In what has been labeled as a landmark study into various institutional responses to child sex abuse, the Australian Royal Commission targeted two particular practices of the Catholic Church; deeming them as directly contributing to abuse. There is a certain familiar ring to them with the Commission recommending that the Church remove the canonical seal of Confession as pertains to sexual abuse and make clerical celibacy voluntary. Many in the media, both Down Under and abroad, have criticized the Church for being too quick to dismiss the recommendations of the Commission. Of course, the Church has been listening to these “recommendations” for many years now and so has good reason for rejecting them out of hand. Nevertheless, it is always instructive for us to look at why, particularly the recommendation to change the practice of celibacy, is not a real solution.
To be fair, the Commission was quick to point out that clerical celibacy was not a direct cause of abuse but instead called it “a contributing factor,” especially since it “is implicated in emotional isolation, loneliness, depression and mental illness. Compulsory celibacy may also have contributed to various forms of psychosexual dysfunction, including psychosexual immaturity, which pose an ongoing risk to the safety of children.” Furthermore, “for many clergy and religious, celibacy is an unattainable ideal that leads to clergy and religious living double lives, and contributes to a culture of secrecy and hypocrisy” (p. 71).
Statistics Don’t Lie but People Sometimes Use Them Wrong
Because we live in a world that increasingly relies on empirical observation, it is always helpful to begin by examining exactly how they came to their conclusions. There can be no doubt that the Church in Australia, like the Church in the United States and the rest of the world, fostered a culture of abuse in the past. There have been many effective safeguards put in place in the last decade but there is always room for improvement. Still, there is some extreme speculation in what the Commission is saying. To say that celibacy is a contributing factor with any degree of statistical confidence, you must be able to compare the incidence with non-celibates, with all other risk and institutional factors (including size) being equal. To simply report raw numbers and unadjusted proportions comparing the Catholic Church (964 institutions) with Hinduism (less than 4 institutions) is highly misleading and can lead to spurious conclusions (see pp. 45-46). They mention that the Church had the highest percentage of the total abuse cases, but there is no adjustment in that percentage for the fact that it is by far the largest institution. It is like comparing the number of murders in Billings, Montana, with those in New York City without making any adjustment for the population size. Per capita the incidence of abuse within the Church is no higher than other religious institutions, making any claim that celibacy is a contributing factor spurious at best. In a peer reviewed setting, what they reported in their numbers of victims would have never passed even the most cursory of scrutiny.
They may have data to support this claim, but it would have been remarkable since no other group has found the incidence among priests to be any higher than other religious denominations and some have even found it to be lower. If you really want to know the truth as to the incidence of abuse, follow the money. Since the 80s insurance companies have offered sexual misconduct coverage as a rider on liability insurance and they have found that the Catholic Church is not at any additional risk than other congregations. In fact, because most abuse claims involve children, the only risk factor they do include is the number of children’s programs they have (for more on this, see this Newsweek article).
The Unattainable Ideal
There is also a familiar tone to their contention that compulsory clerical celibacy is an “unattainable ideal” for many of the clergy. In fact, it is similar to the response that Our Lord gave to the Apostles when they questioned Him regarding “becoming a eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom of God” (Mt 19:12). It is a calling based on a very high ideal, an ideal that can never be attained unless there is a particular call—”Whoever can accept this ought to accept it” (Mt 19:12). It is both a free choice and a calling to a high ideal, but God always equips when He calls.
The point is that it is an unattainable ideal for all of the clergy without the necessary graces attached to the call. But it is still a fallen man who accepts the call and thus the possibility for infidelity always remains real. But just because some men fail, does not mean that the Church should throw away the ideal.
What this really betrays is a hidden assumption that everyone is making. Priests are human just like everyone else and when they itch they must scratch. We do not understand what celibacy is and therefore assume the solution to the problem is an orgasm. If we can set it so that this orgasm occurs in a licit situation then we will rid the priesthood of this problem. But again, if that were the case no married men would do something like this.
This is where JPII’s elixir of Theology of the Body comes in. In man who has been redeemed by Christ, sexual desire is meant to be the power to love as God loves. Nuptial love is the love of a total giving of self. It is in the body’s “capacity of expressing love: that love precisely in which the person becomes a gift—and by means of this gift—fulfills the very meaning of being and existence” (JPII General Audience 16 January 1980). Marriage and Procreation aren’t the only ways to love as God loves. These are simply the original models that God gave us “in the beginning”. Anytime we image Christ in giving up our bodies for others we express the nuptial meaning of the body.
With this in mind we can begin to understand celibacy. Celibate life can only flow from a profound knowledge of the nuptial meaning of the body. Anyone who chooses this vocation out of fear of sex or some deep sexual wound would not be responding to an authentic call from Christ (JPII General Audience 28 April 1982). Celibacy is meant to be an anticipation of Heaven where we are neither married nor given in marriage. It is a witness to the resurrection of the glorified body. In other words, those who forego marriage in this life do so in anticipation of the “marriage of the Lamb”.
The Commission simply sees no value in celibacy and therefore is quick to dismiss it. It is a sign of contradiction and therefore “has to be the problem” even if there is no way to prove it. They rightly call it an ideal, but then fail to grasp the value of that ideal. It is an ideal because it is also a sign—a sign that is valuable to the rest of society as a whole. It serves a complimentary role to marriage and helps to show its true meaning. It is an anticipation of our future life where our union with Love itself will be more intimate than marriage. But it also shows the great worth of marriage itself because it is a sacrifice of great worth.