Boston Globe, May 16,
and the Catholic priest
By James Carroll
all Catholics, I gratefully depend on the faithful ministry of
the many good priests who serve the church. Yet I offer a broad
critique of something central to their lives and identities
the rule of celibacy. I write from inside the question, having
lived as a celibate seminarian and priest for more than a decade
in my youth. Yet when I left the priesthood in 1974, I was more
conscious of vowed obedience as the pressing issue than celibacy.
I wanted to be a writer, which required a free play of the mind
that seemed impossible in the life of orders.
But now I see how imposed sexlessness and restrictive authority
are mutually reinforcing. Power was the issue.
Ironically, in the
Bing Crosby glory days, celibacy seemed to convey another kind
of power. It was essential to the mystique that set priests apart
from other clergy, the Roman collar an open sesame! to respect
and status. From a secular perspective, the celibate man or, in
the case of nuns, woman made an impression simply by sexual unavailability.
But from a religious perspective, the impact came from celibacys
character as an all-or-nothing bet on the existence of God. The
Catholic clergy lived in absolutism, which carried a magnetic
The magnet is dead.
What I only intuited 35 years ago has become an open conviction
shared by many: celibacy cuts to the heart of what is wrong in
the Catholic Church today. Despite denials from Rome, there will
be no halting, much less recovering from, the mass destruction
of the priest sex abuse scandal without reforms centered on the
abandonment of celibacy as a near-universal prerequisite for ordination
to the Latin-rite priesthood. (Near universal
because married Episcopal priests who convert are exempt from
the requirement. Latin rite because Catholic
priests of the Eastern rites are allowed to marry.)
No, celibacy does not
cause the sex abuse of minors, and yes, abusers
of children come from many walks of life. Indeed, most abuse occurs
within families or circles of close acquaintance. But the Catholic
scandal has laid bare an essential pathology that is unique to
the culture of clericalism, and mandatory celibacy is essential
to it. Immaturity, narcissism, misogyny, incapacity for intimacy,
illusions about sexual morality such all-too-common characteristics
of todays Catholic clergy are directly tied to the inhuman
asexuality that is put before them as an ideal.
A special problem arises
when, on the one hand, homosexuality is demonized as a matter
of doctrine, while, on the other, the banishment of women leaves
the priest living in a homophilic world. In some men, both straight
and gay, the stresses of such contradiction lead to irrepressible
urges that can be indulged only by exploitation of the vulnerable
and available, objects of desire who in many cases are boys, whether
prepubescent or adolescent. Now we know.
CELIBACY BEGAN in the
early church as an ascetic discipline hermits and desert
monks, virgins that was born partly of
authentic mysticism, partly of ancient ritual purity codes, and
partly of a neo-platonic contempt for the physical world that
had nothing to do with the Gospel. The renunciation of sexual
expression by men fit nicely with a patriarchal denigration of
women that, though contradicting the clear example of Jesus, defined
the church of the Fathers. Non-virginal women,
typified by Eve as the temptress of Adam, were seen as a source
But it was not until
the Middle Ages, at the Second Lateran Council in 1139, that celibacy
was made mandatory for all Roman Catholic clergy. Ironically,
this was a reform designed to brace clerical laxity and remove
inheritance issues from the administration of church property.
But because the requirement of celibacy is so extreme, it had
to be mystified as a sacrificial opening to special intimacy with
God a more perfect way.
Monastic orders of
both males and females had indeed discovered in such sexual sublimation
a mode of holiness, but that presumed its being both freely chosen
and lived out in a nurturing community. (Religious orders continue
to this day with the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience
as a proven structure of service and contemplation. The vows of
such orders are a separate question.) But when the monastic discipline
of chastity was imposed on all priests as celibacy
(from the Latin for unmarried), something went
awry. Sexual abstinence was no longer freely chosen, since the
vocation to ordained ministry and the call to the vowed life are
not the same thing.
In the ordinary experience
of parish priests, there was no intimate community within which
to humanely live a sexually sublimated life. Mere repression would
have to do, along with loneliness and perhaps an unbroken
attachment to mother. The system broke down early on, and in some
eras it broke down big time. Renaissance Catholicism was marked
by sexual libertinism. No surprise that Protestants made the jettisoning
of the universal celibacy rule a key to the reform they sought,
but that only made Counter-Reformation Rome more earnestly attached
to the discipline than ever.
WHY HAD celibacy come
to matter so much to those in charge of the church? The answer
is familiar because celibacy, like other issues having to do with
gender, reproduction, and sexual identity, is not really about
sex but power. The hierarchy found in the imposition of
sexual abstinence a mode of control over the interior lives of
clergy, since submission in radical abstinence required an extraordinary
abandonment of the will. In theory, the abandonment was to God;
in practice, it was to the superior, who always
thought he was. The stakes were infinite, since sexual desire
marked the threshold of hell. Gravely sinful
defined every priestly deviance, including the minor and intensely
personal matter of erotic fantasy. The normally human was, for
priests, the occasion of bad faith.
Obsessive sexual moralism,
along with that bad faith, spilled out of pulpits. Ancient neo-platonism
became modern Puritanism or Irish Jansenism. The confessional
booth became a cockpit of mortal sins, with
birth control emerging as the key control mechanism the
churchs control over every Catholic adults affections
and actions. The prohibition of unnatural contraception
made church authorities party to the most intimate exchange between
sexual partners, and if the laity were willing to abide by this
intrusion and its burdens, it was only because the celibate priest
could be seen to have made an even greater sacrifice.
