The Catholic clerical abuse scandal is, of course, very bad news: first and foremost, for the victims, second for the Catholic church, and third for all those – inside and outside the Catholic church – who find themselves tarnished by real or imagined association.
The recent remarks of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, to the effect that it is homosexuality, rather than celibacy, which lay behind the abuse of children, has led to indignation in many quarters.
My belief (and I’m speaking from long experience in health care generally, and knowledge of long-stay ‘institutions’) is that enforced abstention from heterosexual relationships leads to an increase in the incidence of deviant sexual behaviours.
But what I really want to focus on here is imposition of celibacy on Catholic clergy.
According to the Dictionary of the Christian Church (Cross & Livingstone, 1997, OUP), the church in the West moved during the 4th century towards a position where all higher clergy must be celibate. During the Middle Ages attempts were made to enforce celibacy on the clergy, and to declare the marriage of clergy unlawful or even invalid. Legislation is one things; practice, of course, is another. There have been periods when clerical concubinage has been rife. However, the requirement for clergy to be celibate was confirmed at the Council of Trent and again as recently as 1983. The Church of England formally abolished the obligation to celibacy of the clergy in 1549. Even so, some Anglicans have retained a recognition of a call to celibacy, with some going as far as Bishop Ken:-A virgin priest the altar attends, A state the Lord commands not, but commends.
Celibacy can be an honourable calling. Jesus Christ referred to those who have ‘renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 19:12). Indeed, despite the nonsense written by Dan Brown, is perfectly clear that Jesus himself was unmarried and celibate. Temporary or lifelong abstention from sexual relations can free an individual to follow his or her calling with exceptional single-mindedness.
Enforced celibacy has no biblical warrant. Paul’s apparent discouragement of marriage generally (1 Corinthians 7) appears to be local and temporary. The Roman Catholic church regards Saint Peter as its founder and the first Pope. It is most strange that, of all the apostles, Peter is one of those whom we know was married (1 Corinthians 9:5)! It is to be noted that standard Roman Catholic position is to agree that clerical celibacy is not required by divine law, but by ecclesiastical law.
Enforced celibacy creates an unnatural and unbiblical division between clergy and laity. It violates the principle of ‘the priesthood of all believers’.
Enforced celibacy feeds the notion that sex is, if not actually evil, somehow incompatible with a ‘first-class’ standard of holiness. V.M. Sinton writes:-
In the early and medieval church there was a tendency to see celibacy as a higher, more spiritual calling than marriage. This was thoroughly intertwined with the idea that in a fallen world, sexual intercourse inevitably involves a measure of sinful lust, drawing a person away from communion with God. The celibate was someone set free for pure, undivided devotion to the Lord. (New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology, art. ‘Singleness’)
The Reformers reacted strongly to this, arguing that marriage was not a second-class gift. Nevertheless, even they still tended to view sexuality with some suspicion, emphasising its value as a remedy for incontinence. Or, we might suggest, as a remedy for clerical abuse.
But celibacy is not the only explanation
John Benton summarises the thoughts of an ex-Catholic friend, who points out how the whole culture of Catholicism needs to be taken into account:-
The Catholic church is a hierarchy based on significant power held by a few individuals. Priests are seen as having power to forgive; the power of life and death. They are often idolised as God’s chosen representatives. To criticise them is almost to criticise God himself. The culture of Catholicism is also one of mystery. There are the secrets of the confessional which must be kept. With no birth control there are always plenty of children. It is a male dominated church which frequently suffers from absence of feminine insight, warmth and motherliness. The Catholic church has money to build institutions like schools and children’s homes. It often views itself as above the law of the land and things like child protection policies have been slow to be implemented. The need for good public relations to maintain the loyalty of the flock brings a tendency to cover up the truth. Also, in such a complicated institution, accountability of priests can be very convoluted and therefore tend to become unworkable.
See also: A New Dictionary of Christian Ethics, SCM, art. ‘Celibacy’
This article is also of interest.