(This is the third of four articles about this crisis. The other articles may be found at the links: Part I, Part II and Part IV.)
I'd like to examine two background issues that have been much discussed in the context of the clergy sex abuse scandal. They are priestly celibacy (which some regard as a contributing factor to the problem) and the formation and training of priests.
This isn't the place to go into detail about why celibacy is imposed on clergy in the Catholic Church. It would take too much space and time. For those interested in learning more, Wikipedia has a worthwhile summary, as does the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Celibacy is a disciplinary rather than a theological requirement for ordination to the Catholic priesthood. The Church sees it as a supernatural, spiritual gift given by God, something to be sought from Him by candidates for ordination, rather than something occurring naturally. The Church could reverse its requirement for priestly celibacy at any time, as this would involve only a change in Canon Law, not a new or changed doctrine or a reinterpretation of a theological position.
It's generally accepted that celibacy, in and of itself, is not a factor in clergy sexual abuse of children. George Weigel addressed this in a recent article. 'Repressing' the expression of one's sexuality through celibacy has been claimed by some to be fundamentally unhealthy, and therefore a contributing factor to sexual abuses by clergy, but this doesn't hold up to logical scrutiny. For a start, statistics reveal that the father of a family is 36 times more likely to engage in the sexual abuse of children than a celibate priest. Furthermore, there are those who are celibate for reasons having nothing to do with religion, some due to the lack of potential partners; others due to circumstances (e.g. incarceration); still others due to health reasons; and a few by choice. They appear to produce no greater proportion of sexual deviants than do priests or any other group (see next paragraph). I think the attempt to link priestly celibacy to clergy sexual abuse is a 'straw man' argument, used by those who oppose the requirement for celibacy to argue for its moderation or abolition. I see no evidence that the two problems are related.
The news media have emphasized the sensational aspects of the clergy sex abuse crisis (after all, sex sells more newspapers and attracts more viewers), so it may appear as if the Catholic priesthood is filled with abusers. However, that's simply not true. Catholic clergy don't commit such offenses in any greater proportion than clergy of other denominations, or indeed other people in general. Of course, that's no excuse. One expects a priest to be holy, and therefore one would concomitantly expect the proportion of sex offenders in their ranks to be significantly below normal . . . but unfortunately, that's not proved to be the case.
Priestly celibacy has posed problems throughout history. In more sexually permissive and/or tolerant societies, these problems have usually been greater than in more straight-laced or morally restrictive milieux. In modern Western society, where sex is openly discussed and expressed in almost every aspect of life, they're encountered in an even more extreme form. It's very difficult to avoid having sex thrust under one's nose at every turn, whether one likes it or not. (I've even seen a naked woman being used to advertise a farm tractor, for Heaven's sake! I still haven't worked out the connection between them . . . )
Today, in many parts of the world, priestly celibacy is honored more in the breach than in the observance. This is particularly true in the Third World. Priest friends who've visited South America tell me that a large proportion of clergy, particularly in rural areas, have 'informal partners'. I know from personal experience that a great many African priests (I would estimate well over half, in some areas) have concubines or mistresses, if not actual wives. It's been that way for many years. A carefully blind eye is turned to this reality by the local Church hierarchy, because if they didn't tolerate it, they'd have few if any clergy left! In many tribal cultures (which are mostly patriarchal), if a man hasn't fathered a child he isn't considered fully adult, and certainly isn't regarded as competent to offer advice and counsel to other adults. This makes the observance of celibacy by the local priest (who, by definition, is expected to offer advice and counsel) an almost impossible burden. It's even more difficult because his education and position make him a very desirable partner in the eyes of many women in such a culture. (Newsweek recently published a very interesting and troubling article about celibacy in the Church in Africa.)
However, the fact that celibacy has proved difficult doesn't mean that it's not a legitimate requirement on the part of the Church. If she indeed embodies the authority of Christ, and if the New Testament message endorses celibacy as a legitimate part of the calling of a priest, then she is correct to insist on it for her clergy. It's as simple as that. To maintain otherwise is not so much to disagree with celibacy as to call into question the foundation for all the Church's teaching . . . and that road leads, ultimately, to heresy for Catholics.
