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The Celibacy Problem

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I don’t often find myself agreeing with the Archbishop of Canterbury. On reading his remarks about Irish Catholicism (‘an institution so deeply bound into the life of a society… suddenly losing all credibility – that’s not just a problem for the Church, it’s a problem for everybody in Ireland’), I was transported back to my Catholic boyhood when, before a rugby game against an Anglican school, our Christian Brother teachers would warm us up with stories of Catholics being burnt at the stake by the Prots, with the coup de grace being ‘and since this is a Protestant school we’re playing at, don’t leave any valuables in the changing room.’ I can only imagine the depths of chagrin within the Church right now at having an Anglican divine dilate upon the Church’s moral failings.

Nobody I knew at either my convent school or at the Christian Brothers was ever the victim of sexual abuse. But I could weep as I think back not just to the savage physical punishments common to both schools and the quite obvious fact that the sexual frustration of unnaturally celibate young men and women was being poured into such punishments, but at the sad way in which the nicer nuns, in particular, would gather us up in their skirts and hug us in what were clearly transports of maternal deprivation.

The pope, we are told, is reeling from the revelations of sexual abuse going back many decades in Germany, the US, Austria, Ireland, Switzerland and the Netherlands. The pope’s preacher even got so excited as to suggest that criticism of the pontiff was akin to anti-semitism, a remark which the head of the Council of German Jews referred to, quite rightly, as ‘unprecedented insolence’.

All these revelations come from countries where Catholicism is subject to strong Protestant influences. We haven’t yet heard about paedophile priests in the Catholic Deep South – Italy, France, Spain and Latin America – but it would be a very foolish person who believed that this meant they were immune to the abuses that have scarred the church elsewhere. It merely means that in those deep Catholic cultures it will take longer to surface, but when it does they will all face the same crisis of identity that Rowan Williams refers to in Ireland.

Nobody seems to have said this in public but if you read about the popes at the time of the Medici it is a continuous story of bishops and popes with mistresses, often intriguing to gain preferment in the Church for their illegitimate offspring. That is, we know how thoroughly and lastingly the Church’s rule of celibacy had broken down then. We also now know how pervasive in modern times were not just lapses from celibacy but the stooping to commission of appalling sexual crimes against children. Surely I am not the only one who joins up the dots and concludes that the rule of celibacy enforced by the Church on all its priests, nuns and monastic orders is so unnatural that it is bound to have led to sexual transgressions not just in medieval times and now but in all the centuries in between? What a large hidden history must be there.

And while almost all the contemporary revelations concern priests, why on earth should anyone imagine that there is not a whole further such chapter to be told about men in monastic orders and women in nunneries? The initial problem lies simply with the rule of celibacy. No wonder both the Protestant churches and the Jews are sensible enough not to make such extreme demands on their clergy.

The Catholic Church is not good at admitting its mistakes. It continues to oppose contraception even in the face of the African Aids epidemic largely, one suspects, because it would be too embarrassing to admit that the Church and its popes have been wrong on this issue from the beginning. But the issue of sexual abuse poses an even sterner challenge. There is no doubt a contributory issue in the degree of authority which the Church gives its holy men over the faithful, for some are bound to yield to the temptations that offers.

But once one gets one’s head around the central cause of enforced celibacy one realises that whatever contortions and contrition the pope may go through now, he will only be skirting the issue if he doesn’t face up the fact that Holy Mother the Church has been plain wrong about celibacy for the past 2000 years, that it is a rule which has caused untold suffering on all sides and that it has to go.

Comments on “The Celibacy Problem”

  1. S.H.C. England says:

    R.W. Johnson repeats a couple of common errors about the history of celibacy. First, clerical celibacy means not marrying,… not refraining from sex.

    Second, this was only imposed on Catholic priests from1129 onwards, initially by the First Lateran Council. As secular law on inheritance had evolved in mainland Europe over the preceding 100 years, the church had discussed ways of consolidating its growing wealth, mainly received from the donations and indulgence payments of its supporters. The practical problem was that these were normally handed to the man on the ground, the local priest. Thus one vital issue when transferring those assets to the church as an organisation was, who would inherit the property in a priest’s possession on death?

    The Council imposed celibacy, not marrying, on the western Christian rite (not the eastern rite), to solve this problem.

    By 1129, having no lawful spouse and no legitimate children meant that in western continental Europe that a priest had no family to lawfully leave property to. Thus the endless arguments between a priest’s family and the church over whether property in a priest’s possession on death was given to him personally, or to the church as a donation or as payment for an indulgence, was ended in the church’s favour.

  2. outofdate says:

    Indeed you are not the only one to make the link. Over at the NYRB, that porous old plaster saint Hans Kueng got about a week’s head start blathering about the same subject, only of course he can’t be nearly as specific, teetering there on his lifelong fence.


  3. A.J.P. Crown says:

    So what you are saying is that the Roman Catholic church has always approved of sex before marriage, but only for its clergy.

  4. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Sorry, that was meant for SHC England.

  5. Celibacy is but one part of the picture. Being ‘normalised’ to mistreatment and abuse is the large part… as the author points out violence, spin and outright propaganda were the norm. Not everyone turns out badly, yet most do retain some of the hard wiring such experiences cause in the developing brain, and that makes it easier for those who argue the case for war, competition, wealth hoarding, aggression and extreme self interest as ‘natural’. And that therefore extreme control is required by the State or others, ‘for our own good’, as in the US patriot Act and the undermining of civil liberties under way in this country and elsewhere.

    The current crop of revelations concerning the Church’s peadophile priests and nuns are as yet ‘minor’ compared to what is to come with regard to the nexus of power that the State and Church represent in the legalised treatment meted out to for example the Canadian Native peoples as being revealed by Kevin Annett.

    Treatment that is as yet ongoing, and can be seen behind the rhetoric of The War on Drugs in South America.. which is really a war to drive indigenous and campesino peoples off the land so that it can be ‘developed’.

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