Celibacy and its discontents

Paul E. Dinter

June 14, 1993|By Paul E. Dinter

BEING a Roman Catholic priest is increasingly uncomfortable. As a group, our image suffers as we endure what seem to be weekly disclosures that yet more clerics have engaged in sexual activity ranging from standard lust to outright perversion.

Though the Vatican and the American church hierarchy have launched understandable (if desperate) efforts at damage control, most of the priests I know have begun questioning their habitual trust of their peers.

And the laity cannot help but cast suspicious glances on practices -- especially social activities with children or female parishioners -- that went unquestioned for years.

Priests must face the fact that there is something rotten in the church that won't be resolved until they overcome their code of silence on how dysfunctional Catholic sexual ethics have become.

When bishops defend the majority of us as hard-working and innocent of sexual wrongdoing, they insist that celibacy is not the problem. They point out, rightly, that most sexual abuse of children is perpetrated by married men.

Celibacy in itself does not disguise a predilection for sexual deviance. But thoughtful critics are not attacking celibacy.

Voluntary celibacy as the spiritual enactment of a diffuse form of love is one thing. But mandatory celibacy is something very different: It discourages openness and accountability and encourages the clergy to ignore or cover up for activity that would besmirch the priesthood.

The establishment seeks to sustain its ideal of heroic celibacy behind a facade of denial.

A typical example of the clerical establishment's attitude occurred after the toppling of the Rev. Bruce Ritter of Covenant House in New York and Archbishop Eugene A. Marino of Atlanta for sexual misconduct.

A colleague of mine who was at a seminary asked the faculty to discuss celibacy and its difficulties with the students.

The administration refused: It was as reluctant to confront ugly facts as were the priests in Atlanta who covered up Archbishop Marino's cavorting for at least a year until his financial misdealings exposed him.

As in war, in the struggle to maintain mandatory celibacy and its "old boy" network the first casualty is truth.

So despite recent assurances by church authorities about the careful screening used in the selection of seminarians, the hierarchy still uses silence and suppression in its battle against the world, the flesh and the devil.

Because mandatory celibacy has been declared necessary, defending it has become a blind ideology. To question it means disloyalty to the clerical establishment and exclusion from a leadership role in the church.

When Archbishop Daniel Pilarcyk of Cincinnati was asked on a TV news program if the church leaders were living in an ivory tower and avoiding hard questions about sexuality, he remarked that he preferred an ivory tower to "the gutter."

Though he quickly tried to dissociate the gutter and marriage, his truly Freudian slip exposed how the church's theology intellectualizes and simplifies the complex area of human sexuality, declaring a host of relative responses as absolutely right or wrong.

It idealizes "perfect chastity," ignoring all indications that some people choose celibacy for reasons that have little to do with spiritual love.

Yet, the flurry of scandals (above all the sickening ones that involve abuse of minors) reminds us that, as is written in Genesis, the fruit has already been eaten.

The clergy should admit that they are no longer ignorant or innocent.

Those in authority should drop their pretensions at having an adequate theory of sexuality, openly rethink the mystery of sexual differentiation and seriously consider lifting the edict on clerical celibacy.

Most men and women are meant to seek holiness by enacting their sexuality, not by avoiding it.

Paul E. Dinter, a Roman Catholic priest, teaches the New Testament at Maryknoll School of Theology in New York.

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