What birth control
was to Catholic lay people, in other words, celibacy was to priests
a set of hierarchy-imposed shackles on the conscience.
Lay people have broken those shackles, but priests have not, unless
the tens of thousands who have left orders are counted.
As is suggested by
the hierarchys apparent equanimity about that exodus, and
the slow-motion collapse of the priesthood it has caused, church
authorities will pay any price to maintain a vestige of control
over the inner lives of Catholics. That is why bishops have exchanged
their once ample influence on matters of social justice for a
screeching, single-issue obsession with abortion, a last-ditch
effort to control the intimate sexual decisions of lay people.
When it comes to their clergy, the single-issue obsession remains
This nearly changed
at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), a challenge to
the power structure that has fueled a reactionary defense of that
structure ever since. Recall that the Council, a gathering in
Rome of the worlds Catholic bishops, initiated astonishing
changes in church doctrine and practice (renouncing, for example,
the anti-Jewish Christ-killer slander, though
it is in the Gospels). The bishops took on a range of questions,
and were preparing to reconsider both birth control and celibacy.
As dominant matters
of sexual morality for the laity and the clergy, they were twinned.
That those issues were even on the Councils agenda alerted
the Catholic world to the possibility of change which was
Until then, an insufficiently
historically minded church had regarded such contingent questions
as God-given absolutes. What was the point of even discussing
them, since change was out of the question? But change was suddenly
in the air, and that made Catholics begin to ask questions on
their own. What? St. Peter was married? Even before the Council
acted, the myth that these disciplines were eternally willed by
God was broken.
That was enough to
generate waves of panic in the most conservative wing of the hierarchy,
waves that broke over the insecure Pope Paul VI, who had replaced
the far more open-minded John XXIII.
POPE PAUL astonished
the Council fathers, and the Catholic world, by making two extraordinary
interventions that violated both the spirit and the procedures
that had defined the Council until then. In late 1964, just as
the fathers were about to debate the question of responsible
parenthood, the pope ordered the Council not to take
up the question of artificial contraception.
Snap! Birth control was removed from the competence of the
Council, a harbinger of Paul VIs own determination
that the teaching would not change.
But there was every
sign that the Council fathers, when they inevitably took up the
subject of the priesthood, were still going to discuss celibacy,
as if change were possible there.
Yet it was politically
unthinkable that the church could maintain the prohibition of
birth control, the burden belonging to the laity, while letting
clergy off the sexual hook by lifting the celibacy rule. Therefore,
in late 1965, Paul VI made his second extraordinary intervention
to forbid any discussion of priestly celibacy. It is not
opportune to debate publicly this topic, he declared,
which requires the greatest prudence and is so important.
A Council had initiated
the clerical discipline of celibacy, but a Council was now not
qualified even to discuss it. The power play was so blatant as
to lay bare power itself as the issue. And just like that, Catholics
had reason to suspect that celibacy was being maintained as a
requirement of the priesthood because of internal church politics
not because of any spiritual or religious motive. God was
not the issue; the pope was.
The abrupt elimination
of the mystical dimension of vowed sexual abstinence left it an
intolerable and inhuman way to live, which sent men streaming
out of the priesthood, and stirred in many who remained a profound,
and still unresolved, crisis of identity. The Council did not
take up the question of priestly celibacy. Paul VI sought to settle
it with his 1967 encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, which proved
to be a classic instance of the disease calling itself the cure.
The celibacy encyclical,
maintaining the weight of sacrifice on clergy,
prepared the way for the laity crushing Humanae Vitae in 1968,
with its re-condemnation of birth control.
In response to the
popes 1964 removal of birth control from the competence
of the Council, one of its leading figures, Cardinal Leon-Joseph
Suenens of Belgium, had risen immediately with a warning; I
beg you, my brother bishops, let us avoid a new Galileo
affair. One is enough for the Church. Galileo
was famously forced to renounce what he had seen through his telescope,
an imposition of dishonesty. (And yet it moves,
he was reported to have muttered under his breath.)
Paul VIs twin
reimpositions of the contraception and celibacy rules plunged
the whole church into a culture of dishonesty. God is solemnly
invoked on matters that have nothing to do with God, and that
is widely known. For the sake of the mere appearance of the hierarchys
authority, sexual proscriptions have been officially upheld, even
while the hierarchy itself looks the other way when those proscriptions
are massively repudiated.
CATHOLIC LAY people
ignore the birth control mandate. Catholic priests find ways around
the celibacy rule, some in meaningful relationships with secret
lovers, some in exploitive relationships with the vulnerable,
and some in criminal acts with minors.
If a majority of priests
is able to observe the letter of their vow, how many do so at
savage personal cost? How many Catholic womens eyes have
opened to the built-in gender insult of an all-male celibate priesthood?
Well-adjusted priests may live happily as celibates, but how many
regard the discipline as healthy? Insisting that celibacy is the
churchs brilliant jewel, in Paul VIs
phrase, defines the deceit that has corrupted the Catholic soul.
But the most damaging
consequence of mandatory celibacy for priests lies in its character
as the pulse of clericalism. The repressively psychotic nature
of this inbred culture of power has shown itself in the abuse
Lies, denial, arrogance,
selfishness, and cowardice such are the notes of the structure
within which Catholic priests now live, however individually virtuous
many of them nevertheless remain. Celibacy is that structures
central pillar and must be removed. The Catholic people see this
clearly. It is time for us to say so.
column appears regularly in the Globe. His new book, Practicing
Catholic, just appeared in paperback.
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