Celibacy and the sexual abuse crisis

Over the past years, when a larger report of sexual abuse perpetrated by priests comes out, again and again opponents of priestly celibacy come out suggesting that the Church's discipline, in the Roman Rite, of requiring permanent and perpetual celibacy of its priests, contributes to the abuse crisis, or is even a major risk factor, or still more strongly, "will predictably produce this kind of result".

Others claim that "Clerical child sex abuse has nothing whatever to do with celibacy."

The truth, as is many cases, likely lies between these extremes, though it is cannot be neatly located on the scale from "causes the crisis" to "has nothing to do with it".

Leaving aside any empirical statistical evidence on the frequent of sexual abuse by celibate or non-celibate men, some aspects of celibacy would, taken on their own, suggest a connection between priestly celibacy and abuse, while others would suggest an inverse correlation (mandatory celibacy for priests countering the risk of someone abuser vulnerable persons).

Marriage as a remedy for concupiscence — suggestive of a connection between mandatory priestly celibacy and abuse
Marriage has long been described by Christian saints and writes as a remedy for concupiscence, by St. Augustine (see, for just one example, On Marriage and Concupiscence, Thomas Aquinas (see Summa theologiae, supplement, q. 42, article 3, Whether matrimony confers grace, and a multitude of others (see a selection of texts in the post Is marriage for the weak?). In this respect, it would not be surprising to find that those who are not in a position to legitimately satisfy sexual desire in marriage, are more likely to satisfy sexual desires in illegitimate ways, up to and including abusive ways. Celibacy does not make a man's sexual desires perverse or disordered; rather, his sexual desire is lacking order to begin with, being in the first place an instinctual drive, that must be governed by reason; the lack of the structured governance of that drive provided in marriage will, in the absence of contrary remedies, tend to lead to more disordered desires and acts.

Celibacy as freely chosen, involving abstinence even from legitimate sexual pleasure in marriage — suggestive of an inverse correlation between mandatory priestly celibacy and abuse
On the other hand, no one is forced to become a priest, and so, when we speak of priestly celibacy, we are not speaking of celibacy imposed randomly, independently of man's will, or even against man's will. Rather, it is a celibacy freely chosen (even if, in a particular instance, chosen principally as a condition or means to the desired end, the priesthood). If those who freely choose celibacy do so with adequate deliberation and a firm will to live it, if they belong to those "who can take it" (Matthew 19:12), we should, other things being equal, expect them to less frequently fall into sexual sin. For he is capable, or takes the means to render himself capable, of refraining from satisfying sexual desire in a legitimate manner in marriage, is much more capable of refraining from satisfying sexual desire in a sinful manner.

Celibacy as chosen by reason of being drawn to that way of life or not drawn to marriage — possibly suggestive of a connection between celibacy and abuse
No one is forced to become a priest. But also, in most cases, priests are, in the first instance, self-selected. Catholic communities and bishops could, in theory, come to men with the proposal, "we would like you to be a priest; are you willing to remain celibate for the rest of your life, study theology, to serve the Church in this diocese, etc.?" But, in many or most cases, the decisive initiative is taken by the men themselves who consider the priesthood. Given the association of the priesthood with celibacy, this has a unintended consequence: those who, for whatever reason, are not inclined to marriage — homosexuality, asexuality, sexual immaturity, sexual disorders — will be over-represented among applicants to the seminary. In the absence of an adequate mechanism to identify and exclude them, persons with certain sexual problems may also end up being over-represented in the presbyterate. And, very plausibly, some of those sexual problems will manifest themselves in distorted ways, including abusive ones.

