The rule that Catholic priests must be celibate is responsible for the crisis in the church. Now is the time to challenge that requirement. From the United States to Ireland to Germany, the widespread abuse of children and adolescents by Catholic priests has done enormous damage to the image of the church. It also reveals the depth of the crisis. In Germany Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg, speaking as chairman of the Conference of German Bishops, has made a public statement on behalf of the Church. His declaration that the cases of abuse were “heinous crimes”—together with the bishops’ statement of February 25, 2010, asking forgiveness from all the victims—are first steps toward dealing with the crisis. But much more must be done. Zollitsch’s statement, moreover, contains serious misrepresentations that need to be challenged.
Consider his first claim: sexual abuse by priests has nothing to do with celibacy. Objection! Although there is no question that abuse also occurs in families, schools, and youth organizations, as well as in churches that do not have the rule of celibacy, why are there such an extraordinary number of cases specifically in the Catholic church, whose leaders are celibate?
Of course, celibacy is not solely responsible for these crimes. But it is the most important structural expression of the Catholic hierarchy’s inhibitions with regard to sexuality, evident also in its attitude toward birth control and other questions. In fact, a glance at the New Testament shows that although Jesus and Paul led celibate lives, they left others complete freedom to do so or not. Based on the gospel, clerical celibacy can be advocated only as a freely-chosen calling (charisma), not as a compulsory rule for everyone. Paul decisively contradicted those contemporaries who were of the opinion that “it is good for a man not to touch a woman.” As he wrote, “to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband” (1 Corinthians 7: 1-2). According to 1 Timothy 3:2, “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife” (not “of no wife”!).
During their ministry, Peter and the other apostles were married. For many centuries, married life was normal for bishops and presbyters and—outside the Roman Catholic Church—remains so today, at least for priests, in all the churches of Eastern rites united with the Holy See as well as in Orthodox Christianity. Rome’s rule of celibacy contradicts the gospel and ancient Catholic tradition. It should be abolished.
The second claim by Archbishop Zollitsch: it is “completely false” to trace the cases of abuse to defects in the structure of the church. Objection! The rule of celibacy did not exist during Christianity’s first millennium. Under the influence of monks (who lived in voluntary abstinence) it was instituted in the Western Church during the eleventh century, in particular by Pope Gregory VII, against the staunch opposition of the clergy in Italy and especially in Germany. Only three German bishops dared to promulgate the decree from Rome; thousands of priests protested it. In a petition at the time, the German clergy asked rhetorically whether the pope was “unfamiliar with the word of the Lord: ‘He that is able to receive it, let him receive it?’” (Matthew 19:12). In this, his only statement on the question, Jesus advocates voluntary abstinence.
Yet the rule of celibacy, together with papal absolutism and exaggerated clericalism, became one of the pillars of the “Roman system.” Unlike priests in the Eastern churches, the celibate clergy of the West remain completely separated from the laity, primarily by abstaining from marriage. They constitute a dominant social class of their own, fundamentally superior to ordinary Christians, but completely subordinate to the pope in Rome. The rule of celibacy is the main reason for the catastrophic shortage of priests, the serious neglect of the Eucharist, and the widespread breakdown of pastoral care—a problem that has been papered over by merging parishes into “pastoral units” ministered to by badly overworked priests.
What would be the best way to attract more young people to the priesthood? Abolish the rule of celibacy, the root of the whole problem, and allow the ordination of women. The bishops know this and should have the courage to say it out loud. They would have the vast majority of Catholics behind them. All recent polls show that the laity favor allowing priests to marry.
Third claim: the bishops have assumed adequate responsibility for the problem. It is of course welcome news that serious measures are now being taken to educate Catholics about sexual abuse and prevent it in the future. But are not the bishops themselves to blame for decades of concealment and the frequent transfer of perpetrators to other parishes while keeping their deeds a closely-held secret? Should the former concealers now be solely entrusted with the task of enlightenment? Ought not independent commissions be installed?
Up to now, the bishops have not admitted any personal complicity. They have been able to protest that they were merely following directives from Rome. And it is a fact that in order to maintain absolute confidentiality, the secretive Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith assumed jurisdiction over all important cases of clerical sexual abuse. Between 1981 and 2005, those cases landed on the desk of the Congregation’s prefect, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI. As late as May 18, 2001, Cardinal Ratzinger sent a formal letter concerning these serious offenses (“Epistula de delictis gravioribus”) to all bishops of the Catholic Church. The letter declared that cases of abuse had been placed under “papal secrecy” (“secretum Pontificium”), violation of which is punishable under canon law.
Doesn’t the church have the right to expect a “mea culpa” from the pope and his colleagues the bishops? As reparation for the abuse that has taken place, shouldn’t free and open discussion of the rule of celibacy, forbidden at the Second Vatican Council, now be allowed? The same frankness at long last being applied to the cases of abuse themselves must also be permitted in discussion of one of their essential structural causes: the rule of celibacy. The bishops need to muster the courage to urge this emphatically on Pope Benedict XVI.
—Translated by David Dollenmayer