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Celibacy Isn’t the Problem

The recent spate of reporting on clergy sexual abuse resulted in a furor of criticism against the Church, much of it centered around the issue of priestly celibacy. Three important questions arise in connection with the subject. First, does priestly celibacy cause the sexual abuse of children? Second, why are priests required to be celibate? And third, what did cause the sex abuse crisis in the Church?

“The Charge Is Unsupported”

First, and perhaps most importantly, does celibacy cause sexual abuse? A number of experts outside the Church have investigated this question, and the answer is clear. A Psychology Today article by Michael Castleman, “Beyond Bad-apple Priests: Who the Pedophiles Really Are” pointed out, “From media reports, one might infer that Catholic priests commit most pedophilia. In fact, only a tiny fraction of child sex abusers are priests” (All about Sex,, March 1, 2010). Dr. Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State, is the author of Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis. He observes,

My research of cases over the past 20 years indicates no evidence whatever that Catholic or other celibate clergy are any more likely to be involved in misconduct or abuse than clergy of any other denomination—or indeed, than non-clergy. However determined news media may be to see this affair as a crisis of celibacy, the charge is just unsupported. . . . My concern over the “pedophile priest” issue is not to defend evil clergy, or a sinful church (I cannot be called a Catholic apologist, since I am not even a Catholic). But I am worried that justified anger over a few awful cases might be turned into ill-focused attacks against innocent clergy. The story of clerical misconduct is bad enough without turning into an unjustifiable outbreak of religious bigotry against the Catholic Church. (“The Myth of the Pedophile Priest,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 3, 2010)

Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, notes: “We don’t see the Catholic Church as a hotbed of this [abuse] or a place that has a bigger problem than anyone else. I can tell you without hesitation that we have seen cases in many religious settings, from traveling evangelists to mainstream ministers to rabbis and others” (Pat Wingert, “Mean Men,” Newsweek, April 8, 2010). Also supportive of this conclusion is professor of psychology Dr. Thomas Plante, who writes:

Catholic clergy aren’t more likely to abuse children than other clergy or men in general. According to the best available data (which is pretty good, mostly coming from a comprehensive report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2004, as well as several other studies), 4 percent of Catholic priests in the USA sexually victimized minors during the past half century. No evidence has been published at this time that states that this number is higher than clergy from other religious traditions. The 4 percent figure is lower than school teachers (at 5 percent) during the same time frame and perhaps as much as half of the numbers of the general population of men. (Do the Right Thing,, March 24, 2010)

But psychologists aren’t the only ones suggesting that priests are no more likely to abuse minors than other members of the public. Insurance companies stay in business by calculating the likelihood of various events taking place, including death, car accidents, and abuse. They have a huge financial interest in objective standards of evidence. In 2010, Newsweek reported,

Since the mid-1980s, insurance companies have offered sexual misconduct coverage as a rider on liability insurance, and their own studies indicate that Catholic churches are not higher risk than other congregations. Insurance companies that cover all denominations, such as Guide One Center for Risk Management, which has more than 40,000 church clients, does not charge Catholic churches higher premiums. (Wingert, “Mean Men”)

The evidence is substantial and confirmed by psychologists, researchers, and insurance companies: Priestly celibacy is not a risk factor for the sexual abuse of children.

Sacrilege and Scapegoating

None of these facts is meant to excuse or belittle the reality and problem of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy. Sexual abuse of a minor by anyone is intrinsically evil according to the moral law and a serious crime according to the civil law. No situation, no motive, or no excuse can justify it—ethically or legally—under any circumstances. The identity of the priestly abuser compounds the evil done. Like a church building or a chalice, priests are consecrated to the service of God, and like a church building or chalice, it is possible to make sacrilegious use of what is consecrated to the service of God. Theologian Germain Grisez notes that because the body of the priest is consecrated to the service of God, “All violations of the sixth commandment by or with anyone who has undertaken celibate chastity for the kingdom’s sake are also sacrileges” (“Sin, Grace, and Zero Tolerance: An Exchange,” First Things, March 2005, 29).

Clerical abuse adds to this immorality an additional deformity: betrayal of trust. Priests are in a position of care and responsibility for the people under their spiritual care. “It is a betrayal of trust comparable to treason against one’s country,” writes Grisez, “It always risks seriously injuring the spiritual goods for which the Church is responsible—goods immeasurably more precious than human life itself. The injury done to the victim’s spiritual well being is likely to be serious and might well be pastorally irremediable” (“Sin, Grace, and Zero Tolerance,” 30). When discovered by others, clerical abuse also undermines the public perception of priests, the openness of people to hearing the gospel, and the readiness of some of the faithful to come to the sacraments, especially confession. The abuse of minors by anyone is always unethical and always illegal, but the abuse of minors by priests compounds the wrongdoing.

