Celibacy Is A Problem for Priests—And Laity Too

By A.W. Richard Sipe

With relative certainty it can be said that 90 to 93% of Roman Catholic priests in the United States do not get sexually involved with minors. The discrepancy between those numbers and the report of the Bishops' Commission (4% priest abusers) can be reconciled and justified if one accounts for the under reporting of victims and perpetrators plus the reports from well monitored areas like Boston and New Hampshire where the figures of abusers runs over 7 and 8%. Many religious communities sustain a population of abusers at 10%. Where the safety of children is concerned it is necessary to give a wide berth rather than restrictive estimate to the dangers they face.

Of course sexual activity of any adult with a minor is criminal. In addition it is clearly a violation of celibacy that is expected of Catholic priests. To pretend that sex with minors is the only or even the most frequent violation of celibacy by Catholic priests and bishops is a fiction of the fifth magnitude.

I have never disputed the power of the ideal of celibacy—the complete and unflinching sacrifice of one's sexual life for the undivided service of others.

Nor have I ever advanced or advocated the argument that simply discarding the rule of mandatory celibacy will make priests more sexually responsible or mature.

The crisis of celibacy is far more complex than any change in law alone can remedy. But celibacy is undeniably a problem for priests.

To understand the problem of clerical celibacy and to debate cogently it is only right to seek what is known about how celibacy is practiced by those who profess it. And a great deal is already known.

A study of Swiss priests published on May 12, 2003, revealed that 50% of that clergy had mistresses. Father Victor Kotze, a South African sociologist conducted a survey of the priests in his country (1991) and found that 45% had been sexually active during the previous two year period.

Pepe Rodriguez published his book length study of the sexual life of clergy in Spain (La Vida sexual del Clero 1995). He concluded that among practicing priests 95% masturbate; 7% are sexually involved with minors and 26% have "attachments to minors;" 60% have sexual relations, 20% have homosexual relations.

He further refined the figures of 354 priests who were having sexual relations:

53% of these were having sex with adult women, 21% with adult men, 14% were sexually active with minor boys and 12% with minor girls. Although Rodriguez' book caused a monumental debate no one has challenged the reality of his numbers.

My 25 year ethnographic study of celibacy published in 1990 had drawn comparable conclusions about the celibate/sexual activity of Catholic priests in America. I stand by my findings that at any one time 50% of American clergy are sexually active. When in 1994 a BBC television reporter faced Cardinal Jose Sanchez, Prefect of the Congregation of the Clergy at the Vatican with those and other figures from the study, the Cardinal's response was, "I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of those figures."

Arguments abound that claim that any voice urging debate about celibacy has an "anti-Catholic" or "anti-celibacy" timbre. That is absolute nonsense. The vacuous ness of those claims is substantiated by listening carefully to shrill voices, like Fr. Andrew Greeley's, that raise up to squelch any debate about celibacy. Repeatedly Greeley points to surveys about the "happiness" and contentment of priests. In fact he claims that priests seem to be "about the happiest men in the country." Those claims and the studies he refers to say nothing about the sexual activity or abstinence of priests. And that is the point of celibacy, not happiness, but sexual abstinence.

Greeley repeatedly mounts the assertion that priests' personality traits "compare favorably with married laymen of similar educational backgrounds—including the capacity for intimacy." What does that have to do with the actual practice of celibacy? Mature men can be just as sexually active as immature men.

The question of the psychological maturity of clergy, however, is undoubtedly related to questions of celibate practice, but it is not a substitute for the simple inquiry: How do priests and bishops who claim to be celibate actually practice it?

The importance of clerical maturity/immaturity is significant to the resolution of the celibacy crisis. Most answers to the questions about the psychosexual maturity of priests do not register quite as rosy a picture as Greeley paints.

Numerous studies and observations by priests and other professionals portray a clerical landscape filled with a majority of psychically underdeveloped men with the proportion of mal-developed equaling the developed—about 8%. Thus spoke the 1972 Kennedy/Heckler psychological study of priests commissioned by the US Bishops. That is a reliable piece of work and supported by other observations. A psychiatrist, Dr. Conrad Baare addressed the Pope and Catholic Bishops in November 1971 at the Synod in Rome and sketched a pattern similar to the Kennedy/Heckler report. Psychosexual immaturity predominates in the ranks of the priesthood. No study has ever countermanded that conclusion. Additional studies merit attention and duplication.

Questions about the psychological maturity of priests and candidates for the ministry are not just a recent concern. Priest-psychiatrist Thomas Verner Moore raised questions from 1929 and 1935 onward in ecclesiastical journals. In

1968 W. J. Coville authored a paper on candidates for the priesthood and presented it at St. Vincent's Hospital. Although small (107 male candidates), it is evocative. Eight percent were (8%) were labeled "sexually deviant" while 70% were described as "psychosexually immature, exhibiting traits of heterosexual retardation, confusion concerning sexual role, fear of sexuality, effeminacy, and potential homosexual dispositions."

The Vatican and American bishops are conducting an orchestrated chorus of reform that involves excluding homosexual candidates from the ministry, revamping seminaries, reinforcing strict doctrinal orthodoxy, and urging bishops to holiness. The score will never realize a public performance simply because the system intended to welcome maturing men and produce celibate priests is itself largely sexually active.

Many of the bishops, rectors of seminaries, and spiritual directors who are entrusted with the responsibility of training priests are themselves sexually active and at times with the men they purport to mentor. The horror of the sexual abuse crisis of minors has demonstrated this disturbing pattern within seminaries and the priesthood generally. Numbers of priest abusers were themselves sexually active with other, sometimes highly placed, priests.

The problem of the Church's espousal of celibate standards in law rather than life deeply affects Catholic laity also. The official teaching of the Church on sexuality is that every sexual thought, word, desire and action outside of marriage is mortally sinful. And any sex within marriage not open to procreation is likewise mortally sinful. No compromise. This sexual standard remains valid for those who freely choose to be celibate. It is not a reasonable guide to healthy, mature, sexual development.

The Catholic Church's sexual teaching is built on a house of cards—abstract assumptions about human sexual nature rather than reality. People do not believe the church on sex; nor do they live that way. A majority of Catholics are grateful to their ministers for the services they provide. They wish them well, but they in ever-greater numbers also demand honesty. They are rightfully resentful and rejecting of bishops and priests who hurl thunder bolts about contraception, abortion, premarital sex, divorce, and masturbation from pulpits when they are aware that these men are not observant of their own basic rules, let alone their ideals.

The reform of sexually abusing priests the Vatican talks about will not take place without two essential elements: those who claim to be celibate should be what they claim to be. And second dialogue. The married have things to teach the Church about honesty, sex, and celibacy too.

By A.W. Richard Sipe