Catholic clerical abuse, mostly of minors, is hardly news. And yet this week such a story broke through to the front pages for a change, mainly because it gave us an understanding of the truly vast scope of the problem. Yesterday, a grand jury issued a report saying an estimated 300 Catholic priests in the Pennsylvania abused more than 1000 children, and likely a lot more than that, since the 1940s. Some of the reports are so graphic they will literally turn your stomach. I won’t repeat them here, but if your stomach can handle it go ahead and read them.
And yet it was hardly the only story of this type recently. Last month the archbishop of Washington D.C., Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, was suspended from duties by Pope Francis. McCarrick is accused of abusing a 16-year-old altar boy in the 1970s. He was probably not the cardinal’s only victim. You will find lots more stories but few more egregious lately than these two. A cardinal is just one step from being pope!
The problem is not confined to the Catholic Church. A Unitarian Universalist minister that married me was involved in sexual relations with women who sought him out for counseling, also a terrible violation of trust. The Roman Catholic Church has a much larger problem than other denomiations, and it’s not just because of its enormous size. Adjusting for denomination size, the Catholic Church is still by far the largest denomination with this sort of problem.
For decades the Catholic Church has been trying to control this problem. Whatever they are doing doesn’t appear to be working very well. It’s my opinion though that the root of its problem is that priests (generally) are forbidden from marrying. It’s not solely a matter of not having sex. It’s also a problem due to a lack of intimacy.
People become rounded out through having deep and meaningful relationships. Marriage is an excellent way to engage in such a relationship, providing you marry the right partner. When you are truly intimate with someone, you see him or her not only with their clothes off but with their souls bared too. As I have noted, when you are in a committed relationship you may discover the real meaning of love: not just to care utterly for another person, but also to reveal your real self to yourself. Lacking such relationships you are unlikely to uncover the real you.
The Church is proposing more of the same solutions: putting procedures in place to minimize these situations, oversight by the laity and maybe even background investigations of potential priests. It really needs to acknowledge the fundamental issue: priests are people with basically the same issues as the rest of us and thus need to have the privileges of people. Because priests are people, they can aspire to be Christ-like, but taking the sacrament of Holy Orders won’t make them so. The devastation is all around the church, mostly in the minors whose trust was abused, but also within these priests. Without deeply authentic and healthy relationships in their lives they can’t help but crave them. Given that they are expected to be celibate, they are going to crave sex too. The two together though are a toxic combination that pulls priests toward dangerous relationships. They must bring the minor into a shared secret of their own broken and scarred souls, in the process making it very hard for these children to escape a lifetime of trauma.
Pope Francis is a pragmatic pope. He has taken some daring stances recently, like saying the death penalty is wrong in all situations. I wish he’d take the next daring stand: to let priests marry again, and if their inclination is toward homosexuality, let them marry their own sex. This allows them to be authentic to themselves and others, and this will carry over to the people they minister to. It’s not like priestly celibacy was always a requirement in the Catholic Church. Many popes had wives and extended families. For the last five hundred years or so the policy has changed. Somewhere along the line theological wires got crossed. Jesus never had sex, or so the Catholic Church believes, although its never mentioned in the Bible that he was a celibate. It’s quite possible that he and Mary Magdalene were married, or what passed for marriage in those days, and they had children too. No one really knows, including the Catholic Church, but they think they know and demand it of their priests. The vast size of clerical abuse in its ranks though demonstrates that their approach to the priesthood has been horrendously wrong.
No marriage is perfect and certainly mine is not. However, marriage can let you see things through the eyes of your spouse and give you a much different perspective. To take one example: I am a much kinder person because I married my wife. She is kind by nature and takes delight in animals, which is why there are usually a cat or two in our home. She has made me more compassionate, and I suspect I have made her more human too. My own blindness of my good points though makes it hard for me to say how I have helped her, but I likely have in many ways too.
If you are a priest, I guess you are entitled to have deep and rich platonic relationships with other priests, if you can find one between being shuffled around parishes, but these are hardly a substitute for a committed relationship. In any event, while priests may be trained in theology and the tenets of their faith, they lack much in the way of practice of expressing feelings like empathy, compassion or universalism. You don’t get these things from reading about them. They come from living life. It’s hard to say how much of Jesus’s life was real or myth, but he certainly walked around Palestine and got to know people’s needs, problems and perspectives. This made him an effective minister.
I doubt there is much training like this in seminary. You may learn the Bible backwards and forward, but to really understand Jesus, don’t you have to minister like Jesus too? Don’t you have to walk around communities, listen to people, absorb yourself in their problems and help address them? Jesus at least got it, but I don’t think priests get much if anything like this kind of training. Instead, most likely after seminary they will end up in a parish, which is by nature a pretty closed and insular community.
A parish is not the real world that Jesus traversed in his ministry. Yet if you are going to have a priesthood of people who act like Jesus, these are the kind of people you would want to attract: people who broadly understand the world as it actually is from living it deeply and richly. They need to have the freedom to be true human beings and have fulfilling and messy relationships like the rest of us.
There will always be a few bad apples among ministers in any congregation. These steps the Catholic Church is taking so far is merely putting Band-Aids on a gaping wound. It doesn’t address the fundamental issues that cause these problems in the first place. For the sake of Catholic congregations worldwide, the sooner they let their priests marry, the better.