With sex scandals shaking the Catholic priesthood, Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in Shrewsbury has decided it might as well prepare its students to live as celibates.
Kenrick offers what is believed to be the only course on celibacy offered for credit at a Catholic seminary in the nation. In the semester just ended, the class covered such topics as church doctrine on celibacy, the stages of human sexual development, loneliness, friendship, appropriate intimacy, sexual orientation, and how to deal with seductive parishioners.
The idea, says the Rev. Lawrence Brennan, academic dean, is to help soon-to-be priests prepare for the rigors of renouncing sex and the companionship of marriage, but also enjoy the spiritual richness afforded by this ancient priestly tradition.
Brennan and his fellow teacher, psychologist Susan Harvath, present celibacy in a positive light. But class discussions in the course this past semester sometimes veered to the negative: students' embarrassment and disappointment over charges across the country that priests have molested children.
The scandals have been "a real downer" for seminarians, Brennan said. Some taking the course even expressed concern about the possibility that they themselves could become abusers, he said.
"It's not that anyone expects he will be a pedophile," Brennan said, "but I think they realize that as harmful as it is, the acting out (of abuse) is a response to some kind of internal pain. So they're asking, `What can I do to make sure I won't be a perpetrator?' "
Scandals over child sexual abuse, revelations that bishops have had affairs with women and increasing concerns about the dwindling priesthood have focused national attention in recent years on the church's celibacy requirement.
Some "progressive prelates" in the United States argue that celibacy should be optional, says Brennan, who has a doctorate in theology. Even those firmly behind the celibacy rule, he says, believe seminaries should "do more explicit and thorough-going teaching of what's involved in the doctrine and the practice."
A document on priestly formation released by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in November 1992 stressed the need for better preparation for celibacy. It said the U.S. social climate can hinder the commitment to celibacy "and the tolerance of sexual behavior contrary to Catholic teaching creates . . . an atmosphere that renders it less intelligible and its practice more difficult."
The conference urged seminaries to give a careful and thoughtful presentation of the church's teaching on celibacy. It also noted that a life of prayer and commitment to service as well as support groups of priests for priests could help contribute to celibate living.
All U.S. seminaries offer some kind of program on celibacy, says the National Catholic Education Association. Kenrick began offering its course as a semester-long elective in 1991.
Celibacy has been a rule for Catholic priests since the 4th century. It also was the tradition for priests and priestesses in many pre-Christian pagan religions.
For Christians in the first few centuries, martyrdom was the most dramatic imitation of Christ. After the persecutions of Christians stopped, the church imposed celibacy on priests as a way of imitating Jesus, Brennan said. …