By Peter Holmes
I HAVE grown a little tired of hearing child abuse blamed on “repressed sexuality” of celibate men.
There is no doubt that the Catholic Church must face up to the fact that some heinous and criminal abuse was allowed to continue unchecked due to neglect, secrecy and even culpable incompetence.
I shall leave debate about the fact that by far the majority of child abusers are married men, and that married clergy have a slightly higher rate of sexual misconduct than celibate clergy for another forum. I commend some excellent research by Philip Jenkins on these matters.
I will argue that the idea that refraining from sexual activity is unhealthy and even dangerous is, itself, based on an unhealthy view of human beings.
Put simply, the idea that a celibate clergy “creates” paedophiles assumes that men must have regular sexual release or they are liable to become dangerous sexual predators. If this were, indeed the case, then the danger would not be limited to celibate clergy.
If we follow this twisted logic, then any widower, bachelor, any unmarried man, (or woman), may be at risk of being “made” a paedophile. For that matter, any married man who has not enjoyed regular sexual intimacy would need to be carefully watched, lest his repressed sexuality transform him into a sexual predator.
If people genuinely believe that sexual abstinence is so dangerous, perhaps they should insist that their minister’s wife confirm the regularity of their intimacy in the parish’s annual report?
Joking aside, it is clear that the specific focus on celibacy as a “cause”, while ignoring all other non-married persons stems from either (a) the assumption that all people except celibate clergy are sexually active (and satisfied) or (b) that celibacy, the deliberate and lifelong vow to dedicate oneself as a spouse, in a way that does not include the sexual act, is unnatural and dangerous. Masculinity that is reduced to being sexually active is no real masculinity.
While a good many of the arguments against celibacy do assume that everyone else in the world is sexually active and satisfied regardless of their marital status, let us leave that absurdity aside for a moment. When pressed on this matter, most opponents of celibacy admit that they find celibacy difficult to understand at best, or unhealthy and offensive at worst.
Celibacy seems particularly offensive to modern Western society because it demonstrates that true spousal love is not about self-gratification, but about a selfless and complete gift of oneself.
Most Christians would be familiar with the ideal of self-giving love described by St Paul and demonstrated by Christ himself, as the heart of a Christian marriage. St Paul urges a husband to love his wife “as Christ loved (his bride), the Church”. St Paul urged husbands not to seek self-gratification but to follow the model of Christ’s love.
Christ sought nothing for himself, not even a loaf of bread when he was very hungry after 40 days fasting, and yet He gave every moment of his life, even his death, for the good of his bride, the Church.
Celibacy most clearly reflects the love of God the Father in that it gives its gift without asking in return. Celibacy most clearly embodies the love of God the Son in that it lays down its life for the Church, and asks nothing in return. Celibacy most clearly proclaims the love of the Holy Spirit in that it constantly brings to God’s people the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins and ushers them into life everlasting.
Celibacy is not a rejection of marriage. Celibacy for the kingdom is comparable to a marriage vow. A priest gives himself as a bridegroom to the bride, a complete gift of self, asking nothing in return.
Neither is celibacy a rejection of manhood or fatherhood. A priest is a potent lover of his bride, and his love bears spiritual children, and many spiritual fruits.
If suppression of sexual urges is suppression of masculinity, or even dangerous in any way, then St Paul, and even Jesus himself set us a dangerous example. But those were not ordinary men, you might think.
True, each one had an extraordinary gift that allowed them to give themselves in an extraordinary way. That is the entire point. Such a gift, such a life requires divine grace.
Celibacy is not un-natural, it is supernatural. Celibacy is not the rejection of the spousal nature of a man; it commits him completely as a self-gift to Christ’s own bride, the Church.
Just as a married couple receives the necessary grace to fulfil their vows, a priest receives sacramental grace to fulfil his spousal vow. This is why it is a tragedy and a scandal when such a priest neglects this grace, and harms the flock. His vows did not create a tragedy. The tragedy is that he neglected the grace of his vows.
When we hear of someone who has sinned in this way we are rightly shocked, disappointed and angry. But the proper response to unfaithfulness is faithfulness. The cure for wrong is getting it right.
If we see one dad harm his children, we don’t call for the abolition of all fatherhood. No, we seek to educate, encourage and help all fathers be excellent fathers, and we punish those fathers who harm their children. Just so with priests.
Yes, a number of priests have done great harm to individual victims and to the whole Church. Yes, this is a great shame for all Catholics and a scandal. Yes, we should punish individuals who are found guilty, and contribute to the education, encouragement and help for the vast majority of innocent priests to better fulfil their vows. But let us look for the real causes, rather than blaming what we find difficult to understand, just because it is different.
Peter Holmes is an Australian theologian.