What the Abuse Crisis is Not About: Chastity and Celibacy
The sexual abuse crisis that continues to rock our church is about many things: power, secrecy, sin, crime, stupidity, sickness, and so on. One thing that it is not about is chastity. While lay men and lay women (not to mention parents) would have doubtless done a better job at blowing the whistle on child sexual abuse, celibacy itself does not cause pedophilia or ephebophilia, as some commentators aver. (Nor does homosexuality, for that matter.) Once again, I'm distinguishing between a closed culture of celibate males and celibacy itself. Most sexual abuse takes place in families, but no one is suggesting that being married somehow causes pedophilia. Much of this stems from a misunderstanding about celibacy and chastity. Here's a piece I wrote a few years back in the Times that addresses that misconception.
At the heart of many of these misreadings, perhaps, is a fundamental misunderstanding of celibacy. In general, many Americans -- many American Catholics for that matter -- view celibacy as at best misguided and, at worst, masochistic. The unspoken question is: What kind of sick person would willingly give up sex? This is not a surprising reaction in a culture that prizes sex and sexuality and places such an emphasis on sexual expression.
In this current crisis, however, the value of celibacy is not the issue. It seems odd to have to point this out, but the vast majority -- the overwhelming majority -- of priests, sisters and brothers who take vows of celibacy keep their vows. And the vast majority of these men and women lead healthy and productive lives in service to the church and the community.
Celibacy is not only an ancient tradition of asceticism, but more important, it is an ancient tradition of love. Celibacy is, in short, about loving others. Those who opt for celibacy (or to use religious terminology, those who feel 'called' to embrace it) choose it as a manner of loving many people deeply, in a way that they would be unable to if they were in a single relationship. It is certainly not for everyone. And it is not a better or a worse way of loving than being a married person, or being in an exclusive relationship with one person.
The criminal acts of a few do not negate the value of celibacy, any more than spousal abuse or incest can negate the value of marriage or marital love. And even if women or married men were admitted into the Catholic priesthood, celibacy would inevitably remain a choice for many. Because for many -- myself included -- it is not a disciplinary restriction, it is the best way they have found for living a meaningful and committed life.
The pedophilia scandal is about sick priests, bishops who have made tragically wrong decisions about responding to criminal behavior and the silence of the Catholic Church on this matter. One might of course argue that the inclusion of women or married men into the ranks of leadership in the church would encourage greater diversity, more openness and therefore a changed clerical culture, but again, this is largely a question of culture, not of celibacy per se.
Throughout the history of Christianity, celibacy has been part of a religious life dedicated to serving others. Jesus of Nazareth was celibate, as was Francis of Assisi, and so were more recent and much-admired figures like Pope John XXIII and Mother Teresa. All of these people are model celibates: not because of their unhealthy approach to life or because of some perverse notion of sacrifice, but rather for the way in which they understood love.