Celibate priesthood as a special class — positive and negative aspects
A fourth point regarding celibacy is somewhat ambivalent: the discipline of celibacy tends to reinforce the image of the priesthood as a special class of Christians. This aspect of celibacy, might, in some times and places, contribute to a culture set firmly against all abuse, inasmuch as other priests who get wind of possible abuse are keen to uphold the reality of their class as a holy state, called in a special way to Christian virtue and holiness, and for whom, therefore, such sins are still more intolerable than they are in the case of lay persons. On the other hand, that the celibate priesthood makes up a special class may also have the opposite effect, lead to a culture permissive of abuse, because (1) one stands up for one's own, defends one's brother priests, assuming their innocence or downplaying their faults, because (2) one desires to uphold the image of the priestly state as a holy state, or because (3) the discrepancy in one's own life between the greater ideal of holiness to which one is called and one's actual life, causes one to misjudge the gravity of other sins; in the theological tradition, and expressly in the 1917 code of canon law, canon 132, clerics in major orders are so obliged to chastity that to sin against it is to be guilty of sacrilege (the notion behind this is that the priest's whole self, including his body, is dedicated to the Lord as something holy, so to sin against it is to violate what is holy); a priest guilty of habitual impurity, whether by fornication, adultery, masturbation, pornography, or impure thoughts, could possibly become thereby less inhibited from a crime such as abusing minors than a lay person guilty of the same habitual impurity would; similarly, a priest guilty of such impurity, whether occasional or habitual, may view such a crime by another priest less seriously than a lay person would.
Various problematic issues arising in connection with the priesthood as a special case are often treated under the notion of clericalism, by pope Francis (Letter of His Holiness Pope Francis to the People of God), and others (e.g., Sexual abuse and the culture of clericalism).

In view of these considerations, some of which, taken on their own, would suggest a link between celibacy and abuse, while others would suggest that celibate priests might be less likely to be sexually abusive, it is not too surprising, that, on some accounting, sexual abuse of minors (or at least behavior evoking a serious accusation of such abuse) is as common by married Anglican clergy as by celibate roman catholic clergy. (See, e.g. Does Celibacy Contribute to Clerical Sex Abuse? by Richard Cross, and the therein reference studies.)

At any rate, the issue is much more complex than "celibacy is unrelated to the issue of sexual abuse" or "celibacy is a principal cause of sexual abuse".

Encounter with pilgrims

Last week, on the evening of the feast of the Assumption, I had a surprise visit from a group of 22 Spanish pilgrims making their way on foot from Krakow, Poland to Mariazell, Austria, including one married couple going with three of their older children. The pilgrimage was led by a priest who founded a home for homeless persons in Madrid. Many of the participants are volunteers for the home, some others got to know the priest in another way. They stayed in the parish hall overnight, and had supper and breakfast here.

One special feature of this pilgrimage was their reliance on divine providence and the generosity of benefactors on the way; though they had planned in advance approximately how far they would go each day, and thus the town or towns where they would be towards the evening, they did not plan in advance for food or shelter, and would not buy food along the way, but begged for it when they came. (In the case of food, one told me, when no one gave them something, they would practice dumpster diving at supermarkets, which I guess is a modern-day equivalent of gleaning the leftovers from farmer's fields.)

This dependence upon providence and the generosity of those they meet reflects in some way the complementarity of the contemplative and active life in the body of Christ. The pilgrims, by voluntarily choosing not to provide for themselves, show, on the one hand, that we should seek above all the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and to those who do so, all other things will be given as God wills, and on the other hand, providing spiritual goods to the community (making visible the priority of God before all else, as well as their prayer for the communities through which they pass and for their benefactors), fittingly receive material goods from them.

Why is Consecrated Virginity Not a Sacrament

Marriage and religious life are two fundamental ways to fulfill the fundamental vocation of every human being to love. Why is marriage a sacrament and consecrated virginity or celibacy is not?

Since Christ certainly could have made consecrated virginity a sacrament, any answer can only be based on arguments of appropriateness. Both marriage and virginity are signs of the union between Christ and the Church. Is there a difference in the way in which they are signs of this union, such that marriage is fittingly a sacrament, and consecrated virginity is not?

Marriage signifies the union of Christ and the Church inasmuch as the very union of the two humans spouses derives from, participates in, and is a likeness of the perfect union of Christ with the Church. Nevertheless this union of the spouses remains distinct from this spousal union of Christ and the Church. The spouses do not give themselves directly to Christ, but to each other.

Consecrated virginity signifies the union of Christ and the Church inasmuch as the virgin is devoted, by her own will and by the Church, to the very union that constitutes the Church, to the fulfillment of the union with Christ begun in baptism. Thus it bears less the character of a sign, and more that of the reality itself.

We might tentatively say, then, that it would be less fitting for consecrated virginity or religious life to be a sacrament, a sacred sign that confers grace, because it is above all reality, a deepening of the baptismal grace, the spousal union with Christ the Bridegroom. It is a sign of the future kingdom, but it is a sign of it inasmuch as it already anticipates it in this life.

