Celibacy is not solely responsible for the sexual abuse that has infected the church and left so many lives ruined. But even George Pell (does he still deserve the dignity of a title?) told a parliamentary inquiry that celibacy “might be a factor in some cases” of abuse by priests.
Of course it’s a “factor”. Intimacy is a basic human need up there with food, shelter and sleep. It’s elemental to our wellbeing.
Denying intimacy and insisting on celibacy as a prerequisite for ministry is not a sacred act but a dark tunnel to a life of secrets, torment and hypocrisy. You only have to look at pictures of Pope Jean Paul II and Anna-Teresa camping and on a ski holiday to understand that human love nourishes.
We only have his letters, not hers, but his reveal that she was “torn apart” by her feelings for him and longed to “be in his arms and remain there in happiness”. When she told him “I belong to you” he gave her his scapular, a clerical garment worn next to the skin.
Whatever you think of religion generally, a fear of intimacy has poisoned the Catholic Church (it’s been no great shakes for Islam either). Intimacy calls on our deepest honesty yet when we suppress it we cultivate the conditions for shame and secrecy to take root. Indeed, banning relationships hardly prepares a priest for pastoral care. Just as you wouldn’t call upon an electrician to solve a plumbing problem, why would you turn to a priest to help solve a family issue? Especially one who bans birth control and bars women from ministry.
If the church is to survive the global unveiling of its sickening sexual abuse it needs to reframe intimacy as a normal and necessary pillar of life. Celibacy may remain, but as a choice, not a pointless practice that infects and erodes the compassion that should be the cornerstone of service.
You see, I’ve seen The Thorn Birds with a different ending. One of my flatmates through university fell in love with a priest. For years she talked about him, loved him, desired him. When he left the priesthood for a relationship with another woman, she was devastated.
Fortunately for her — and her long-suffering friends — the relationship ended. Slowly, quietly, my friend and the former priest became lovers. He took a job in the corporate world. They married and had three gorgeous boys. They’re still heavily involved in the church, minus the robes and incense. Instead they offer much more: openness, mutual support and integrity. They are what a church should be.
We can only hope they, and their like, will be its future.
Curated by Erbe