Some have alleged that the celibate nature of the Catholic clergy has provided a haven or refuge for frustrated homosexuals. I think it depends what one means by that. Contrary to some alarmist and hysterical outbursts in the news media, I don't believe for a moment that the Catholic priesthood is a hotbed of homosexual activity. Certainly, in my years as a priest, I saw no indications of it. (Let me admit, however, that because I'm heterosexual in orientation, I might have missed signs that would have been obvious to someone of a different bent – you should pardon the expression.) On the other hand, I've met a fairly large number of priests who were homosexual by orientation. As far as I'm aware, those I met were not sexually active, remaining celibate and chaste. I certainly have no evidence to the contrary. (I learned to value the ministry of such men very highly. They demonstrated a sensitivity and discernment in difficult counseling situations that I lacked, and I referred several cases to them with outstanding results.) On the basis of my own experience, I'd accept that up to a quarter of Catholic priests in the US might be classified as being of homosexual orientation. Of course, I have no hard, empirical evidence for this figure; it's my personal opinion, not a statement of demonstrable fact. However, others have advanced similar 'guesstimates'.
Having only limited personal experience of them, I can't offer an opinion about homosexuality in religious orders (groups of men or women who follow the teachings of their founder(s), living in communities – although some undertake pastoral and apostolic work in isolation – and observing a common Rule of life). According to the news media, it appears that certain establishments run by some religious orders have been rife with the sexual abuse of children, involving homosexual acts in the vast majority of reported cases. This is sickening beyond belief, and I can only hope and pray that the problem was restricted to the institutions and orders so far identified. To think that it might be ongoing and as yet undiscovered in other Church institutions is a prospect too ghastly to contemplate.
Despite denials by the politically correct, I believe there's a great deal of evidence linking active homosexuality and ephebophilia, a form of pedophilia. If one examines the cases of clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church that have been publicly disclosed, the overwhelming majority involved homosexual encounters between male clergy and juvenile males. It's my opinion that this demonstrates the link between ephebophilia and active homosexuality so clearly as to put it beyond reasonable doubt. (This is not to say that all active homosexuals are also ephebophiles; but according to the information at my disposal, most ephebophiles have been found to be active homosexuals.) The Catholic Church has adopted a similar official position. This and subsequent Church statements have aroused vehement rejection in the homosexual community, but as I said above, I believe there's evidence to substantiate the Church's perspective. Those rejecting it can't do so on the basis of their feelings alone; they must produce their own evidence to support their position and disprove the Church's. So far, I haven't seen any.
The classical definition of ephebophilia denoted at least a romantic, and usually a sexual, attraction between adult males and male youths. In recent years, attempts have been made to broaden the definition of the term to include attraction between adults and youths of either sex. This is blatantly false, of course, as even a cursory examination of the Greek roots of the word will demonstrate. The word ephebe means an adolescent male or a young man, and has nothing to do with a girl or woman. 'Ephebophilia', derived from ephebos and philia, is thus perfectly clear in its original meaning. I can only assume that politically correct elements have sought to alter the modern understanding of the word, in an attempt to minimize its homosexual connotations.
I think it's obvious that once one's sexuality has been awakened, it's very difficult to shut it down again. I'm therefore in favor of efforts by the Catholic Church to ensure that candidates who are or have recently been sexually active are not admitted to priestly formation and training, and/or are removed from that path before ordination. This applies to both heterosexual and homosexual candidates, of course. Given the evidence exposed during this scandal, I think it's no more than common sense to place greater emphasis on identifying and excluding actively homosexual candidates, on the grounds that they're more likely to be at risk of ephebophilia. (On the other hand, any candidate who consistently and successfully observes celibacy over an extended period should be acceptable for ordination, as far as this aspect of his preparation is concerned. It shouldn't matter whether his sexual orientation is heterosexual or homosexual, or whether he was once sexually active, so long as he can keep his sexuality under control.)
Furthermore, if celibacy is to be maintained as a requirement for the clergy, I would argue that any priest who cannot maintain his promises or vows of celibacy and/or chastity (and by that I mean repeated and/or long-term violations, not necessarily a single slip-up) should be laicized rather than allowed to continue his ministry. This should, of course, apply irrespective of the priest's sexual orientation.
