A Collegiate View of the Catholic Conundrum

As the media-feeding frenzy regarding sex abuse in the Catholic Church intensifies, Americans of all faiths and religious persuasions have begun asking serious questions about sexuality. Speculation about the psychological stability of both heterosexuals and homosexuals, the origins of sexual deviance and the viability of celibacy have splattered the front pages of leading newspapers all over the country. As the questions get tougher and the Catholic Church begins dealing with criticism of its all-male celibate clergy, the stage is set for a discussion of sexuality and religion.

Much of the debate about the clergy has centered on whether priests can reasonably be expected to sustain a life of celibacy. Many argue that requiring priests to repress their physical urges can only lead to the sort of psychological disease and unhappiness that has manifested itself as sexual abuse. Critics also argue that the church needs to rethink its policies regarding sexuality in general. They say the church’s bans on birth control, homosexuality and premarital sex have got to go.

However, the Catholic Church must recognize that maintaining clerical celibacy is crucial to its doctrinal integrity. Though the church must re-examine the way priests are screened and trained, it must also understand that undertaking fundamental reform would lead to inconsistency and a loss of credibility.

To find out what the life of a priest is really like, I called Luke O’Connell, 21, one of my closest friends and a student at the theological seminary at Catholic University of America. O’Connell plans to become a priest. Until he entered the seminary a year ago, however, he was a normal college student. He had a girlfriend, participated in extracurricular activities and enjoyed hanging out with his roommates. O’Connell is a far cry from the “shy, inexperienced” young men who some say are typical candidates for the priesthood.

O’Connell said that although it is difficult to give up contact with the opposite sex, the benefits in spirituality are significant. He recognizes that staying celibate won’t be easy, but that he nevertheless needs to do it. “Freeing yourself from other distractions makes it easier to focus,” he said. Furthermore, he argues, “if you follow a parish priest around for a day, you’ll understand why he can’t have a family. There’s just too much to do. You can’t be a good father and be a good Father.”

For O’Connell, doctrinal concerns are more important than practical considerations. He notes that in Catholic theology, the New Testament writings of Paul and the later work of other early church fathers establish celibacy as the highest ideal. Though not all church members are called to celibacy, the role of Priests in celebrating mass and mediating the process of transubstantiation requires that they follow the ideal as closely as possible.

Most of the calls for reforming the celibacy requirement have come from outside of the church’s hierarchy and even outside of its membership. Though some church insiders, including Cardinal Roger Mahoney, the head of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, have expressed hope that the sex abuse scandal will spark meaningful dialogue, most of them stop short of endorsing complete elimination of celibacy.

An article recently appearing in Newsweek is typical of criticism of clerical celibacy. The article viewed the issue mainly in pragmatic and administrative, rather than doctrinal terms. It speculated that priests might be happier if they could have sex, and explored the difficulties young men face as they try to cope with restricting sexual urges. Similarly, a recent New York Times article quoted numerous psychologists discussing the difficulty of maintaining celibacy, and suggested the existence of a “closet culture of homosexuality” in the priesthood.

O’Connell, however, represents a fundamentally different attitude toward life that many critics outside the Catholic Church and the Christian right simply don’t understand. Modern psychology has taught Americans that they cannot control their urges. Heterosexuals and homosexuals alike have been told that to control their sexuality is prudish, stupid and nave. Much of their thinking comes from the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued in the mid-19th century that Christian asceticism and the desire for higher spirituality covered up deep seated resentment about life, and masked psychological weakness.

For nearly 2,000 years, however, the Catholic clergy, to which O’Connell will soon belong, has steadily maintained that true spirituality can be found through self-control. They have long held that members of the faith can find meaning in mortal existence through transcendence of bodily desires and belief in vicarious atonement.

O’Connell argues that, although some Priests have not kept their vows, and have even committed serious crimes, many good priests retain their commitments in truth and dignity. “The priesthood still needs good men,” he said. “The church is still our family.”

If the Catholic Church changed its clerical celibacy policy, and admitted that humans cannot rise above the temptations of the flesh, the doctrinal coherence and unity of Catholicism would be gone. If not even Priests can control themselves, who else possibly could?

The church’s fight is significant, because it holds broader implications for the political and social viability of Christianity in the United States in general. If the Catholic Church cannot maintain its stance on sexuality, other conservative groups, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, would also come under fire to give in.

However, those who ask if the Catholic Church can maintain its commitment to sexual self-control would be wise to heed the words of Rev. Harry J. Flynn, Archbishop of the Diocese of Minneapolis: “With God all things are possible.”

John welcomes feedback at: [email protected] or send letters to the editor to: [email protected].