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Selections from ARCC LIGHT
the ARCC Newsletter 
edited by James E. Biechler, Ph.D.

A Question of Rights
Celibacy & Pedophilia

By James E. Biechler

"If I haven't miscounted, the word 'celibacy' occurs only once in ARCC's charter. In view of the recent scandalous revelations about the high incidence of widespread sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests (and I'm passing over other violations of the vow of celibacy which would probably dwarf the child abuse problem) don't you think your organization should give more attention to this matter? After all, sexual abuse is a violation of a person's rights."
--R. L. W., Cincinnati, OH 

Isn't it interesting that you should make a connection between celibacy and the sexual abuse of children by priests? Spokesmen for the institution quite uniformly deny any connection between celibacy and sexual misconduct. Yet, if that were so obvious, why should so many denials be necessary? When you have a situation such as that recently revealed about a California seminary in which a sizeable number of priest faculty members were apparently involved in the systematic sexual abuse of their seminarians the connection of that behavior with clerical celibacy is an unavoidable question. 

Sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests is and has been a problem known to every bishop in America. Many or most of these bishops and their chancery officials have been, unwittingly or not, accomplices of child abusers. Surely we should not think of them as necessarily "guilty" accomplices because most of them must sincerely have believed they were doing the right thing in handling the cases presented them. The priesthood had to be protected because it was a divine institution. To think that a person who had been "called" by God to a life of celibacy was guilty of a sexual "crime" was just not a part of the thought processes of hierarchs. The sexual abuse of children was simply not perceived as a "crime" by bishops or chancery officials. As unacceptable as they saw it to be, it was not a matter for civil prosecution. Besides, the civil authorities had no jurisdiction over the "spiritual" lives of priests. So, the priest pedophile was usually transferred to another locale with the hope that he would mend his ways. Priests who were known to have had sexual affairs with adults, especially adult women, were laughingly looked down upon as weak-minded misfits and generally relegated to a country parish with the hope that the sexual conduct of the "birds and the bees" would not be too negative an influence on "Father." In general, clerical sexual abuse was regarded as spiritual weakness, rather than crime or psychopathology. Worst of all, the young victims of such priests were rarely considered. Their profound spiritual and emotional injury was hardly ever noticed. 

Lawsuits and public opinion have given lay people some leverage with which to force a change in church policy on this issue. They have had some small success even though the pattern of "cover-up" continues. One of the victims of Father James Porter told how he left the church in 1992 after the Archbishop of Boston criticized the press for its approach to these appalling perversions of the Christian ministry. The authorities never tire of reminding us that priests are not the only perpetrators of various types of sexual abuse, that other professions are also guilty, that some of the accusations are false, that there is no connection between celibacy and pedophilia. The authorities have little choice but to continue to make excuses, to continue the "cover-up". As long as they insist that celibacy is God's preference for humanity, those who think themselves God's spokesmen have to perpetuate that misunderstanding and protect it from any evidence that might call its "truth" into question. Celibacy is "purity." As such it is the will of God for his chosen elite, as every Catholic was taught. Pope John Paul II continues to teach that only celibates can serve God with an "undivided" heart. Being married to a woman means that a man can serve God only imperfectly at best. 

The myth of Christian celibacy may have been plausible and even, to some extent, a constructive element in Catholicism until critical historical and scriptural studies exposed its frail and inadequate foundation. To continue now to preach celibacy as "purity" or as a special gift to God's chosen servants is no longer constructive mythos but a colossal and cosmic lie. There is no basis in revelation for the view that virginity or celibacy is the divinely preferred way of life for human beings. The Book of Genesis makes it clear that God's plan was that male and female would live together as a unified image of God. The celibacy myth evolved over the centuries, mostly as an alien import from the east. It became juridically enforced as the vision of an 11th & 12th-century authority structure, fighting for ecclesiastical supremacy, thinking it necessary to separate church and empire. The papacy succeeded in achieving this separation, but, in the process, lost the world. (Cf. Paul Johnson, The History of Christianity). 

