Monday, May 17, 2010

Best and Flawed

This is probably the best article I've seen yet on why the current system of mandatory celibacy is sick, while also probably the most flawed.

And flawed it definitely is; in particular he expresses an apparent pro-contraception or even pro-abortion stance, hints at support for women priests, and, possibly, the faulty belief that celibacy is actually causing pedophilia (instead of merely attracting men who are already pedophiles, and encouraging an institutional dynamic of cover-up).

But still, there are some great psych-socially penetrating parts, and it's a shame that (for the most part) such insights have been voiced only by liberals, which causes conservatives to reject the good stuff merely by association. But that's throwing the baby out with the bath-water:
I was more conscious of vowed obedience as the pressing issue than celibacy. I wanted to be a writer, which required a free play of the mind that seemed impossible in the life of “orders.’’ But now I see how imposed sexlessness and restrictive authority are mutually reinforcing. Power was the issue.

Ironically, in the Bing Crosby glory days, celibacy seemed to convey another kind of power. It was essential to the mystique that set priests apart from other clergy, the Roman collar an open sesame! to respect and status. From a secular perspective, the celibate man or, in the case of nuns, woman made an impression simply by sexual unavailability. But from a religious perspective, the impact came from celibacy’s character as an all-or-nothing bet on the existence of God. The Catholic clergy lived in absolutism, which carried a magnetic pull.

The magnet is dead. What I only intuited 35 years ago has become an open conviction shared by many: celibacy cuts to the heart of what is wrong in the Catholic Church today. Despite denials from Rome, there will be no halting, much less recovering from, the mass destruction of the priest sex abuse scandal without reforms centered on the abandonment of celibacy as a near-universal prerequisite for ordination to the Latin-rite priesthood. (“Near universal’’ because married Episcopal priests who convert are exempt from the requirement. “Latin rite’’ because Catholic priests of the Eastern rites are allowed to marry.)


But the Catholic scandal has laid bare an essential pathology that is unique to the culture of clericalism, and mandatory celibacy is essential to it. Immaturity, narcissism, misogyny, incapacity for intimacy, illusions about sexual morality — such all-too-common characteristics of today’s Catholic clergy are directly tied to the inhuman asexuality that is put before them as an ideal. A special problem arises when, on the one hand, homosexuality is demonized as a matter of doctrine, while, on the other, the banishment of women leaves the priest living in a homophilic world.


Monastic orders of both males and females had indeed discovered in such sexual sublimation a mode of holiness, but that presumed its being both freely chosen and lived out in a nurturing community. (Religious orders continue to this day with the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience as a proven structure of service and contemplation. The vows of such orders are a separate question.) But when the monastic discipline of “chastity’’ was imposed on all priests as “celibacy’’ (from the Latin for “unmarried’’), something went awry. Sexual abstinence was no longer freely chosen, since the vocation to ordained ministry and the call to the vowed life are not the same thing.

In the ordinary experience of parish priests, there was no intimate community within which to humanely live a sexually sublimated life. Mere repression would have to do, along with loneliness — and perhaps an unbroken attachment to mother. The system broke down early on, and in some eras it broke down big time. Renaissance Catholicism was marked by sexual libertinism. No surprise that Protestants made the jettisoning of the universal celibacy rule a key to the reform they sought, but that only made Counter-Reformation Rome more earnestly attached to the discipline than ever.

WHY HAD celibacy come to matter so much to those in charge of the church? The answer is familiar because celibacy, like other issues having to do with gender, reproduction, and sexual identity, is not really about sex — but power. The hierarchy found in the imposition of sexual abstinence a mode of control over the interior lives of clergy, since submission in radical abstinence required an extraordinary abandonment of the will. In theory, the abandonment was to God; in practice, it was to the “superior,’’ who always thought he was. The stakes were infinite, since sexual desire marked the threshold of hell. “Gravely sinful’’ defined every priestly deviance, including the minor and intensely personal matter of erotic fantasy. The normally human was, for priests, the occasion of bad faith.

Obsessive sexual moralism, along with that bad faith, spilled out of pulpits. Ancient neo-platonism became modern Puritanism or Irish Jansenism. The confessional booth became a cockpit of “mortal sins,’’ with birth control emerging as the key control mechanism — the church’s control over every Catholic adult’s affections and actions.


in late 1965, Paul VI made his second extraordinary intervention to forbid any discussion of priestly celibacy. “It is not opportune to debate publicly this topic,’’ he declared, “which requires the greatest prudence and is so important.’’

A Council had initiated the clerical discipline of celibacy, but a Council was now not qualified even to discuss it. The power play was so blatant as to lay bare power itself as the issue. And just like that, Catholics had reason to suspect that celibacy was being maintained as a requirement of the priesthood because of internal church politics — not because of any spiritual or religious motive. God was not the issue; the pope was.

The abrupt elimination of the mystical dimension of vowed sexual abstinence left it an intolerable and inhuman way to live, which sent men streaming out of the priesthood, and stirred in many who remained a profound, and still unresolved, crisis of identity. The Council did not take up the question of priestly celibacy. Paul VI sought to settle it with his 1967 encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, which proved to be a classic instance of the disease calling itself the cure.


Well-adjusted priests may live happily as celibates, but how many regard the discipline as healthy? Insisting that celibacy is the church’s “brilliant jewel,’’ in Paul VI’s phrase, defines the deceit that has corrupted the Catholic soul.

But the most damaging consequence of mandatory celibacy for priests lies in its character as the pulse of clericalism. The repressively psychotic nature of this inbred culture of power has shown itself in the abuse scandal.

Lies, denial, arrogance, selfishness, and cowardice — such are the notes of the structure within which Catholic priests now live, however individually virtuous many of them nevertheless remain. Celibacy is that structure’s central pillar and must be removed. The Catholic people see this clearly. It is time for us to say so.


Stephen said...

Interesting post, sinner. I'd be interested to know exactly how long you think this clerical education/training has been a problem, leading to an unhealthy culture among priests. I know that it definitely goes back to before Vatican II, since I heard all about it from my grandfather who was a psychologist who examined many seminarians, diocesan and religious. He predicted shortly after World War II that there would be huge problems for the Church when that current crop of seminarians assumed authority within the Church.

There are a few comments in the article that I find especially interesting, given what I heard in my family. (1) Many a priest at the time was his mother's favorite, and perhaps joined the seminary more to please his mother than Christ. (2) There was a lot of immaturity among seminarians, characterized by a general unwillingness to face life the way normal people do. This usually took the form of preferring an easy, somewhat luxurious lifestyle, to the hard work of earning a living and raising a family.

I have to add, though, that I'm hesitant to adopt the idea that everything here just has to do with power. I can't give precise reasons right now, but it just seems a tad too simplistic.

A Sinner said...

It's not just power. It's sex too, lol. Well, sexual power. But the point is...the clergy is one big psychosexual mess.

I think I'll post your comment!