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CELIBACY: The Church’s dance with destruction

Published:Sunday | March 8, 2015 | 12:00 AMDr Glenville Ashby
Pope Francis must address the burning question of celibacy
The Reverend Angel Armando Perez. The Catholic priest who pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a 12-year-old boy.
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"For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it." (Matthew 19:12)

"Then, We sent after them Our Messengers, and We sent 'Iesa (Jesus) - son of Maryam (Mary), and gave him the Injeel (Gospel). And We ordained in the hearts of those who followed him compassion and mercy. But the Monasticism which they invented for themselves, We did not prescribe for them ... but many of them are Fasiqun (rebellious, disobedient to Allah)." (Quran 57:27)

The decision for the priestly class of the Roman Church to live monastic, celibate lives took effect centuries after the edict inscribed in Matthew 19:12.

The canon was driven by purely mundane factors and was never a required step towards enlightenment.

The sacerdotal body of the church needed to be reined in through celibacy to ensure it was focused on its divine calling and equally committed to fulfilling its administrative obligations; this at a time when the institution was reeling from a series of scandals involving errant and philandering ecclesia.

The case for celibacy has never swerved. The following was written by a priest in the online Catholic News Agency: "There are many reasons, both practical and theological, why the church insists on clerical celibacy. It is a wise practice that was gradually codified in light of centuries of accumulated knowledge and experience.

"Early on, it became obvious to many bishops that a married priesthood doesn't work and that the church needs men who are willing to embrace a higher spiritual state. Starting with the Spanish Council of Elvira in 305, regional churches began to ask of the clergy what many priests had already spontaneously chosen.

"The early church fathers Tertullian, Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, and Hilary wrote in favour of clerical celibacy, and at the end of the Dark Ages, great reforming popes like Leo IX and Gregory VII insisted that henceforth the priesthood would be celibate. This decision greatly strengthened the church and still does so today."

Yet, the number of priests continues to dwindle. In 1998, there were more than 6,000 defections and between 1970 and 1998, 46,000 priests left their vocation, according to the Vatican Insider.

How much this has to do with an inner rebellion against the strictures of celibacy is still unclear but a direct correlation is not unlikely.

Centuries after the birth of Christianity at the Second Lateran Council of 1139, the vow of celibacy became obligatory for seminarians, although prior to that sex and the papacy were hand in glove.

Given that there is ample evidence that some of the apostles were married (See Mark 1:29-31; Mt 8:14-15; Luke 4:38-39; 1 Tim 3:2, 12; and 1 Tim 3:2), virile vicars of the Roman Church were admissible.

In fact, many scholars have even advanced that Jesus was involved in an intimate affair with May Magdalene. Some go further, suggesting that they were married.

Dr Tony Nugget, a symbologist and religion professor, raises the issue, so too has Karen L. King, professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, who at the 10th International Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome presented a controversial 4th century papyrus fragment, now called The Gospel of Jesus' Wife. The apocryphal, 'Gospel of Mary' and 'The Gospel of Phillip' also contain some contentious evidence that the Christian messiah may not have been all that celibate as we have always been taught. The 18 lost years of Jesus' life only raises more questions.

Undoubtedly, sex and gender issues have always bedevilled the church and what is gleaned from history is a disturbing psycho-biological and social struggle that continues to haunt one of the most powerful institutions today.

The incomparable St Augustine wrote in 401AD: "Nothing is so powerful in drawing the spirit of a man downwards as the caresses of a woman."

The famous Nicea Council of 325 decreed that once ordained, a priest is not allowed to marry. To this day this edict is upheld by the Orthodox Churches that broke away from Rome during the Great Schism of 1051.

Later, in 352, the Council of Laodicea dictated that women are not to be ordained, suggesting that at some point the ordination of women was commonplace.

Now, let's for a moment examine celibacy as practised in different cultural settings.

In Hindu philosophy, the mahantas and sadus of India, following a long line of tradition, opt for a life of monasticism, many living in caves and forests or roaming the streets where they sit for hours in contemplation.

Interestingly, though, these men are married, have borne children, and in their last chapter of life have adopted the ascetic lifestyle. In other words, they have experienced much of life before embarking on a spiritual quest. The lives of Ramana Maharshi and Sri Ramakrishna are compelling examples of this approach. Notably, celibacy has always been an option.

The point of fact is that the Roman Church has never been steeped in the lore of abstinence. It is a contrivance, an invention by church administrators and ivory tower bishops with little understanding of its pernicious ramifications. It has never been a part of the church's cultural compass.

What has always been endemic to this institution is paternalism, gender bias and a binding law to which young, naive men must stringently adhere, creating a psychological minefield of sexual repression that manifests in myriad of ways.

And the article: 'Sexual Repression: The Malady that considers itself the remedy,' featured in Psychology Today, this controversial subject is addressed: "If the expression of sexuality is thwarted, the human psyche tends to twist into grotesque, enraged perversions of desire. Unfortunately, the distorted rage resulting from sexual repression rarely takes the form of rebellion against the people and institutions behind the repression. Instead the rage is generally directed at helpless victims who are sacrificed to the sick gods of gilt, shame and ignorant pride."

While we cannot directly link celibacy with sexually perversion, we can surely trace the causative effects of sexual repression. If mandatory celibacy has led to sexually repression among clergy, we can argue that the flames of paedophilia engulfing the church are directly linked to the questionable practice of celibacy. As of 2012, the Roman Catholic Church in the United States alone has paid a staggering US$2.2 billion dollars to 100,000 victims of sexual abuse.

Regrettably, sexual abuse in the form of forced abortions, infanticides, child abuse, rape and forced abortions suffered by nuns at the hands of priests, (as evidenced in Austin Cline's article, 'Vatican admits priests are raping nuns around the world'), will continue to plague the church.

Concrete data support this troubling reality. For example, the Council of Aix-la-Chapelle in 836 openly admitted that abortions and infanticide took place in convents and monasteries to cover up activities of clerics.

In a case that created a maelstrom it was discovered that between 1916 and 1925 more than 800 babies were left for dead in a sewage tank in rural Ireland, most of whom were supposedly under the care of nuns in a home for unmarried mothers.

For sure, the sexual-related woes of the church are far from over. If only the words of St Ulrich (b.890) were heeded: "The only way to purify the church from the worst excesses of celibacy is to permit priests to marry."

n Dr Glenville Ashby is a social critic and president of Global Interfaith Council Feedback: glenvilleashby@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby