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Abuse a consequence of history wrong turn


In a recent TV interview, I was asked if I thought that the recent sexual abuse cases that have come to light in American Catholicism were only the “tip of the iceberg.” Are there many more cases still to be discovered? Yes, but we needed to look much more broadly at the problem and not simply focus on abuse of boys by priests. My own experience over the years, and that of others I know, suggests that there is a large underground of illicit sexuality that goes on under the façade of the official celibate identity of priests. This shadow world of illicit sexual activity includes non-consensual, semi-consensual and consensual activity, but all of it points to the failure of celibacy as a spirituality and discipline for the clergy.

In addition to pederasty, one must look at coerced sexual relations forced on young girls and adult women, including nuns. There is the major scandal of African priests forcing African nuns into sexual activities, partly motivated by the belief that their virginity would make them safe partners, untainted by AIDS. It is interesting that these cases have been ignored in the recent discussion of clerical sexual abuse. In my travels to India I have heard similar complaints of priests engaging in forcible efforts to seduce nuns there as well. How common is this problem worldwide in the church?

There is also the widespread phenomenon of priests who “cruise” on their nights off, picking up prostitutes or gay partners in bars. There are also the affairs with women that take place, perhaps once, perhaps many times, in the lives of particular priests. Many Catholic women have told me of having known of or been a part of such affairs. This is not seen as “abuse,” but as consensual sex. Yet many women bear scars of having been exploited by a priest who made them think that he was serious about the relationship, although it later became obvious he had no intention of leaving the priesthood to marry.

There are also common-law wives. A few years ago our family had a close friendship with a woman who had lived in a common-law relationship with a priest and had several children by him. She told us that while she was living with him, she realized that there was an underground world of such relationships where priests lived double lives with a wives and children, unacknowledged in their official lives.

What does all this mean? I do not speculate on what percentage of the clergy is involved in one or another of such activities. Rather I want to pose the more basic question. Did Catholicism make a major mistake back in the fourth and fifth centuries in deciding that it wanted to make the priesthood as a whole celibate?

Early Christianity did not have a celibate priesthood. Bishops, priests and deacons were married. Celibacy belonged to a special commitment by both men and women to a vowed life that was seen as anticipating the reign of God “where there will be no marrying or giving in marriage.” Most of those who took vows of celibacy were not priests. In short, celibacy and priesthood were two distinct vocations.

This pattern remains to this day in the Eastern Christian churches. There priests marry, while celibacy belongs to monastic life. The Orthodox church developed the tradition of choosing bishops from the monastic clergy, so a priest who marries is, in effect, giving up any hope of being a bishop. A priest must marry before he is ordained, but nevertheless marriage is normative for priests.

In the West there developed about the year 400 an effort to get priests to separate from their wives and take vows of celibacy. The wives were urged live celibate lives as well. This effort to fuse priesthood and the monastic discipline of celibacy resulted in a distortion of the meaning of celibacy itself. Instead of being understood as an eschatological ethic (anticipating the reign of God), it became identified with cultic purity. The priest, in order to offer a “pure” sacrifice, must himself be “pure,” i.e., never touch a woman. This also helped wipe out the remnants of women’s ministry, since women, defined as culticly impure, must be banned from the sanctuary.

The effort to make priests celibate continued through the Middle Ages, but never really worked for those outside the monastic clergy. Priests in villages continued to marry. Indeed a man could hardly survive alone in a household without a woman to do the extensive household labor (which included producing food and clothes, as well as cooking and cleaning). The most practical way to get such necessary female labor was to marry. The 11th century reforms did not change this pattern, but simply degraded the legal status of such wives and children as concubines and bastards.

The Protestant Reformation revolted against what the reformers saw as the hypocrisy and abuses of a system where the priests were officially celibate, but mostly not so in practice. But unfortunately they extended their attack to the monastic life. They closed monasteries and mandated a married ministry. Hostility to celibacy for the priesthood was conflated with hostility to monastic life, while Catholics proceeded to defend celibate clergy by reinforcing monastic patterns of clerical life.

I suggest we need to rethink this history as a wrong turn in Western Christianity. A celibate priesthood has never actually worked. Celibacy belongs to a radical ethic of monastic life that is lived in an alternative community. The numbers of people ready and able to make a commitment to this way of life are not and never have been sufficient for those needed for the parish priesthood. Hence, constant abuses.

Priesthood is a vocation to the pastoral service of the people of God quite distinct from monastic life and should never have been confused with it. We need a priesthood of men (and women) that can marry. We also need the renewal of a vibrant monastic life of men and women that points us to the radical dimension of Christian life that stands in tension with this world and anticipates the reign of God.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is a professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill.

National Catholic Reporter, June 7, 2002