It is also always wrong to accuse falsely or defame the innocent. The vast majority of priests—like the vast majority of teachers and parents—work for the well-being of others and have never engaged in abuse of any kind. It is unfair to single out and stereotype Catholic clergy as if they were as a group depraved and perverted. Every large group of people—doctors, teachers, gardeners, coaches, or priests—will have some percentage of “bad apples.” Priests—like all people—should not be punished or assumed guilty until proven innocent. Although a small number of priests have perpetrated sexual abuse, the vast majority of priests are innocent of these crimes. Like the vast majority of teachers, doctors, and coaches, they should be treated in accordance with who they are—honorable people  trying to provide a valuable service to the human community.

For a Higher Good

Still, for some people celibacy itself remains an issue. Though married clergy of various denominations also have been found guilty of sexual abuse, many people have concerns about celibacy. Why are Catholic priests forced to be celibate? The question involves a misunderstanding. No one is forced to be celibate—because no one is forced to be a Catholic priest. Priests freely choose to embrace the commitment of celibacy for the sake of serving God’s kingdom in a heroic way. Such a decision is similar to joining the Marine Corps. In joining the priesthood or the Marines, a person volunteers for an arduous undertaking for the sake of serving God or country heroically.

History provides other examples of people forgoing the goods of marriage and sex to pursue single-mindedly a mission of great purpose—not always a religious one. Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, embraced celibacy to seek world peace. Mahatma Gandhi chose celibacy as part of his quest for freedom for his country. George Frideric Handel remained celibate so as to focus on his musical composition. And Catholic priests choose celibacy as a way of loving God and neighbor, as a way of imitating Jesus, as a way of bearing witness. Before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger had this to say about the meaning of religious celibacy:

The renunciation of marriage and family is thus to be understood in terms of this vision: I renounce what, humanly speaking, is not only the most normal but also the most important thing. I forego bringing forth further life on the tree of life, and I live in the faith that my land is really God—and so I make it easier for others, also, to believe that there is a kingdom of heaven. I bear witness to Jesus Christ, to the gospel, not only with words, but also with a specific mode of existence, and I place my life in this form at his disposal. (Salt of the Earth: Christianity and the Catholic Church at the End of the Millennium, An Interview with Peter Seewald, 195)

Nonetheless, as a result of prevailing attitudes about sexuality, the freely made decision of celibacy scandalizes some people. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus noted, “The celibacy rule is so offensive to many of today’s commentators, Catholic and otherwise, because it so frontally challenges the culturally entrenched dogma that human fulfillment and authenticity are impossible without sexual intercourse of one kind or another” (qtd. in “The Elephant in the Sacristy,” by Mary Eberstadt, The Weekly Standard, June 17, 2002). In a culture that often preaches through television, movies, and songs that sexual fulfillment is a necessary good, the religious celibate will seem to be a heretic. That is why in a culture such as ours, the heroic witness of persons forgoing marriage and sex to bear testimony in deeds to the primacy of the gospel is more important than ever.

Universal Fatherhood

But can a person serve God—heroically serve God—without being celibate? Of course. Indeed, to love God and neighbor heroically is the call not just of priests or nuns, but of every baptized person. Still, there are important differences between the life of a person celibately consecrated to God and a married person. Let’s compare, for example, a married man and a celibate priest.

A married man and a celibate priest should both love God above all things, but their way of expressing this love is importantly different. A married man should express his love for God by giving a special priority—above all other people—to his wife. In second place, after his wife, he should love his own children. The properly ordered love of a married man puts the welfare of his family in pride of place. His way of loving God is expressed through his preferential and sacrificial love for his wife and his children. A husband who neglects properly loving his wife and children—who wants to do “great things” for others in his work or in his parish but fails in his first responsibility—acts badly. A man’s own children and wife have a special claim on his attention, his energy, and his service—a claim that other people cannot make. A father and husband has special responsibility to look after the well-being of his wife and children and to put their needs ahead of his wants and the desires of the larger community.

