A question raised in much of the news coverage of clerical sex abuse in the Catholic Church is whether or not celibacy should be considered a main cause – if not the primary cause – of the crisis.
To put it bluntly: it’s not.
Looking at the evidence, I’m inclined to think that disordered homosexuality, modernism, and poor seminary gatekeeping are the main problems and that celibacy doesn’t even belong on the list. Yet I note that Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schönborn has said that, as part of what he calls an “unflinching examination” of pedophilia in the Church, we must consider “the issue of priest celibacy and the issue of personality development.” Those are two very different issues, but if the cardinal thinks celibacy warrants consideration as a possible cause of abuse by Catholic clerics, let’s not flinch.
I should also note that a spokesman for Schönborn has made clear that the cardinal was not “in any way seeking to question the Catholic Church’s celibacy rule.” Fair enough, although I suspect the cardinal’s comments may have caused his name, at least temporarily, to slide down the list of papabile cardinals.
Others, including the liberal priest-theologian Hans Küng, have unequivocally made the association between celibacy and sex abuse, and it has become the sort of connection (a meme) that has gut-level appeal to some people: Sexual repression causes sexual abuse. As Küng wrote in the National Catholic Reporter, celibacy “is the most important and structurally the most decisive expression of an uptight attitude of the church’s leadership towards sexuality . . .” The word “uptight” is not often encountered in moral theology.
And in the New York Times, German novelist Peter Schneider asserted that a recent poll found that 87 percent of his countrymen reject priestly celibacy. “It’s not hard, then,” he writes, “for us to draw the conclusion – fair or not – that the Church’s problems are rooted in celibacy.” Schneider offers no support for the linking of sex abuse and celibacy except that poll. Perhaps he’d approve of a show of hands on the Ten Commandments that cuts them back to Eight or Six.
The troubles with this sort of pop wisdom are several: the vast majority of priests (96 percent) aren’t abusers (and aren’t sexually repressed) and very few sex crimes are committed by celibate men. Sexually active men abuse children (in hugely larger numbers than do celibate men), and – as is true of the priest abusers – they do so because of obsession. They’re not possessed but obsessed, which is why recidivism among sex criminals is astronomical. There is a frightening degree of narcissism among pedophiles, rapists, and others whose crimes are sex-based. In the most extreme cases, men who kidnap, rape, and murder girls or boys (or for that matter other men or women) almost always believe their crimes are justified: My so-called “victim” wanted to have sex. Her struggle was an attack against me, the so-called “rapist.” And my so-called “murder” of her was really self-defense.
This is why these killers smile in their mug shots. It’s why porn-crazed dads can still coach Little League. And it’s why clerical abusers are able to sit down to rectory dinners and show bonhomie to other priests.
It’s why you don’t know who they are until it’s too late. How many times do next-door neighbors say of the sex criminal that he seemed like a regular guy?
There are a number of factors that drive people to commit sex crimes – including battering and sex abuse in childhood – but celibacy is not among them. Two other cultural institutions have high instances of homosexual pedophilia similar to the priesthood: education and Scouting. If some of the abusing teachers and Scout masters happen to be celibate, it has nothing to do with the requirements of their work, and all the evidence indicates they commit abuse because they are unable to overcome their own developmental anarchy. They’re repressed alright but because of emotional and moral disorders unrelated to the demands of teaching, of Scouting, or – in the case of priests – of vows.
The key matter then becomes: How do we prevent such men from ever again being admitted to seminaries? The answer may be that we never will, at least not entirely. However, we can have zero tolerance (all reports of abuse given immediately to the police), and we may certainly diminish the likelihood of disordered individuals entering the priesthood, through careful screening that openly and fearlessly looks for warning signs. Those signs having been identified, vocations directors must say no to those who seek in the religious life – and what a paradox this is! – a screen behind which they may indulge their sinful obsessions. Make no mistake: sex abusers (especially pedophiles) do exactly that. They are by nature schemers who use authority and opportunity to manipulate kids and teens into situations in which their criminal fantasies may be fulfilled without – they hope – detection.
And back to Cardinal Schönborn. He must know that in a hundred years there will be writers citing his recent comments as support for the notion that in our time churchmen began to break with Catholic orthodoxy about sexual behavior. No number of corrections will erase such distortions as this one from Britain’s Daily Mail:
The cardinal is not responsible for the way the media distort his words, but he and others in the Catholic hierarchy must recognize that no misstatement by them will ever receive serious correction in a hostile media. Our leaders must speak out, but they must also be careful to say only what they know to be true.