In Catholic debate on celibacy, “ask about” is different from “question”
Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schönborn set off a storm in a teacup this week when he said the Roman Catholic Church had to ask tough questions about the reasons for the clergy sex abuse cases coming to light now in Europe. “The issue of celibacy belongs to that (questioning) as well as the issue of personality development (of priests). And a large portion of honesty belongs to this too, in the Church but also in society,” he wrote in a newsletter for Vienna archdiocese employees called thema kirche.
In the blogosphere, this somehow got turned into headlines like “Schönborn questions celibacy” and speculation that he was somehow challenging this centuries-old tradition. Those comments must have been based on dodgy Google translations from the German, because it’s clear in the original that he never questioned the celibacy rule itself. He said the Church should “ask about the reasons for sexual abuse” (nach den Ursachen sexuellen Missbrauchs fragen) and “celibacy belongs to that” set of issues to ask about. He did not say “put celibacy into question” (in Frage stellen) or “challenge celibacy” (hinterfragen).
What he did do, though, is what several other prelates and experts in the German-speaking countries are doing these days, i.e. say that celibacy has to be considered as one of the pieces in the sexual abuse puzzle. This bring the public discussion about celibacy a lot further than the traditional arguments Pope Benedict puts forward. In my analysis today “Celibacy debate re-emerges amid Church abuse scandal,” Hamburg Auxiliary Bishop Hans-Jochen Jaschke is quoted as saying celibacy was not the reason for sexual abuse but “the celibate lifestyle can attract people who have an abnormal sexuality and cannot integrate sexuality into their lives. That’s when a dangerous situation can arise.”
Bishop Stefan Ackermann, the German Church’s point man for sexual abuse cases, told a ZDF television discussion (full video in German here) on Thursday evening that “the Catholic Church is especially affected because, as the experts tell us, sex crimes are almost always male crimes. Since priests in the Catholic Church are male, that means the group is clearly defined. And certainly, when you think about boarding schools, there is a family atmosphere there that creates a confusion situation where people don’t want to speak out.”
Professor Klaus Beier, head of the Institute of Sexology and Sexual Medicine at Berlin’s Charité hospital, told the same ZDF discussion round that pedophile tendencies developed at puberty and were not influenced by celibacy, but “celibacy attracts pedophiles into the service of the Catholic Church.” In an interesting article in this week’s The Tablet (subscription only), Beier says the problem arises when men with pedophile tendencies…
…”assume that strong faith and obedience to religious instruction will make their undesirable sexual impulses disappear. Celibacy is so attractive to paedophiles because they want to leave their conflict-laden sexuality behind them and liberate themselves from their sexual impulses.
“What we are dealing with is a built-in biological mechanism. The stability of the sexual preference structure in the case of the majority, those people with an adult heterosexual orientation, guarantees the founding of families, the realisation of a joint wish for reproduction and for jointly raising children. This principle is a part of Creation.”
“However, if we are to prevent sexual abuse of children, we need to accept that human sexuality is characterised by a broad spectrum of unalterable types and that people can deviate from the average in their sexual orientation. We must also insist that society does not refuse to accept sexual minorities because they have a particular sexual inclination, because such inclinations cannot be evaluated morally. This is the only way that one can count on those whose sexual orientation is a potential danger to others (as with paedophiles) to act responsibly and accept the help that should guarantee the prevention of sexual assaults.”
These are examples of asking questions about celibacy without questioning the principle itself. The dicussion about celibacy, which will probably continue for as long as these latest waves of sexual abuse revelations continues, will not be black-and-white. Catholic leaders discussing it in public will make statements full of nuances, several of which echo through the statements of Jaschke, Ackermann and Beier quoted above.
Is Schönborn, whose doctrinal orthodoxy is so solid that he was chosen as editor in chief of the Church’s Catechism, secretly trying to abolish celibacy as some blogs seem to say? There’s more evidence to think he wants to save it in a changing world, which means openly discussing and resolving the problems connected with it before they make the traditional rule completely untenable. Living outside the Vatican bubble, he hears all sides of the argument and is not shy about trying to prod the Church into a discussion about it.
What do you think about this? Should the Catholic Church scrap celibacy? And if you think it should, when do you think this could happen?