Without a spouse and children, the sacrificial love of the celibate priest is less particular and more universal. For Catholics, each priest is a “Father”: Lay people have special claims on priestly fathers to look after their spiritual well being, to hear their confessions, to help them on their journey to God. It is fitting that the priest be without his own biological children—as a father available and responsible for a great many spiritual children. In a sense, everyone is his son or daughter, his priority, the one to whom he should especially devote his care. The Church is his bride, and he will often be called to make great sacrifices in terms of his time, energy, and service for her well-being. The celibate priest can serve whomever has the greatest need, wherever he can make the greatest contribution, and however it best serves the common good.

A married man cannot give away all his money to the poor without making his own family destitute. A priest can. The married man cannot move to Africa to serve orphans whose parents have died of AIDS without putting his family in jeopardy; a priest can. A husband and father makes his primary contribution to the well-being of the world via his family, by serving his wife and his children. He serves the common good by means of first taking care of the private good of those for whom he is primarily responsible. A celibate priest can make whoever has the greatest physical or spiritual need his family. He serves the common good directly. Like marriage, the acceptance of priestly celibacy is a free choice—undertaken for the sake of love, but unlike in marriage, the love (agape) of a priest is universal.

Broken Faith

The late Fr. Neuhaus wrote: “This crisis is about three things: fidelity, fidelity, fidelity” (“Scandal Time [Continued],” First Things, June/July 2002). If priests had kept their vows to God, if they had been faithful to the commitments to those they served, if they had simply obeyed canon law and civil law, there would have been no sexual abuse crisis. It was not celibacy that caused the problem but lack of celibacy. The gross sin and criminal misconduct of a small minority of priests damaged the lives of the young people abused, undermined the spiritual well-being of the community, and cost millions of dollars (much of which has gone to trial lawyers rather than victims). The primary cause of the problem rests with small minority of clergy who radically contradicted the priestly vocation of loving, sacrificial service.

Unfortunately, a lack of fidelity was also evident among the episcopacy. As Pope Benedict pointed out to the bishops of Ireland, many bishops failed to enforce canon law requiring that serious crimes such as child abuse be met with serious punishment. Instead, many bishops treated sexual abuse in ways that were merely therapeutic. Many bishops did not take allegations of abuse seriously, and many did not punish those who abused but simply moved them into new opportunities to abuse. Beginning in the 1960s, there was a laxity in discipline in the Church and a negligence in enforcing the behavior appropriate for clergy. The National Review Board, appointed to investigate the crisis, noted “moral laxity, excessive leniency” as part of the cause of the crisis.

Happily, this situation has now been rectified, at least with respect to sexual abuse of minors. The norms accepted by U.S. bishops in 2002 require zero tolerance of sexual abuse: “When even a single act of sexual abuse by a priest or deacon is admitted or is established after an appropriate process in accord with canon law, the offending priest or deacon will be removed permanently from ecclesiastical ministry” (Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons).The Catholic Church in the United States has taken extensive measures to prevent child abuse, measures that are highly effective. George Weigel writes, “Catholicism has cleaned house in America, where the Church is likely the country’s safest environment for young people today (there were six credible cases of abuse reported in 2009: six too many, but remarkably low in a community of some 68 million members) (“Church Gets an Unfair Rap,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 4, 2010). By way of comparison, the New York Post reported, “At least one child is sexually abused by a school employee every day in New York City schools”(Douglas Montero, “Secret Shame of Our Schools: Sexual Abuse of Students Runs Rampant,” July 30, 2001).The situation of the Catholic Church with respect to the crime of child abuse is much better than other institutions. Virtually all the cases of abuse now talked about in the mass media involve cases that are 30, 40, or even 50 years old.

Another aspect of episcopal negligence involved a failure to teach properly. There was ambiguity about celibacy as it was taught in seminaries, reflected in “updated” classes following Vatican II. (See “Forget Everything You Learned in Seminary, ” page 18.) Both within the Church and in the culture generally, an excessive laxity concerning sexual ethics helps explain why rates of abuse exploded at a particular time—the late ’60s and ’70s—and then began to fall dramatically in the ’80s to much lower levels.

Cases of abuse were relatively rare in the 1950s and become rare again in the late 1980s and 1990s. The increase can be directly traced to changing sexual mores and a failure to adhere to traditional Church teaching on the subject. Rather than ensure, as was their duty, that the Church’s doctrines and disciplines were clearly taught and firmly enforced, many bishops turned a blind eye. Mostly by their inaction, many bishops allowed an openness to the reigning libertine spirit to be fostered unchecked among seminarians and clergy.

