With the release of a shocking report from Australia on accusations of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests, the old question is bound to arise: “Is the discipline of celibacy to blame for sexual abuse of minors?”
The complicated question is dealt with in historian Philip Jenkins’s excellent study on the problem. Published in 2001, Pedophiles and Priests looks
at the problem objectively, and his basic findings on the American
church can probably be applied to the Australian situation.
Jenkins summarizes his findings in this article.
He acknowledges the problem, but also points out press exaggeration and
popular flawed understanding of the causes and possible solutions.
Jenkins also points out how the sexual abuse crisis spurred on
progressive critics of the Catholic Church. “What else can we expect
from a Church that keeps its clergy in a lifelong state of sexual
immaturity,” they inveighed… “that denies the spiritual gifts of women,
that preserves an authoritarian system?”
“The abuse issue illustrates the secretive workings of the hierarchy,
the neglect of the laity, and the pernicious effect of celibacy,” he
wrote. “For feminists, epidemic clerical abuse is precisely what their
theories would predict of a patriarchal institution that permits
unchecked sexual exploitation.”
The whole crisis is too complex to deal with in a short article, but
it is worth examining one repeated and popular critique: that sexual
abuse of children is caused by the discipline of celibacy. The usual
formulation of this charge is the simplistic viewpoint that if the
priests were able to have a proper, sexual relationship with a wife,
they would not have abused children.
However, one only needs to nudge this seemingly obvious critique
slightly and it collapses.
Outside of Catholic clergy circles the
majority of child sex abuse happens within the family-the perpetrators
being married men. It is clear therefore that marriage, on its own, does
not cure the problem of the sexual abuse of children.
Nor is the problem confined to Catholics.
Protestants, whose pastors are able to marry, report similar rates of sexual abuse.
Neither does having an active sex life necessarily dampen the
pedophile’s enthusiasm for underage partners. Convicted pedophiles are
usually sexually voracious, and an obsession with sex may actually
intensify the desire for young victims.
Furthermore, the majority of sexual abuse of minors among Catholic
priests was committed against boys and adolescent young men. In other
words, there was a homosexual dimension to the abuse. Clearly, these are
not men who simply “need to find a good woman.”
Their particular appetites were not likely to be cured, or controlled, by marriage.
The simplistic charge that the discipline of celibacy causes sexual
abuse is easily dismissed.
However, the question is not so
straightforward. One needs to consider the complexity of the call to
The original reason for the discipline was both spiritual and practical.
St. Paul encouraged his followers to remain celibate so they could
please God alone and not be encumbered with the demands of wife and
family. (I Corinthians 7:7) The priest or monk accepted the discipline
of celibacy as a kind of military or athletic discipline.
Through celibacy he controlled his physical desires and dedicated
himself completely to the cause of Christ. In addition, through celibacy
the priest conformed his own life more perfectly to that of Christ the
Great High Priest.
While these ideals are sublime, one can’t help wondering how many men
were also drawn to the priesthood or religious life because they
understood very well that marriage was not for them. We see celibacy as a
great self denial, but perhaps it was all too easy, not only for some
men to accept celibacy, but also for other, already celibate men, to
accept them into the community.
For whatever reasons, they found celibacy not a burden, but a relief.
Rather than doing the hard work of recognition and integration of their
sexuality, they escaped into the seeming safety of celibacy.
No doubt many of these men, by the workings of grace and self
discipline, turned the vow of celibacy into the high calling it was
intended to be.
Rather than an escape from reality, the call to celibacy
became their path to integration and a mature sexuality and self
understanding. Unfortunately, many others failed, and their stunted or
distorted sexuality drove them to choose immature, unhealthy and abusive
If this is so, then the problem is not the vow of celibacy per se, but a distorted understanding and practice of celibacy.
In his weighty study of the subject, Celibacy in Crisis, Richard
Sipe regards the discipline of celibacy as inherently flawed,
concluding, “Only a thoroughgoing reform of the celibacy/sexual
structure of the church will really address the problem of sexual
However, in a more positive chapter, Sipe analyzes the achievements
of celibacy, recognizing the large number of men in his study for whom
the discipline of celibacy was their path to greater human maturity and
Christian sanctity. By a unified life of prayer, work, service and
community their vow of celibacy became one of the tools to a secure and
stable life of service.
In our sex-crazed society, we sometimes forget that all of the
baptized are called to that sexual self discipline we call chastity. For
Catholics, the only legitimate sexual relations are between validly
married husband and wife. Pope St. John Paul II himself acknowledged,
“Chastity is the work of a lifetime.”
All of us are called, through self discipline, to integrate our
sexual instincts into the fullness of our humanity. Marriage is one path
to this goal. Celibacy is the other. Those who are called to vows of
celibacy reveal this path to the whole church.
That some who followed that path went disastrously astray should not
require the complete abandonment of the path, anymore than those who
have distorted and destroyed marriage should make us abolish that sacred