Church History, Church Reform, Clergy, Hierarchy, Tradition

Sex Abuse, Cover Up, and Catholic Culture, Part 3: Sexuality and Forced Celibacy


Many of the priests and bishops who have been identified as pedophiles and sexual predators went through a seminary system that differed from the current approach. Whether the present version of seminary training will also create an environment that produces a similar rate of sex abusers as the former approach remains to be seen. There are fewer seminarians and priests than there were in the past, so the raw number of pedophiles and predators should also decrease. Hopefully.

Looking back on the previous approach to priestly formation, it is no wonder that the emotional and sexual development of seminarians and priests would likely produce some with serious sexual problems. Enticing young, elementary school boys to enter the seminary in high school to begin their long journey to ordination was a prescription for arrested sexual and emotional growth. It was not only the all-male environment, which eliminated normal developmental relationships with girls and women, but also the rules-focused, continually monitored setting that prevented some personalities from maturing, sexually and psychologically.

Since the vast number of priests ordained before 1980 experienced some version of that kind of seminary training and a priestly life that followed a similar pattern, it could have been predicted that some of those priests would be diverted from normal, expected, and accepted sexual behavior.

Forced celibacy highlights and nourishes this anti-sex regimen. Celibacy does not cause pedophilia. But celibacy is a requirement for priesthood and, for centuries, many priests professed it because there was no other way to be an ordained minister in the Catholic Church. (In recent decades, the diaconate became available to married men.) Still, some priests who profess, but do not accept, celibacy have serious psychological conflicts regarding sexuality. Obviously, too many of them acted out these destructive sexual behaviors, including pedophilia. And bishops trained in the same seminaries and living the same priesthood covered up the damaging behavior of their fellow priests. Their similar life experiences created some unhealthy bonding that contributed to protecting the offending priests.

Celibacy is a gift for some people, male and female, who specifically choose a single way of life. It is not a specific gift for ministry, and the reasons the Catholic Church requires the coupling of the gift of ordained ministry with celibacy are murky, suspect, and institutionally damaging. It is stubbornly negligent to continue the practice into the 21st century.

The ultimate goal would be to have a fully integrated, male/female, married/celibate ordained priesthood and episcopacy which would collaborate with the laity in all substantive decisions. While arguments for a married clergy and for women’s ordination differ to some extent, the result of those discussions should lead to an all-inclusive clergy. Those policy decisions would normalize the sexual experience of ordained ministers.

While eliminating forced celibacy would not guarantee a total exclusion of pedophiles from the Catholic clergy, normalizing the ordained clergy sexually would prevent people with pedophile tendencies from seeking public shelter for their destructive behavior and easy access to potential victims. The priesthood would no longer provide a convenient cover for a person who is also a predator pedophile.

It’s also likely that a married episcopacy (most of the apostles were married men, after all) would temper the personalities and decisions of local bishops.

Since the sex abuse and cover-up scandal directly concerns sexual activity, a core fix must also deal directly with sex. Other aspects of Catholic culture are also involved, as this seven-part series insists. But the central factor of human sexuality must play a major role in addressing the scandal and the behavior that caused it.

The history of the Catholic church in terms of sexuality in general has been extremely negative. The constant message has been that sex is bad and all sexual expression must be tightly regulated and repressed. Sex within marriage is acceptable for the sake of procreation but sexual enjoyment, even within marriage, has been suspect and generally misunderstood and underappreciated by a supposedly celibate clergy. Overcoming that overwhelming onslaught will be extremely difficult and will take enlightened leadership and courageous action. But correcting the teachings, policies, and practices of centuries of Church insistence on this fundamentally negative version of sex is necessary to minimize the sexual exploitation of children and vulnerable adults, male and female, in the future.

Anything less than that wholesale reversal will continue to leave some children and adults vulnerable to the proclivities of sexually deviant priests and bishops who provide cover for their crimes.