Priests, pedophilia, and celibacy.

How you look at things.
March 6 2002 5:08 PM

Booty and the Priest

Does abstinence make the church grow fondlers?

Four years ago, after telling a judge and the public that he hadn't engaged in sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton claimed that the truth of his denial depended on "what the meaning of 'is' is." Now we've got a new sex scandal. Priests have replaced the president, altar boys have replaced interns, and clerical coverup has replaced obstruction of justice. Catholic cardinals in Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Los Angeles have confirmed that dozens of priests have been credibly accused of sex with minors. Many Catholics and outsiders think the celibacy rule imposed on priests has caused this abuse. Has it? That depends on what the meaning of "cause" is.

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The simplest version of the blame-celibacy theory is that repressing your sexual urges makes you resort, in the words of one suspended priest, to a "sick outlet." Defenders of the celibacy rule—let's call them conservatives, in a religious sense—answer this theory in two ways. First, they point out that sexual abuse of minors by clergymen also happens in religions that don't require their clergy to be celibate. For that matter, many married people outside the clergy have been convicted of sex with minors.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Second, conservatives hijack an argument usually made by liberals—that pedophilia is fundamentally different from attraction to older teen-agers or adults—and turn it against them. Liberals make this distinction in the context of defending priests and other adults who have sex with older teen-agers. Such sex may be wrong, they argue, but it isn't nearly as harmful as sex with little kids, and an adult who has done the former shouldn't be presumed capable of the latter. Conservatives use the same distinction to defend the celibacy rule. If the urge to have sex with little kids is completely different from the urge to have sex with adults, they point out, then letting priests have sex with adults won't distract the ones who want sex with kids. As Jesuit priest James Gill put it in the Hartford Courant, "Most pedophiles don't find adult partners the least bit attractive sexually."

The hidden quarrel here is about the meaning of causation. When opponents of the celibacy rule—let's call them reformers—talk about celibacy causing molestation, what they mean is that in some cases, given additional factors, celibacy pushes priests over the edge. Conservatives treat causation as an all-or-nothing idea. To them, if celibacy isn't necessary to provoke sex abuse (since some non-celibate clergy are also guilty), or if ending the celibacy rule isn't sufficient to end sex abuse (since abusers of 10-year-olds, if not abusers of 17-year-olds, won't be sated by adult sex), celibacy can't be said to cause abuse. But that's a metaphysical assumption. It doesn't answer the empirical claim that celibacy is a factor.

Reformers play a metaphysical game of their own. They extrapolate from pedophile priests and celibacy to Catholic teachings against contraception and masturbation, suggesting that the church is defying human nature and provoking a backlash. "The whole system of teachings on gender and sexuality is being questioned," former priest Richard Sipe told Newsday. But the notion that rules force people to find "outlets" also rests on a metaphysical assumption: that people behave like objects. As Catholic theologian Richard Neuhaus points out, reformers ignore the alternative possibility that people have free will and that the solution to violations of celibacy is to stop violating it.

Some defenders of celibacy say the problem isn't celibacy, but the church's failure to police itself. Rather than dispute this claim, reformers seize on it to extend their repression theory from the individual to the social level. If they can't persuade you that the celibacy rule causes some priests to abuse minors, they'll argue that it protects pedophiles among the clergy as a whole. According to Sipe, the celibacy rule creates a culture of secrecy and "denial" among priests, bishops, and cardinals that allows abusers to continue their abuse.

Conservatives have a couple of pretty good answers to this charge. One is that you don't have to get rid of the celibacy rule to get rid of the secrecy. Catholics deal in confession all the time. They know how to let people divulge sins without changing the rules about what's sinful. Gill points out, for instance, that the clergy could loosen its taboo enough to let priests in training air their sexual concerns. The other answer is that celibacy is less harsh than some alternatives. A few days ago, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls blamed pedophilia on the church's tolerance of gay priests, whom he proposed to oust. The church hasn't enforced such an orientation-based rule because it has relied instead on the behavior-based rule of celibacy. If getting rid of a rule based on what you do leads to enforcement of a rule based on how you feel, reformers will have taken a step backward.

The more sophisticated criticism of the culture of secrecy isn't that priests shouldn't have to be celibate, but that the clergy's deliberations about what to do with accused priests should include non-celibate laypeople. On this view, celibacy perpetuates sex abuse not necessarily by causing it or by motivating church leaders to cover it up, but by depriving them of a parental perspective. If you don't have sex, you don't have kids, and when an accusation threatens a colleague's career, you're less likely to err on the side of protecting kids.

If conservatives are right that celibacy doesn't cause pedophilia, they're left to explain why, for example, more than10 percent of the priests in the archdiocese of Boston have been accused of sexually abusing minors. Does the priesthood attract men with sexual problems? If so, why? Again, reformers blame celibacy. They note, as Andrew Sullivan observed, that "many sexually conflicted men gravitate to the priesthood precisely because it promises to put a straitjacket on their compulsions and confusions." According to Newsweek, researchers think some pedophiles join the priesthood because "they hope it can help control them." This, too, is a causal theory: Celibacy creates pedophile priests not by turning priests into pedophiles, but by turning pedophiles into priests.

Most conservatives think pedophiles become priests, rabbis, teachers, or Boy Scout leaders for a simpler reason: to get access to kids. The solution, then, is to become more astute and diligent about screening seminarians and priests for sexual problems. But reformers believe that the celibacy rule scares away so many applicants that the church can't afford to weed out its pedophiles. "The pool [of priests] is so small, they don't have enough to let these guys go," a Catholic anti-celibacy activist told the Courant.

As the debate progresses, each side is absorbing the other's criticisms and refining its own arguments. Reformers are retreating from the crude idea that horniness turns normal men into molesters. They're building a more sophisticated theory of character formation, according to which premature training for the priesthood interrupts psychosexual development and makes young priests susceptible to adolescent crushes. Meanwhile, conservatives are acknowledging that seminary teachers need to know enough about sex to prepare aspiring priests who can handle celibacy and to weed out those who can't. Increasingly, the question of what will happen to the celibacy rule isn't whether it will stay or go, but how it will change.

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