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The Sin of Celibacy

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The Most Hateful Sin

by William Cleary

What boggles the mind of everybody about the priest scandals is "How could they do it?" How could good people fall so far?

I have one thought that may be helpful. I got the language for it from a trembling husk of a Greek scholar who was brought into our seminary class one day back in 1949 to talk about Aristotle. (He lasted only a few days.) Commenting on the Poetics, for one moment his face twisted in pain as he spoke of "the sin of the mind," that worst sin of all, that defect not of the will, like most sins, but of the intelligence itself.

There are some thoughts you can't really think until you get a word for it.

"A sin of the mind": that's what makes all those good people able to do horrific things, and cover up horrific things, and not be horrified. A suicide bomber, just an 18-year-old Palestinian girl with a sin defiling her mind: that's all it takes. "I do this for God," one of them said. The sin was not in her will: she was full of good will. The sin was in her mind: God approves. Wrong!

God approves: some of us may have such sins in our minds as well. You can't get rid of them through absolution and firm purpose of amendment and penance. It takes study and humble listening, living in a circle, and above all attending to your own experience.

What's the great sin of the mind in this priest crisis? Celibacy? A supposed "authority" bishop's have? Or is it deeper?

All of the above.

Let's begin with celibacy. Neither Monk Nor Layman is a new Princeton University Press book by a teacher at Duke, Richard M. Jaffe, describing monks in Japan. They are all married! It's the first I'd heard of it. About 100 years ago Japanese monks had clerical status, had special names, ate no meat, and were celibate. Then the government forbad it all. Why? You could imagine what reasons were given, and you'd be right. Mostly they said it was "un-natural." "The subtle function of the universe resides in the power of this husband-and-wife union," they said. Today they would say gay unions too produce the same deep effect: and experience, study, and community supports it.

The real sin of the mind, what is unnatural about required celibacy, is not just being unmarried. It's making it all "religious." That works for a very few. Roman Catholic documents claim celibacy is in Scripture, it's in Tradition, it's proved in practice. But study shows its not in Scripture at all, Jesus himself probably was not celibate. It's not in the tradition of our first 400 years: we got it from imitating pagan priests. And now, in practice, we see the inevitable sick result of religious celibacy. A population deprived of ordinary relationships like being deprived of, say, protein will get sick. The church especially the clergy -- has sickened from required celibacy.

So I suspect these multiple pedophiles among the clergy (thousands have confessed) are themselves abused men, abused even in their ecclesial training, who now abuse others. Abusive priests are, in some cases, victims of the system too. The solution? Study celibacy fearlessly and consult ordinary experience. Get rid of that "sin of the mind," that hateful lie, that an unmarried, sexually isolated, religious superstition celibacy -- produces heroism. It produces, by and large, pathology.

And, as the Japanese decided so long ago, also lets get rid of the special status, the special names, and all dominance claims like preference of males, something we can teach the Japanese. Half measures won't work, like rearranging the rack and the thumbscrew in the Tower of London. If it's abusive, God does not approve, no matter how many people have died believing it.

This does not heal us of all the sins of the mind in Roman Catholicism, but it will give us somewhere solid to start. #

Neither Monk Nor Layman

by Richard M. Jaffe

Princeton University Press, 2002



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