Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Naked to our Enemies: Is the Celibate Priesthood the Source of Our Catholic Troubles?

We Catholics invoke St. Michael to protect us against the snares of the Devil.  "Defend us in battle," we pray, and cast the Devil into hell, along with "all the evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls."

St. Michael, defend us
in battle 
Evidently, we did not pray hard enough, because the Devil worked his way into the Catholic priesthood and the Church hierarchy. Catholics are shocked almost daily by new revelations of sexual abuse--including the sexual molestation of children--and by charges that our bishops covered up the scandal and allowed predator priests to roam about the parishes and rape hundreds of children.

This calamity has left Catholics  naked to our enemies, to paraphrase a line from Shakespeare; and those who hate us have feasted on our shame--particularly the Church's media critics.

Of course not every news commentator who rebukes the Catholic Church is hostile to it.  Some of our critics are sincerely outraged by the sexual abuse scandal and by the Church officials who covered it up.  And they are right to be outraged.  Media critics who suggest ways we might avoid further scandal and treat the wounded are totally appropriate.

Nevertheless,  I am astonished by the hostility that the elite media has expressed toward the Catholic Church in recent months.  In particular, several New York Times essayists have sharply attacked Catholicism on the Times's op ed page: Maureen Dowd, Bill Keller, Nicholas Kristof, and Frank  Bruni, in particular.  Bruni has pounced on the American Catholic Church  three times in Times essays in a period of less than a month.

Frank Bruni
Photo Credit: NY Times
Thanks, Frank, for the advice.
In his latest condemnation, entitled "The Wages of Celibacy," Bruni insinuates that the Church's sexual scandals can be traced to the Church's doctrine on a celibate priesthood. According to Bruni, this "foolish" and "reckless" doctrine has warped the culture of the priesthood.

Specifically, Bruni argues that "[t]he promise of celibacy most likely factored into the [C]hurch's sexual abuse crisis." He cites unnamed mental health professionals who told him "that men trying to vanquish a sexual attraction to kids might well drift toward the priesthood in the hope that extra prayer and an intention of chastity would make everything right."

In addition, Bruni contends,  a celibate priesthood runs the risk of stunting a priest's sexuality "and turning sexual impulses into furtive, tortured gestures."   It should not be surprising, Bruni argues, that some priests attempt to make sexual connections "in surreptitious, imprudent and occasionally destructive ways."  By way of example, Bruni makes reference to Cardinal Keith O'Brien, who was recently accused of making inappropriate sexual advances toward adult males.  In Bruni's view, Cardinal O'Brien might be a man who was was unable to conform to a "needless commitment to aloneness." 

Bruni concludes that we should reserve our harshest judgement not for the priests who failed to keep their priestly vows,  but for the institution that  required Cardinal O'Brien and other priests to live by rules that run "counter to human nature." In other words, the catastrophe of sexual misconduct that swept through the Church is the Church's own damn fault for insisting on a celibate priesthood.

I am not an expert on Catholic theology, and I cannot articulate the theological justification for a celibate priesthood.  I cannot even say with certainty that it is a good idea.  Nevertheless, I vehemently reject the insinuation that priestly celibacy has anything to do with the child sexual abuse scandal that wracks our Church. One might just as well argue that men with sexual predilections toward children marry in order to hide their perverse tendencies and thus marriage contributes to child abuse among married people.  That argument makes as much sense as arguing that celibacy is a contributing factor to the child-abuse tragedy.

Regardless of Mr. Bruni's motives for attacking Catholic doctrine in the Times, Catholics should be concerned about the torrent of abuse that is being heaped upon our Church.  In my view, this abuse is unjustified and it gives encouragement to people who are anti-Catholic bigots.


Frank Bruni, The Wages of Celibacy, New York Times, February 25, 2013.

Rachel Donadio & John F. Burns, Top British Cardinal Resigns. New York Times, February 25, 2013.

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