Another, complementary way to explain this looks at the different ways marriage and religious life relate to time and history. Marriage pertains above all to the working out of God's plan for man in time. Those who rise from the dead “neither marry nor are given in marriage”; human marriage ceases with death, even though some aspects of marriage, e.g., the love between the spouses, endures beyond death. The virgin's spousal union with Christ, however, does not cease with her death, but is consummated—she becomes even more perfectly that which she began to be on earth through baptism and through her vows: the bride of Christ. Since all of the sacraments pertain to the dispensation of God's grace in time and history, it is thus more fitting for marriage to be a sacrament than for consecrated virginity to be one.

Discussion of Celibacy, or Abolition?

Not a few of the blogs and news outlets mentioning the 1970 letter of Ratzinger and eight other theologians calling for a new and open discussion of the discipline of celibacy speak of it as though it were a call for the abolition of the law requiring celibacy of those to be ordained as priests. This is, however, a quite unjustified "reading into" the text of the letter, which states that those entering into the discussion should do so with an openness to whatever the outcome of a renewed and frank discussion of the issue might be, but explicitly refrains from proposing what the outcome of such a discussion should be (whether retaining the law regarding celibacy, or changing it).

Cardinal Walter Kasper, one of the other eight signatories to the letter, recently affirmed just that in an address to the Catholic University of Lisbon, namely that he had proposed a discussion of priestly celibacy, not its abolition. Moreover, he suggested that the discussions of celibacy that have taken place do not favor a need for change in the discipline.

"There have been three world synods that have spoken of celibacy, and it was decided to maintain this discipline, and I myself believe that celibacy is a good for the Church."

At present I don't have access to his full address. If I get it, I will post it or a link to it here.

Ratzinger et al. called for reexamination of clerical celibacy

I've translated the 1970 letter of Ratzinger and eight other theologians to the German bishops, which was republished in Pipeline 2/2010, under the title "A reminder to the signatories" (Den Unterfertigten zur Erinnerung), and which has been in a number of newspapers in the past few days.

Some of the parts of the letter that the newspapers for some reason or other aren't citing… :

I. … We are convinced that the freely chosen state of remaining unmarried in the sense of Matthew 19 not only presents a meaningful possibility of christian existence, one which is at all times indispensable for the Church as a sign of its eschatological character, but that there are also good theological grounds for the connection of the freely chosen unmarried state and the priestly office, since this office brings the officeholder definitively and completely into the service of Christ and his Church. In this sense we affirm what was recently said in the “Letter of the German Bishops on the Priestly Office” (See n. 45, par 4; n. 53, par 2). And in this sense we are also convinced that whatever the outcome of the discussion, the unmarried priesthood will remain an essential form of the priesthood in the Latin Church.

V…

Such a positive stocktaking and working through of the problem must also occur because the reality of celibacy itself in the conditions of present-day publicity and society must be presented in an understandable and meaningful manner—so far as possible—granting all knowledge of very clear limits of this endeavor. It will remain a “scandal”, but this does not excuse one from promoting and recommending it with the best reasons, in the event that an examination is seriously undertaken and can arrive at positive results (see above, section 1). If we know that celibacy is primarily a fruit of spiritual experience, we must still, as representatives of the science of theology, draw attention to this positive, clarifying, and unavoidable function of an examination.

Read the whole letter

Empirical Comparison of Celibate and Married Clergy

In the article "Religious Differences Between Married and Celibate Clergy: Does Celibacy Make a Difference?" in Sociology of Religion (1998) (full text available to members of subscribing libraries or universities), Don Swenson attempts to make an empirical argument against some of the reasons advanced by the Church for clerical celibacy. While the experiment itself is poorly constructed to the point of being ludicrous, the idea is an interesting one, and I am of the opinion that this sort of empirical study could be profitably employed more within the Church (as it often is within large organizations).

Basically the idea of the study was to take a sample of married clergy and a sample of celibate clergy, measure devotion to Christ (religiosity) and the ability to devote oneself to parishioners, and see whether there is a significant statistical difference between the married and celibate clergy. Devotion to Christ was measured through responses made to questions about "thanking, talking to, loving, taking time with, worshiping, feeling close to and listening to God, reflecting on the Bible, acting on what I believe God is saying, achieving insights in prayer, sensing a divine presence, and experiencing peace" and the time spent in prayer. The ability to devote oneself to parishioners was measured by the amount of time spent in ministry.