The Clericalist Cover

The primary blame for the crisis rests on those priests who lacked fidelity to their vows. Secondary blame rests with those bishops who lacked fidelity in governing the Church in accordance with canon and civil law, in teaching sound doctrine, and in making sure that others in their diocese teach sound doctrine. Thirdly—a distant third, in my view—some lay people contributed to the problem of sexual abuse through clericalism. Russell Shaw defines clericalism as

an elitist mindset, together with structures and patterns of behavior corresponding to it, which takes it for granted that clerics—in the Catholic context, mainly bishops and priests—are intrinsically superior to the other members of the Church and deserve automatic deference. Passivity and dependence are the laity’s lot. By no means is clericalism confined to clerics themselves. The clericalist mindset is widely shared by Catholic lay people. (Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church, 15)

In some cases, clericalism led some clerics and some lay people to deny there was a problem at all, or to deny that the problem was as grave as it was, or to take appropriate action in response to allegations. In some cases, for example, police officers did not enforce the law and prosecutors did not file charges because of an improper deference to clergy. (It is inconsistent that critics of the Church do not also call to task police departments and district attorneys who behaved in this way. Often the police acted as did many bishops—but no one seems to be similarly outraged, despite the fact that police officers, and not bishops, take an oath to enforce the law.)

As Fr. Neuhaus noted, “Faithful Catholics owe it to the Church and owe it to their bishops not to let them off the hook. In this instance, the virtue of docility includes a respect for bishops that requires recalling them to the duty and the dignity to which they were ordained. Too many of them have neglected that duty and debased that dignity” (“Scandal Time [Continued]”). In a fitting way, lay people have not only the right but the duty to correct and to call to fidelity ordained clergy and bishops who neglect or even contradict their vocation to serve.

In summing up the issue, Fr. Neuhaus said it best:

At the epicenter of the continuing crisis is the simple, however difficult, virtue of fidelity. . . . The fidelity of bishops and priests to the teaching of the Church and to their solemn vows; the fidelity of bishops in exercising oversight in ensuring obedience to that teaching and to those vows; and the fidelity of the lay faithful in holding bishops and priests accountable. (“Scandal Time [Continued]”)

The real issue was never celibacy, but rather the unfortunate lack of fidelity.


Selective Media Outrage

Although media reports focus on sexual abuse by Catholic clergy to a greater extent than they focus on other perpetrators of sexual abuse, in fact a much greater percentage of sexual abuse takes place within families than by clergy of any denomination. A cohabiting boyfriend or stepfather is a much more likely perpetrator of abuse than a Catholic priest. In the mass media, there are frequent calls to discontinue celibacy for clergy, but no commentators have called for abolishing cohabitation or divorce and remarriage.

Unfortunately, sexual abuse of minors is also common in schools. Dr. Charol Shakeshaft, a researcher at Hofstra University, examined abuse rates in schools and found serious problems. “[T]hink the Catholic Church has a problem?” she said. “The physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests” (John E. Dougherty, “Sex Abuse by Teachers Said Worse Than Catholic Church,”, April 5, 2004). Here again, the inconsistent treatment of this issue by the press is evident, for headlines do not warn people about the grave danger of “pedophile teachers.” Tom Hoopes notes that:

The 2002 Department of Education report estimated that from 6 percent to 10 percent of all students in public schools would be victims of abuse before graduation—a staggering statistic. . . . Yet, during the first half of 2002, the 61 largest newspapers in California ran nearly 2,000 stories about sexual abuse in Catholic institutions, mostly concerning past allegations. During the same period, those newspapers ran four stories about the federal government’s discovery of the much larger—and ongoing—abuse scandal in public schools. (“Has Media Ignored Sex Abuse in Schools?, National Review Online, August 24, 2006)

“Forget Everything You Learned in Seminary”

The late Notre Dame Professor Ralph McInerny, in his autobiography I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You, recounted that after Vatican II:

A St. Paul priest I had known years before, who had been engaged in dedicated and effective pastoral work, came to Notre Dame to be renewed. We had lunch one day in the University Club. After pleasant reminiscing, it became clear he wanted to talk about what he was undergoing. He leaned across the table and said to me in a whisper, “They told us to forget everything we had been taught in the seminary.” Perhaps the one speaking to those priests was indulging in hyperbole, a little rhetorical excess to gain attention. Perhaps. The effect on my old friend was obvious. . . . Now he was being told to forget everything that had defined his life. How could he not feel vertigo? He finished the course and went home and a few years later left the priesthood, under a cloud of accusations of sexual irregularity. (130)

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