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Spotlight Report

  Ellen Goodman  

What celibacy's got to do with it


EVER SINCE the scandal broke over Boston, I've had a refrain running through my head: ''What's celibacy got to do with it?''

It's not set to the tune of the Tina Turner rock song but of a Bach cantata.

After all, as the wind of sexual abuse shakes more priests out of the trees, it has become routine to wonder: What's behind all this? The word celibacy comes up in one story after another. Churchgoers and church-watchers repeatedly say, ''We need to talk about permitting married priests.''

At least one cardinal summoned to Rome, Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, said he would bring up the subject. The pope tried to head off the discussion, declaring in advance, ''the value of celibacy as a complete gift of self to the Lord and his church must be carefully safeguarded.'' But you don't brush something off the table so firmly unless it's occupying an uncomfortable amount of space.

I don't believe celibacy causes sexual abuse any more than marriage causes divorce. Need it be said that the vast majority of priests are not predators? For that matter, an earlier and prototype pedophile in the Boston diocese, James Porter, left the priesthood, married, fathered, and still kept sexual abuse as his hobby. But at the same time, celibacy isn't irrelevant to this scandal.

The issues facing the Catholic Church have been divided into at least two parts. One is, simply and horrifically, criminal abuse of minors by a growing roster of priests. The other is a hierarchy that protected itself instead of its children, forwarding danger from one parish to another.

The first debate is about broken vows, the second about a closed, restricted circle. But the matter of a celibate priesthood may link these two.

There are theologians who say that Christian celibacy began as what Boston College's Lisa Cahill calls a ''counterculture.'' In the first centuries after Christ, people still lived in a socially controlled framework in which they were married off and expected to reproduce for the community. Celibacy was a radical and even subversive alternative.

It wasn't until the 12th century that celibacy became mandatory for priests, in large part as a struggle over power and property. If priests could marry, they could pass land to their biological heirs, land the church wanted for itself.

But medieval protectors of the church also worried that priests were too involved in personally controlling wealth. They asked, says Cahill, ''Can you be a good servant of the church if you are worried about power, wealth, political involvement?'' How ironic that sounds today as the ranking prelates of a celibate church are criticized for worrying more about ''power, wealth, political involvement'' than about children.

There is another, deeper way in which the requirement for celibacy mirrors the rigid hierarchy that has allowed such a mess to grow. Eugene Kennedy, a former priest and author of ''The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality,'' says celibacy was and is part of a philosophical view of humanity that divides people into lower and higher parts, the physical and the spiritual.

This split, he says, ''pits the flesh against the spirit and makes the soul feel imprisoned in a very tough correctional institution.''

It may be ''better to marry than burn'' in the liturgy, but sex-as-a-fire-extinguisher is clearly second-best to virginity. In the Catholic Church the most worshipped mother is a virgin, and so are most saints. Just one married couple has been elevated to sainthood. But these two had taken and upheld a vow to live together as brother and sister.

When the church talks about a priest being called to a ''higher'' life, does that mean a life further away from the ''lowly'' body and further away from the ''lowly'' laity? Surely, in an all-male celibate clergy, a priest rises further and further away from women.

''I believe that the image the church took of the human person matches the image it has of itself,'' says Kennedy. An image of lower and higher humanity.

I am no theologian. Many priests believe that celibacy frees them to devote themselves to others beyond family. I'm sure that's true for some. And sure, too, that it isolates others.

It's the requirement - not the opportunity, but the necessity - for celibacy that narrowed the pool of priests. It's the remote, closed hierarchy that made the church soundproof.

I am told that holiness, wholeness, and health all come from the same root word. Maybe we need to redefine holiness as a wholeness of spirit and body, to expand a small up-and-down hierarchy into a wider whole. Maybe that's what celibacy has to do with it.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is

This story ran on page A15 of the Boston Globe on 4/25/2002.
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