and seminary education.” 8.

As U.S. studies proceed and documents are amassed it becomes clear that ten percent of the U.S. clergy population have gotten involved sexually with minors. Let’s pretend that Ireland and Europe are different.

Let’s pretend that fear of women does not exist in the male-only Catholic clergy and the denial of power to them is an illusion. For proof we can cite Pope Benedict XVI extolling St. Hildegard, a 12th-century mystic who was “wounded also then by the sins of priests and laypeople,” but used her gifts to build up the church at a time of trouble similar to today.” The Pope assured us all, "Various feminine figures stand out for their holiness of life and the richness of their teaching." 9. Women do have their place—and their power.

Let’s pretend that sexual development, restraint and relationships are not concerns of young unmarried folks—or divorced or widowed people.

Let’s Pretend that homosexuality is not a Catholic problem—clerical and lay.

A Vatican official responsible for Catholic clergy, Msgr. Tommaso Stenico, was caught on a hidden camera making sexual advances to a young man and assuring him that gay sex is not sinful. Let’s pretend that the Vatican spokesman who described it as an “isolated case” is correct. 10. This pretense defies the estimates of knowledgeable U.S. priests who claim that thirty to fifty percent of Roman Catholic clergy are gay.

Let’s pretend that clergy sex abuse is a passing phenomenon—that has nothing to do with mandatory celibacy, personality development, and seminary education.

Andrew Sullivan has discussed the sexual-personality development of gay men as it relates to Catholic clergy and culture. He pointed out the fear, shame, and secrecy imposed by the church on gay oriented men at the same time as its priests and bishops cover up for each other as they sexually act out and even abuse youngsters in secret. They excuse themselves that they merely sin like all other man.  

Let’s pretend their conspiracy of secrecy even if sinful, it is not criminal.

.Eminent Jesuit editor and writer James Martin speaks for many priests when he tells the New York Times he is tired of having the priesthood seen through the lens of abuse and sexuality. To view it any other way is to participate in a pretense. Or has he forgotten that the promise of “perfect and perpetual” chastity and celibacy is required for ordination?

The church prides itself on its easily given forgiveness and its highly prized secrecy. Its cycle of pretense is pathological and pathogenic. Andrew Sullivan’s conclusion is stripped of all pretense when he says:And when it's clear that at the center of this kind of pathological secrecy and shame is the current Pope, then it is clear that the entire institution is corrupt from the top down.” 11.

Let’s not pretend. The Church of the 1940s was not as idyllic, sex free, and celibate as my radio and hometown made things seem.

The Church is in dire straights now, but no more so than at some times in the past. We—including Pope Benedict XVI—must be honest about our current dilemmas. In the 2009 opening ceremonies for the Year of Priest he quoted another 12th-century saint, Peter Damian. He failed to note that Peter riled about the rampant sexual abuse of minors by priests; he called for zero tolerance of clergy sex offenders. Pope Leo IX waffled in 1149 saying that priest abusers should only be punished if they were “habitual” offenders. Now is not a time for despair; neither is it a time to play on pretenses or repeat past short sightedness.  

Poet Paul Claudel wrote, “The Church always turns to politics when it fails to produce enough saints.” Politics, including church politics, are surfeited with emperors who dress up, but have no clothes. Saints are not poseurs or pretenders. They are women and men who struggle with tough reality. What reality is more difficult to deal with honestly than sex?

1.  Cf. Arthur Anderson. (2004). Let's Pretend And The Golden Age Of Radio. It began on air March 24, 1934, running for two decades before the final show on October 23, 1954.
2.  Going My Way was a 1944 film that won seven Academy Awards and remained the highest grossing movies for the rest of the 1940s; it starred Bing Crosby as a young priest and Barry Fitzgerald as the veteran pastor.
3.  The June 18, 1941 bout is considered one of the greatest heavyweight boxing fights of all time.
4.  The 2008. Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
5.  Sandro Magister. May 28, 2010. The Argument over Celibacy. News, analysis, and    documents on the Catholic Church. Rome.
6  Cf. The TABLET.
7.  (2008). The Contagion of Jesus: Theology As If It Mattered. New York: Orbis Books.
8.  Richard Owen. (2010). Irish Independent. March 11.
9.  Catholic News Service. (2010). Rome. September 13.
10.  New York Times. (2007). October 18.
11.  Andrew Sullivan. The Daily Dish. (2010). “Sin or Crime?” March 25.