The responses to the survey indicated that "there was no significant difference regarding MEDITATION [measuring religiosity and devotion to Christ] and PASTORAL COMMITMENT", while the priests spent more time in prayer and prayed more frequently than the married, evangelical clergy. The author argues that the "experiential religiosity" which the study aimed to measure is a better measure of devotion to Christ, and thus there was no significant difference between the two groups in terms of that devotion.

While the stated conclusion, "The results of this study are substantially consistent with the hypothesis that there are no significant differences in dimensions of religiosity and parochial commitments between celibate priests and married clergy" (emphasis added) is formally true, it is also true that the results of the study do not significantly support that hypothesis. The practical conclusion of the paper, "The implications of this study are that there is some empirical basis to argue for a change in the present law of clerical celibacy. In regards to one's devotional life and time for ministry, celibacy does not appear to matter" is therefore unwarranted. (Update: It was also pointed out in a comment that the study indicates that unmarried clergy spend more time in prayer and pray more frequently, and that this is itself in fact a reason for clergy to remain celibate, a point that the study ignored, as though prayer was of no value — or at least, that the question of prayer was basically irrelevant for the life of clergy.)

The study, in fact, has several glaring problems of which the author is apparently heedless. The two groups of clergy differed in multiple significant ways other than being celibate or married: (1) the one group was evangelical, the other Catholic (this was apparently the actual principle of division, since one group seems to have included all evangelical pastors, whether married or celibate). (2) One group (the evangelical) was taken as a sample from all over Canada, the other from only two dioceses. (3) The average age of the evangelical ministers was 44, while that of the priests was 60, a difference that the author points out, then proceeds to ignore. Lesser, though still significant problems, are that the response rate of priests was significantly lower than that of evangelical ministers, and that the total number of responses from priests was 80.

Was the author of the study clueless about what is necessary in order to establish a general statistical relationship? Or was he blinded by a bias with which he approached the study? It is not possible to say. But one thing is clear. If this kind of evidence is to be used to propose a change in the Latin or in the Oriental discipline, it should be collected much more soundly.

St. Paul on Sexual Intercourse as Personal Act

Paul: Do you not know that the immoral will not inherit the kingdom of God? You were cleansed of all this in the name of the Lord Jesus and in the Spirit of our God.

Cor: All things are lawful for me. Now that I have become spiritual through the Spirit, these things are a matter of indifference.

Paul: I am not restrained by an arbitrary law, but not all things are helpful!

Cor: Still, all things are lawful for me.

Paul: But I will not be enslaved by anything!

Cor: Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food.

Paul: And God will destroy both the one and the other! The body is not meant for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!

Punctuating the text this way, as most interpreters do (though one might also include the phrase "God will destroy both the one and other" as part of the Corinthians' argument why there's nothing really bad in the use of any material, corruptible thing), St. Paul seems to imply that there is a great difference between the use of the sexual organs, and other organs such as the stomach. Our body as a whole belongs to Christ, and will be raised up with Christ. In sexual intercourse one disposes of one's whole body, as an expression of one's person, in a manner far beyond that in which the use of food is a disposition of the person.

The Spousal Meaning of the Body and Vocation

This post on the importance of the spousal meaning of the body for vocational discernment is a guest article written by Robert McNamara, a graduate of the International Theological Institute (formerly in Gaming, and now in Trumau, Austria). He will be entering the seminary in Ireland at the end of August. Please say a prayer for him.


Pope John Paul II in his Wednesday audiences of the early 80’s, now widely known as the theology of the body, spoke about the meaning of the human body. Meditating upon the reality of the creation of man, male and female, as written about in Genesis, he deduces that the body has a spousal meaning. He says that this spousal attribute of the human body is “the power to express love: precisely that love in which the human person becomes a gift and—through this gift—fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence” (Theology of the Body 15:1). The spousal meaning of the body is therefore obviously significant for the question of vocation. But how significant? And in what way?

