It has become commonplace nowadays to insist that obligatory celibacy is not the cause of the sexual-abuse crisis in the priesthood. The recent report of the independent, but episcopally-appointed, National Review Board makes that point.
It may be that there are some uninformed, simplistically minded people out there who have claimed that celibacy is the cause of this terrible scandal and crisis, but I am not aware of a single serious commentator who has made such a claim.
The defenders of celibacy are surely right when they ask, “If celibacy were the cause of the crisis, why haven’t the overwhelming majority of celibate priests been sexually involved with children and young people?”
But those same defenders move onto softer ground when they cite the statistic that the total number of priests accused of these crimes and sins of sexual abuse during the timeframe covered by the report represented “only” 4 percent of the active clergy during that time. From there they move almost effortlessly to the conclusion that 96 percent of celibate priests are faithful to their commitment to celibacy.
But this is a fallacy. The fact that at least 4 percent of priests have been accused of abusing children and teenagers does not necessarily mean that the remaining 96 percent are celibate in the full sense of the word.
Such an assumption is at least questioned, if not contradicted, by the testimony and experience of spiritual directors, psychologists, vicars for clergy, and, most importantly, of priests themselves.
Richard Sipe’s recently published book, Celibacy in Crisis: A Secret World Revisited, challenges the celibacy-is-working-for-the-other-96-percent thesis. On the basis of hundreds of interviews with priests, their partners and their victims, Sipe concludes that at any one time one-half of the priest population involve themselves with sexual activity of some sort.
He further estimates that at any one time only 2 percent of celibate clergy can be said to have truly “achieved” celibacy. Another 6 to 8 percent for whom the practice of celibacy is “firmly established” have apparently been gifted with the “clear charism of celibacy,” occasional lapses over the course of a lifetime notwithstanding.
If Sipe’s findings are valid, it requires no mathematical dexterity to see that for a significant number of priests, celibacy either does not work at all or is vulnerable to frequent or occasional compromises.
Again, this is still not to say that obligatory celibacy is the cause of the crisis. Rather, it is a major factor, but not in isolation from the church’s official teachings on all aspects of human sexuality nor from the way in which those teachings have been communicated to, and internalized by, clergy, religious and laity alike.
By restricting ordination and the continued exercise of priestly ministry to those willing to commit themselves to lifelong celibacy, the church is forced to draw from an exceedingly narrow slice of its male population for its most important pastoral ministry.
Within that population, there is likely to be a disproportionately higher percentage of sexually dysfunctional or immature individuals than in the general male population, and there is also likely to be a disproportionately higher number of homosexuals, some of whom may have been attracted to the “cover” that a celibate priesthood offers.
One final question: If celibacy has nothing to do with the sexual-abuse crisis, why is it that the scandal has not touched in any significant way the Eastern-rite Catholic churches, which have a married priesthood?
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.