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What role celibacy?

By Amanda Marcotte
Saturday, April 10, 2010 15:07 EDT
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There’s been a lot of speculation about the role of the vow of celibacy in the priest child rape scandals. It ranges from the irresponsible (suggesting that rape is the result of sexual frustration, instead of the will to dominate) to the more interesting (that celibacy contorts sexuality, or that celibacy attracts criminal deviants who need cover). But most of this speculation misses the point, because it focuses on the role celibacy plays for offenders. It gives defenders of the Catholic church—who are becoming one with rape apologists very quickly—ammo to minimize the situation, because they can point to churches without celibacy requirements that nonetheless have child rape problems. And it turns attention away from the biggest issue here, which is the institutional support and protection the Catholic church has offered to child rapists. Rapists are extremely opportunistic criminals, and are far less likely to offend if they think they’re going to face consequences. So if you, like the Catholic church, offer protection and support, you’re basically encouraging rape.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t look at celibacy as a reason this has all happened. But I’d like to think big picture. Instead of talking about how celibacy affected individual rapists, let’s talk about how celibacy encouraged institutional protection for rapists.

It’s not a secret that the Catholic church has a staffing issue. It’s pathetic how desperate they are for priests, even trying to talk up the “cool” factor—as if!

The banners hanging in the main corridor of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers declare, “Through Faith We Grow.” The class portraits that line that very same corridor tell the opposite tale. Half a century after the halcyon days when several hundred men at a time studied to be ordained as priests for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, only 22 are enrolled.

In the U.S., there has been a precipitous drop in the number of priests as there’s been a huge rise in the number of actual Catholics. In other words, they’re in the same situation the military is in. The demand for soldiers remains high and is even growing, but the number of people willing to do that job is rapidly declining. And so the military has been forced to lower its standards, accepting more and more people with criminal records. In fact, according to this article, even though it’s technically illegal for the military to recruit criminals, issuing special waivers has become routine—nearly 12% of new recruits at the time of writing three years ago.

But this isn’t to debate whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. (After all, a lot of them may not be violent criminals.) The issue here is simple—the military had a standard, and it had to drop it in face of declining numbers of volunteers. The Catholic church is in the same boat, though I’d argue the situation is even more serious for them. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a major reason many Catholic men are saying no thanks to joining the priesthood—even though it’s a pretty perk-heavy job, if you think about it—is the vow of celibacy. With declining numbers of new recruits, therefore, the church is especially disinclined to let go of existing priests, and that desperation has a lot to do with why they don’t immediately give the ax to child rapists, but instead just reshuffle them and try to cover it up.

That concern is written all over this letter from Pope Ratz that Pam blogged about. Oh sure, his ostensible concern is that defrocking a priest for the apparently piddling transgression of child rape would somehow be bad for children, who would get disillusioned with the church. But that is obvious bullshit. What comes through loud and clear is his extreme reluctance to let any warm body go. And we can look at celibacy as a major reason they’re having so much trouble replacing dying or disgraced priests.

So why not give up the vow of celibacy? It would be a really swift way to fix a lot of their problems, it would seem. But beyond just the fact that the Pope and all his minions are extreme right wing nutjobs who resist change at all costs, you also have the problem of how the Catholic church brands itself. It’s like any other free market issue. When people have choices between different products—in this case, not only different flavors of Christianity, but also different religions and the choice not to believe anything at all—competing products have to make it clear to would-be buyers what makes them unique. And the Catholic church is just getting more invested in selling severe sex-phobia as its brand. It actually makes sense to stake out this territory. The evangelicals own the argument that sex is good if it only occurs under tightly controlled circumstances. The Anglicans are the option if you like the pomp but aren’t interested in the body hatred. But if you’re morbid and have major sexual hang-ups, the Catholic church is the church for you. Think of converts like Ross Douthat, and it’s easy to see why the Catholic church sees sadism as its selling point. Celibate priests can be the sacrificial lambs for a flock that is uneasy and hateful about sex, but doesn’t want to stop having it themselves. But fewer and fewer people are willing to play that role for them.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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