Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Celibacy--Today's Situation

The Changing Face of the
Priesthood by Father Donald
Cozzens--certainly worth the
Professor Daniel Maguire of Marquette University wrote today in the New York Times “Letters” that   “The root of the problem (clerical sex abuse) is mandatory celibacy. There is a reason religions with a married clergy have no comparable problem — not that they are problem-free. Celibacy is not a bona fide occupational qualification for ministry.” I am a bit surprised at this because Dr. Maguire is usually better nuanced in his observations.  In the first place his claim that religions (or at least other Christian Churches) with a married clergy have no comparable problem.  I am not sure what parallel universe that Professor Maguire lives in, or perhaps it is just the rarified air of his ivory tower—and theologians have the more rarified air of all academics, allowing angels to have danced on the heads of pins for centuries—but he needs to talk with any Episcopalian or Lutheran Bishop or meet with the officials of any presbytery in the country to know that the problem of clerical sex abuse is not unique to celibate clergy.  On the other hand, he may want to visit a few Buddhist temples and inquire why their celibate monks (seem, at least to) stay out of the limelight in this disheartening problem.  Don’t misunderstand me, I am not defending mandatory celibacy. To the contrary:  I think it is sick.  Not  because it has to do with sex, but because—and here is where Maguire is on to something though he misdiagnosed it—celibacy and sex abuse (whether of minors or vulnerable adults) does have a common root.  Power. 
      The most common motivational issue behind sexual abuse is the need of one person to dominate another who is in a position of inferior power.  An adult incapable of healthy peer relationships seeks to control or otherwise dominate a person whose youth and naiveté leaves him (or her) vulnerable.  An employer or a person higher up the power chain in a corporation or an institution (for example the United States Military) has a need to flex power by exercising control over a subordinate, and what control is more total than demanding sexual favors.  Even in what might appear—and the operative word is appear—to be a healthy peer relationship, one person often has a need to dominate the other. 
      Celibacy too is about power and the need to dominate.  In 2000 Father Donald Cozzens of the Cleveland diocese published a book that “hit the nail on the head,” The Changing Face of the Priesthood.  This is one of the most insightful, indeed I think it is the single most insightful, analysis of the issues facing the Catholic Church in North America.  It deals with far more than celibacy or the sex-abuse crisis.  I think it is particularly insightful on reasons for the vocation crisis in the Church today and why parents, unlike fifty years ago, do not want their children to be priests or nuns.  It deals with how the abuse of power is structuralized in the Catholic Church. 
     In the last several posts, I have shown that celibacy historically was used to protect Church property against alienation to the families of priests in the medieval period.  That is not an issue today. Today I would suggest that celibacy is a key factor in creating a psychological dependency of the clergy on the hierarchy.  The priest is never allowed to achieve a full social maturity.  He is required to live in Church-owned housing.  With housing provided, he is paid a less than professional salary—enough to live on but not enough to give him any independence.  While some priests are able to supplement this dependency-income with family money or are canny enough to successfully transform their resources into something of a fortune sufficient to let them buy a home and have an income sufficient for independence, most clergy remain for their entire lives dependent on their diocese or religious community for housing, meals, automobile, and an income just sufficient for clothing and relatively modest vacations.  Such dependency creates a relationship with the Institutional Church and its representatives not unlike that of the abuse victim afraid to break the ties with his abuser.  Where can he go?  What choices does he have?  He comes to see himself as powerless over his life and life choices.  Who will have him if the abuser (or in this case, the Institution) turns him out?  The abuser (or the Institution) is someone that everyone esteems.  While he, the abused (or the priest) finds himself unhappy with the situation, it must be him and not the situation since the abuser (Institution) is so highly respected that they can do nothing wrong.  Or perhaps the victim (the priest) feels “honored” to be the recipient of the reflected glory and power of the abuser (Institution).  And there are rewards.  Just as an abuser might take his victim for a nice vacation, buy him or her some clothes, even a car, or give him access to money or a career.  So too the priest has the hopes of being sent on for higher studies, given a better parish, maybe even being made a monsignor, or—dare he think it?—a bishop! 
      This is not to say that that there are not good priests, sincere priests,—there are, hundreds, even thousands.   There are many men who have found an interior freedom that lets them function effectively in a dysfunctional institution.  They give generous service to others and have found strategies to maintain their own emotional and spiritual health despite the unhealthiness of the system in which they work.  On the other hand, many good priests have come to realize just how dysfunctional the system is and for their own welfare have chosen to find other vocational paths.  And, tragically, the Church has more than a significant share of men who have drunk the clerical Kool-Aid and live not in the freedom of the Gospel but in enthrallment to an Institution that is in dire need of Reform.  More on this in the next posting.          

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