Catholic Priests and Celibacy: A Flashpoint in Sexual Abuse Crisis

By Marquand, Robert | The Christian Science Monitor, April 28, 2010 | Go to article overview

Catholic Priests and Celibacy: A Flashpoint in Sexual Abuse Crisis


Marquand, Robert, The Christian Science Monitor


The No. 2 at the Vatican, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, appeared Tuesday to ease the church's absolute position on celibacy for Catholic priests. The issue continues to roil the church as it confronts revelations of sexual abuse.

Vatican No. 2 Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone made headlines Tuesday when he appeared to ease the church's absolute position on celibacy, telling Spanish radio the centuries-old rule is not an "untouchable" one. The prelate's comment was part of a Vatican affirmation of celibacy and a strong view that there is "no direct link between celibacy and the deviant behavior of certain priests," as Cardinal Bertone put it.

But even opening the door slightly on such a deeply cherished practice is a concession to persistent questions tied to revelations of child sexual abuse in the United States, Germany, Ireland, Belgium, Kenya, and Austria that has put the church in crisis, analysts say.

From the start of the Catholic priest child abuse scandal, Vatican officials have pointedly sought to play down the role that mandatory celibacy may or may not play in the abuse and cover up surfacing this spring.

IN PICTURES: Pope Benedict

Even Roman Catholic scholars and intellectuals favoring a reform idea of "optional celibacy" for priests worry about stereotypes and assumptions at a time of public anger that crudely equate vows of chastity with pedophilia. A strong orthodox core at the Vatican has treated the subject as closed - even as questioning celibacy has become a coin-of-the-realm topic among ordinary Catholics.

"In Catholic opinion, in terms of surveys and studies about what Catholics actually believe on the ground, ever greater numbers are talking about optional celibacy and the ordination of women - that toothpaste is not going back in the tube," says theologian Tom Beaudoin of Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York, echoing numerous Catholic scholars and lay people interviewed for this article.

Mr. Bertone, known as a hard-liner who last month equated homosexuality with pedophilia (something he later retracted), nonetheless opened the celibacy question in a context that has been a vexing conundrum for bishops and priests for years: that while Catholic priests must be celibate, the church has slowly accepted married priests from orthodox and Anglican traditions. As Bertone put it, "There are married priests in the Catholic as well as oriental church."

The subject continues to roil. Last week, an auxiliary Catholic bishop in Australia, Pat Power, wrote in an opinion piece that the closed nature of sexual identity and rules in the church needed review in light of daily headlines on abuse and cover up: "The reform needed by the Church today will involve much more than just 'tinkering around the edge,' Mr. Power stated. "Issues such as the authoritarian nature of the Church, compulsory celibacy for the clergy, the participation of women in the Church, the teaching on sexuality in all aspects cannot be brushed aside."

At the epochal Second Vatican Council meeting in the early 1960s, the issue of celibacy caused such mountainous disagreements that it was not formally discussed.

Yet the subject remains so potent that one of the two remaining senior Catholic figures from Vatican 2, theologian Hans Kung (the other is Pope Benedict), stated this spring that "The rule that Catholic priests must be celibate is responsible for the crisis in the church," in the first line of a statement titled, "Why Celibacy Should be Abolished."

In the view of many ordinary priests, and backed by the church's Holy See or leading bishops in Rome, "Celibacy involves a commitment to the church consistent with Jesus' call to 'leave all for Christ,' to be entirely available for the church," said a French priest at a chapel in Paris, who declined to give his name.

No distractions of family

Chastity, in the view of one lay German member, lets priests to devote themselves fully to their flock, without family distractions.

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