O’Brien, abuse and the gift of celibacy

by Jemima

In the aftermath of revelations by priests and now Cardinal O’Brien’s admission of “sexual misconduct”, the issue of whether Catholic priests should be allowed to marry has raised its head again. It seems to be the default reaction of many, as if no married man has ever committed a sexual offence, no gay or queer man tried to hide from his own desires behind the facade of a loving wife and doting children.

It is a disturbing idea that people commit acts of what could be most charitably described as a predatory nature because they have no other outlet for their sexuality. Yet this is put forward again and again. The child abuse allegations, the cover-ups, the abuse of power, are explained as men (and on occasion women) who only act this way due to their vow of celibacy.

This ignores almost all of what we know about rape and sexual abuse, removing it from the sphere of power and into the sexual. It seems when it comes to Catholic clergy we are back in the 1950s, with men being rampant beasts at the mercy of their sexual urges.

When we look at St Paul he does clearly see celibacy as a desired state (1st Corinthians 7.7 particularly). However, Christianity is not unique in understanding that if one is to reach the deepest of spiritual understandings the distractions of the flesh should be given up. The monastic and celibate traditions have been found in many different cultures, with those who are able to live without sex seen as holy men and women.

St Paul, who is often condemned as anti-sex and anti the flesh understood though that this is an ideal:

I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.”

Celibacy is seen as a desired state, and indeed who could argue that if we all gave up all our worldly concerns and dedicated our lives to the service of God then the Kingdom would be that much closer. However, St Paul understood that his gift was not the gift of others.

This may seem as if I am agreeing with those who believe if only priests could marry then so much pain would have been avoided, but I am not. By pointing out that celibacy is as normal and natural for some as sex then you move away from the idea that it is merely celibacy that leads to abuse.

There seems to be a lot of conflation of different issues going on. But in a space accepting of alternative sexualities, I think it is important to say that this includes asexuality and celibacy. Being celibate does not make one an abuser, nor does it excuse the abuse when it happens. Choosing to prey on those weaker than you, in any situation, is a choice. It is a choice the unmarried, the married, celibate or not, consciously make. We are in danger of rushing towards the idea of married priests without actually looking at why so many believed it was ok to make that choice.

Perhaps that is because in the modern world, choosing not to have sex is itself seen to be deviant, and so we believe that all deviancy springs from that choice. Yes, celibacy is not for all, but it should not be blamed for the sexual behaviour of some.


3 thoughts on “O’Brien, abuse and the gift of celibacy

  1. lizzie says:

    it should only be done by those who can it*celibacy) should not be enforced…

  2. jemima101 says:

    Agreed, it is a gift, there should be space for those who can, and those who cannot

  3. Eve Ray says:

    A thoughtful and interesting post. I am a Catholic clinging on in the face of misogyny and scandal. On the one hand the Church has had for centuries a negative and unhealthy attitude to sexuality which is tied in with misogyny, the view of woman as temptress. On the other hand I agree that chastity can be a gift, a fruit of the Holy Spirit. I have known a number of priests and nuns who have lived out their chastity as an authentic witness to Christ and indeed some of the inspiring feminists I have met have been nuns. But the Church needs to abandon compulsory celibacy for priests and listen to women. It is women who make up the bulk of most Catholic congregations, women who remain faithful and women who can make the Church a better place. Thanks again Jemima. You too are an inspiration.

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