The world-wide scandal of Catholic priests sexually molesting children as well as young adults creates a number of questions about human sexuality. The problems are not so much with the acts alone, but with the sexuality and needs of men and women deprived of a normal sex life (i.e. marriage or consensual intercourse) with their vows of celibacy. The question of permitting priests to marry or to consecrate married men and women as priests and nuns within the Catholic Church can no longer be excused with the age-old excuse that Jesus himself surrounded himself only with males who would become priests and spread his message. The sexual abuse by priests and nuns, therefore, should be considered more a human sexuality problem than a religious one. It is all too often impossible to eliminate basic human needs and desires, even in sacrificing one’s life in the service of the Church. Given the basic needs of most humans, the priests and nuns who are accused are as much victims as their sexual targets.
One might begin with the facts, as outlined (1968) in a Church encyclical entitled Humanae Vitae (“On Human Life”), which established certain Vatican-initiated guidelines and limitations on sexuality and sexual behavior. This encyclical has been both debated and assertively defended up to the present time. The Church made homosexuality a sin and called it immoral. So, from the outset it became clear that observant Catholic men and women who might feel strongly enough to serve as priests or nuns would either have to hide their sexual preferences (remain “in the closet” so to speak), somehow avoid any sort of sexual thought or feeling, or surreptitiously continue to have some sort of meetings hoping no one would discover them. Based on Humanae vitae the following was made clear: “The Church cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called ‘gay culture.’ Immediate objections came hard and fast to all three stipulations. What does it mean to “practice homosexuality”? Is support for the civil rights of homosexuals a form of support for “gay culture”? And, most of all, what is meant by “deep-seated homosexual tendencies”? (Neuhaus 57). As the authnor states, some of these questions are understandable and no doubt honestly asked. It seems obvious to the author that there probably are few Catholics, at least in the U.S., who don’t have a colleague, a neighbor, a friend, a relative, or a child who is gay. The feeling then becomes the sad fact that barring homosexuals from the priesthood would force many Catholics, both straight and gay, into outright exile from the Church. The tentacles of a more than forty-year old pronouncement from Rome continues to affect the numbers of Catholics who are becoming disaffected with the ultra-conservative view of human sexuality by Rome.
Human sexuality encompasses all sorts of sexual preferences, even celibacy and abstention for moral or physical reasons. Yet many human adults have a sexual drive which needs to be considered a part of human nature. Psychologists surely cannot differentiate in the examination of human sexuality whether such sexuality is evident due to one’s religion, sexual drive and/or needs, education, social status, location, even occupation. What must be considered as being all too evident and rather clear-cut is that the Catholic Church demands and insists on eliminating the most human of life’s urges, sex. The Church considers celibacy a self-sacrifice- proof of faithfulness to an ages-old doctrine established millenia earlier. Most men and women who enter seminaries of the Catholic Church willingly give up any and all sexual activities. But not all are able to fulfill their vows of celibacy. Some priests leave the priesthood and marry. Some priests and nuns become secret molesters. It would be easy to generalize and just accuse these men and women of lust, rather than what is more deep-seated: their inability to avoid human sexual needs and desires no matter how hard they try or how forbidden those feelings are.
To merely accuse, try and convict these men and wolmen of being sexual predators (or at the very least, being sexually active in a profession which coompletely forbids sexuality, does not solve the problem. Besides, tt has become increasingly difficult for law enforcement agencies to fully prosecute these perpetrators, because of the Church’s strategems: “The Catholic bishops… have challenged how far the state may intrude into religious affairs to gain information about alleged sexual crimes, viewing this as a violation of their First Amendment rights” (Formicola 446). So on the one hand, the Church condemns the acts but protects the perpetrators!
That protection and occasional hesitancy to take action ensnared the current Pope, Benedict XVI, when he was still a policy maker at the Vatican as Cardinal. “When he was the church’s chief enforcer of doctrine 25 years ago, Pope Benedict XVI declined to immediately defrock a California priest who admitted to child sexual abuse, saying he needed more time to consider the impact of the case on ‘the good of the Universal Church'” (Landsberg para 1).
Keeping names and actions secret by order of Vatican and local prelates is also a problem for law enforcement and the public’s right to know and to judge. “Three years after the Los Angeles diaocese agreed to the largest priest abuse settlement in U.S. history….public release of accused priests’ personnel files remains unfulfilled…” (Kim A 1). To some observers, this hue and cry for revealing names and dates seems beside the point. That sexual advances were made and victims identified and compensated, and that most of the perpetrators were, or are, dismissed from the clergy or sent to some sort of Church-ordered rehabilitation center ought to suffice. What seems more important is to get to the core of the sexual problems not the news-making revelation of who, what and when. The “why” needs more in-depth exploring.
However, one must readily admit that it is obvious, according to the various news media, that the sex scandals making headlines worldwide are actual crimes. What priests’ sex abuse is NOT, however, is that is is merely a homosexual relapse by the guilty priests and/or nuns. The men and women accused are considered “pedophiles.” This is because the vast majority of those implicated in sexual activities have been found to have sexual relations with minors. Pedophilia, as a matter of fact, is most often a sexual urge by heterosxuals. “The biggest misunderstanding many people have is that pedophilia and homosexuality are one and the same. But to say that all homosexuals are pedophiles, or that all pedophiles are homosexual, is like comparing apples to rat poison” (Vogin para. 2). Whatever the gender preference of the perpetrator, pedophilia is an act because of an attraction based on the age of the victim far more than his or her gender.
