Hans Kung on “Unfortunate” Celibacy.

After a few (too few) voices were raised last week from within the church’s establishment suggesting, ever so cautiously, that perhaps the insistence on clerical celibacy should be reviewed, the Vatican was quick to stamp down hard on this unaccustomed sign of dissent within the ranks. Pope Benedict described celibacy as “sacred” and a sign of “full devotion” to the Catholic Church. The first thing that strikes me in this, is that once again the emphasis is on devotion to the “Church” , and not to the Gospels, or to the people who have been damaged by the whole sorry mess.

German theologian Hans Kung has a sound rebuttal to Benedict’s stance. Writing in National Catholic Reporter, he points out the contradiction between Benedict’s claim, and he evidence of both Scripture and Church history:

Why does the pope continue to assert that what he calls “holy” celibacy is a “precious gift”, thus ignoring the biblical teaching that explicitly permits and even encourages marriage for all office holders in the Church? Celibacy is not “holy”; it is not even “fortunate”; it is “unfortunate”, for it excludes many perfectly good candidates from the priesthood and forces numerous priests out of their office, simply because they want to marry. The rule of celibacy is not a truth of faith, but a church law going back to the 11th Century; it should have been abolished already in the 16th Century, when it was trenchantly criticized by the Reformers.

There is, of course, still another reason the rule is “unfortunate” and much more: for all the denials by the Vatican, there is substantial evidence that it is indeed a key factor in the problems of sexual abuse, of both children and adults. Archbishop Zollitsch insists, that “all the experts” agree that abuse of minors by clergymen and the celibacy rule have nothing to do with each other. This is yet another instance of the way in which the Church establishment deals with dissenting views by simply denying their existence (another is in the statement in “Homosexualitatis Problema”, that it is “undeniable” that Scripture condemns homosexual relationships, when in fact a large number of reputable scholars very strongly deny that view). This is a consistent failure of honesty, which should be a core catholic virtue.

This failure of honesty also extends to the question of the secrecy and cover-ups. Finally, we are starting to get acknowledgements that there have been cover-ups, but this is blamed on individuals, not on the Church as a whole.

Bishop Ackermann of Trier, special delegate of the German Bischops’ Conference for sexual abuse cases, publically acknowledged the existence of such a cover-up, but characteristically he put the blame not on the church as institution, but rather on the individual perpetrators and the false considerations of their superiors.

But this claim directly contradicts the documentary evidence, from the infamous 2001 letter from Benedict himself at the CDF, insisting on the utmost secrecy. Nor was this a news rule: it simply updated and restated a much earlier document from the 1960’s. just over the last week, there have been reports from Ireland of how young children who had been abused, were made to swear oaths of secrecy. This was not the aberrant decision of a local bishop, but was quite explicitly required by the Vatican directive. (See “From Dublin Cover -up to Vatican Cover-up“)

Then there is the all-important question of Benedict’s own culpability. There have been repeated claims of his “courage” and “determination” on assuming the papacy to cleanse the Church of its “filth”. But beyond early on dismissing from ministry a couple of the most notorious miscreants, and copious expressions later of “regret”, there has been little evidence of any actual action, nor any admission of what he must surely have known, both during his time in Munich, and during his tenure at the CDF.

The fundamental problem, as Joan Chittister argued in another NCR post today, is that the Church has confused fidelity to the Gospels and blind obedience and loyalty to the Church. We have allowed a culture to develop in which dissent or criticism is mistaken for disloyalty, or even hostility. In these circumstances, any actions which might present the church in an unfavourable light are studiously obscured in a veil of secrecy, and any evidence from actual observation or empirical research which conflicts with the party line is either ignored, or actively repressed.

If we are to move beyond the present crisis, says Kung, we need far more honesty, which demands:

  • that the pope, at the very least, promise to rethink this rule — something the vast majority of the clergy and laity have wanted for a long time now;
  • that we take the correlation between abuse and celibacy seriously. The American psychotherapist Richard Sipe has clearly demonstrated, on the basis of a 25 year study published in 2004 under the title Knowledge of sexual activity and abuse within the clerical system of the Roman Catholic church, that the celibate way of life can indeed reinforce pedophile tendencies;
  • that the chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference should clearly and definitively announce that, in the future, the hierarchy will cease to deal with cases of criminal acts committed by those in the service of the church by circumventing the state system of justice; (but see the UPDATE below)
  • that Joseph Ratzinger himself, the man who for decades has been principally responsible for the worldwide cover-up, at last pronounce his own “mea culpa”.