As for the formation imparted to candidates for the priesthood, as mentioned in the first article of this series, I believe this is a very significant element of the current crisis. During the last half of the previous century, in many seminaries, academic formation came to be emphasized as vitally important. Unfortunately, it appears that in at least some seminaries the personal, spiritual and pastoral formation offered to candidates did not receive the same emphasis as their academic preparation, and did not keep pace with the rapidly changing mores of society. It seems to have remained rooted in an expectation of self-discipline, and (at least initially) an aversion to 'new-fangled' ideas such as the insights provided by psychology, psychiatry and other useful fields of study. As long ago as 1962, the Superior General of the Servants of the Holy Spirit wrote to the Holy Office as follows:
... after more than forty year[s] in the priesthood I am personally convinced that we are not turning out today, either in religious orders or in the diocesan priesthood, men as deeply dedicated to the priesthood as we did in former days. The reason for this, if it be so, and many experienced priests agree with me that it is so, the reason in my mind is that this emphasis placed on intellectual qualifications has brought about a de-emphasis on the necessity of the priest of God being a man of prayer. Before leaving the seminary, diocesan or regular, the young priest should have at least a beginning of the foundation of an interior life. Besides this need of interior life, we have reached the conclusion from our experience with hundreds of casualties that in fully 30% of the cases of priests who have failed Our Lord their entrance into the priesthood followed upon the (exposure) of question marks against their qualifications that were overruled in one way or another by someone in authority. Red lights of warning were flashing and these warnings were not observed. More careful screening of candidates would seem to be desirable. The man of intellect, unless that intellect is balanced by moral qualities and humility, is potentially a liability rather than an asset in the priesthood.
Increasingly we find "immaturity" in the priests coming to us, which is indicative of a lack of both motivation and of capacity for the sacrifice inherent in the priestly vocation. Apparently some professors do not realize that immaturity and intellectual brilliance are not contradictory terms.
In my own experience of seminary life, I found those comments to be accurate. We were told of the necessity for a spiritual or 'interior' life, but left to develop it for ourselves, with relatively little guidance unless we specifically sought it. In addition, a great many contemporary approaches were given equal weight with the two thousand years of experience and knowledge built up by the Church in this area (a wealth of experience that is priceless). The inclusion of such short-term, untried, untested elements at the same level as those that have proven their worth over centuries was in my opinion (with the benefit of hindsight) most unwise. As a matter of fact, we students used to joke amongst ourselves that we'd end up becoming priests in spite of the seminary, rather than because of it! As long as our academic results were of the required standard, and we displayed no obvious weirdness in our behavior, it was unlikely that we'd be 'down-checked' before ordination.
In recent decades, and particularly since the eruption of the clergy sex abuse scandal, attempts have been made to reinvigorate the formation of candidates for the priesthood. Regrettably, in my view, these have often focused upon spiritual fads (e.g. the Enneagram, non-Christian spiritualities, and the like) rather than orthodoxy, and upon secular disciplines such as psychology rather than genuine spiritual formation. In my experience as a prison chaplain, working closely with psychologists, I was able to see at first hand how many inmates tried to 'game the system' by falsifying their responses to psychological testing. In a prison environment, where they could be observed closely all day and every day, this was relatively easy to detect, as their conduct tended to give them away. However, in a seminary, where such close observation is not feasible (particularly when the student is in his room, or away from the premises), it's easier for those with tendencies towards delinquency to hide them. They can fool the psychologists (not always, but quite a lot of the time).
Furthermore, psychology is a 'soft' science (some would call it a pseudo-science). It's not based on empirical facts and experiments like physics or chemistry, but depends upon human observation and interpretation, which have few absolutes. It's also influenced to a very great extent by the frame of reference within which it's conducted. Witness, for example, the different interpretations and applications of psychotherapy by the Freudian and Jungian schools, whose adherents might reach radically different conclusions about the same patient based upon their different perspectives. Much depends on the qualifications, motivation and insight of the psychologist. What if he or she is perhaps opposed to priestly celibacy, or supports a more liberal interpretation of human sexuality? Is there not a possibility that he or she will be less likely to expose someone with similar views, out of misplaced sympathy? What guarantee is there that a dissembling student won't be able to portray himself as a suitable candidate for ordination by masking or disguising his personal issues from the psychologist? In the absence of 'hard' data, it's not particularly difficult to do so.
Another problem is that young people today, particularly in the USA and other first world nations, are sexually active in far greater numbers, and at a much earlier age, than in previous generations. This, in turn, means that many (perhaps most) candidates for the priesthood are no longer virgins. Some have extensive sexual experience. I don't believe this necessarily disqualifies them from consideration, but their formation must take account of this reality. As I said earlier, it's hard to switch off one's sexuality once it's been awakened. Older priests and others involved in formation may not have enough real-world knowledge and experience to appreciate this. Indeed, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that many seminarians have a far better understanding of sex and sexuality, both in theory and in practice, than their professors!
