The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, SNAP, is holding a summit this week to press Pope Francis into taking stronger action against clergy members who commit acts of sexual abuse.
Well and good. Stronger action is definitely warranted.
But a better course of action would be for the Catholic Church to open its priestly ranks to marriage.
Yes, Jesus was chaste. Yes, Paul, one of the apostles, recommended celibacy as a means of moving closer to God. But Peter, the first pope, was married. So were some of the other apostles. And celibacy didn’t come into written church rule being until 304 A.D. Even then, it was spotty.
“The first written mandate requiring priests to be chaste [was] Canon 33 of the Council of Elvira [which] stated that all ‘bishops, presbyters and deacons and all other clerics’ were to ‘abstain completely from their wives and not to have children,’” History News Network reported. “A short time later, in 325, the Council of Nicea, convened by Constantine, rejected a ban on priests marrying requested by Spanish clerics. The practice of priestly celibacy began to spread in the Western Church in the early Middle Ages,” first when Pope Benedict VIII barred the offspring of priests from inheriting family property and second, when Pope Gregory VII, years later, outright prohibited clerical marriages.
“[Gregory’s] decree stuck,” Catholic Online reported, “and celibacy has been the norm ever since.”
Or, more to truth: pretend celibacy.
“From Australian country towns, to schools in Ireland and cities across the U.S., the Catholic Church has faced an avalanche of child sexual abuse accusations in the last few decades,” BBC reported in August.
“Catholic Priests Abused 1,000 Children in Pennsylvania, Report Says,” the New York Times reported, also in August, in a story how bishops and other church leaders in the state engaged in a coverup of sexual abuse of children by more than 300 priests over a period of 70 years.
“Pope Francis confirms Catholic clergy members abuses nuns,” the Washington Post reported just this week.
And it’s not as if this is fresh news.
Back in April of 2002, CommonWealMagazine ran this headline: “The Church’s Sex-Abuse Crisis.”
The Church Abuse Fund, meanwhile, offers relief to victims from as far back as the 1940s; Bishop Accountability provides a running list — a database, actually — of priests accused of sexual abuse.
So how does marriage factor into this equation?
Fact is: maybe it doesn’t. Maybe all these cases of pedophilia and sexual attack and homosexual scandal and abuse of nuns and so forth and so on would have occurred even in a Catholic Church that allowed all its clergy to marry.
Maybe all those priests would be predatory, no matter their marital status.
Some say so, anyway.
In a piece for Catholic World Report entitled “Understanding the demographics of the predatory priest problem,” writer Anne Hendershott said: “Some have called for ‘solutions’ which most often involved radical changes to the priesthood — everything from the ordination of women to the elimination of priestly celibacy. Once seen as the foundation of spiritual commitment and sacrifice that a young seminarian makes in his quest for holiness, celibacy is viewed by progressives as a … ‘cause’ of deviant sexual behavior. The truth is that celibacy has nothing to do with the kind of predatory homosexual behavior we see [in past church sexual scandals].”
But consider this: Just anecdotally speaking, if marriage had nothing to do with it — if celibacy wasn’t related to the abundance of sexual scandals rocking the global media — wouldn’t other denominations be peppered with the same sorts of headlines plaguing the Catholic Church?
Wouldn’t we read, say, of Baptist preachers preying on little church children, or Presbyterian pastors sexually assaulting the choir members — to the same frequency we do of Catholic priests?
Yes, all churches have their scandals. All religions have their demons, their secrets, their bits of blackness and darkness and shameful episodes and sins.
But the Catholic Church seems particularly prone, to put it nicely, to clerical instances of sexual abuse, and to fostering an atmosphere where such abuse is tolerated to the point of concealing. Dramatic and systemic change is needed. SNAP wants Pope Francis, in part, to fire “any and all bishops or cardinals who have had a hand in clergy sex abuse cover-up;” to impose strict punitive measures on those found guilty in the future of cover-ups; and to force church officials to cooperate with local law enforcement in the investigation of sex abuse.
But at this point in the game, with the church this deep in the mud, why not add to that list a change in priestly requirements. Why not erase the requirement of celibacy for any church clergy.
After all, if allowing priests to marry saves just one child from sexual attack, or one nun from sexual abuse, well then, that seems a worthwhile change in what’s only, after all, a tradition of church, a tradition of men.
• Cheryl Chumley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ckchumley.
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