(UPDATE: Within minutes of publishing this post, I saw a report that the leader of the church in Bavaria, Archbishop Marx of Munich, has now gone some way to complying with Kung’s third demand above:

The leader of the Catholic Church in Bavaria expressed “deep shame” on Thursday for cases of sexual molestation that have shaken the home region of Pope Benedict XVI, and said he was in favor of changing German law so that church officials would have a greater duty to report suspected child abuse to prosecutors.

Addressing the issue of church secrecy in abuse cases, Archbishop Marx said the Bavarian bishops were in favor of strengthening the duty of church officials to report cases of abuse, and said the church would do so independent of any legislative changes.

“We really need a culture of seeing and attentiveness,” said Ludwig Schick, the archbishop of nearby Bamberg, who also attended the press conference. There should not be “taboo zones where sexual as well as physical abuse is possible,” Archbishop Schick said.

Read more at New York Times






5 Responses to “Hans Kung on “Unfortunate” Celibacy.”

  1. Ross Says:

    While I have the deepest of respect for Professor Kung, I do think it is important that celibacy be treated as an issue that is separate from clerical abuse. Most of what evidence there is points to approximately 4 percent of priests engaged in abuse from 1950. That means 96 percent of priests are not abusers. According to the LA Times 2002 survey of priests, an independent and statistically valid study, 82 percent of priests are faithfully celibate. How is it possible then to claim that celibacy is a cause of the sexual abuse of minors? I agree with Father Kung that the rule of celibacy needs to be revisited (see Donald Cozzens “Freeing Celibacy”), but on the issue of sexual abuse, I believe we must focus on the fatally flawed culture that allowed a small number of very sick men to continue to abuse children for years and that not only ignored the pain of the victims but even persecuted them and their families.

    • Terence@queerchurch Says:

      Ross, the figure of 4 % is well known and accepted. It comes from the bishops’ own study commissioned by the John Jay Research institute,and is not in question. However, there are two important observations to bear in mind: First, if you read the report (as I have) you find that this figure is based only on the cases reported to the bishops, and investigated by them. As the report itself notes, in all classes of sexual abuse by children, under-reporting is very high. There was also evidence that (especially in certain dioceses) there were a substantial number of cases reported, but never investigated. These were NOT included in the figure of 4% It is possible of course, that individuals may have under-reported, perhaps there were so many cases for each perpetrator that all the priests affected, were implicated. But when I looked at the number of reported cases per priest, I concluded that this was unlikely. The conclusion must be that the true figure, for avctual rather than reported cases, is much higher.

      Secondly, the important point is not that only a small proportion of priests are offenders, and so the vast majority are not, but that this incidence is higher than in the population at large. So, this means that priests are more likely than other men to be offenders – when as priests, they should be offering moral guidance and should be held to a higher standard than the rest of us.

      By my reasoning then, the implications of the bishops own study are damning. The conclusions from most other observers, such as Richard Sipe (which is based on an enormous mountain of empirical data). The most compelling witness to mind, was the Australian Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, who led that country’s handling of their investigations – ended up convinced.

      The real point though that Kung is making is not that we should conclude that celibacy is implicated, but we should investigate seriously the possibility of a link, without simply dismissing tout of hand the evidence from outside the establishment.

  2. Etienne Caruana Says:

    A “consistent failure of honesty”? Let’s call a spade a spade, shall we? I don’t think it’s simply a failure, as this word tends to soften the level of responsibility (failure implies weakness). The word that comes to mind to describe such acts is: mendacity. That would mean that there is a wilful covering-up of the truth, even when sound evidence is available. That’s far more serious.

  3. Mark from PA Says:

    Ross, you comments are very good. If 82% of priests in the US are faithfully celibate that is pretty good. From what I have heard the number is much lower in other countires. I have read that in Latin America it is accepted when the priests have mistresses or girlfriends. Terence, from what I have read I don’t think that the incidence of priests abusing is higher than in the public at large. Only a very small number are actual pedophiles (victimizing pre-teens). I think this is less than in the population as a whole. Also the number of priests exploiting or abusing teen girls is much lower than in the public at larger. The number of priests exploiting or abusing teen boys is higher than in the public at large but one must consider that 30-40% of priests are gay and only about 5-10% of men in the public at large are gay. So while priests are probably less likely as a whole to exploit teens, the majority of them who do are involved with teen boys as opposed to the men in the general public, the vast majority of whom are involved with teen girls.

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