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Raymond Arroyo
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Celibacy - The Fact and the Fiction
By Raymond Arroyo
May 16, 2002, 10:10 a.m.


When he met with the U.S. cardinals to formulate some response to the sexual scandals besieging the Church, the Pope, in his wisdom took the issue of clerical celibacy off the table as a cure-all. Against the strident voices of dissenters, disaffected clergy, and at least one American cardinal, His Holiness suggested that celibacy was part of the solution, not the problem. And the facts seem to bear him out.

In 1992 the Archdiocese of Chicago reviewed some 2,252 priest personnel files. They found that 40 priests — 1.8 percent had been guilty of sexual misconduct at some point in their career. Of that 40, only one was a pedophile. Another study by Penn State Professor Philip Jenkins reveals that a mere .3 percent of priests are pedophiles. Married men abuse children in far greater numbers. Anywhere from 3 to 8 percent if you believe the studies.

So statistically, children are far safer with the celibates. As the U.S. cardinals said in their report of April 24: "a link between celibacy and pedophilia cannot be scientifically maintained."

"But if only these men had a spouse, a sexual outlet, they would not need to turn to kids" goes the conventional wisdom (and the screeds regularly littering the op-ed pages). Aside from reducing women to little more than child-protection devices, there are logical holes here.

Putting aside the media fixation with the Catholic Church it is important to point out, as the Christian Science Monitor recently did, that the majority of sexual-abuse allegations in America occur in Protestant churches. There are 3,500 sex-abuse allegations a year — roughly 70 a week in Protestant churches according to the Christian Ministry Resource Survey. Remember, these are churches where married clergy and volunteers predominate.

If the objective is to stop the abuse before us, and prohibit its happening again- the Protestant statistics prove marriage is no insurance policy. Since the victims in 98 percent of the alleged Catholic abuse cases were teenage boys, allowing priests to marry (women) seems a pointless solution. There is just no correlation between the offense and the corrective. It's a little like offering the alcoholic priest the deed to a dairy and calling him cured.

If the truth be known: These scandals were not caused by celibacy. These scandals were caused by a lack of celibacy. The ancient discipline has gotten a bad rap in the chaos of the last few months. But it is so much a part of the Church's history and its goodness, to cast it away in this dark hour would be an error.

If you believe the folks on TV, celibacy was something "imposed on the priesthood" during the Middle Ages to keep the children of clerics from inheriting Church property. If I had a dime for every time I've heard this.… Actually, the real history is far more interesting, and complex.

To begin with, Christ himself was a celibate so it is no surprise that the early Church and the Scripture itself salutes and commends the practice. In Matthew's Gospel, Christ lauds those who "make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven." In his first letter to the Corinthians St. Paul, another celibate, writes: "the unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord....but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided."

From the time of Christ forward celibacy was the Catholic norm for priests — married clergy were merely tolerated. Certainly by the 4th century there is little doubt where the Church stood on the matter. In 385, Pope Siricius issued the first papal decree on priestly celibacy. Five years later, the Council of Carthage announced: "Previous councils have decreed that bishops, priests, and deacons must be continent and perfectly chaste, as becomes ministers of God...as the Apostles taught." By the Council of Toledo in 633, a bishop's permission was needed for a priest to marry. Finally in 1139, Pope Gregory VII declared celibacy mandatory for all priests; formalizing in law what was already the general practice for centuries.

And the canard that protecting Church land rights drove the papacy to the discipline of celibacy just isn't true. But there is a spiritual explanation. Starting in the third century married priests were required to abstain from sex the night before offering Mass. The notion being: Separate yourselves from the worldly and focus on the transcendent. As the demand for the sacraments increased, these men were abstaining from sex all the time. Thus, like all things in the Church, a practice rooted in tradition evolved over time and eventually was codified into law.

At a time when the world is so transfixed by the deviant, where all mysteries are laid bare, these celibate men and women are a contradiction: a people set apart, people who have saved the most precious part of themselves for God alone. The world needs that example and purity today more than ever.

In the final analysis we are right to condemn, and bring to justice those non-celibate clergymen guilty of these heinous crimes, but let us not strike out against those who faithfully observe their vows to God and continue to walk steadily down this holy and well-trodden path of sacrifice.