The wages of celibacy
The resignation of Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic clergyman, accused of unwanted advances toward younger priests, will ratchet up the usual talk about lies, double lives and hypocrisy in the church, and rightly so. The church’s leaders preach a purity that its own clerics can’t maintain. They cast stones and are so very far from blameless.
But before we range across that sadly familiar terrain, let’s give a moment’s thought to loneliness. And longing. And this: The pledge of celibacy that the church requires of its servants is an often cruel and corrosive thing. It runs counter to human nature. It asks too much.
Just so we’re clear: I’m not excusing priests who’ve sexually abused minors, or even talking principally about them. The British clergyman, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, isn’t charged with any such crime. He’s charged with failing to obey the moral absolutes he pronounces. And if true, the allegations represent more than yet another peek behind a false curtain of fraudulent righteousness. They’re a suggestion of celibacy’s foolishness, even its recklessness: of the way it warps the culture of the priesthood; of the unreasonable standard it sets.
Last week, just before the allegations came to light, O’Brien raised questions about the wisdom of the church’s tradition, for the last 900 years, of consigning clerics to a single, unmarried, ostensibly sexless life. He told the BBC that the next pope should consider dropping the celibacy rule, on account of how isolated clergymen can be.
“Many priests have found it very difficult to cope with celibacy as they lived out their priesthood and felt the need of a companion,” said O’Brien, 74, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland. By companion, he specified a woman, and he mentioned marriage, which is technically what celibacy forbids. Chastity is a by-product of that, since the church doesn’t condone sex outside the bounds of matrimony.
Did he find it difficult to cope? The accusations against him appeared in a British newspaper, The Observer, which reported that three priests and one former priest had recently complained to Pope Benedict XVI’s diplomatic representative in Britain of “inappropriate contact,” an “inappropriate approach” and other such behavior, some of it from decades ago. The cardinal has vaguely contested these charges.
According to The Observer, they were received by Benedict’s representative in the week immediately preceding the pope’s announcement that he would retire. Vatican observers will invariably try to connect those dots, just as they’ve theorized a bridge between Benedict’s retirement and a rumored dossier that he supposedly got about Vatican officials who’d consorted with male hustlers. It’s surely possible that a seemingly ceaseless tide of scandals contributed to his yearning for an exit.
But such speculation diverts attention from a more important truth that arches over these various tales. Celibacy is a bad idea with painful consequences. It not only renders the priesthood less attractive, contributing to a shortage of priests, but also influences which men pursue ordination and how they fare.
It’s a trap, falsely promising some men a refuge from sexual desires that worry them. That’s one explanation for what many church experts believe is a disproportionate percentage of gay men in the priesthood. In a world that has often convinced these men that they’ll be outcasts, the all-male priesthood can seem like a safe haven, and the vow of celibacy an opportunity to tuck one’s sexuality away on a shelf.
The promise of celibacy most likely factored into the church’s child sexual abuse crisis. Many years ago, when I wrote a book about it, more than a few mental health professionals told me that men trying to vanquish a sexual attraction to kids might well drift toward the priesthood in the hope that extra prayer and an intention of chastity would make everything right. One Catholic archbishop, Daniel Sheehan, who has since died, told me: “It could well be that a person with this kind of a hidden psychosexual problem could escape to the seminary and the like, thinking in some way that this would be a way of sublimating this problem.”
No matter what a person’s sexual orientation, the celibate culture runs the risk of stunting its development and turning sexual impulses into furtive, tortured gestures. It downplays a fundamental and maybe irresistible human connection. Is it any wonder that some priests try to make that connection nonetheless, in surreptitious, imprudent and occasionally destructive ways?
If the stories about O’Brien are true, you can look at him as the latest in a long line of Catholic hypocrites, his deeds in conflict with his words. That’s fair enough. But you can also look at him as someone whose needs couldn’t conform to a needless commitment to aloneness. And you can reserve your harshest judgment for the institution that puts him and so many others in that bind.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.