Celibacy is not the cause of pedophilia. But celibacy as idealized, institutionalized and mandated by the church provides an ideal environment for those men whose sexuality (and personality) development has been arrested at an immature level leading to their inability to establish intimate relations with another adult. Surely we should ask whether the seminary system, especially the minor seminary, may not be a factor inhibiting the development of mature heterosexual personality. At a crucial stage of personal development the young seminarian is formed in a culture of denial. He must deny his natural feelings, he must downgrade the natural order which includes those feelings, he must deny the importance of his natural family, he must relegate marriage and the procreation of children to an inferior level of life, and so he must even see children in a diminished light. When the worth of children is diminished and sexuality is immature, the distance to pedophilia is short. 

Celibacy also plays a role in the church's protection of the pedophile. Because celibacy is regarded as the highest and purest state of life it is easy to understand why the church must deny any connection between the "celibate" pedophile and the institution. Serving as an ideal cover for pedophiles, institutionalized celibacy also requires the cover-up of pedophilia. The church must protect and deny its pedophiles because otherwise it would stand revealed as a human institution. Then we should have to rethink hierarchy and papal monarchy. If celibacy is not of divine decree then what is the basis of priestly and hierarchical supremacy over the laity? The pure and uncontaminated celibate male stands in supreme difference over against every other person in his ambit. If there are priestly pedophiles, sodomites and fornicators (that word should also come to the fore in any discussion of contemporary clerical mores), and these were openly acknowledged, then perhaps we could begin to rethink the (blasphemous?) ascription to God of the superiority of the celibate way of life. 

Among the many reform groups which have arisen in the church during the past two decades (ARCC was one of the first) there is a group calling itself "Celibacy Is The Issue." This group wishes to underline the centrality of mandatory celibacy as the chief problem confronting the church today. There is certainly cogency in this position although the problem with mandatory celibacy is more than practical. The chief problem with mandatory celibacy lies in its theological legitimation. To assert that the celibate state is the divine preference for human beings is to assert something about God. It is to assert that sexuality, with its powerful emotions and obvious orientation toward marriage, reproduction and family life, is some kind of divine ruse, for what God really wants is that people refrain from all sexual behavior. Mandatory celibacy makes God into a devious and perverse creator who leads us astray by our natural emotions. No matter what "divinely" ordained celibacy makes of us, it is what it makes of God that should concern us. 

Pedophilia is not the only problem finding some connection with the celibacy myth. Because of celibacy's flimsy theological foundation many priests are experiencing identity crises. They are finding it difficult to be enthusiastic about their ministry. Denied the helpmate God created for them, they are experiencing deep loneliness and depression. Some have found companionship outside the norms of celibacy and are living in de facto marriages. This current state of affairs has to be known by the bishops. It is known by practically everyone else. 

Several things must remain clear. First of all, most child abusers are not clerics. Sad to say, they are the parents and relatives of the abused children. Secondly, nobody can deny that there are many dedicated and virtuous unmarried persons in the church. Among these are many priests. Many of these find their unmarried status to be a positive factor in their dedication to the gospel. Many of the beneficiaries of their dedication feel this also to be true. We are grateful to them as we are to the countless unmarried women and men through the Christian centuries who believed they were doing God's will because they believed in a God who created them male and female but really wanted none of that. To the extent that our world is better because of their dedication we thank them. We are grateful for the dedication and charity, not for the celibacy. 

Being unmarried is no virtue. Being unmarried is not a "gift" from God, nor is "celibacy." Since everything we have is a gift from God we should stop talking about special gifts from God as though to distinguish ourselves from others who have not received these "gifts." Above all, we must no longer claim God as a legitimation for what is a human invention. There is scriptural and natural law evidence that God "invented" marriage but no revelation attests to the divine origin of clerical celibacy. 


Dr. Biechler, an emeritus professor of religion, is a member of ARCC's board of directors. He also holds a licentiate in canon law and is a longtime member of the Canon Law Society of America. 

E-mail Comments to Dr. Biechler

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Ingrid H. Shafer, Ph.D.
e-mail address: ihs@ionet.net
Posted 18 July 1999
Last updated 18 July 1999
Copyright © 1999 Ingrid H. Shafer
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