Saturday, March 13, 2010

Catholic Pedophilia

Here in America the abuse of children by ordained Catholic clergy, as well as nuns, has been an absolute scandal. The real scandal was the willingness of the Church heirarchy to engage in coverups of the problem, moving accused priests to other parishes, and failing to give the accusers justice. Many opined that this was a uniquely 'American' issue, others suggested it is a symptom of a wider problem in the Church. There is now evidence that this is not an American problem and indeed reflects a systemic problem with the Church and its approach to pedophiliacs within its ranks. The issue of celibacy comes up as an explanation for this, but reform of that policy will not resolve the problem.

Celibacy is a policy that has no basis in the Bible or in Jesus' ministry (despite protestations to the contrary by the Vatican). Early in the Church's history priests and bishops were married, and the notion of a celibate priesthood was arrived at much later. It may have been due to the fact that property passed to the priest's family rather than the Church. It may also reflect Paul's admonition that celibacy and virginity were the preferred state of life, with marriage as the option for those who could not control their passion. Regardless of its origin, it is not divinely mandated and should be an option instead of a requirement for those who are called to serve in that function. Diarmuid O'Murchu, an Irish priest I know, opined at a seminar I attended that "You don't choose celibacy; celibacy chooses you."

Candidates for the priesthood typically enter seminaries for extended study and "formation", which is intended to weed out those who are not truly called to serve. Those who are struggling with their sexuality and desires, or simply sexually immature, may decide that mandatory celibacy will help them to manage or overcome those issues. One would think that the formation process would weed out individuals with psychological issues. That does not appear to be the case. The issue of mandatory celibacy cannot be substituted for the larger issue of how seminarians are vetted before being conferred with ordination. Both issues stand alone and both need to be addressed.

Ending mandatory celibacy will not keep out those individuals who are drawn to children. It will not help gays who are struggling with their sexuality in a Church that marginalizes them. If the Church truly wishes to end this nightmare and mitigate the risk that new abuses will occur, it needs to take multiple steps:

1. Conduct a thorough self examination of it's beliefs and practices regarding human sexuality given the current state of scientific knowledge about gender orientation. Let's end the marginalization of a segment of our society that is as capable of loving, mutually enhancing relationships as any other. Stand up for their dignity as children of the Divine and stand up to those who would demonize them. Allow them the full participation in the rites and all of the sacraments of the Church, including Holy Orders.

2. Review the formation process for new priests and nuns with a specific focus on weeding out those who are unsuitable because they lack a mature appreciation for the sexual relationship or are struggling with inappropriate sexual attractions e.g. towards children or otherwise vulnerable individuals.

3. End mandatory celibacy and acknowledge that the call to serve as a priest or nun does not in and of itself negate a call to marriage. Clergy of other faiths have clearly demonstrated that fact. The gift of celibacy should be treated as just that; a gift conferred on those who are ready for it and can live with it. Not every priest or nun can.

4. Acknowledge the abuses, remove the abusers, and provide justice to the victims.

The Catholic Church prides itself on its focus on the intrinsic dignity of humans. This is the foundation of its teachings and policies regarding the unborn, the terminally ill, social justice efforts, and indeed the personal relationships people engage in. Yet the scandal of pedophilia and the Church's ongoing effort to shield the abusers and protect its bank accounts reminds me of the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. The Pharisee is in the temple, solemnly beating his breast and declaring his righteousness, while the Publican, fully aware of his inadequacies, notes that he is not worthy. It is pretty clear from the parable what Jesus thinks of the Pharisee.

The Church, in all its Pharisaic glory, is happy to beat its breast about its good works while wrapping its mantle as shield over the evil perpetrated by those on whom it has conferred authority as intermediaries between God and His people. Indeed, the press release that concluded the Pope's meeting with the Irish bishops regarding the scandal on their shores includes this;

The Holy Father also pointed to the more general crisis of faith affecting the Church and he linked that to the lack of respect for the human person and how the weakening of faith has been a significant contributing factor in the phenomenon of the sexual abuse of minors.

He stressed the need for a deeper theological reflection on the whole issue, and called for an improved human, spiritual, academic and pastoral preparation both of candidates for the priesthood and religious life and of those already ordained and professed.

Within nearly the same breath the Pope reaffirms the dignity of the human person, but then says the issue is more about faith than anything else. He does acknowledge that the process of formation needs revision, but his statement is not a directive to do so. Believe me when I tell you that the emphasis is on the crisis of faith and not on a failure to properly appreciate the truth and nuances of human sexuality and human sexual response, whether or not it is appropriate. Is it any wonder that those who are immature or struggling are willing to submit to mandatory celibacy in the expectation that it will somehow aid them in resolving their problem? Somehow their faith will set them free, yet we have evidence to the contrary.

I left the Church long ago and while I miss the rituals (no one does rituals like the Catholics) I don't miss the hypocrisy or the theological stagnation masquerading as Truth For All Time. This scandal may at long last force the Church to re-examine itself and come to a more mature understanding of its relationships (spiritual and otherwise) rather than risk losing all credibility and authority. I can only hope for the former instead of the latter, but I fear the status quo may continue indefinitely.

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