Many news articles and documentaries, along with nearly daily news reports in the media have explained much of the worldwide scandals of priest molestation and the enormous financial cost to the Church- hundreds of millions of dollars and still no end in sight. But while the headlines and the so-called “talking heads” of cable news networks have decried the acts and the reaction – or non-reaction of the highest officials of the Catholic Church, was really has not been well covered is the human sexuality fundamentals which may be the real problem: The inability of many human beings to simply “do away” with, avoid, or somehow manage to sublimate the very normal feelings of sexuality. That is the real crisis – not of conscience but normal human desire. Perhaps, then, it would be fair not to call the situation of priests’ sexual adventures and criminal acts as scandals but as the result of the limited abilities of priests and nuns to act as normal humans- trying to advise and help their parishioners without really understanding social relationships that may well be sexual. In other words, while it may be simplistic, it is clear that priests have human feelings which include sexuality and all too often their frustration is centered on some sort of sexual activities with uncomprehending and yet naïve inexperienced minors.
This essay, therefore, ought to go beyond merely recounting the news stories about what has happened. Instead, one needs to try to find some possible solutions to end the controversial sexual rules made by the Vatican about (1) strict adherence to the Church’s rules about morality and immorality, and (2) celibacy for priests and nuns.
Having earlier discussed the impact of Humanae vitae, the idea or ideal of priests’ celibacy needs to take precedence:
“Because the sexual drive is so basic a component of human nature and because sexual pleasure is such an intense gratification, celibacy is rare as a life choice. When persons declare that they have chosen celibacy as an ascetic practice they often receive a measure of admiration because the discipline required to practice and achieve it is generally acknowledged as a monumental feat. When the sacrifice is coupled with religious belief, celibacy is regarded as heroic” (Sipe 547).
“Heroic” may be toio strong a words for men and women choosing celibacy to serve their Church. But, certainly there is bound to be a sort of admiration for people willing to give up “normal” lives in the service to others. The idea here is to have society literally say “Look how much they have given up!” as a means of making these priests and nuns seem a little superior to ordinary men and women. Laudable as that thought may be, the actual fact remains that these men and women ARE ordinary people. Even as they attempt to successfully be celibate, there still is that human sexuality present as it surely is to some extent in everyone. Celibacy, as it turns out,. Is demanded by the Church everwhere other than in legal marriage. “According to much Catholic theology every sexual thought, word, desire, and, action outside of a valid marriage between a man and a woman is sinful for anyone” (Sipe 548).
Celibacy, whatever its true meaning may be is considered a “must” in order for a man to be ordained a priest. It is a religious version of the doctors’ Hippocratic Oath wherein he promises to, at least, do no harm. Strangely enough, however, some priests seem to see an “escape clause” for their commitment to and respectful obedience to celibacy. Here is one example: “A bishop, who is being accused by an adult man of sexually abusing him when he was a fifteen-year-old boy, said in deposition about another situation in his diocese, that masturbation ‘does not constitute a violation against celibacy'” (Sipe 552). Evasion by a man of the cloth accused, perhaps. But this is simply another example of the difficulty even the most committed religionists have of avoiding the fact that human sexualty exists even where it is “forbidden’ by law.
Where does the idea that a Catholic priest of the Roman Catholic faith must be celibate? Theologians point to the words of St. Paul:
“But I would have you to be without solicitude. He that is without a wife is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God. But he that is with a wife, is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife: and he is divided” (“Celibacy of the Clergy” para. 4).
There is no specific “commandment” but for some reason best known to the Vatican’s rule makers, celibacy was demanded and continues to be required for any men who are willing top be ordained as priests.
Given that there are disturbing revelations about circumventing priestly celibacy, why not finally come to terms with human sexual needs and permit married men to become priests or to permit priests to marry without endagering their coimmitment to serve their Church and its adherents? “Many Catholics think that opening the priesthood to married men will bring about a massive infusion of new vocations, filling all vacancies, letting the elderly clergy finally retire, and setting the church up for a bright, well-manned future” (DeVlle 9). Strangely enough, one of the major objections by leading theologians is fiscal, not religious: the need to pay married priests in order to feed their families and even to reduce moving priests from one diocese to another often, because of the moving expenses for his family.
It is interesting to note, however, that there are some Catholics who would prefer a priest who was married: “I have had parishioners tell me that they would find it impossible to confess to a priest who was not married, who had never had teenage children-how could he relate to their spiritual condition?” (Garvey 7).
In briefly summarizing the arguments to be made for married priests as a means of avoiding scandals, this seems to be a false hope. Human sexuality is a fact of life- for ill as well as for good. While on the one hand it creates the sort of sexual and phyhsical bond for procreation, on the other hand it also opens the way for lust and forceful sex by those who simply cannot or will not resist temptation. There have been psychological investigations into something they have named male hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD): “The cost of HSDD in men can hardly be exaggerated. Sex in all its forms is so vital to men and their sense of masculinity that the loss can be overwhelming” (Fedoroff 135).
The worldwide scandals of priests molesting youngsters are more than proof of the instability of some of these priests and the desire of the Church to avoid publicly airing these events. These incidents over the years in the U.S. in Latin America, Europe and Africa surely attest to the need to alter the way in which men and also women are expected to avoid and eliminate thoughts and sexual activities as proof of their faithfulness to the Church. These many incidents ought to provide insight that human sexuality all too often overrides church doctrines. The future actions of the Church need to examine far more closely the potential of married priests and to eliminate the vow of celibacy for both priests and nuns. These scandals, then, are further proof that these priests are as much victims of their human sexuality problems as the young people they molested.
“Celibacy of the Clergy: accessed May 3, 2010 on
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