Sex and the City of God, Part 2: Celibacy and Sexuality in the Catholic Church

07/06/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Is the child abuse scandal plaguing the Roman Catholic Church a result of compulsory celibacy for priests? No. Is there a connection between the abuse and celibacy? Maybe so. The child abuse crisis and the Church hierarchy's homophobia, misogyny, and fixation on policing the sexuality are intertwining, often-overlapping aspects of the broader sexual dysfunction that cripples the Church.

The Vatican has long relied on its power to govern the sexual behavior of Catholics as a means to keep Catholics in line. The hierarchy's policies on contraception keep women tied to home and hearth where they produce large families and thus are rendered economically and politically dependent. Its refusal to ordain women keeps female influence out of the Vatican. Catholics on both sides of the debate on the matter of the ordination of women would probably agree that the child abuse scandal wouldn't have gone on so long and cut so deeply had there been a mommy in the College of Cardinals. There's no doubt that the Church hierarchy views women as valuable: the future of the Church depends on us, for women "bring up the number." (I borrow this phrase that is more commonly used among Jews to describe fulfilling God's instruction to "be fruitful and multiply.") For most of its history, the leadership of the Church has sought to populate the earth with Catholics.

The hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church has a lot to gain from keeping sexual feeling unofficially sinful and all sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage officially sinful, but its ignorance, fear, and lack of imagination when it comes to human sexuality damages the Church. The Magisterium equates sexual abstinence with purity and has historically conveyed -- and continues to convey -- the false notion that only the virginal and abstinent can be truly holy. This fetishization of asexuality gives way to an imperious and isolated priesthood, an aloof caste of men whose holiness is far too greatly predicated upon the choice not to have sex.

Except in the most progressive parishes, Catholic children unfortunately continue to be taught that people who have and celebrate the gift of sex are somehow less pure and, by extension, less holy than those who give it up to God. In requiring members of religious orders to eschew marriage, the Church hierarchy promulgates the idea that to live without sex is to live closer to God. This is not consistent with the Christ of the New Testament. Furthermore, from generation to generation, children preparing for the Catholic sacraments receive this "sex equals sin" message within the larger context of dogma, which upholds the belief that the holiest human being who ever lived was a virgin mother. Her sexual status is proof and emblem of Mary's perfection; her virginity becomes the model for ultimate human holiness, the best a woman can be.

What frustrates me as a woman who is drawn to Marian devotion is that given the many aspects of Mary that are holy, why is it necessary to so fixate on her virginity and sexual abstinence? I believe it is possible to believe fully in and be moved by Mary's purity, sexual and otherwise, without making a fetish of her sexual chastity. Mary's strength is monumental. She begins her ministry as a pregnant, unwed teen; she bears courageous witness to the suffering of her son as he is tortured and dies; she is La Pietà; she lays his cadaver in its tomb and lives the rest of her life in terror, hope, and awe of all her son ushered into the world; yet it is from the double distinction of having been herself conceived without Original Sin (a sin of seduction with a sexual penalty) and conceiving a child without having sex that Mary's true holiness seems to derive.

Catholic doctrine holds that Jesus eschewed sex, and we know that Paul's letters offer some harsh and negative views on women and sex. However, there are other takes on Jesus and sex. One need not accept versions that suggest that Jesus married in order to note that the teachings of the Jesus of the New Testament did not focus much on sexual sin.

I find it ironic that a religion built upon the belief that God loved humankind enough to take on our physical nature should so obsess over the ideal of denying the flesh its power to share, evoke, and experience ecstasy. There are so many ways to do God's work on earth, and the unofficial doctrine that sexual purity alone should constitute human sanctity fuels some of its gravest transgressions.

Catholic priests are urged not merely to eschew marriage (which is what the term "celibacy" actually means for members of Catholic orders) but also they are taught in seminary to seek detachment, in a broader sense, from human entanglements. In my experience, the best priests are not very good at this. The best priests are drawn to the priesthood by love. Certainly, like a good nurse, teacher, psychologist, or lawyer, a cleric must exhibit some modicum of professional detachment; however, too often, it is the priests who drive the human, loving Jesus out of themselves who most succeed in this. For some, fidelity to the hierarchy (not God) becomes the driving passion, supplanting all other faithfulness. These are the very men with whom we (the Catholic laity) should most easily and openly communicate regarding the vicissitudes of love, marriage, family, and yes, even sex, but often obedience leaves these men unable to serve as imaginative and sympathetic teachers and confessors. The requirement to be celibate sometimes seems to me to clip the spiritual wings of the best priests the Church has to offer.

Rare is the man in his twenties who has the mettle to sacrifice his sexuality for love of God, and it is not unusual to hear Catholics complain that priests lack traction when it comes to counseling parishioners on marital matters. In many cases, priests are too confused and conflicted about their own sex lives to be helpful. Priests who abstain from sexual love have a hard road and deserve to be honored for responding to what they hear as God's call to celibacy and chastity, but the truth is that many fine priests are sexually active.

Church teaching holds that marital love can and should mirror Christ's love for his people, but the fixation on virginity and abstention from sex flies in the face of that. Many Catholics don't even know that the "promise of celibacy" is a promise not to marry, not -- in the strict construction sense -- a promise to be chaste. (Certainly the spirit of chastity is part and parcel of this promise.) Some priests take vows of chastity, but many do not. Many make "promises" (not "vows") to be celibate. All the promises and vows priests make are circumscribed by requirement that all Catholics lead chaste lives. A man who is faithful to his wife is, for example, chaste in the eyes of Church leadership, because sex within a sacramental marriage is not sinful, whereas a priest who takes a lover, though sinning in his failure to be chaste, does not break his promise to be celibate. (That's so long as he does not marry his lover. A "celibate" priest can have an active sex life, but because he cannot marry, a priest who has sex cannot be considered chaste in the eyes of the Magisterium, the teaching authority of The Church.)

Where do sexual predators fit into this analysis? Does the requirement that priests be celibate cause priests to rape children? No. If the lack of access to sex were a cause of child rape, schoolyards and parks would be teeming with adults trolling for victims, but the requirement that priests be celibate can make the priesthood a haven for a Catholic man in search of a way to erase his "id." But the id is not erasable.

Many sexually healthy men make celibacy work, but the requirement to be celibate eliminates many men (and all women! -- see "Sex and the City of God, Part 1") from the pool of those who would be ordained, while creating a de facto haven for sexually maladjusted men in search of comfort, and perhaps even a cure.

Were Church leadership not itself so sexually disordered, it might be capable of ministering in a responsible way to sexual predators. Men hoping to vanquish sexual desires they know to be improper are sometimes drawn to the priesthood in good faith. Priests are, among other things, teachers; their work puts them in contact with children, but Church leadership is impotent when it comes to helping these men. Pedophilia is an intractable and complex disorder, and the hierarchy is hamstrung by its own perversions, operating at a loss, often without a Catholic sexual "normal."

Often it is the most psychologically arrested and ambitious priests who rise to the top of the hierarchy, whose unflagging allegiance can leave them sexually ignorant as they struggle to address sexual problems among priests. I don't doubt that among bishops who shuffled child-raping priests from parish to parish, there might have been some who acted in naïve good faith, imagining it possible to absolve those who victimized children, to assign them penance, and to rely on a "Hail Mary" for healing. But naïveté, repression, and regression are features of the erotic dysfunction at hand, and it is entirely likely that some of the bishops who served as accessories (to rapists) after the fact were as sexually infantile as the children they should have protected.

Next: homophobia and the war on Eros.