Of all the issues that the USCCB should be discussing, but won’t, possibly the mot topical and most important is that of admitting married men and women to the priesthood. This is not because they don’t want to – many would like to not only discuss it, but to go ahead with recruitment – but because (as Colleen Kochivar-Baker has noted at Enlightened Catholicism), they have been neutered by their Vatican controllers. It is as if, recognising that in their (alleged) state of personal celibacy, they have recognised they have no need of balls, and allowed then to be cut off. With at least three current news stories that imply a need to open this discussion, and the continuing crisis of too few willing candidates, their timidity is disgaceful.
With the imminent arrival in the Roman fold of an unspecified number of married Anglicans and Episcopalians, the discussion has already begun outside the conference hall – but is unlikely to be conducted inside it. The interim report of the John Jay research, clearly rejecting homosexual clergy as a causal factor behind the problem of clerical sexual ab use, should now turn attention to the real causes (one of which is compulsory celibacy) – but won’t. And now a news story from Ireland shows that the debate is again being opened up in the public sphere – but not, I suspect, by the bishops.
The implications of courting the dissident Anglican/Episcopalian married clergy have been canvassed extensively, so I will not rehash them here. I do want to say a little more about the implications of the John Jay report for recruitment to the priesthood. (Later I will get to the Irish news – which is not particularly dramatic, but matters because it is part of a pattern.
The great thing about the John Jay report on clerical sexual abuse is that it blows away the smokescreen of homosexuality as a causal factor. If not the gays, who (or what else) can they blame? No doubt, for a time they will continue the charade of pretending that it was all just a failure of “governance”, but that won’t wash indefinitely. Sooner or later, they will be forced by public pressure to face the real causes, as clearly identified by most independent analysts: the concentration and abuse, of church power, inappropriate methods of selection and training of candidates for the priesthood, and – guess what? Compulsory celibacy. These of course, are all interrelated, and reinforce each other.
The concentration of power, by the Vatican over local bishops, and by bishops over local priests, scares off many well-adjusted potential candidates from ever applying. In turn, the experience at the receiving end of that power during seminary training conditions seminarians at best into adopting the same attitude to exercising similar power over the members of their congregations (inappropriately, but widely described as their “flocks”.) At worst, they may find themselves victims of sexual predators among the seminary staff – thus setting up a pattern they will all to easily follow themselves later. Their victims in the congregations, long indoctrinated into seeing the clergy as mini-gods, arbiters of morality for all entrusted to their pastoral may find it difficult to resist sexual pressures, and even more difficult to get their parents or other adults to take their complaints seriously. The first John Jay report made it clear that the most of the complaints received came many years after the incidents involved. I believe that this difficulty (real or expected) in getting adults to believe the allegations of young children is one possible explanation for the discrepancy between the gender proportions quoted in this report, and those reported by survivor groups and other researchers. Remember that the John Jay study did NOT have anything like a representative sample. Their research was entirely based on specific individuals who had made complaints, and whose complaints had reached the bishops’ offices, and which the bishops had accepted as worth recording and investigating. We know that a significant and highly variable number of complaints were dismissed by bishops as without foundation. We have no way of knowing how many never even reached the bishops. The sad fact is that given the irrational fear of “homosexuals “, the outcry and publicity over boys who are abused is much stronger than that over girls. Many boys, through dealings with priests as altar servers or on sports fields, will be on more familiar terms with the priests, which will certainly leave boys more accessible to potential predators, but may also leave boys more confident in raising alarms and complaints.
Enforced celibacy is also a factor in driving away potential well-adjusted candidates, but also has an impact in less obvious ways, +best understood by thinking of the seminary system of training. This bizarrely unnatural institution, a creation of the Council of Trent half a millenium ago and largely unchanged since, places young single men into single sex, monastic environments for effectively the whole of their training, which typically could cover the whole of the period when they should be developing their own psychosexual identities, and forming an understanding of human sexuality generally. Instead, it ahs been too commonly the case that the training received was devoid of any sexual education or discussion whatever. As the former priest and now retired psychologist Tom McMahon has observed, at his ordination aged 25, after 12 years in minor and major seminary, he entered the normal world with the sexual awareness and understanding of a 13 year old. The interim research report observed that while sexual orientation was not a factor in determining propensity to abuse, the degree of psycho-sexual maturity, or rather its absence, certainly was. This alone is a good reason to end the seminary system, and with it the imposition of celibacy on priests in training – and after ordination. There is nothing that will provide a priest with a proper understanding of sexuality like some experience of it – ideally within marriage (gay or straight).
It is also worth reflecting here on the word “seminary”, which has its root in “semen” as in (seed). This was intended as a metaphor for the insemination of candidates with their required knowledge, in the seed bed of the seminary. sadly, for too many of these young seminarians. the only insemination of sexual knowledge takes place rather more literally than intended. The problem with clerical sexual abuse does not apply only to young children. Many adults in religious houses are also preyed on, either in seminaries (for young men), in or around convents (for religious women), or even in dicasteries – for priests who become vulnerable to sexual predation by their bishops. Even willing adult partners become victims, as a result of th enforced secrecy, and harm done when public exposure occurs.
This brings me to the story from Ireland, where what should have been a minor indiscretion, worth reporting only in the village press, has instead earned global attention and is now expanding into a more substantive discussion on celibacy.
In the county of Derry, a man who had been having a little indiscreet affair was found out, Facing public exposure, he instead outed himself and immediately resigned from his job. The man, of course, was a parish priest. In resigning, he did not cease to be a priest – just to cease functioning as one. If he now ends up marrying, he will simply add to the growing number of married Catholic priests who are validly ordained, but no longer available for functioning service. What is the point of that? The good news coming out of this, as reported by the Belfast Daily Telegraph, is that this is now reopening an Irish discussion on the merits of retaining, or ending, the insistence on compulsory celibacy. This discussion, says the telegraph, is now engaging all sectors of the Irish public, laity and clergy: – but probably not the bishops.
- Celibacy and a Wounded Church: Readers’ Observations (queeringthechurch.wordpress.com)
- A Reader’s Excellent Questions On Celibacy. (queeringthechurch.wordpress.com)