To discover the spousal meaning we look to the mystery of man’s creation. In creation man and woman are given life by the Creator and are in their turn capable of making a gift of their own lives. Created in the image and likeness of God man is called to exist “for” others (Cf. Mulieris Dignitatem 7:7). This, the Pope says, is a “fundamental characteristic of personal existence” (Theology of the Body 14:4). Writing as Bishop in his book Love and Responsibility Karol Wojtyla states, “The fullest, the most uncompromising form of love consists precisely in selfgiving, in making one's inalienable and non-transferable `I' someone else's property” (pp. 97). This potential for self-gift is rooted in man’s freedom, in his consciousness and self-determination, in what the Pope calls the “freedom of the gift,” but it is realized above all in the body. Thus the body has a spousal meaning the essence of which is to concretely realize man’s freedom for self-gift, to be “for” others in a radical way, one that is definitive and total. It is in its fullness a gift of the person but one which is made in and through the body and more specifically through sex, that is, masculinity and femininity, as a fundamental attribute of the body. And so, we discover the human body as a path of love.

Spousal self-giving as the name implies is obviously the basis of the vocation of marriage, but it is likewise the basis of the vocation of continence for the kingdom. The Pope explains:

“[T]he nature of the one as well as the other love [marriage and perfect continence] is “spousal,” that is, expressed through the complete gift of self. The one as well as the other love tends to express that spousal meaning of the body, which has been inscribed “from the beginning” in the personal structure of man and woman.” (Theology of the Body 78:4)

This statement is an important matter for consideration by those either discerning or living consecrated celibacy. Those who choose marriage choose to live their bodily existence “for” their spouse and children. Those who choose celibacy choose to live their bodily existence “for” the sake of the kingdom of God. Celibates do not actualize their gift of self to God abstracted from their body and sex. The hearing of the call and the expression of the individual’s consecration depends on and is given definitive form by the sex of the person. The call to continence, says the Pope, is “formed on the basis of the consciousness of the spousal meaning of the body in its masculinity and femininity, and further, as a fruit of such consciousness” (Theology of the Body 81:5).

[Aside: The spousal nature of continence should not be surprising when we recognize God’s relationship with humanity in its spousal dimension, “The history of God's relationship to humanity is a history of spousal love, prepared for in the Old Testament and celebrated in the fullness of time” (Verbi Sponsa 4:1). By means of baptism we are “definitively placed within the new and eternal covenant, in the spousal covenant of Christ with the Church” (Familiaris Consortio 13:6). Marriage or consecrated celibacy then gives definitive form within the body of Christ to an individual person’s mode of witness to Christ’s spousal love for the Church.]

Consciousness is a decisive factor. When we consider the ‘meaning’ of something we have in mind not only the reality itself but our consciousness of that reality. Consequently it is not only significant for the question of vocation that the human body objectively has a spousal meaning, but also a mature consciousness of that meaning within the individual subject is crucial. Such a consciousness of the body adequately grounds and motivates the celibate life. It furnishes discernment of vocation with all of the realism that the challenge of celibacy actually poses to man’s natural strivings, while at the same time creating a foundation upon which the earthly “for” can be transformed into a heavenly “for.” Perhaps we can say that awareness of being “for” others as a bodily being, either male or female, creates the space in which the personal call of Christ can find a satisfactory echo and ongoing resonance.

The question then begs: how can we grow in a mature awareness of the spousal meaning of the body in such a way that we can hear the call of Christ with readiness and answer it with force? It appears from the Pope’s writings that the answer is through the gift and virtue of purity. Using the helpful image of a watchman the Pope explains how one grows in purity of heart. Man, he says, must become master of his own “innermost impulses” by watching over the “hidden spring” of his heart learning to draw only those impulses which are “fitting for purity of the heart.” In this way he can build “with conscience and consistency the personal sense of the spousal meaning of the body, which opens the interior space of the freedom of the gift” (Theology of the Body 48:3). Perfecting this effort we have the gifts of the Holy Spirit especially piety which disposes the inspired person to grow conscious of the meaning of the human body, his own and others.

With a vivid consciousness of the meaning of his body in purity of heart, man experiences himself as originating in love and destined for love (Cf. Theology of the Body 15:5 ff). He experiences himself as rooted in love, and finds in this happy experience a greater ability to respond with love. Purity of heart has enabled him to encounter and know himself in his bodily existence as a “subject of holiness” (Theology of the Body 19:5). It is this experience of man as a subject of truth and love, with the organically connected interior space of the freedom of the gift formed on the basis of the spousal meaning of the body which enables man to hear the call to continually surrender himself in all the truth of his existence and in an unreserved manner to Christ, and for the sake of His kingdom.