In times past, the sacrificial nature of the priesthood was emphasized during formation. Candidates knew they were entering upon a vocation that would not bring them worldly riches, would demand their total commitment, and would earn its reward not in this life, but in eternity. Today, however, there's no longer much of a sacrificial element (in material terms) to being a priest in most of the USA. His salary may be relatively low, but it's almost all available for discretionary spending, as most of his needs (accommodation, food, furniture and household necessities, utilities, transport, insurance [vehicle, possessions and medical], computer and Internet facilities, etc.) will be provided by his parish. (In contrast, priests in the Third World lack many of these benefits, or receive them on a far more limited scale. They experience the materially sacrificial nature of the priesthood far more meaningfully.)
Is this, perhaps, part of the problem? Have priests in the First World become 'soft', cocooned in a luxury unknown to their predecessors or their counterparts in the Third World, and therefore lacking the discipline of a simple lifestyle? Might this be a contributory factor to clergy sex abuse? Personally, I'd answer 'yes'. I believe the absence of a simple lifestyle and the discipline it requires has contributed to a general relaxation of the standards of the priesthood. I'm by no means advocating a bread-and-water diet while sleeping on a wooden plank; but compare religious orders that strictly observe the evangelical counsels with those that don't. Which are thriving, and which are dying? Which are receiving plentiful vocations, and which are struggling to find and retain recruits? In almost every case of which I'm aware, the orders demanding the greatest sacrifice and the strictest discipline are the ones that are thriving and growing. That says something, right there.
This is substantiated in other fields of human endeavor, of course. Look at military units. Those with the highest standards for recruits, and the toughest, most demanding training, have the highest reputation and the greatest impact on the battlefield. The US Marine Corps, or the British Royal Marines, or the French Foreign Legion, or the Russian Spetsnaz GRU, could tell you a lot about that. As a combat veteran, I know there were units we welcomed alongside us in battle due to their proven 'toughness' and effectiveness; but we looked askance on others and doubled our security, because we didn't trust them to safeguard our flanks. For another corollary, look at terrorist organizations. The most dangerous are those which demand that their members be willing to face certain, inescapable death in order to accomplish an operation, such as the 9/11 atrocities. One would think that such a prospect would deter potential recruits, but there seems to be no shortage of volunteers. To demand total commitment appears to attract a higher quality of person, whether it be for a good or an evil end.
If the Catholic Church is to demand of its clergy a difficult and costly discipline such as celibacy, should it not ask them to match their commitment in that area by observing a sacrificial discipline in others as well? If not, does it not run the risk that the absence of sacrificial discipline in some areas might make it more difficult to observe such a discipline in others, such as celibacy? If one can readily gratify one's desires in some areas, will a purely disciplinary restraint be sufficient to prevent one from crossing moral boundaries in others? I can't give a definitive answer to those questions, but I submit that they need to be asked – and answered – by those in a better position to do so.
There are those who maintain that the abolition of the requirement for clergy celibacy would solve existing problems and make for a much healthier priesthood. I see no reason why married clergy might not be very effective – after all, married deacons are doing a sterling job in many parts of the world – but I strongly disagree that removing celibacy would solve all or even most problems. On the contrary, it would add a whole new set of them! They include (but are not limited to) areas such as the restrictions imposed by family life on the amount of time the priest could make available for his ministry; the cost of maintaining a family, necessitating higher salaries and improved accommodation for married clergy; the difficulty of dealing with problems such as adultery, divorce, etc. in the priesthood (which would inevitably affect married clergy, as they and their spouses would be just as vulnerable to temptation and sin as any other human being, even as celibate clergy are now); and so on.
No, I really don't think that the abolition of celibacy would solve the clergy's problems. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, the Church claims to speak with the authority of Christ Himself when she teaches that celibacy is an integral element of the Catholic priesthood. That being the case, faithful Catholics accept her right to impose such a discipline. Those who don't accept her authority to insist on celibacy are implicitly challenging that same authority in terms of doctrine and dogma as well. If they wish to be honest, they should take that to its logical conclusion and find their spiritual homes elsewhere.