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24 September 1996

Unholy Orders

The scandal over the antics of Bishop Roderick Wright has shaken the Catholic Church and turned the spotlight on the issue of priestly celibacy. Mark Ryan finds himself in sympathy with the Pope

Revelations that Bishop Roderick Wright not only had a mistress, but had fathered a child in the course of a long-term affair with another woman has caused a severe crisis within the Roman Catholic Church. The affair came to light amid increasing calls for an end to the ancient Catholic practice of priestly celibacy. Cardinal Basil Hume, in a typically spineless intervention, said that although he was personally opposed to lifting the ban on marriage for priests, he thought it was only a matter of time before celibacy was dropped, thus managing to place himself on both sides of the debate.

If celibacy was under attack as an aspect of a broader hostility towards religion, mysticism and irrational beliefs then that would be fine. The French Libertines of the 17th and 18th centuries poked remorseless (and lewd) fun at the clergy for this very reason. But that is not what is happening today. Celibacy is under attack because it is held to place too great demands on weak individuals who are incapable of living independently, controlling their urges for the sake of a higher cause, and making calculated decisions about what it is to which they want to dedicate their lives.

Catholicism is the only one of the Christian religions which insists on celibacy for its priests. There are all sorts of complicated historical reasons for this, but in the past this was always held to be one of the signs of the strength of the Catholic priesthood and of the dedication of individual priests to their vows. Celibacy of course did not necessarily mean chastity. Many priests found it difficult to resist the everyday temptations offered by a parish-full of housewives desperately in need of some spiritual relief while their husbands were out at work. Then there were always the services of the housekeeper who might be kind enough to offer something more than a cup of Horlicks at bedtime. Many eyebrows would be raised both in the parish and the hierarchy if the housekeeper was anything other than senex et horibilis. Having said that, it is probably still the case that most priests went through life without having tasted the pleasures of the flesh. Enormous variations existed from country to country. In Africa, priests often took concubines. In Ireland, where sex used be considered a greater sin than genocide, the opportunities were more restricted.

Whether they observed chastity or not, the fact that Catholic priests did not marry was once considered a sign of the priest's spiritual elevation, self-control and independence. Today however it is seen quite differently. Now, the individual is seen as too weak and pathetic to be able to live without the emotional prop of a relationship. The attack on celibacy is not an attack on religion, it is an attack on the individual and on his capacity to overcome his own weaknesses.

There are a number of aspects to this attack. The first is the idea that the individual is incapable of controlling his urges. When the news of Bishop Wright's shenanigans first broke, there was reported to be a good deal of sympathy for him. 'At least it's a woman', was a common observation in the diocese. Obviously many feared a re-run of the Irish fiasco in which a string of allegations of paedophilia and homosexuality did untold damage to the Church there. Celibacy is generally held to be the cause of priests turning to more perverse forms of sexual behaviour. By depriving himself of sexual release through marriage, it is said, the priest is damaging himself, distorting his sexual urges to the point where they are more likely to take a pathological form. In other words, when set against the powerful pressures of deep sexual urges, the will of the individual is far too weak a thing to guarantee sufficient control. Marriage is thus not so much the enjoyment of another's company, but a way of containing the volcano within.

Just as sexual release is seen not so much as a source of pleasure but as a form of therapy, so too the relationship is put forward as an emotional crutch which can help the priest in his hobble through life. Without the support of a relationship, the priest will be lonely, miserable and unable to function in a capacity which would be of use to anybody else. The fact that the Catholic priesthood has been, unfortunately, one of the most effective fighting organisations known to man, especially since the laws on celibacy were tightened after the Reformation seems to have escaped the notice of those advocating marriage. For centuries, priests have been at the forefront of the war against progress. They have fought secularism, enlightenment, democracy and communism on every continent, often with great success. In all this, they had more important things to be doing with their lives than wondering how they could form meaningful and supportive relationships with other individuals. When they did become preoccupied with such matters they left the priesthood and disappeared into private life. The history of the Catholic Church proves that, far from needing the emotional support of marriage, priests operated more effectively when they could dedicate themselves unhindered to their task, often under the most difficult of circumstances. When people attack celibacy suggesting that individuals cannot get through life without the emotional support of another, they show a disregard for experience and a low opinion of the strength and resilience of the individual.

Those opposed to celibacy are attacking the one positive thing about the Catholic Church - its belief that the individual priest (if not the individual layman) can master his urges, his loneliness, his need for comfort and so on, and can dedicate himself to what he believes in; that he can master his weaknesses and become strong. Opponents of celibacy however are more in tune with the times. They believe that weakness is not something to be fought, but something to be accepted; that the weak should not be chastised, but should be pampered and given counselling to help them come to terms with their frailties. In these times when religion itself is dissolving into 'personal growth', the very idea of testing oneself in the outside world, and of trying to overcome weaknesses has lost much of its appeal.

It is reported that priests will now receive counselling to help them through the trials and tribulations of the celibacy which they chose for themselves in the first place. This pandering to weakness is itself like a parody of Catholic dogma. The Church always taught that the individual was a weak creature needing the guidance of the Church to pass through the 'vale of tears' in the hope of redemption in the after-life. For centuries those committed to advancing society pilloried the Church for this dim view of the human potential. Much of contemporary dogma however is equally scathing of the capacity of individuals to master adverse circumstances. But at least the Church offered something in return for a miserable life. Today all that is on offer in exchange for an acceptance of our weakness is the possibility of a supportive relationship and a course of therapy.
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