Did celibacy cause the priest abuse scandal?

By Tom Quiner

A Quiner’s Diner reader posed some good questions to me:images

Not being a Catholic myself, I find it hard to comprehend why those in the priesthood are forbidden to marry when every pastor I have known has been married. (I attended Methodist church as a young man, and switched to Baptist later in life.)

It seems to me that there would be fewer problems if Catholic priests were allowed to marry, as they would have a legitimate venue for sexual release. Humans ARE sexual creatures. God made us this way so that we could “go forth and multiply”, but also told us the proper avenue for those desires.

The Catholic dogma of preventing their priests to marry seems to only invite such things as the adulterous relationships we hear some priests have partaken in or the molestations we have heard about of an admittedly small number of other priests.

One scholar suggested to me that Catholics priests of old were forbidden to marry so that they would have no heirs, and therefore would leave their riches to the church. I am not as cynical as that, but still find it hard to understand the prohibition of marriage. I can find nothing Biblical about it.

Here are some insights on these questions, which I will address in a Q & A format.

Is priestly celibacy a dogma of the Catholic Church? No, it is a discipline the Church chooses to embrace.

Are there any married priests in the Catholic Church? Yes. In the Easter and Orthodox Rites, married priests are the norm. In the Roman Church, there are married priests who  converted from the Lutheran, Anglican, and Episcopal traditions.

Could the Roman Church choose to relax the discipline of celibacy? Yes, although it is unlikely. The Church views their priests as being married to the Church. They are every much in a sacramental relationship as a married couple is in a sacramental relationship.

Wasn’t the first Pope, St. Peter, married? Scripture clearly indicates that he was married at one time. Interestingly, his wife isn’t referred to in scripture, only his mother-in-law, which suggests his wife wasn’t living at the time he began his priesthood. We don’t know for sure.

Is celibacy unnatural and even unbiblical? No. Scripture calls on each of us to be celibate at certain times in our lives, and to reserve conjugal expressions of love within the confines of sacramental marriage. St. Paul even commends celibacy in 1 Corinthians 7: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”

Well, doesn’t this scripture quote support the questioner’s concern that celibacy may have been the root cause of the priest-abuse scandal? No. Because of the notoriety of this issue, extensive research has been conducted on the subject by a wide range of non-Catholic investigators. Writing in Psychology Today, researcher Michael Castleman writes:

“From media reports, one might infer that Catholic priests commit most pedophilia. In fact, only a tiny fraction of child sex abusers are priests.”

Another researcher, Dr.Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State and author of Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis, reports:

“My research of cases over the past 20 years indicates no evidence whatever that Catholic or other celibate clergy are any more likely to be involved in misconduct or abuse than clergy of any other denomination—or indeed, than non-clergy.”

Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, agrees:

“We don’t see the Catholic Church as a hotbed of this [abuse] or a place that has a bigger problem than anyone else. I can tell you without hesitation that we have seen cases in many religious settings, from traveling evangelists to mainstream ministers to rabbis and others.”

Research by professor of psychology, Dr. Thomas Plante, found no evidence that abuse by Catholic clergy was any different  than any other denomination, but was in fact less than that of school teachers and half that of the general population. As additional proof, insurance companies who provide sexual misconduct riders on their liability policies with churches found incidence of abuse no higher than non Catholic denominations, and charge the same premiums.

Doesn’t celibacy make marriage seem less precious? No, just the opposite, as the website Catholic Answers so eloquently explains:

In fact, it is precisely the holiness of marriage that makes celibacy precious; for only what is good and holy in itself can be given up for God as a sacrifice. Just as fasting presupposes the goodness of food, celibacy presupposes the goodness of marriage. To despise celibacy, therefore, is to undermine marriage itself—as the early Fathers pointed out.”