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Celibacy—unseen and unspoken

The Vatican summit on child sex abuse came and went from Feb. 21 to 24. I was looking for some mention of celibacy. Might it be one cause of sex abuse? But celibacy is verboten — too controversial to be brought up.

Many arguments both specious and credible have been advanced for and against it. But “institutional denial” has pulled shades over our eyes, making us unable to distinguish between a mouse skittering across the room or an elephant in the room.

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Let me dwell on just two points. First is the theological position on it. In the early Church through the first millennium, “married clergy” was the common practice, although the husbands were exhorted to continence. In the second millennium, “the imposition of celibacy as a condition for ordination” in the Latin rite was formalized in the 12th century; not just continence, but “no marriage,” which has lasted up to this day.

With 800 years or so of a rather stormy life, celibacy has penetrated the Church’s traditions (lower case) i.e., “a customary way of doing, expressing matters related to faith”; but not, Tradition (upper case) i.e., “the living and lived faith of the Church” (McBrien, “Catholicism,” p. 63). Celibacy is neither dogmatic nor infallible, does not belong to the essence of priesthood, is a discipline. It can change. The door to open celibacy is not closed. It can be reexamined.

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The second point has to do with celibacy as being “against nature.” Never having sex and never falling in love may be a lifelong struggle; forever is a long time. It’s “unnatural,” especially for the male whose sex drive is stronger and almost unfading. St. Augustine must have felt its force to look upon the sexual impulse as “a sin and a shame.” Think not of aberration, but simply that men must find release and human love, too. Ask priests. Ask men. We have no figures; but what percentage of priests in our unusually silent Church and country engage in temporary or permanent relationships with women?

However, there are men who have no inclination to get married but to live a single life. And there are men called to priesthood who are specially graced as to find strength and stability in sublimation and sacrifice.

Pray tell, does this gift or mark go as far as considering priests as “set apart” and “above” lay people, endowed with a superior ontological change in their very nature (perhaps carrying a gift to quiet concupiscence) and thus ranking priesthood as the highest state of life?

The story goes that an old medieval monk’s work was to laboriously copy manuscripts letter by letter and word for word. Once he was taking too long to go out of his cell. Worried, the other monks went to see what was wrong. There was the monk, sobbing, his hands cradling his bent head. “What’s wrong, Father?” He cried out, “It was celebrate, not celibate!”

Is it time “to set celibacy free”? What are some options? One is optional celibacy, or celibacy by choice and availability of celibate congregations or orders. Another is married priests, and a well-studied construct for them to blend into the system. By the way, there’s an army out there of married priests wanting and qualified to serve. It is possible to be gifted for priesthood, but not for celibacy.

It’s saddening that this outcry against child abuse should break out on the watch of Pope Francis, the very man resisted by tradition-bound and dogma-driven conservatives, the very antithesis of the secrecy, silence, clericalism and authoritarianism behind this debacle. Is the enemy within?

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Asuncion David Maramba is a retired professor and book editor; columnist since 1984 and contributor to the Inquirer since 1992.

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TAGS: Asuncion David Maramba, Catholic Church, celibacy, child sex abuse, Inquirer Commentary
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